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5 killer Sierra road trips to do this summer, including Yosemite, Mammoth and…Arnold?

A tall waterfall cascades down a rugged cliffside with mist rising at its base. In the foreground, a crowd of people gathers, partially blurred, observing the scenery.
Tioga Pass on Highway 120 has reopened to vehicular traffic, meaning visitors to Yosemite can now cross the Sierra Nevada—although reservations may be required. | Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

With the Sierra Nevada’s alpine lakes, granite-lined swimming holes and impossibly blue skies, do Californians really need another reason to visit the state’s most majestic mountain range this summer? 

We’ve gathered even more motivation to inspire a trip, from luxe lodging to all-new diversions, plus some lesser-known destinations that may not be on many people’s radar. Here’s what’s shaking in the Sierra this summer.

1. A new and improved Yosemite, in and out of the park

With Monday’s reopening of Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park kicked off the (un)official start of its summer season. While its crush of forthcoming visitors may call to mind Yogi Berra’s famous quip—“No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”—the park just unveiled over $32 million in improvements.

At Bridalveil Fall, a redesigned path leads to hugely expanded viewing areas for the 620-foot cascade, while in Yosemite Village, a new, 3000-square-foot Welcome Center is a one-stop-shop to book tours, chat with rangers, and rent bikes to cruise the sight-filled Valley Loop Trail. Plus, after a nearly year-long closure, The Ahwahnee’s iconic dining room is open once again.

A tall waterfall cascades down a steep rocky cliff surrounded by evergreen trees. Below, leafless trees stand in the foreground under a clear blue sky.
Water flows down Bridalveil Fall, one of the most sought-after attractions in Yosemite. | Source: Al Golub/NPS
A clear, inviting pool surrounded by lounge chairs and orange umbrellas, set against a backdrop of buildings and trees under a sunny sky.
Just outside of Yosemite National Park, Firefall Ranch is among the fancier resorts in the area. | Source: Alpenglo Productions

Those looking to escape Valley crowds will welcome the reopening of three of the five High Sierra Camps that had been shuttered since Covid. Set six to 10 miles apart along a loop trail, each provides dorm-style canvas tents, hot meals, and an entry-level backpacking experience minus the bulky gear (this year’s guided tours are sold out, but self-guided reservations are still available). Outside the park, the new Firefall Ranch is a luxurious alternative to refreshing the Yosemite lodging site in hope of a last-minute opening. 

Note that entry into Yosemite requires a reservation on specified days through Oct. 27. If your dates aren’t available, check again one week before, when additional slots are released. If you’re still out of luck, consider the YARTS shuttle, which picks visitors up from dedicated areas outside the park.

2. Arnold lets you ditch the crowd

Situated on Highway 4 between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, along one of the region’s least traveled mountain passes, the former logging town of Arnold offers a taste of the Sierra minus the crowds. With kitschy-cool interiors—think shag rugs and wallpaper-a-go-go—plus a dreamy, aromatic cedar hot tub perched above the forest floor, the recently launched Whimsy Homes make a stylish basecamp for exploring its less-traversed environs, including the blissfully uncrowded sequoia groves of neighboring Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

A cozy living room features a stone fireplace, green walls, a large dining table with orange chairs, and an open kitchen with wooden cabinets and bar stools.
In the town of Arnold, updated interiors in Whimsy Homes' properties make for an ideal jumping-off point to explore a relatively uncrowded part of the state. | Source: Courtesy Whimsy Homes

When temps heat up, head to one of the area’s many swimming holes, such as the boulder-flanked North Fork of the Stanislaus River in the Sourgrass Recreation Area, or Natural Bridges in nearby Vallecito where, after a one-mile trek, visitors can float through a cave filled with unique limestone formations. Of all the region’s 19th century reservoirs—as stunning as any natural lake—the most scenic is Utica Lake, whose small islands, narrow passageways, and secluded coves beg to be explored via kayak. Cap the day off in nearby Dorrington with a burger and a pint on the sunny backyard at The Lube Room Saloon, an après-everything gathering spot whose interiors are festooned with decades of bric-a-brac. Or, ask for a taste of something from Hinterhaus, a small-batch distillery that produces vodka from local wines.

