The Best Road Trip From San Francisco to Death Valley

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Departing from the bustling hub that is San Francisco, this road trip takes you through the majestically rugged vibes of the Stanislaus National Forest before you arrive in Death Valley. The sprawling desert expanse that encapsulates extremes from snow-capped mountain tops down to ghostly salt beds—and contains nearly 1000 miles of roadway throughout California and Nevada.
PS. Don’t forget your sunscreen—Death Valley is the hottest place on earth.
With so much ground to cover, who needs to waste time planning when Jerry has already put together a killer San Francisco to Death Valley road trip itinerary for you?
Jerry is an intelligent app that uses AI technology to help you compare rates from up to 50 top car insurance providers for free—and skip all the usual hassles.
Jerry even offers a roadside assistance program that includes all the usual services along with unique member benefits like Uber and trip interruption credits. So you can leave your worries behind!
So let’s get this show on the road. We start in San Fran, the Golden City!

Key trip details

San Francisco to Death Valley trip map.
San Francisco to Death Valley
The straight-through drive from San Francisco to the Death Valley takes just under 8 hours, but it’s well worth going out of your way to see Stanislaus National Forest. The breathtaking route is certainly not short on stopovers— you will probably want to check out the Sierra Nevadas and the steady stream of national park systems that flank the California/Nevada border.
One-way distance: 643 miles One-way driving time: 11 hours 11 minutes Suggested trip length: 3-5 days

Itinerary

  • San Francisco—1 to 2 days
  • Stanislaus National Forest—1 day
  • Death Valley—1 to 2 days

Start: San Francisco, CA

Think that Central Park is big? Think again. SF’s Golden Gate Park is 20% larger, spanning over 1000 acres of land.
Aside from the greenery, there is plenty to see and do in this picturesque Bay Area city whose impact on the American cultural landscape has long outstripped its size. Once symbolic of the "Wild West," SF has evolved through multiple incarnations—more recently from a hippy paradise to a future-forward tech hub and international foodie hotspot.

Where to eat in San Francisco

  • Tartine: Chefs Elisabeth Pruett and Chad Robertson started a small operation out of their home, and it grew into the sourdough empire that is Tartine. Featuring fancy toasts and other baked goods, Tartine is a great option for breakfast or lunch.
  • Crown and Crumpet: If you are craving tea and crumpets, Alice in Wonderland-style, then you definitely want to dive through the looking glass at Crown & Crumpet—an indescribably weird English tea room that serves refined hors d’oeuvres alongside whimsical tea blends. It’s all in a cartoonishly eclectic pink-tinged setting that you just have to see to believe.

What to do in San Francisco

A man and two children stand in a San Francisco Chinatown alleyway looking at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
  • Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze: Have you ever been to a psychedelic carnival dreamscape that may or may not harken back to some of your favorite horror movie scenes—and is definitely backed by rave music? Needless to say, Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze is one of SF’s more quirky bayside attractions. If brightly flashing, neon-lit reflective surfaces and smashing into the potentially illusory image of a total stranger is your idea of a good time, this is one stopover you don’t want to miss.
  • The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company: The fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco way back in 1890 by a Japanese immigrant named Makoto Hagiwara, who served them at his tea house. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company is one of SF’s oldest producers of handmade fortune cookies. Their Chinatown alleyway shop has been operating since 1962 and is now open to the public. Meaning you can get a hot, handmade fortune cookie fresh out of the oven—good luck getting the recipe, though!

San Francisco to Stanislaus National Forest

146.9 miles, 2 hours 36 minutes
Stanislaus National Forest is one of the oldest national forests in the country. It lies just West of Yosemite National Park and is a great alternative stopover for anybody hoping to ditch the crowds.
The park spans almost 900,000 acres and encompasses the picturesque Sierra Nevada mountain range. Serving as home to a full cast of colorful characters during the California Gold Rush, the pristine natural preserve is not short on historical artifacts, either.
To get to Stanislaus National Forest, take I-580 E to CA-4 E.

Where to eat near Stanislas National Forest

  • Legends Books, Antiques & Soda Fountain (Sonora, CA)—The bookstore and soda fountain is conveniently located in a false-fronted building straight out of a spaghetti Western that once housed a bank and general store—and still retains some striking vintage features, including a retro-mahogany bar. Grab a cup of java or a refreshing ice cream cone at the cafe upstairs. Then, make your way to the underground bookstore that lies within the walls of a long-abandoned gold mine. The only thing that you’ll be gold-digging for is an excellent selection of rare editions, out-of-print, or hard-to-find literary gems.

