I love California. There’s something about going from dunes to the beach to redwoods that intrigues me. The state’s location and size make it perfect for adventurous folks, like myself, looking for a variety of outdoor activities.
I, @Dani_The_Explorer, recently went on a road trip with @ScottyReichard to central California. We stopped in Alabama Hills, Mammoth Lakes, and Death Valley National Park. If you’ve read some of my guides or “weekend” blogs before, then you know I can pack plenty into one weekend. Below is an itinerary for spending a weekend in Central California based on our trip. Right off the bat, though, you should know that some of the locations we visited were by random chance. There is so much to do and so many random turns in this area that you could “get lost” in all the right places. That is what we did. That being said, the next time you find yourself here, just drive around!
Wake Up In Alabama Hills
Alabama Hills is a vast stretch of land famous for movies, views of the Sierras and open camping. Scott and I arrived at our camp spot on a Friday around 12 am. While there are a ton of camp spots available, you have to drive more towards the center of the Hills to place yourself in an epic view spot. We couldn’t see where we were going and decided to park at the next open area. In the morning, pink and orange hues dancing on the Sierras greeted us. If you drive around enough, maybe you’ll find this famous road (pictured below)!
There are a few hikes to arches as well as rock climbing routes, so if you wanted to spend a good chunk of the day there, you could.
Head Over to Mammoth Lakes
The first place we hit up was the Thermal River. This location is more of a “must see” than anything else. The colors of the river will leave you wide-eyed, or maybe that’s the smell of sulfur, not sure. We saw some folks fishing, so that’s something to consider doing, too!
Black Velvet Coffee
The lack of sleep hit us hard after our drive from Phoenix to Alabama Hills to Mammoth. When looking for coffee, we came across the cutest shop, Black Velvet, and decided to give it a try. Scott isn’t much of a caffeine person, but wouldn’t stop talking about their cold brew. I, on the other hand, stuck with my usual soymilk latte. It was the perfect pick-me-up before we hit our next spot. There is also a brewery in Mammoth that you can have lunch in if coffee isn’t for you!
We wanted to see Mono Lake because of its rock formations. I’ve never seen mineral pillars stacked so high! Can we talk about the reflection game here, though? I recommend coming late afternoon when the sun isn’t very harsh. The reflections will be at their best, and you can enjoy the picnic area without burning your back for hours on end.
Even if you don’t spend much time at Mono Lake, there are turn off roads that are worth a try. We found this random sunset spot there. Cotton candy skies, anyone
Camp At Wild Willy's Hot Springs
Yes, this area is extremely popular. There will most likely be twenty plus people there with the same idea as you. Finding a camp spot might be a struggle! However, if you can manage to squeeze your car or tent in a spot, it’ll make dipping in the springs a whole lot easier in the morning!
Enjoy the Hot Springs
While I can’t remember specific names, this area also has multiple turns that might reward you with your own person tub. Are you catching on to the theme here? I can’t begin to express how important it is to drive around when you’re exploring places like Mammoth. There are local spots and epic views that you might not find otherwise.
There were too many cars to count in Willy's lot, so we decided to drive around and see what we could see! We came across several springs. One was large enough to fit two people. The other was probably the hottest tub I’ve been in. Luckily, we didn’t see any naked people this time, so that was a plus.
I should also mention that in the Mammoth area there are hikes you can enjoy as well. Due to snow levels, we had to skip them on this trip. They’re worth looking into, though!
Drive Along the 395
Now that you’ve had yourself a nice hot soak, it’s time to counter that with an ice bath! Very enjoyable, I know.
We jumped on the 395 and hit June Lake Beach first. That’s where I got my first cold dip of the day. Was it worth it just to say I did it? Yes. Was a cold? Double yes. A drive along the 395 will bring you to some epic views!
Head to Death Valley National Park
The thing you have to understand about Scott and I is that we’re all about packing too much into one day. We might sleep for three hours total, but that’s the name of the game! So yes, after we soaked in some hot springs, took an ice bath and drove around Mammoth one last time, we decided to head to Death Valley.
I wrote a Guide to Seeing Death Valley National Park that you can check out. The last time we had been there, we lot the very last piece of sunset on the Mesquite Sand Dunes. We decided that was going to be our redemption destination for this trip!
Upon arriving at the dunes, we knew we were in for a workout. There were already loads of visitors there, and most of them had claimed some of the taller dunes for themselves. We looked at each other and at that moment chose to go for a walk. It was a long walk. What we thought would be a quarter of a mile ended up being a full-on mile across the sand. On the plus side, we found an untouched portion of the dunes. We got to sit and watch the sunset without a soul around. There’s something about being those first footprints that both warms my heart and makes me feel like I’m destroying something beautiful. Okay, enough of the sad talk. Get yourself here! Check out my guide for more things to do in the park should you have the time.
Leave a comment and let me know where you would go first in Central Cali! All photos used were taken by me and @ScottyReichard, edited with my Lightoom Presets. Get them here.
Dani is the Founder of Mountain Chicks and the primary author of the Mtn Chicks Blog. Here you'll find outdoor tips, travel experiences, gear reviews and more.