Heading West: Where to Stop on Your Road Trip from Salt Lake City to San Francisco

Check Out These Can’t-Miss Road Trip Stops in Utah, Nevada, and California

The drive from Salt Lake City to San Francisco is around 11 hours, which probably means that you’re going to want to get out of the car to stretch your legs at some point. Luckily, we’ve got a few spots along the way that are the perfect places to do it! Okay, you caught us—these aren’t just ordinary pit stops… They’re some of the best road trip destinations that you’ll find in northwestern Utah, Nevada, and California, and you definitely don’t want to make the mistake of driving right by them. 

Sure, you could just punch “San Francisco” into your GPS and make the drive straight through, but why not take this trip as an opportunity to do some exploring? From natural wonders and museums to state parks and jelly beans, these points of interest that dot the way from Salt Lake to SF are well worth taking a little extra time as you make the journey to the City by the Bay. 

Bonneville Salt Flats

📍 Wendover (UT)

Sprawling Salt Flat on the West Side of Great Salt Lake

Interstate 80 | Wendover | www.utah.com

Covering an area of 30 thousand acres, Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats is part of the remains of Lake Bonneville, a prehistoric saltwater lake that eventually dried up, leaving behind excess salt deposits. Due to its rarity and fragility, the Bonneville Salt Flats was named an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in 1985. For this reason, visitors are asked to remain on designated roads and trails when in the area. 

If you didn’t know any better, you might mistake the Salt Flats for snow, as the land is coated in a salty white crust. Many visitors describe the area as alien and looking as though it’s terrain from another planet—and the mountains that line the background further enhance the beauty of the Salt Flats. One of the best places to view this strange yet scenic part of Utah is the rest stop along Interstate 80 that’s about 10 miles east of the city of Wendover. 

California Trail Interpretive Center

📍 Elko (NV)

A Wealth of History with Interactive Exhibits 

1 Trail Center Way | Elko | www.californiatrailcenter.org

Though perhaps not as well-known as the Oregon Trail, the California Trail was another important route that travelers took as they ventured westward in the 1800s. The California Trail Interpretive Center is an educational attraction that made its debut in 2012. Comprised of 40 acres of land, the Trail Center features pioneer wagons, a museum, a library, original art, hiking, and multimedia exhibits designed to teach visitors about the California Trail and its significance in ways that are engaging and thought-provoking. 

Live demonstration and special events can be found at the Trail Center on a regular basis, and you should check the website’s calendar before your visit to see what’s scheduled while you’re in town. With both indoor and outdoor displays and activities, the Trail Center has a versatile range of exhibits that will fascinate and entertain visitors of all ages. The Trail Center is open Thursday through Monday from 9 am to 4:30 pm, and admission is free! 

Thunder Mountain Monument 

📍 Imlay (NV)

Outdoor Assemblage Art Off of I-80

800-804 E. Star Peak Road | Imlay | www.thundermountainmonument.com 

Built by Frank Van Zant, also known as Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain, Thunder Mountain Monument is five acres of folk art and assemblage sculptures that can be found beside Interstate 80 near Imlay, Nevada. Dedicated to Native American peoples, their history, and their hardships, Thunder Mountain Monument is an offbeat detour that will both bewilder and delight you with its array of handmade oddities. 

Now overseen by Frank’s son Dan, Thunder Mountain Monument is an eclectic display of creativity and a quirky roadside attraction that will stay in your mind long after you’ve left. Though free to the public, Thunder Mountain Monument relies on donations from visitors to continue to stay open, and Dan hopes that his father’s creations will continue to intrigue passing-by travelers for many years to come. 

Black Rock Desert Playa

📍 Gerlach (NV)

Open Desert Space That’s Home to Burning Man 

County Road 34 | Gerlach | www.blackrockdesert.org

Encompassing nearly two thousand square miles, Black Rock Desert Playa is one of the largest, flattest surfaces on Earth, offering visitors panoramic views unlike any other. The former lakebed of the historic Lake Lahontan, Black Rock Desert Playa is surrounded by several mountain ranges and the land is a protected part of the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. 

Though it’s quite spectacular on its own, the Playa has an additional claim to fame to accompany its extraordinary geographic features: It’s the site for Burning Man, an annual summer festival that’s known for its free-spirit mentality and inclusive atmosphere. However, while it may not be as crowded during the rest of the year, the Playa is definitely just as phenomenal, not to mention humbling. 

National Automobile Museum

📍 Reno 

One of the 10 Best Automobile Museums in the Country 

10 South Lake Street | Reno | www.automuseum.org

During his lifetime, Bill Harrah amassed an automobile collection that included an estimated 1,400 vehicles. The National Automobile Museum—which opened in 1989, about 10 years after Harrah’s death—is a product of that collection. Upon its opening, the museum is said to have set the international standard for automobile museums everywhere, and it continues to be an acclaimed institution as well as one of Reno’s most popular tourist attractions. 

