Driving from Vegas to San Francisco
We are an Australian family planning this drive in mid to late February. Through reading other postings on this site, we feel that our original plan of driving through Death Valley and Yosemite is probably ambitious, given that a detour through Reno would add quite a bit of time to the trip, and we are inexperienced at driving in snowy conditions.
We are now looking at driving via the coast, planning to stay overnight somewhere about halfway. As our children are quite young, we may need to do the trip over two nights, depending on how well they cope with the car!
Any suggestions on a halfway point, or a suggested itinerary if we needed to take it a little easier over two nights?
When is the trip?
Since you referenced snowy conditions, I would bet it is fairly soon? You can still go to Yosemite via Death Valley, but instead of going north along the eastern slope of the Sierras you would go south and go around the southern edge and then north on the western slope. On such a route, Mariposa has plenty of reasonably priced motels and you would still have time for a quick visit to Yosemite. (One caveat -- CA State Route 190 is still closed from flood damage).
There are scores and scores of route suggestions from Las Vegas to San Francisco -- using the gray search button at the top of this page, select all threads and check them out at your leisure.
What was the most important place to see for you on this trip? These routes are fairly comparable in terms of times and mileages -- but you cannot see all of it in two days. From your post, I am guessing this is a one-way journey?
Don't be too afraid to try US395 from Death Valley area up to US50 (at South Lake Tahoe), and then across to San Francisco from there. You are correct, you WON'T be able to access Yosemite from this route in February, but it is spectacular nonetheless. You would be able to see a good part of Death Valley along the way. It is about 690 miles, and your overnight could fall between Bishop and South Lake Tahoe, depending on how much time you used seeing Death Valley. Driving time is estimated to be about 14 hours.
NOTE: The road closure Mark mentions is in the Death Valley area, but you CAN get around it with a bit of a detour.
If you choose the coast road, you can still do Death Valley, but then head over through Bakersfield to San Luis Obispo and up SR1 from there. Again, depending on how much you invest in Death Valley, your overnight could be in Bakersfield, or you might get as far as San Luis Obispo. This route is 790 miles, and about 15 hours, estimated, according to my trip planning program which is normally fairly accurate. That said, I would suspect you'd go slower than that on the coast highway, and there would be more stops to look at the dramatic scenery. So figure the mileage is accurate, but I'd allow several more hours for the trip than the estimate.
Last, if Yosemite was the most important thing for you, you could still access it from the west -- after leaving Death Valley, loop around to SR99 and take that north to SR41, and into Yosemite from that. (time and mileage virtually the same as the coast route).
With three days, you might do them all -- Death Valley, then Yosemite, (days 1 and 2) then see the coast for a couple hours after you arrive in San Francisco, by driving north on SR1 from just north of the Golden Gate Bridge (on day 3) . You could spend as little as 3 or 4 hours (go to Point Reyes National Seashore), or continue north through Bodega Bay to Manchester and spend an entire day.
Again, I wouldn't be discouraged from the US395/US50 route. The scenery is spectacular. But you'd be impressed with the other routes as well. The entire area is hard to beat. Death Valley is already getting a green "sheen," I'm told, because of all the winter rains we've had. I don't know how soon the wildflowers will start blooming, but this will probably be a great year for them, and you might get to see some of the early blooms, if you're lucky. Bob
Looks like Mark and I are writing answers at the same time! :)