I-80, San Francisco to Salt Lake City
From the oak groves of the Bay Area to the drama of the Utah salt flats, you'll cross a wide variety of terrain as you head from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. Your route will carry you from the City by the Bay, over the Sierra-Nevada Mountains (by way of the famous Donner Pass), down into Reno, Nevada, and across northern Nevada. You'll experience the soothing basin and range Nevada landscape with its long stretches of flat lowlands (the basin) and pretty ridges and upswells (the range). In eastern Nevada, you'll see the border town of Wendover, which has half of its territory in Utah and half in Nevada, then head across the salt flats to the Great Salt Lake.
East of San Francisco
As you leave the Bay Area, be sure to stop off for a sweet treat at the Jelly Belly Factory outside Concord or a tour of the Capitol Building or Governor's Mansion in Sacramento. You can visit the Griffith Quarry Historic Landmark at exit 112 or stop at the historic town of Auburn, a Victorian village in the Sierra foothills that has a fabulous Christmas craft fair.
After you pass Emigrant Gap, you'll find plenty of Sno Parks for tubing, sledding, and snowman building. If you visit in the winter, be sure to stop and stretch your legs -- or throw a snowball or two. The sparkling little town of Truckee is famous for its fishing, rafting, and other outdoor pursuits. Just beyond, you'll find the Donner Pass Ski Area, from which you can make an easy side trip to Lake Tahoe.
Donner Pass is breathtakingly beautiful. For those who know the story, it's hard not to think about the group of California-bound pioneers who were stranded here in the 1800s. Their guide had led them across the salt flats, where the team was repeatedly lost and slowed down, all of which resulted in their getting a late (and tragic) start into the mountains. Most of the group didn't survive the winter, but a few hearty souls actually hiked over and out of the mountains from their final camp near Donner Lake.
The old-fashioned cowboy town of Reno is filled with modern bright lights and lively casinos. Reno is where the basin and range ecosystem starts in earnest. Biologists have described the range areas of this desert as islands for the wildlife that live there. The flat, dry desert stretches of the basins act as an effective ocean, keeping the animals locked on their fertile ranges. Reno is a great place to do a little gaming, catch a show, or enjoy a fabulous dinner.
Be sure not to miss the fun city of Winnemucca with its historic downtown, casinos, mini golf, and the museums with its exceptional wildlife exhibits. There are a number of superb RV parks near Winnemucca, plus western saddle and boot shops where you can get your own ten-gallon hat. Winnemucca is known as the "basecamp to Nevada's backcountry," an area dominated by the stunning Battle Mountain.
This city is famous as the Cowboy Poetry Capital. Every year, a giant cowboy poetry festival is held in this lovely town.
Wendover and the Salt Flats
The curious town of Wendover is where two cultures come together. On the western side, the town sits in Nevada where casinos and gaming are all permitted. Just across the border, the town has a quieter aspect where it reflects the values of Utah.
The brilliant white salt flats of Utah are so perfectly flat, they're used to set land speed records. At the rest areas here, you'll get a great view of this curious land that used to be the base of the ancient Lake Bonneville. Be sure to check out the messages written by past travelers in the salt flats, spelled out with black rocks.