The Shortest (But Most Scenic) Drive in California

By J.R. Switchgrass

There is a scenic byway in California that spans only fifteen miles, shorter than some people’s daily commutes. But that didn’t prevent my wife and me from taking an entire weekend to complete the trip. Since my old VW bus can only go 20 mph uphill,that timeline may sound like no surprise. But what really made us inch along was the number of lakes and scenic overlooks on this short, but sweet, stretch of road. During our three-day cruise, we must’ve pulled over fifteen times—an impressive one pull out for each mile we traveled.

Officially known as the Gold Lake Highway, this little ribbon of road snakes its way past the shores of over twenty alpine lakes. The region is known as the Lakes Basin of California. It was formed by glacial activity back in the last ice age, when huge ice sheets scraped the granite slabs, creating deep carvings in their wakes. Today, snow melt trickles from the mountains, cascading from one tiny lake to the next. 

Due to its short length, this scenic byway doesn’t get as much hype as its world-famous neighbor, Lake Tahoe. Yes, Tahoe is blue and beautiful, but it’s also well-known. I’ve learned there’s value in traveling where others don’t dare venture.

A camper van by a mountain with a woman outside

On our first day on the byway, we cruised right up to the edge of Gold Lake. There, we made ourselves a picnic beside the van while a few peaceful fishermen passed by in their skiff. Their presence made the experience feel charming and quaint— nothing like the powerboats and party barges down on Lake Tahoe. Since the day was so peaceful, we relaxed by the edge of the lake all afternoon, reading books and watching the clouds float by. Later, as the sun sank behind the nearby mountain, Gold Lake lit up with an alpine glow. I thought to myself, “It really does live up to its name. What a golden moment.”

Camping choices along the drive are just as plentiful as the lakes. There are five lakeside campgrounds and three rustic, Sierra-style lodges to choose from. On our first night, we camped in a wooded spot right beside our Gold Lake picnic location, listening to the ducks and the geese as they bedded down in the shoreline grasses.

After a full day and night on our trip, we were still only halfway through this short drive—and, little did we know, the best was yetto come. The day before, a fisherman had told us to look out for a big rock just up the hill. In the morning, we bid goodbye to Gold Lake and powered along the steep incline in first gear, marveling at the sheer number of lakes we passed. Suddenly, towering out of the trees, we saw what the fisherman had been talking about: the pinnacle point of California’s Lakes Basin. The Sierra Buttes, as this mountain is called, is a granite spire that would look right at home in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. It is a surprising, spectacular sight. As a photographer, always chasing light, I was entranced. Once under the gaze of the Sierra Buttes, each bend in the road became a hunt for the best vantage point to shoot the giant rock formation. But I’m not sure there was a bad angle.

Family in front of house

During my hunt, I spied a dirt road atthe foot ofthe SierraButtes. On a whim, I turned onto it. I was so inspired by that craggy structure that I wanted to find a new angle for a photo, one, perhaps, no one had taken before. I wanted to show the mountain peeking over the forest like a watching cloud. I followed the dirt road quite a ways, into a cluster of thick trees that blocked all view of the mountain. I was beginning to think I wouldn’t see the Sierra Buttes on that road again.

But then, a small parking area on the edge of a lush green meadow appeared. It popped out of the woods like a gift. As a photographer, this sort of scene is what magic is made of. I parked my orange bus at the edge of that green grass, delighted by the view of the Sierra Buttes overhead. My partner and I took photographs and made lunch together, giddy with the fortune of the day. And, as the sun set over the mountain, we planned the next day’s adventure—a trek to a backcountry lake.

Woman in back of van drinking coffee

Since my wife and I are endlessly curious and insatiable in our hunger for adventure, our trip would not have been complete without a visit to at least a few of the region’s backcountry lakes—ones out of reach of vehicles and cars, only accessible by foot. Fortunately,there are over thirty miles of well-maintained foot trails that allow hiking access to innumerable lakes. And a note for animal lovers: all of the trails are open to dogs, and some of the trails are open to horses.

For our hike, we chose the Bear Lakes Loop. This hike is the most bang for your buck in the region. Where else can you visit five—yes, five!—alpine lakes in an easy five-mile trip? The crown jewel of the Bear Lakes Loop is Silver Lake, which lived up to its name as much as Gold Lake had during our first night. The steely water of Silver Lake was so sparkly and enticingly cold on that hot summer’s day that we couldn’t help ourselves. We simply had to take a quick dip. And a quick dip it was— that snow-melted waterwas bone-chillingly cold. Basking in the sun, thawing out on the bank after the plunge, my skin felt like it had just sipped an ice-cold lemonade.

Woman in back of van drinking coffee

The rest of the Gold Lake Highway slipped easily past our tires. With a few more overlook stops and another viewing of the Sierra Buttes, we were out the other side and on to new adventures. Looking back at all that we packed into this shortleg of our trip, I was reminded that the world becomes expansive if you let yourself get lost in the moment, no matter how short a trip or how short a road is.