Best of the West Itinerary

San Francisco to Las Vegas Road Trip

Photo approaching Las Vegas by car

San Francisco to Las Vegas Road Trip Through South Lake Tahoe

Wine tasting, gold rush history, aliens, rare turquoise, and gambling. This unique combination can only mean one thing—the road trip of a lifetime from San Francisco, California to Las Vegas, Nevada. This two-week itinerary guides you through some of the most unexpected haunts on the west coast to some of its most iconic destinations. You’ll sample the best grapes California’s vineyards have to offer, adventure in South Lake Tahoe, and uncover curiosities in some of Nevada’s most haunted towns. Hold on tight, this San Francisco to Las Vegas road trip will wow and delight at every turn!

This itinerary was created in partnership with Visit USA Parks.


STATES: Nevada, California
START/END: San Francisco / Las Vegas
TOTAL MILES: About 637 miles (1,025 km)
SUGGESTED DAYS: 12-16
SUGGESTED SEASON: Year-round

San Francisco to Las Vegas Overview

While much of this journey follows a trail rich in gold, silver, and railroad history, it’s so much more. You’ll experience the cosmopolitan delights and flavors of Napa Valley and Las Vegas, with a healthy dose of curiosities tossed in for good measure. (Did we mention there’s a clown-themed hotel along the way?) Shooting stars, wild roses, a peaceful stop at Lake Tahoe, and locally produced wines, ciders, and dishes add an air of romance to this road trip, crafted just for you.

PREPARATION 

The majority of this itinerary takes place in moderate climates, but for those who choose to travel between October and March, keep in mind that snow does fall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s always a good idea to be aware of changing road conditions and have an alternative route in mind should a mountain pass become snow-packed or closed. In addition, be aware that while traveling through remote central Nevada it is recommended to always fill up your tank when you find a gas station. Towns are sparse here, and as long as you’re prepared, we think that only adds to the fun!

SAN FRANCISCO, CA

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge

There’s a reason San Francisco tops so many bucket lists! The Golden Gate City is known across the globe for its scenery and reputation as a hub for some of the world’s biggest tech companies. For the traveler, it’s the perfect place to launch your road trip. Fly into San Francisco International Airport and rent your car for the next few weeks.

Act like a local: Photograph Karl, the famous bay area fog
Get some perspective: Explore the Marin Headlands
Ride the carousel: Pier 39 near Fisherman’s Wharf
Take a tour: Alcatraz Island

NAPA VALLEY, CA
Travel Time: 1 hour 17 min. – 60 miles / 96.5 km 

Hot Air Balloons Over One of Napa Valley's Vineyards
Hot Air Balloons Over One of Napa Valley’s Vineyards

Located not far north of the city, Napa Valley is one of California’s most delectable destinations. This region is world-famous for its wine, Michelin-starred restaurants, and luxurious accommodations. Plus, if you’d like to pair your wine tastings with a dose of outdoor fun, there’s plenty to do! Play a round of golf, go for a hike, or take a hot air balloon ride. You can even kayak the Napa River or take a guided bike tour on an impressive 47 miles of paved trails.

Best coffee and breakfast: The Roasting House
Don’t miss: The Welcome to Napa Valley Sign
Dine like royalty: The French Laundry
Sip wine: At the monumental Opus One Winery
Bring the kids along: Discover ways to play in Napa for the whole family

CALISTOGA, CA
Travel Time: 23 minutes – 15 miles / 24 km 

A Thin Layer of Fog Over Calistoga
A Thin Layer of Fog Over Calistoga

Just up the road from Napa, Calistoga offers a more laidback take on California wine country. In the quaint downtown, you’ll find numerous restaurants, boutique shops, and art galleries. But what makes this northernmost tip of the valley truly stand out are its mineral-rich waters. Many geothermal hot spring pools and spas surround Calistoga, making this a great place to treat yourself. 

Adults can’t miss it: Frey Ranch Whiskey Farm and Distillery
Get sprayed by a geyser: Old Faithful Geyser of California
Step back in time: 100-year old castle at Chateau Montelena Winery
Indulge in a mud bath: At one of Calistoga’s many spas
Take a hike: On the 8.3-mile old stagecoach route, Oat Hill Mine Trail

WINTERS, CA
Travel Time: 1 hour 10 min. – 49 miles / 79 km 

A Storm Rolling in Over Winters
A Storm Rolling in Over Winters

To the east, you’ll find the historic town of Winters. The next stop on your itinerary, Winters has been voted one of America’s best small-town culinary destinations. Dig into an array of flavors from around the world: Korean BBQ pork belly flatbread from Yolo Traders Bistro, or a beet salad from Preserve that tempts all taste buds! Winters also enjoys easy access to Putah Creek State Wildlife Area, where hiking trails and fishing access abound.

