Christian Kemp's USA travelogs

< Previous | List | Next > A long drive from Napa Valley over the Sierra Nevada, down Highway 395, and into Death Valley

Shortly after 8am on a foggy and overcast morning, I drove down Napa Valley on Silverado Trail, heading east on SR 12 to get onto I-80. My target for the day would be Death Valley, or more specifically, the Eureka Sand Dunes - some 350 miles away from my starting point.

Traffic was fairly light on the Interstate, and I made good progress going with the flow of faster-moving traffic through Vacaville and past Davis. In Sacramento, I left the Interstate and headed east on US 50, still a four-lane highway for quite a long time.

As I gained elevation, there were increased amounts of snow surrounding me, but the road was mostly clear, with only a few treacherous places in the shade were ice might have braved the sun.

Close to Echo Lake, the road descended towards Lake Tahoe, which afforded some nice views, and shortly after, I turned off to SR 89, heading towards Woodfords and Highway 395. Or so I thought. It turns out that past Markleeville, SR 89 was still closed for winter, so I had to do a 180, head back to Woodfords, and drive north on SR 88, joining Highway 395 in Gardnerville, NV. While this meant a short detour, I didn't lose too much time - a quarter of an hour to half an hour, maybe. Plus, I was able to fuel up in Nevada, which was cheaper than doing so in California.

Driving down Highway 395 wasn't very eventful - it's a scenic drive, but at the end of the day, it's still a fairly straight road and many miles to cover; so I was glad to reach Bridgeport and get some visual distraction.

Bridgeport is a small town with a picturesque court house, and the old-fashioned charm of days long gone. I was sad to see the hamburger place I stopped at last time closed and up for sale, but at least it hasn't been replaced by a McDonalds (yet?). I didn't get to spend a lot of time in Bridgeport though, for I still had a long drive ahead of me, and the sun would set all too soon.

I stopped again near Mono Lake though, considering that I had never stopped at the Mono Lake Overlook - it's only open for southbound traffic, and all other times I went that way, I either had places to go and no time to stop. Today, I figured I just had to stop.

After taking in the views (while taking a few panoramas) and braving the strong chilling winds, I got into the car again, and headed South again.

My next stop was Bishop, where I fueled up again, and followed up on a tradition I had started the year before: getting a last burger at "Jack in the Box" before heading into Death Valley

Just outside Big Pine on Highway 395, there's a turn-off to Highway 168, which is the route to take for anyone wanting to enter Death Valley from the North, for Death Valley road goes off to the right a few miles into the Highway.

On the road closure sign at the start of Death Valley road, I got a minor surprise, for it said that Eureka Valley Road was closed. This was the road I wanted to take later on! (Later on, it turned out that only its northern part was closed, whereas I was taking the Southern part.)

Maybe half of Death Valley Road is paved, and when coming in from the North, that's the first part. I was therefore able to make good progress, as the sun slowly began to set.

As I was heading up in elevation, there started to be small ice and snow patches on the road, which were easy to navigate around, but in a few spots the road was still entirely covered by a thin layer of snow and ice. Still, it wasn't really bad, and my small Chevrolet handled it quite nicely.

I entered Eureka Valley, and the sun was half gone already. The sunset produced a nice warmly glowing effect on the surrounding mountains, with the valley floor in darkness already, but I didn't want to stop too long - driving Eureka Valley Road is just so much easier when there's still daylight available.

Fortunately, it seems Eureka Valley Road had been graded recently - the drive was fairly pleasant, with almost no washboard, and no big stones on the road whatsoever - this is important, considering their threat to tires or suspension on the road, and how one flat might ruin an entire vacation. (True, I had a spare, but to then drive around the desert with no spare would be foolish, to say the least.)

Campground Accommodation: Eureka Sand Dunes (Eureka Valley, Death Valley National Park): $0