What to do near Stanislaus National Forest

Limestone rock formations illuminated by lights underground at the Mercer Caves.
Mercer Caves
  • Mark Twain’s Cabin (Sonora, CA)—The humble shack that housed one of the country’s greatest literary heroes is hardly a sight for sore eyes. While the fireplace and chimney are part of the original cabin, the remainder is a replica—albeit one that is almost a century old. Twain had made his way to Jackass Hill Road after having failed in his earlier undertakings as miner and riverboat captain. He was crashing with two friends here while attempting to transition into journalism, but a chance overhearing of a saloon tale about a jumping frog led him to write "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" instead—and the rest was history.
  • Mercer Caves—Spelunking enthusiasts won’t want to miss out on an opportunity to descend into a commercial cave system with an enterprising history. If you aren’t a seasoned cave-dweller, you will probably be happy to hear that you don’t have to drop down from the sky on flimsy ropes like the tourists of yesteryear once did—they now have stairs. The caves served as an ancient burial ground for an indigenous tribe called the Yokuts, who rolled in bodies through the mouth. It was eventually uncovered by Walter J. Mercer, who nearly ended up at the bottom himself after suffering a serious fall.

Stanislaus National Forest Death Valley National Park

329.4 miles, 6 hours
Once you finally arrive at Death Valley, you may feel like you have reached the end of the world. This vast desert landscape is like no other on the globe, and miles of isolated meandering roadways house geographic treasures from mystical sweeping dunes to magnificent hydrovolcanic craters.
To get to Death Valley, take CA-88 E to US-395 N.

Where to eat in Death Valley

  • Panamint Springs Restaurant—This is an all-American eatery and metaphorical oasis on the particularly isolated western edge of the park—and it provides views overlooking the Panamint Dunes in the distance. They feature a refreshingly wide selection of craft beers and other locally brewed beverages, along with ample pizzas, burgers, fries, and other comfort food fare.

What to do in Death Valley

A low-angle view of pink salt flats at sunset with a person standing in the distance.
Badwater Basin, Death Valley
  • Badwater Basin: You haven’t reached an all-time low (in North America at least) until you have visited the Badwater Basin. The lowest point in the continent falls within 100 miles of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US. The dried-up lake bed that lies 282 feet below sea level appears to be covered in snow, but actually, it’s all of the salt and minerals that have filtered down through the mountain peaks after it rains and ended up here—where they evaporate faster than any other place in the country.
  • The Artist’s Drive: The heat in Death Valley can be nothing short of blistering. The Artist’s Drive provides you with a front-row seat to the kaleidoscopic landscape of shapes and colors without having to leave the comfort of your air-conditioned vehicle. The scenic loop road provides a birds-eye view of an ancient glacial alluvial fan and the vibrant mineral-rich deposits that periodic flash-flooding has left exposed.
Pro Tip Don’t want to venture off the boardwalk at Badwater Basin. After thousands of years of perpetual evaporation, the salt-water pools that gather below the walkway are so heavily concentrated that they are toxic.

Why you need roadside assistance

The Death Valley is one place in the world where you certainly don’t want to have to deal with car trouble. Temperatures are often unbearably hot, and access to basic provisions can be in short supply.
Wherever the road is taking you, Jerry’s roadside assistance program gives you the peace of mind you need to explore this great country with confidence. Whether it is tire changes, jump starts, lockout services, winching, fuel delivery, or even a stolen car—Jerry’s roadside assistance is there to help when you need it most.
Of course, the unique membership benefits certainly don’t hurt to have either!

Finding cheap car insurance

When it comes to finding cheap car insurance, Jerry is your handy-pocket-broker who will always ensure you are getting the best rate. Sign-up takes just 45 seconds, and you get a list of easy-to-tailor quotes from dozens of top carriers.
Make your pick, and Jerry takes care of the rest—including switchovers, paperwork, phone calls, and cancelations. You get a new list of quotes every time your policy renews, and none of the stress. The average Jerry user saves almost $900 a year on their car insurance.

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