Car enthusiasts, history buffs, and everyone in between will appreciate the extensive collection of cars and memorabilia to be explored at the National Automobile Museum. And yet, the museum is so much more than a place to look at cool cars—it also reflects on American history through the lens of one of the most impactful inventions in modern history. 

Emerald Bay State Park 

📍 Lake Tahoe (CA)

Underwater State Park and National Natural Landmark

138 Emerald Bay Road | South Lake Tahoe | www.parks.ca.gov

The alpine peaks and sparkling waters at Emerald Bay State Park will remind you just how remarkable Mother Nature truly is. With two campgrounds, hiking trails, and boating, Emerald Bay State Park offers visitors their choice of outdoor activities, and the park is beautiful regardless of what time of year it is. Visitors marvel at the park’s natural beauty, hailing it as a must-see in Lake Tahoe. 

Also within the park grounds are Vikingsholm and Fannette Island, two additional attractions that contribute to Emerald Bay State Park being among the most-visited areas around Lake Tahoe. Vikingsholm is a lavish—and secluded—estate with architecture modeled after that found in Scandinavia during the 20th century when the residence was built. On the other hand, Fannette Island is Lake Tahoe’s only island. The isolated landform is made of granite and juts out 150 feet above the water. 

Gold Bug Park 

📍 Placerville (CA)

Authentic Mine From the California Gold Rush

2635 Gold Bug Lane | Placerville | www.goldbugpark.org

Gold Bug Park is a multifaceted attraction that takes the term “living history” to a whole new level. With 61 acres of land, this park has a little bit of everything, from tours of a mine from the California Gold Rush Era to panning for gems. See a blacksmith at work at the Miner’s Blacksmith Shop, learn more about the California Gold Rush at Hattie’s Museum, enjoy a picnic at Liberty Pavillion, and hike throughout the park on trails that showcase the area’s finest views. 

Hands-on activities and interpretive exhibits make Gold Bug Park fun for the whole family. The staff is not only friendly and accommodating but also well-informed about the history that inspired the park and the local lore of the surrounding area. In addition to the park’s thoughtfully-designed activities, its scenic landscapes add even more to visit, especially when you take advantage of the hiking trails and picnic areas. 

Old Sacramento State Historic Park 

📍 Sacramento 

19th Century Buildings in Downtown Sacramento 

1002 2nd Street | Old Sacramento Waterfront District | www.parks.ca.gov

Did you know that Sacramento was the western terminus in three different historical achievements? That’s right—the Pony Express postal system, the first transcontinental railroad, and the transcontinental telegraph all had endpoints in California’s state capital! In fact, Old Sacramento’s entire business district has been a National Historic Landmark since 1965. This is part of the reason why Old Sacramento is such a cherished area of the city, making Sactown well worth a day or two of touring. 

You can see more than 50 historic buildings in Old Sacramento State Historic Park, including the 1849 Eagle Theater, the 1853 B. F. Hastings Building, and the 1855 Big Four Building. After you check out the State Historic Park, you can hit the rest of the Old Sacramento Waterfront District for food, shopping, nightlife, and other forms of entertainment. From mini-golf and psychics to museums and carriage rides, you can find all sorts of cool and unexpected things to do in Old Sacramento. Don’t forget to visit some of the local businesses for souvenirs and gifts—shop antiques, original artwork, freshly-pressed custom t-shirts, and more! 

Jelly Belly Candy Company Headquarters

📍 Fairfield (CA)

A Sweet Way to Wrap Up Your Time on the Road

1 Jelly Belly Lane | Fairfield | www.jellybelly.com

With a history that dates back to 1869, Jelly Belly Candy Company has had ample time to perfect its recipes—and with more than 50 flavors and international recognition, we think it’s safe to say that Jelly Belly knows a thing or two when it comes to candy. Get a firsthand look at where the magic happens when you make a stop at the Jelly Belly Headquarters in Fairfield, just about an hour outside of San Francisco. Jelly Belly offers free self-guided tours of its factory every day from 9 am to 4 pm, but if you want a more personalized experience, you can book a guided tour with Jelly Belly University. (Please note that guided tours are by reservation only, and tour dates are available six-to-eight weeks in advance!)

The self-guided tours include a sneak peek at the candy-making process, interactive exhibits and games, time to browse Jelly Belly Jelly Bean Art Gallery, access to the Jelly Belly Candy Store and Jelly Belly Chocolate Shoppe, and a chance to dine at Jelly Belly Cafe (Don’t worry—there’s more than jelly beans on the menu… But a lot of the food is jelly-bean shaped!). Kids and adults alike will have a blast on this fun yet informative journey through the past, present, and future of jelly beans. You can even get a free bag of Jelly Belly beans if you check in on social media before your tour! 

Time to Hit the Road!

While you definitely won’t be short on things to see and do once you get to San Francisco, that doesn’t mean that you want to miss out on everything that you’ll pass on the way. Whether you make two stops or ten, you won’t regret the adventures that you have during your drive from Utah to California. And who knows? Maybe you’ll even discover some places that you’ll want to come back to in the future! After all, you know what they say—it’s not the destination; it’s the journey.

Albion Skeldon

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