The Best Stops On A Scenic Road Trip From San Francisco To Salt Lake City

If you're in the mood to drive, you can hit up three states, two capitals, and two other well-known U.S. cities on a road trip from San Francisco, California, to Salt Lake City, Utah. The route up I-80 covers 700-plus miles and about 11 hours of driving time. It cuts straight through California's capital, Sacramento, and the "Biggest Little City in the World," Reno, Nevada. Whereas an LA to Las Vegas road trip takes you to two lively cities in the West, the San Francisco to Salt Lake City drive shows you even more of that region beyond the Golden and Silver States. Break it up with a few overnight stays in hotels or RV campgrounds, and you could easily spread the trip out over four days or more, giving you at least 24 hours in each city.

From Alcatraz Island to the Golden Gate Bridge (both of which regularly rank among the most popular U.S. tourist destinations), San Francisco needs no introduction. An Alcatraz tour offers an eerie look into San Francisco's past, but the city's history is also hinted at in the logo of its NFL team. The 49ers are named after the California Gold Rush; on this road trip, you'll be retracing the steps of the original, gold-seeking 49ers in three other cities on the California National Historic Trail. Before hitting the road, you can rent a bike from Parkwide in Golden Gate Park and cycle to Ocean Beach to get your feet wet in the Pacific.

From Sacramento to Reno

On the Old Sacramento Waterfront, you might feel transported to the 19th century as you stroll past historic buildings or take an old-fashioned carriage ride. This is the commercial center where the city first sprang up as trade flourished during the Gold Rush. Next to Huntington & Hopkins Hardware and its recreated storefront, you'll find the California State Railroad Museum, where you can see steam locomotives and take train rides along the Sacramento River. Even more fitting for a road trip is a visit to the California Auto Museum, where you'll see vintage cars on display before piling back into yours again. The State Capitol has a museum under its rotunda, too, and it offers tours through the halls of government.

Across state lines, the glittering neon of the famous Reno Arch still welcomes motorists to the world's "Biggest Little City." The arch, which spans Virginia Street and has a public live webcam feed, was erected in 1927 to promote the first transcontinental highway in the U.S. Reno is actually Nevada's fourth-biggest city, but its outsized reputation stems from its glory days as a gambling hotspot, when it and Vegas had less competition nationwide from places like Atlantic City.

On Tripadvisor, Atlantis is Reno's highest-ranked casino as of this writing. It's the resort with flames dancing from 35-foot torches outside it. Lounging by its indoor atrium pool, you'll be flanked by a rock wall where broken pillars and hanging garden plants evoke an appropriately Atlantis-like grotto.

From Reno to Salt Lake City

If you're not looking to gamble away gas money on this trip, Reno also offers more offbeat activities like falconry encounters with Raptor Adventures. For more cars, check out the National Auto Museum. It's best to stay in the driving mood here since Reno is near the California border, and it's a much longer shot from there to Salt Lake City. You're basically driving all the way across Nevada and halfway into Utah. It takes upwards of seven hours, but when you do it the same day, it rewards you with a variety of landscapes as the scenery transitions from desert to mountains.

Even if you're not Mormon, visiting Temple Square in Salt Lake City can be a rich experience. The neo-Gothic architecture of Salt Lake Temple is an impressive sight, as is the massive organ with 11,623 pipes that rise behind the choir lofts in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Both these buildings were completed in the mid-to-late 1800s. Over in the Cathedral of the Madeleine, you'll find a different strand of religious history: This is a Catholic church with a more Romanesque exterior.

In Salt Lake City, even the public library wows with its towering atrium and curved glass structure, where over 500,000 books reside. Behind its Corinthian columns, the Utah State Capitol also doubles as a trove of art. To ditch the capital and see more of the outdoors in Utah, take the short, scenic alpine drive to Big Cottonwood Canyon.