* Driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas – the long way ’round
* Choose small towns and unexpected stops along the way
* Get a car that takes you through less explored roads
Even if you’ve never been to Las Vegas, we’ve all had the stereotypical “Vegas” vacation – you know the one: bars, bottles, casinos, clubs and one too many late nights that turn into early mornings. But this year, resolve to do Vegas differently, starting with how you get there.
We recently took a road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, driving through the California desert, up north to Mammoth Lakes, and then east through Death Valley and into Nevada. A typical LA-Vegas drive is about 4.5 hours. We took our time, stretching out the route over two days. What we discovered: Vegas is a lot more fun when you build up the anticipation.
When we decided to drive to Vegas instead of flying, we knew we had to have a reliable car. We got a 2018 Terrain Denali from our friends at GMC to test-drive, and hit the open road with confidence. (The car looked pretty sweet, too).
A five-seater with some pretty impressive features, the Denali SUV comfortably fit our crew of three, with plenty of room for our bags and gear. The 19″ aluminum wheels, sleek design and chrome detailing made for a pretty striking vehicle on the road, though the main feature we appreciated was GMC’s “Traction Select System.”
The feature basically lets the driver switch between different modes for various road conditions. Modes include: All-Wheel Drive (4X4), Off-Road (AWD Only), Snow, Sport and Trailer/Tow (if equipped). For exploring the rocky terrain of the Trona Pinnacles and Alabama Hills, the traction control came in very handy. We never felt like we were going to swerve off-track or get stuck in the sticky dips and crevices.
The car also has a ton of safety features, which took some getting used to, but ultimately proved to be super helpful. These features include not only a rear-view camera, but a full birds-eye camera view as well (particularly helpful to see around the corners of the car that most rear view cameras can’t show/reach).
A “lane assist” feature provides gentle steering wheel turns to help you avoid crashes when you’re unintentionally drifting out of your lane and your turn signal is not activated. The driver’s seat also vibrates (sort of like a weird massage chair) to alert you of potential traffic danger, while a beeping sound lets you know when you’re going over the speed limit (that was slightly annoying when we were speeding up to pass traffic or switch lanes, but we get why it’s helpful, especially when cops are nearby).
Our longest legs were the initial three-hour drive to the Trona Pinnacles, and a five-hour drive from Bishop, CA to Vegas on day two. For these long periods on the road, the Denali’s connectivity systems really kept us sane. Our car had an 8″ screen that we connected to Apple CarPlay, letting us see our route on the GPS and letting us stream music from our phones. The car also has a built-in 4G WiFi Hotspot, which came in handy when we needed to quickly check an urgent work email, or download a gaming app to keep us occupied.
Our first stop, just about three hours away from Los Angeles, was the Trona Pinnacles — a unique geological feature in the California Desert Conservation Area. The unusual landscape consists of more than 500 tufa spires, some as high as 140 feet, rising from the bed of the Searles Dry Lake basin.
The pinnacles vary in size and shape, and are composed primarily of calcium carbonate (tufa). The landscape looked straight out of a sci-fi movie, or what we imagine the terrain of Mars to look like. In fact, the Trona Pinnacles have been the site of a number of blockbuster productions, from Battlestar Galactica, to Planet of the Apes.
We recommend spending a couple hours at the Pinnacles hiking the different peaks and rocky landings. There was only one other family there during our visit, so you pretty much have the entire expanse to yourself — perfect for getting those Instagram photos in.
The surrounding town of Trona is pretty desolate (its Wikipedia entry literally says the town “is known for its isolation and desolation“), but drive through to take in the stark landscape. If you’re hungry, make sure to stop by the Esparza Family Restaurant. It’s one of the few places to eat in town but the food is actually pretty good. Get the tacos or chicken fingers and fries. Make sure you ask for the housemade hot sauce.
The Trona Pinnacles are located approximately 20.0 miles east of Ridgecrest. Access to the site is from a dirt road that leaves SR 178, about 7.7 miles east of the intersection of SR 178 and the Trona-Red Mountain Road. Look for the formations rising out of the ground and you can’t miss it.
From the Trona Pinnacles, we drove north to the Alabama Hills, a sweeping range of hills and rock formations near the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, in Inyo County, CA. Looking like one giant western movie set rising from the rocks, there is no shortage of places to wander and explore in the Hills.
Many of the rock formations are easy to climb, giving you a open view of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We also spent time walking through the valleys, getting a much different perspective with the large boulders towering over us as we dipped in and out of the narrow trails.
Locals have named many of the rock formations based on the likenesses they portray. Look out for “Heart Arch” (two rocks that bend into a heart-shaped embrace), as well as a trio of rocks known as “The Penguins.”
Drive or hike through the park and you’ll also see rocks that look like giant dinosaurs, one that’s reminiscent of an ape (see photo at left) and one of a proud lion looking over his domain, among many others.
Like the Trona Pinnacles, Alabama Hills has been the site of many big movies, including Mel Gibson’s Maverick, and more recently, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The scene in Gladiator, where Russell Crowe rides his horse in front of a large mountain range is also said to have been filmed here (with Alabama Hills subbing for Spain).
To get to Alabama Hills, take Hwy 395 to Lone Pine. Turn west at the stoplight onto Whitney Portal Road, drive 2.5 miles to Movie Road, turn right. Looking for a place to eat? We got brunch at the Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery. Solid omelettes and sandwiches for brunch, and then we grabbed a bag of fresh-baked cookies for the rest of our trip.
