Outdoor Adventures Worth the Drive to the Sierra Nevadas


During a road trip to Lake Tahoe, the lake itself is usually the ultimate destination. However, no matter what direction you come from, there are a multitude of other adventures to be had in the Sierra Nevada throughout the year. Whether you want to leap small hills in a single ATV or jump into emerald pools of fresh water, here are five outdoor adventures in the Sierras that are worth the drive.

Photo courtesy of Moaning Caverns

Moaning Caverns Cave Rappel and Tour

Hours from SF: 137 miles/ 2.5 hours

When to go: Winter and Spring

Why it's worth it: With a public cavern that can hold the entire Statue of Liberty, and a three hour adventure tour through caves with names like the Breakdown Room and the Birth Canal, Moaning Caverns near Vallecito and Angel's Camp is several adventures in one. You can go on a 45 minute walking tour of the 165 foot deep cavern or strap on a hardhat and a rappel rope and get lowered into the cavern. The rappel is followed by a guided cave tour through underground twists and turns. Don't do this tour if you're claustrophobic. If you don't want to go underground, Moaning Caverns also has a 1,500 foot twin zip line in the fresh mountain air.

Directions: Take 580 East to Stockton and then CA-4 East through Angel's Camp to Vallecito. Turn right on Parrotts Ferry Road at the Moaning Cavern sign. Go one mile, then turn right on Moaning Cave Road.

Photo courtesy of California State Parks

Yuba River Emerald Pools

Hours from SF: 170 miles/ 3.5 hours

When to go: Summer and Fall

Why it's worth it: Both the North and South Forks of the Yuba River have some great swimming holes, but the Emerald Pools of the South Fork are more easily accessible and are only about 45 minutes from Tahoe. The Emerald Pools are a cliff jumper's heaven with 8-12 foot vertical ledges and lower rocks for the less daring. The pools are dozens of feet deep, clear, emerald green, and full of fish.

Directions: Take I-80 west to Exit 161. Go slightly right onto Highway 20 west. After 3.5 miles, go right on Bowman Lake Road. About 1.5 miles in, where the road crosses the South Fork of the Yuba River, pull into a small parking area on the right. Follow the well marked trail to the pools.

Photo by Christina Nellemann

Whitewater Rafting on the American River

Hours from SF: 130 miles/ 3 hours

When to go: Spring, Summer, and Fall

Why it's worth it: The South Fork of the American River near Coloma/Lotus has some of the best whitewater rafting areas in the West. Fueled by water from the Bullard's Bar dam, the names of some of the rapids describe perfectly what you are in store for: Chili Bar, the Meatgrinder, Satan's Cesspool, and the Hospital Bar and Recovery Room. There are dozens of rafting companies that go out on the American. W.E.T. River Trips have single and multiple day trips that include camping and dinner at Camp Lotus.

Directions: Take I-80 East to Sacramento then US-50 East toward South Lake Tahoe. Take the Ponderosa Road (37) Exit and turn left onto Ponderosa Road. Turn right onto N. Shingle Road and stay straight until Lotus Road. Turn right onto Firehouse Road.

Photo courtesy of Explore! Sierra Touring Company

ATV Sierra Touring

Hours from SF: 235 miles/4 hours

When to go: Spring, Summer and Fall

Why it's worth it: One of the best ways to see the backwoods of the Sierra is on an all terrain vehicle. Operated under a permit from the Plumas National Forest, Explore! Sierra Touring Company near Portola offers several length tours on single rider ATVs including a four-hour tour to Sierra Buttes.

Directions: Take I-80 East to Truckee and turn left onto Donner Pass Road. Take CA-89 toward Sierraville and turn left toward Calpine. In Calpine, take Westside Road to Highway 70 and then left to Portola.

Photo courtesy of Mammoth Mountain

Mammoth Mountain

Hours from SF: 363 miles/5 hours

When to go: All year

Why it's worth it: When the rest of the Sierra seems to lack snow, Mammoth has it in spades. This amazing area near Yosemite is usually enjoyed by the SoCal crowd, but a five hour drive can get you to this skiing, hiking and mountain biking haven with some time left over for a side trip to Tahoe. Winter activities include skiing and boarding, a scenic gondola, snowmobiling, and a tube park. Summer activities include hiking, horseback riding, fishing and over 80 miles of scenic cross country mountain biking trails.

Directions: Take I-80 East to Sacramento then US-50 East toward South Lake Tahoe. From South Lake take CA-89 to CA-88 to US Highway 395 South. Follow 395 south to Mammoth Lakes.

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