Starting point: FRESNO Take Hwy. 41 N and enter Yosemite National Park through the South Gate Entrance; soon, you'll arrive at Yosemite Village and The Ahwahnee Hotel. This 1920s lodge is known for its grand public spaces, but we'd book one of the 24 cottages nestled on the grounds. The nearby Valley Visitor Center can help with tour guides, horseback riding, or rafting, and evening programs for stargazing, nocturnal nature tours, and full-moon snowshoe walks.
Two and a half hours southeast you'll find SEQUOIA & KINGS CAN YON NATIONAL PARKS. Enter on CA Hwy. 180 and check into the Wuksachi Lodge, an upscale mountain resort set inside Sequoia—an ideal home base. Your must-see list should include Giant Forest and Grant Grove, where you'll find some of the largest trees in the world. Check the parks' website to see activities listed by season.
Drive south on CA Hwy. 99 around the Sierra Nevada and through BAKERSFIELD, where you can grab lunch at the habit-forming West Coast chain, In-N-Out Burger. Take CA Rte. 58 E to CA Hwy. 395 N. Pull over at the visitor's center just south of the town of Lone Pine. From here, you'll get the best views of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. Go south on 136 and take a detour to Cerro Gordo, a restored (and some say haunted) mining town. Continue on 136 to CA Rte. 190, which will take you through the center of DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK (760-786- 3200, ). Spend the night at Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, situated in the middle of the park. Sights to see in the park itself include Artist's Drive, a paved canyon route with rich colors and rock formations; Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere; and the Devil's Golf Course, which is actually an expansive salt flat. If you visit during the spring you'll also get to witness the annual wildflower extravaganza.
The next day, make your way east into Nevada and over to the Hoover Dam, near the Nevada/Arizona border. Head into Arizona and onto AZ Hwy. 64 N, to the south rim of GRAND CAN YON NATIONAL PARK. There are several in-park lodging options—we like the rustic, 1930s-era Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, a National Historic Landmark with canyon views. Watch the sunset, then enjoy a gourmet dinner at the El Tovar Dining Room, in the historic El Tovar Hotel. Wake up early the next morning to watch the sun rise, then take a class in archaeology, Native American history, and art with the Grand Canyon Field Institute. Or try the "Air Land Sunset Safari" tour with Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters: a 30-minute aerial tour of the canyon; a Jeep safari; and sunset watching on the canyon rim. (Book early for best availability.)
Take US Rte. 64 N to US-89. From the road you'll get great views of the Painted Desert as you head south toward I-40. On the way is the Wupatki National Monument, a collection of ruins occupied by Native Americans about 800 years ago. Take I-40 E to Exit 285, then travel about 20 miles east on Rte. 180 to the south entrance of PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK. The road has many stop-worthy overlooks; it will take you through the park for 28 miles and reconnect to I-40 E. About 30 minutes across the New Mexico border you'll reach GALLUP. Spend the night at the quirky El Rancho Hotel. The 70-year-old hotel was the temporary home of John Wayne and W.C. Fields while they shot movies in the area. For some local Gallup color, try Earl's Restaurant (505-863- 4201), a diner-style establishment where local Native American artists sell their wares while you eat (you can put up a "do-not- disturb" sign if you'd rather focus on your food). Or stop by Richardson's Trading Company to shop for souvenirs like Navajo rugs, horse saddles, and pottery.
After the three-hour drive to SANTA FE, treat yourselves to a stay at La Posada de Santa Fe, a boutique hotel with a celebrated spa. During the spring or summer, take a rafting or kayaking trip down the Rio Grande with Kokopelli Rafting Adventures. Or stroll through some of the many art galleries within walking distance of the hotel, ending at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.