This great road trip from Pasadena to Las Vegas passes within a stone's throw of the first place gold was discovered in California, passes near a retirement home for movie lions, goes by a series of rock formations familiar to fans of Hollywood westerns, and then rolls on on to one of the prettiest red rock canyons in the state. Zipping along the eastern edge of the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range, the route turns east at Owens Dry Lake bed and drops into spectacular Death Valley National Park. A quick stop at an infamous proprietor’s laundromat, and then it’s 'over the hump' into the neon of Las Vegas, Nevada.
Here are a few of the highlights along today's route:
Pasadena, California (Stating point)
Pasadena is a world apart from the hustle and bustle of modern Los Angeles. It has become a destination city for world-class dining and hotels. It features some extraordinary art museums and is home to the Rose Bowl stadium known affectionately as 'The Grandaddy of Them All'.
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Placerita Canyon State Park (mile 32)
James Marshall is usually credited with starting the first gold rush in California with his discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in the central part of the state, but gold mining operations were well underway in southern California at least two years prior to Marshall’s discovery. Placerita Canyon State Park is a lovely spot for taking walks and enjoying the local mountains. Here's more about the 'real' first discovery of gold in California!
Aqua Dulce Valley (mile 55)
This is a narrow little valley that is chock full of interesting things to do and see. The Roar Foundation's Shambala Preserve, founded by actress Tippi Hedren, is home to a variety of wild animals who were retired, for the most part, from the film industry. Most of the residents are lions and tigers, but other animals also find refuge at Shambala. Crossing back over state highway 14, you'll soon see some of the massive sandstone plates that have been tilted upward by ancient geologic forces. Dozens of western movies have been shot here, so you might recognize some of the impressive formations in Vasquez Rocks County Park.
Red Rock Canyon ( mile 80)
Red Rock Canyon State Park is a wonderland of red and white sandstone rocks. There are several off-highway trails you can explore, but the views from the highway are pretty special, too. I've stopped along here several times over the years for roadside picnics.
Olancha (mile 150)
After cruising along the incomparable US-Hwy-395 for a few miles, marveling at the changing mountain landscape, you'll reach Olancha, where you’ll turn northeast on CA-190 tracing the southern edge of Owens Lake bed. Here’s some information about the re-watering project now underway here.
Darwin ghost town (mile 241)
Darwin was a hot bed of mining activity in the late 1800's as gold, silver and lead mines were in operation. The town site still has some buildings and is a popular place to explore. Continuing east on CA-190 the road winds through the Darwin Hills, be sure to stop at Ft. Crowley Point for the views!
Panamint Springs Resort (mile 245)
Panamint Springs Resort has a motel, RV park, restaurant and bar. A great collection of historic photos surrounds the bar. I recommend stopping in, if only to marvel at the bar made out of an enormous redwood burl. As you continue east, keep your eyes peeled for US Navy jet fighters that frequently 'patrol' the canyons just east of Panamint Springs. Then get ready for the climb over Towne Pass (4963 feet) and then the remarkably rapid descent into the heart of the Death Valley.
Death Valley National Park Visitor Center ( mile 301)
The park visitor center is at Furnace Creek, where you'll also find fuel (bring lots of money!) food, and cold drinks. There’s also a very nice golf course, an air strip, a motel, a saloon, and a great mining museum.
Furnace Creek Inn (mile 315)
Heading east again on CA-190, you'll see a line of palm trees marching up the desert floor to a hotel perched on the side of the cliff. This is the Furnace Creek Inn, a five-star resort and one of my favorite inns in America. (Here's an article I wrote about one of my visits). As you leave Death Valley National Park, be sure to stop in the parking lot at Zabriskie Point and walk up to the top for the trult amazing view. Another side trip is the Twenty Team Mule Canyon road, a loop that's worth a detour if you have time. When you get to Death Valley Junction, you'll be turning on to the 'local’s route' to Pahrump.
Heidi Fleiss's Dirty Laundry, (mile 373)
Heidy Fleiss owns a laundromat in Pahrump. If you've got clothes to wash, why not do it here?
Paradise, Nevada – Las Vegas (mile 435)
Locals refer to the route from Las Vegas to Pahrump as 'going over the hump to Pahrump,' but you'll be going the other direction. Great views of the Strip appear as you make your way through the Spring Mountains and drop down into the Vegas valley.
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If you want to return to Los Angeles a bit faster, here's a route using Interstate Highway 15.
Zabriskie Point is gorgeous just about any time of the day
Photo by Peter Thody