This one is highly recommended for scenery, outdoor adventure, and just plain wow factor on some amazing, twisty, scenic roads that make Northern California a great place for any car-person.
Starting from the San Francisco Bay Area, we went East on I-580 to Highway 205 and Highway 120 through Manteca and on toward Sonora. Driving through Escalon, and Oakdale isn't very twisty or scenic, per se, but it gives you a great glimpse of why California is a great agricultural state! As you enter the Sierra Foothills around Knights Ferry, things start to get fun. Plenty of open road if you aren't here on a holiday weekend. Just before you get to historic towns of Jamestown and Sonora, you have a choice to make to get over the Sierras to the East side where you will eventually join Highway 395 South to Mammoth Lakes. You can either take the Northern route across the Sonora Pass and Highway 108, or you can take the Southern Route using Highway 120 through Yosemite National Park (note that this route does not take you through Yosemite Valley itself, but it does take you through Tuolumne Meadows). Here's the good news: whichever route you take, you can take the other one on the way back! The time difference is maybe 15 minutes, depending on traffic. During the summer when Yosemite is crowded, Highway 1008 will be your faster route.
For our early September trip, we chose Highway 108 because I love Pinecrest Lake and the Sonora Pass! We took a short detour to check out quaint Jamestown, then stopped in Cold Springs for lunch at a place called Mia's (great sandwiches and pizza!). Eat up here, because it's the last food you will see for a couple hours! Highway 108 from Strawberry all the way over the Sierra's is a visual treat and has many amazing sights.
Highway 395 South past Mono Lake is an interesting visual after being in the green forest, and arriving in Mammoth Lakes after a few hours of driving, we were happy to find some great beer at the Mammoth Brewing Company in the "Village" at Mammoth
The next day, we hiked from Red Meadows to Rainbow Falls, to the Lower Falls and back to the Devil's Postpile, about a 5 mile hike at 9000 feet. We earned our meal that day! After enjoying another evening at the Village at Mammoth Lakes, we drove up through the Lakes at Mammoth, Namely Lake Mary, Lake George, Lake Maime, Horseshoe Lake, and Twin Lakes. Great camping spots and beautiful lakes.
We returned home via Higwhay 120, which may be slightly more picturesque than Highway 108, but not much (plus, you have to pay $30 to enter Yosemite behind a sometimes long line of cars at the entrance). Expect a slow drive in certain areas, but it is worth it. Tenaya Lake is a popular spot, as is Tuolumne Meadows. Lots of great day hikes here! We continued out of Yosemite via Highway 120, which also afforded us a view of the remnants of the devastating Rim Fire, which burned over 250,000 acres around Yosemite in 2013 (the third largest wildfire in California history). It is hard to see some of the areas so hard hit, but also nice seeing some areas making a comeback! We stopped in small, charming Groveland for some extremely tasty food at a local restaurant called Cocina Michoacana.
Then we headed back home where the car needed a good washing after a very dusty road trip. We covered roughly 500 miles covered in a few days, and as always, the 2012 McLaren MP4-12C performed flawlessly. Along the way, the new blue color made lots of fans, and every gas stop and photo stop was usually greeted with many questions of "what is that?"
Bottom Line: fantastic road trip for a weekend, and we were happy we picked tree first weekend after Labor Day, when things are a bit slower up in this popular part of the world! Go enjoy!