Taste a local flight: Hooby’s Brewing
Take a winery tour: Award-winning Berryessa Gap
Rest your head: Hotel Winters
Go birding: Putah Creek Wildlife Area

SACRAMENTO, CA
Travel Time: 34 minutes – 30 miles/ 48 km

Golden Gates Drawbridge in Sacramento
Golden Gates Drawbridge in Sacramento

The State Capitol of California, Sacramento is much more than a drive-through destination on your way to the mountains. Play the tourist and enjoy strolling the Old Sacramento Waterfront, where live music, delicious fare, and photogenic attractions (like the whimsical Ferris wheel) await. Or, dive deep into history at the Folsom State Prison, one of the oldest and most famous prisons in the United States. You can even take a scenic train ride along the Sacramento River at the California State Railroad Museum, pretending to look out for robbers along the way.

See your tax dollars at work: California State Capitol
Go for a boat ride: Old Sacramento Waterfront
All aboard: The scenic train ride at the California State Railroad Museum
Play some Johnny Cash: Folsom State Prison

PLACERVILLE, CA
Travel Time: 42 minutes – 44 miles / 71 km

Mainstreet Placerville is Home to Several Antique Shops
Mainstreet Placerville is Home to Several Antique Shops

Heading east along Highway 50, your next destination is Placerville, California. One look at this charming gold-rush town feels like stepping into a postcard. Stroll through Placerville’s downtown district, where the nineteenth-century architecture lining the streets owes its heritage to the gold fever of the late 1840s. Today, Placerville is home to a number of charismatic museums and some of California’s oldest vineyards, making it the perfect mid-road trip pit stop.

Best place to get local art: Ely Art Bank
Pan for gold: Gold Bug Park and Mine
Sip wine and pick apples: Apple Hill Growers Association
Wish on a star: Community Observatory
Go rock climbing: Kyburz

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, CA
Travel Time: 1 hour 25 min. – 60 miles / 96.5 km

Parasailing Over Lake Tahoe | Photo: Rachid Dahnoun
Parasailing Over Lake Tahoe | Photo: Rachid Dahnoun

South Lake Tahoe is a genuine basecamp for adventure in the Sierra Mountains. Boating, mountain biking, hiking, golfing, and so much more are all on the menu for your time in South Tahoe. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road as you navigate around town—one glimpse at that emerald shoreline will have you swerving for the nearest bay! Pull over at Zephyr Cove Resort and take it all in, before jumping on the South Tahoe Beer Trail to quench your thirst.

Find the California Nevada state line: Van Sickle Bi-State Park
Dance the night away: Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena
Make a splash in Lake Tahoe: Zephyr Cove Resort
Get a birds-eye-view: The year-round gondola at Heavenly

GENOA, NV
Travel Time: 36 minutes – 20 miles / 32 km

The Genoa Bar in Summer Photo: Trent Unruh
The Genoa Bar in Summer Photo: Trent Unruh

After you’ve adventured your heart out at South Lake Tahoe, journey up and over the mountains and down into the town of Genoa, Nevada’s oldest settlement. Located in the shadow of the mountains, this quaint destination is anything but dated. You’ll find bustling bars and restaurants, vibrant flavors, and a robust community with big ideas. Enjoy a finger-licking gourmet grilled cheese at the Pink House for lunch, or opt for a five-star entree at newly opened Daniel’s next door. Don’t miss the Genoa Bar and Saloon, dubbed Nevada’s “Oldest Thirst Parlor.” 

