This October I decided to drive down to Yosemite & environs.
My car: 95 Saturn coupe. Probably not the ideal road trip car, being rather small, but it does get good mileage and that is always appreciated by your wallet on a long trip.
Time: mid-October of 2003. This turns out to have been an ideal time because the weather turned perfect and stayed perfect. However, this was cutting it very close - the next week it cooled down and became cloudy. Just a note for those planning on going to Yosemite. September is probably a better bet.
Seattle to the Bay Area, I-5, I-505, I-80: This is a heavily travelled highway and is perfect if you just want to get there. It's also a hotbed of speed traps; I HIGHLY recommend speedtrap.org. I printed a map from Streets and Trips, circled the appropriate areas, and slowed down to slightly below the speed limit. This was very effective; I was stopped in a known trap (Kelso, WA, home of "you were going 82") but since I already knew about the trap, I was able to convince the officer that I was going the speed limit, and he let me go.
I-5 isn't all that scenic, with the exception of the area around Mount Shasta and Shasta Lake.
Into Yosemite: I-205/SR-120: 205 is a dull road. 120 goes through farm country before you start on the VERY twisty road that leads into Yosemite. Expect to drive up and down mountains with hairpin curves; a very fun road!
Inside Yosemite: the roads in the park are superb. 41 (which leads out of the park south to Oakhurst) is pretty easy to drive though can be a bit dizzying at times, and I noticed that tailgaters are all too common on this road. Yosemite is one of the most beautiful parks in the US, and if you haven't gone you should. It is very crowded in the summer, but when I was there, traffic was light even though the weather was perfect. Oakhurst has a nice selection of hotels and restaurants, if you want to stay out of the park.
SR-120 continues through the park to the east, through the Tioga pass. A very beautiful drive with many views, and not a difficult road to drive at all. It ends at Mono Lake, a salt lake which is fun to visit, but beware of walking on the shore, lots of flies and you may find yourself sinking into stinky mud. Slightly north of the main park entrance, there is a small city park that has a boardwalk leading to the lake, perfect for birdwatching.
Lee Vining, the city at Mono Lake, is a bit dull but adequate. Not sure I'd stay there.
US-395: Frankly, a bit boring. Not very much to see here, and not many services.
SR-89: Now THIS is a great road. It leads from south of Topaz Lake to Echo Lake, close to Lake Tahoe. Expect a lot of elevation gain as you wind along Monitor Pass and Luther Pass, and some amazing sights of the countryside. Thoroughly enjoyable drive.
Lake Tahoe: rather blah.
50/395 to Reno: Not much to say about this road, as it was dark when I drove most of it. I can't say I was very impressed though, either on this road or in Reno. Reno itself gave me the chills and I was eager to leave.
I-80 back to Bay Area and back on I-5 going north: unremarkable Interstate.
Lake Shasta: When I left I-5 and tried to find the ranger station, I got lost in town. I literally couldn't find it, the signs all seemed to point back towards each other. Maybe others have had better luck than me here :)
A10 to Mount Shasta: beautiful road; a bit odd as it starts out near a residential area, but then you see the mountain. The road is easy to drive and affords many views. I was closer to the summit than I expected; the road ends with a large parking lot with some easy hikes.
After my visit, I went back to I-5 and drove north to Medford, OR.
SR-62, aka Crater Lake Highway: Good road, very driveable BUT very light on services once you leave the Medford area. Expect a lot of nothing until you hit Crater Lake. However, around Prospect you will see a sign for the Mill Creek Falls. If you like waterfalls, and I do, it's a nice hike, and the falls are pretty. To be honest, it was nice just getting out of the car for a bit :)
62 eventually leads to Crater Lake. However, you spend a lot of time driving in the park before you reach the lake itself.
Crater Lake: wow. Amazingly beautiful place. For those who don't know anything about it, it's an old volcano that erupted, sinking the cone and creating a lake. There are roads which lead around the lake, but the main park center (complete with cafeteria and a lodge) is a terrific place to start and enjoy the view.
Crater Lake Highway north (leaving park): lovely road, though a bit dull.
SR-138: straight and DULL. Nothing on this road except many trucks crossing the Cascades and a few cars.
US-97 north: dull. Few services; I thought a US highway would have more gas stations but I had to drive to Crescent to find one. Bend is a decent sized city, but that is pretty much it with the exception of the Interstate rest stop where 97 crosses I-84 at the Columbia (where "Stonehenge" is), until you get to Yakima.
That being said, I drove this road at night and the view was AMAZING. It had been many years since I saw such a night sky. Since this road has few towns and cars, you can pull off and see almost every star in the sky.
US-97 is a bit nicer in WA, IMHO.
97 into Yakima, onto I-82: don't follow the directions! You'll end up winding through miles of town to get to the Interstate.
I-82, I-90: I've driven this road before, so I'm not noting much. I was also pretty tired :) I-90 is actually quite pretty during the day as you drive through the mountains, and Washington state rest stops have fresh coffee, thankfully.
Great trip report! When you say the weather was perfect, what do you mean? Was it still warm enough to camp, for example?
It was definitely warm enough to camp - during the day it was in the 80s. Nights were warm too, though not uncomfortably so.
Thanks for the info. Sounds like a great time to visit Yosemite. A place I've long wanted to go.