After a bit of sight-seeing through the many small towns that dot the drive up the California interior, we stopped by Manzanar for a bit of culture, too. Located just 20 minutes from Alabama Hills, up the 395, Manzanar was the site of the Manzanar War Relocation Center — one of ten camps where Japanese-American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II.
In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 100,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps, fearing that many of these ethnically-Japanese individuals were enemy spies. Manzanar was home to one of the largest camps in California (though dozens of other internment camps dotted the U.S.).
Though the camp was officially shut down in 1945, the land has been preserved as a National Historic Site today. Stop by to walk through the incredibly educational visitors center, then take a drive through the property to see many excavated Japanese gardens, foundations, and other remnants of the camp.
WHERE TO STAY: CIELO HOTEL
On our first night, we decided to stay in Bishop, a small town located just under the Mammoth mountains. There are a number of accommodations for every price point in Bishop, but we chose the Cielo Hotel.
Part of the Choice Hotels Group, the Cielo is a simple but well-appointed place for a night (or two), and we liked its convenience in the center of town. After checking in, we walked to Holy Smoke BBQ for an authentic Texas barbecue dinner in the middle of California (who knew?). It’s also located right next to a bowling alley in case you want to throw down some strikes after your meal. Other than that though, Bishop is a sleepier town — nothing was really open past 9pm on a Friday night — so we recommend it more as a place to rest than a big destination.
As for the hotel itself, the Cielo offers free WiFi and a free hot breakfast for guests (they get bonus points for having a waffle maker!). It’s also pet-friendly, in case you’re bringing Fido along for your next road trip. We got a good night of sleep and, after filling up on the free coffee in the lobby, we were off bright and early to continue on to Vegas the next day.
SEVEN MAGIC MOUNTAINS
It’s about a 5-6 hour drive to cross over from the Mammoth Lakes area, into Nevada, and then down to Vegas. The scenery is beautiful though, so be prepared to stop often to grab those pics.
Before we arrived in Sin City, we stopped by Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation that’s popped up about 30 minutes from the Strip.
Visible across the desert landscape along Interstate 15, the installation features seven colorful, stacked boulders standing more than 25 ft. high. Installed by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, this bright, large-scale, public artwork is meant to represent the natural vs. the artificial: the natural is expressed by the mountain ranges, desert, and Jean Dry Lake backdrop, and the artificial is expressed by the highway and the constant flow of traffic between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
The art installation has drawn thousands of people to the otherwise-barren part of town. Admission is free and there’s about a 5-10 minute walk from the parking lot to the boulders. We recommend going early in the day to avoid the crowds — otherwise, be prepared to wait to get your photos.
BACCHANAL BUFFET AT CAESARS PALACE
There are a few things in Vegas that you can skip: the Britney Spears slots (we watched people play for over an hour with no winnings); Thunder Down Under; Mario Batali restaurants. But one thing that Vegas is famous for that should definitely be experienced: the buffets.
The Bacchanal Buffet features nine distinct “restaurants” (with nine distinct cuisines) in one location, with hundreds of dishes to choose from. We started with the chilled king crab legs and roasted South Carolina shrimp and grits, before we made our way to the sushi bar and wood-fired pizza. We had already devoured the juicy prime rib and oak-grilled lamb chops, when we discovered the Asian noodle bar. Made-to-order soups and noodles? Count us in.
While most buffets have a dessert table, the Bacchanal Buffet dessert options span an area roughly the size of a backyard pool. We had a scoop (okay, three scoops) of gelato, a slice of fresh key lime pie, and stocked up from their mochi bar(!), too.
While we’re wary of Vegas-sized dining, the Bacchanal was a lot more intimate than we thought. Though we went at prime dinner time, the way the space is divided — using natural, recycled and reclaimed materials that overlook Caesars’ famous Garden of the Gods pool — made it seem like we all had our own little nooks to eat in peace. And if you wanted some action, the buffet’s team of seven specialized chefs oversee the preparation of the majority of the food in front of the guests, creating an interactive environment at the buffet line.
Note: our “regular” buffet included a glass of wine or mimosa, but for $98, the buffet offers a VIP package that gets you unlimited alcohol and a VIP Seafood Tower. Consider us intrigued…
ARIA RESORTS & CASINO
There are plenty of places to stay in Vegas, but we can always count on the ARIA for a good time. Winner of the TripAdvisor “Travelers Choice” Award and a AAA Five-Diamond property, the ARIA Resort & Casino is an adult playground for the sophisticated set.
While other hotels boast rollicking pool parties and the kind of after-hours fun you’d see on a Kardashians TV special, the ARIA keeps it classy. Case in point: its 16 world-class restaurants and James Beard Award Chefs, like Jean Georges Vongerichten, Michael Mina, Sean McClain and Julian Serrano. This fall, the hotel will add LA celeb hotspot CATCH, to its roster of restaurants too.
We love road trips, but sometimes, it’s also nice to just chill by the pool. ARIA has three distinctive pools that form one giant outdoor complex, yet each pool feels secluded and intimate. After two days of driving through the desert heat and hiking unpredictable terrain, it was nice to not have to worry about a thing — except what drink we would order next.