Meet a few friendly locals: Genoa Bar and Saloon
Cross the street to visit: Mormon Station State Historic Park
Stretch your legs: Danberg Home Ranch Historic Park
Cast for rainbow trout: Topaz Lake

HAWTHORNE, NV
Travel Time: 2 hours 10 min. – 120 miles/ 193 km

Walker Lake Near Hawthorne, NV
Walker Lake Near Hawthorne, NV

Teeming with outdoor recreation and military paraphernalia, Hawthorne is one of central Nevada’s most interesting destinations. You can spend the entire day tracking down bighorn sheep and fishing 50-square-mile Walker Lake, or head indoors and tour the colorful Hawthorne Ordnance Museum. (Nicknamed “America’s Patriotic Home,” Hawthorne is the world’s largest artillery storage facility.) Of course, that’s not to mention the thousands of multi-purpose trails found in Hawthorne’s backyard: perfect for OHV adventures, horseback riding, and hiking.

Experience glassy waters: Walker Lake Recreation Area
Keep your eyes peeled: Bighorn sheep crossing the road in Hawthorne
Celebrate America: Hawthorne Ordnance Museum
Photograph wild burros: Marietta Wild Burro Range

TONOPAH, NV
Travel Time: 1 hour 33 min. – 103 miles / 166 km

There's a lot more than rabbit brush in Tonopah, NV
There’s a lot more than rabbit brush in Tonopah, NV

Teeming with outdoor recreation and military paraphernalia, Hawthorne is one of central Nevada’s most interesting destinations. You can spend the entire day tracking down bighorn sheep and fishing 50-square-mile Walker Lake, or head indoors and tour the colorful Hawthorne Ordnance Museum. (Nicknamed “America’s Patriotic Home,” Hawthorne is the world’s largest artillery storage facility.) Of course, that’s not to mention the thousands of multi-purpose trails found in Hawthorne’s backyard: perfect for OHV adventures, horseback riding, and hiking.  

Get spooked: The World Famous Clown Motel
Sample a life of luxury: The Mizpah Hotel
Learn about life as a miner: Tonopah Historic Mining Park
Make a wish: Tonopah Stargazing Park

RACHEL, NV
Travel Time: 3 hours 5 min. – 212 miles / 341 km

Keep Your Eyes Open Along the Extraterrestrial Highway
Keep Your Eyes Open Along the Extraterrestrial Highway

Dubbed the “UFO Capital of the World,” Rachel, Nevada is a must-see stop on your final descent into Las Vegas. If you hadn’t yet realized that you were traveling on the infamous Extraterrestrial Highway, you are sure to take notice when you arrive in Rachel’s city limits. This fun-loving town leans into the theme and several of its highlights are centered around otherworldly characters. Fewer than 60 people call this place home today, but how many beings really frequent the area remains unknown.

Best place for a souvenir: The Little A’Le’Inn
Most iconic photo opportunity: The ET Highway Sign
Best roadside attraction: Alien Research Center
A different kind of “sign of life”: Pictographs and petroglyphs

CALIENTE, NV
Travel Time: 1 hour 16 min. – 83 miles / 133.5 km

Caliente, NV
Caliente, NV

You may feel like you’ve entered the set of a Sergio Leone film when you roll into Caliente, Nevada. This Spanish-styled town was founded in 1901 and is named after a number of natural hot springs in the area. Originally a hub of activity for the Union Pacific Railroad, today visitors enjoy learning about this locomotive history at the Railroad Depot and Boxcar Museum. Alternatively, you can always opt outside—Caliente is located conveniently near several state parks.

Brush up on your history: Railroad Depot and Boxcar Museum
Best place to smell the roses: the historic district of Caliente
Spend an afternoon: Caliente Mountain Bike Trails and Skills Park
Get a geology lesson: Cathedral Gorge State Park

LAS VEGAS, NV
Travel Time: 1 hour 22 min. – 151 miles / 243 km

San Francisco to Las Vegas Road Trip
Las Vegas, NV

At long last, you’ve arrived in Sin City—otherwise known as Las Vegas, Nevada. If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting this desert oasis before, chances are you’re already familiar with its personality thanks to its prominence in movies and television. Everything in Las Vegas is bigger, brighter, and more fun in person! By day, explore outside of city limits in miles of untouched wilderness areas. By night, enjoy the liveliness of the city that never sleeps.

Meet a bighorn sheep: Valley of Fire State Park
Get your shopping fix: the Shops at Caesars Palace
Take the 13-mile scenic drive: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Be entertained: Tournament of Kings

Plan Your Trip Tahoe Summer Graphic

Start Planning

Plan Your Trip Today!

Make planning easy with this guide to all the must-see vistas, must-eat dishes and must-experience attractions.

Plan Your Trip