LA to Vegas -the long way round

By Richard Edwards

Richard Edwards heads to the highs and lows of California and Nevada

The drive from San Fransico to Las Vegas takes in spectacular roads you don't see in NZ. Photo / Richard Edwards
The drive from San Fransico to Las Vegas takes in spectacular roads you don't see in NZ. Photo / Richard Edwards

The popular animated movie Cars laments what the interstate highway has done to parts of America. Taking the population away from interesting sights and spectacular vistas, and funnelling them down man-made paths, cut into the landscape.

In a borrowed Toyota Scion FR-S (known as the 86 sports coupe in New Zealand), I drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco before driving to Las Vegas the long way - along the California-Nevada border.

Hitting the freeway out past the state capital of Sacramento, I headed for Reno via the Donner Pass, a short stretch of twisty mountain road that, from a visual perspective, is up there with some of the best in Europe and, as is the way with the US outside of the cities, has amazing road surfaces.

Reno itself is a depressing mix of casinos that are past their prime, traffic lights and empty lots, but it does have one standout feature - the National Automobile Museum houses a huge collection of vintage vehicles, mostly from the collection of the late casino king William Harrah.

Considered one of the top 10 collections in the world, the cars are arranged in chronological order through a series of halls, and feature everything from tiny Fiats to a giant polished-copper Rolls Royce. There are cars owned by celebrities and presidents and, for the Kiwi fans, a McLaren M20 Can-Am race car.

Exiting town, California Route 341 climbs away from civilisation and most mobile coverage for quite some time. The first stop is Virginia City, founded after a silver discovery in 1859, it boomed, grew to a population of more than 15,000 and then dwindled, now home to 850. It has a tourist-focused yet charmingly rundown main street of casinos, cafes and original boardwalks.

Back on the main highway, I drove past Carson City and the lovely Topaz lake. Bridgeport was the next stop, a classic American road-town before I took a worthy detour to the abandoned ghost town of Bodie. It is up one of the most amazingly constructed roads I have seen. Sadly the last three kilometres are not - being rock-strewn gravel - just fine for a rental car, but a step to far for the Scion FR-S.

Back on the highway and you come across the spectacular Mono Lake. This brine lake has had much of its source water diverted south to Los Angeles, lowering levels and exposing alien landscapes of limestone structures.

The town of Lee Vining at its southern edge plays an important role as the inland entrance to the enormous Yosemite National Park, and a drive up to the park entrance - the peak of our trip at 2987m - is well worth it. The road climbs along the edge of a huge valley, cresting to a series of man-made lakes, producing picture-perfect reflections. The log-constructed entrance and ranger office is bound to produce a few memories of Yogi Bear.

Elevation like this is rarely seen on roads in New Zealand - our highest official highway is the Crown Range at a little over a third this altitude. The height had a significant and notable effect on the Scion FR-S's 2-litre boxer engine, and the calculations show that at our highest point we had lost 44 of our much needed 149kw. The loss in performance was noticeable - inclines once tackled in fifth or sixth required us to row down the sweet transmission to third or fourth. The engine and exhaust note took on a distinctly different tone.

Being one of the warmer months I was able to take California Highway 120 - which is closed much of the winter. This runs through forest along the edge of Mono Lake, before heading into the desert landscapes of so many Westerns. Straight smooth roads and wide valleys that take 20-30 minutes to cross.

Tonopah is home to a mine and a missile-firing range, and you may be confused approaching town by the giant tower in the distance to the left of the road that it is part of that facility - it is actually the centre of a giant solar-collector power station.

From here, you can make a relatively straight run to Death Valley. From Tonopah, you drop more than 2km to the valley, which is back across the border in California. The valley is the lowest point in North America and Furnace Creek, which features palm-fringed resorts - the "reliably" hottest, driest place on Earth, with a temperature of 56.7C recorded in July this year.

Out of Death Valley, you soon rejoin the main highways on your final run into Las Vegas. And what happens there, well, will not be appearing on the pages of Driven.

- NZ Herald

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