3. Big blooms and thrills in Mammoth

Mammoth Mountain, the area’s primary ski resort, continues its wintertime thrills into summer with a new, mile-long mountain coaster that delivers the rush of a downhill toboggan run. Strapped into an individual bobsled-like cart, adrenaline junkies can enjoy a scenic climb through stands of red firs before zipping down a hillside. There’s also a new tubing park where visitors can barrel down 500-foot slopes lined with synthetic bristles that replicate groomed hardpack.

For genuine nature, seek out the region’s wildflowers which, thanks to Mammoth’s high elevation and late snowmelt, can bloom all season. Go now, and you’ll witness an explosion of yellow bitterbrush, best seen along Convict Lake’s two-mile loop trail, which skirts the aquamarine waters with snow-capped Laurel Mountain looming overhead.

A serene lake surrounded by hills and lush greenery. There are people on a small dock by the water, which is framed by blooming yellow wildflowers and leafy trees.
Owing to its high elevation, the two-mile loop around Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra may be full of wildflower blooms late into the season. | Source: Courtesy Samantha Lindberg

Visitors hoping to see the geological wonder Devils Postpile or the 101-foot Rainbow Falls should plan accordingly, as road construction is currently limiting access.

4. A new era for Lake Tahoe’s historic camp 

With its historic cabins, old-timey ice cream parlor, and generations of fiercely loyal guests, South Lake Tahoe’s beachfront Camp Richardson Resort is marking its 100th anniversary with a significant refresh. New operator ExplorUS began renovations earlier this year with the 160-acre property’s 1926 hotel, whose grand lobby and 34 guest rooms shine with restored woodwork and new furnishings. 

This image shows a serene lake with a sandy shore, a wooden pier, and snow-capped mountains in the background under a clear blue sky with a few fluffy clouds.
South Lake Tahoe's views are stunning in all seasons, but never more so than at Camp Richardson, which just marked its centennial. | Source: George Rose/Getty Images

The camp’s lakefront restaurant, newly renamed The Grove, also received a facelift with refreshed interiors, new menus, and a refinished outdoor deck set steps from the lapping shoreline. Rum Runners, long the camp’s signature cocktail, are still flowing, along with contemporary bites such as fried chicken with ricotta beignets. An adjacent marina rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, while up the road at Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park, you can join a free guided kayak tour every Thursday and Saturday morning through Labor Day weekend (reservations required).

5. Amador City is having a moment

Thanks to a groundswell of creative merchants, including more than a few San Francisco expats, the tiny Gold Rush town of Amador City hides surprisingly urbane offerings among its movie set-worthy main street. “There’s an inspiring vibe of people trying to do cool things, and the whole town is in on it,” said Kevin Carter of Break Even Beermakers. Along with former Cellarmaker brewer Aaron Wittman, the brewery produces unique, small-batch brews that can be enjoyed in a new beer garden, and come early July, with crispy shrimp bao from an in-house pan-Asian restaurant. As good as the brews are, Carter’s magnum opus might be the restoration of the fetching Imperial Hotel, which he completed with partner Cassie Davis. Their formula—showcasing the 145-year-old structure’s soulful character while upping modern creature comforts—works like a charm. 

Carter isn’t the only one breathing new life into the atmospheric town’s false-front buildings, either. Stroll the covered wooden sidewalks, and you’ll stumble upon the colorful graphic print-filled gallery of 3 Fish Studios whose wife-and-husband owners, Annie Galvin and Eric Rewitzer, relocated from San Francisco’s Outer Sunset in 2020. Next door, The End of Nowhere offers a taste of the California Shenandoah Valley AVA’s few natural wines. Try the Spaceboy pinot gris ramato with one of their hulking, mesquite-grilled burgers. Across the way, newly opened Moonrise Pizza has sourdough pies, vibrant farmers market salads, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pinball table.

What hasn’t changed is the surrounding pastoral beauty, best enjoyed via bike. Nab a cycling map from Break Even Beermakers, hit the quiet oak-dotted backroads and revel in the grandeur of summer in the Sierra.