Since I don’t know you, and don’t know what you’re interested in or what else you may have seen on your trip, I can’t tell you which of these routes you’d enjoy more.
Both routes are scenic, and if this is your first visit to California, I’m sure you’d enjoy either of them. My answer for you would depend on where else you plan to go and what you plan to see on your trip. I’ll just tell you a little about both and maybe that will help you decide.
The Lake Isabella route is about 10 km shorter, but will take maybe 20 minutes longer because much of it is narrow and twisty. The portion just west of Hwy 395 is “high desert” with clusters of Joshua trees. Some of the higher elevations that you’ll see around you have Sierra Nevada type vegetation, including conifers. There are a few historic communities along Hwy 178 before you get to Lake Isabella; probably the quaintest is Onyx. Lake Isabella is a popular water recreation area and the nearby towns have all necessary visitor services. The lake is artificial, created by the damming of the Kern River for flood control, and west of it you’ll be driving along the Kern River Canyon. This is a pretty area, and in April it should be extra nice because of the spring melt.
Red Rock Canyon State Park is a desert landscape. It's a colorful place with rock formations of the kind many people associate with the American Southwest. It has some truly magnificent scenery. In the spring, depending on what kind of winter we have, there could be a beautiful wildflower crop. The rest of the way to Bakersfield is scenic enough; much of Hwy 14 and all of Hwy 58 is freeway, and 58 is usually fairly green. It isn’t too exciting, but there are a few historic sites to be aware of. At Monolith is a large cement plant, which in the 1920s was the largest municipal cement plant in the U.S.; it produced cement used in the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. At Keene are the historic Tehachapi Loop railroad grade and the birthplace and official historic center of the farm labor leader Cesar Chavez.
Based on the fact that you’re coming from Ridgecrest, I’m guessing you’ll have been to Death Valley, and perhaps some of the Utah or Arizona parks. If so, Red Rock Canyon, as beautiful and colorful as it is, might be anticlimactic. OTOH, if you came from the north and saw Yosemite as well as Death Valley, the Lake Isabella water and mountain landscapes might be anticlimactic. However, for the rest of the way to the coast, there won’t be any more major river canyons to go through, so Lake Isabella is more of a contrast between the Mojave Desert where you were, and the southern San Joaquin Valley and the Coast Range, a lower and drier mountain range than the Sierra Nevada.
For a trip from Ridgecrest to San Simeon, I’m presuming you plan to do it in a day, meaning you won’t need to reserve lodgings in advance. Even if you plan an overnight stop on the way, your choice of either Lake Isabella or Red Rock won’t affect that plan because they both go to Bakersfield, and you wouldn’t be planning to stop over that soon. So you don’t need to make up your mind now. Other people will give their opinions, and you can continue to do internet research about the areas to see which one might have more to interest you.
Thank you so much for this information, it is really helpful.
This is our first time in the USA, and you're right we're in Ridgecrest overnight because we're going from Vegas to Ridgecrest via Death Valley. At a high level our trip is;
San Fran - 3 days
Fly to Vegas
Vegas - 5 days including 1 day Grand Canyon
Vegas to Ridgecrest via Death Valley
Ridgecrest to San Simeon - Hearst Castle
San Simeon to Hollywood via State Route 1
Hollywood - 4 days
Anaheim - 5 days
Then we board a cruise from LA - that goes around the Hawaiian Islands and makes one stop in Mexico for 14 days.
Overall we'll be in the US for about 35 days.
Someone else told me that the Lake Isabella route is quite windy and narrow which means it'd take longer compared to the Red Rock Canyon trip, but google maps tells me that the Lake Isabella route is the quickest. So I'm not quite sure on that one...
Again thank you soooooo much for such comprehensive information. I really do appreciate it a lot.
Yes, much of the Lake Isabella route is curvy, but it's all paved and perfectly safe. Don't make any life-or-death decisions relying on Google, Mapquest, or any other map program, They take numbers and create results, but they don't have a mind of their own and can't think and interpret the way we can. I've been on both these roads many times and so have other real people here at TA, so consult Google and then confirm with us.
For the trip from Las Vegas to Ridgecrest, you'd get the most out of your visit to Death Valley if you could spend a night in the park. This would give you a more authentic experience, with the natural surroundings, the chance to take nature walks at night or early in the morning, sunset and/or sunrise in the park, and dark night skies.
Also, I hope you have an overnight stop planned for San Simeon or nearby. From Ridgecrest to San Simeon, regardless of the route you take, it will be 400 km or more, and it will probably take closer to 5 hours than 4 because you will be on mostly rural roads rather than freeways. From San Simeon to Hollywood is a similar distance. So you couldn't drive from Ridgecrest to San Simeon, see Hearst Castle, and drive to Hollywood on the same day.
Thanks for your advice!
Yep, we are planning on staying overnight in San Simeon and either doing Hurst Castle the afternoon we arrive or the next morning before we leave to drive to Hollywood.
I'll look some more on staying at Death Valley overnight.
With that long in Las Vegas I suggest to stay for a night at GCNP south rim and experience sunset and sunrise www.grandcanyonlodges.com
Also 4 days Hollywood and 5 days Anaheim seem rather long to me but that's your choice of course. You also miss one of the most scenic coastal stretches in the world: hw1 between Carmel and Cambria. April is a great time for Death Valley and I 2nd FR's advice to stay there. 178 is a great route towards Bakersfield. On the way to San Simeon you also will be driving via many wineries near Paso Robles.
Lake Isabella isn't all that scenic, as I recall, but the drive along the Kern River is more scenic than Hwy. 58- Tehachapi Pass (though you can see the train tracks loop over themselves below you east of Tehachapi itself). With an extra hour or so, you could take the Kern River road to Hwy. 14, head south to Red Rock Canyon (walk around or just drive by), then backtrack part way, cut over to the old mining town of Randsburg and nearby Johannesburg, then take Hwy. 395 to Ridgecrest. www.ghosttowns.com/states/ca/randsburg.html
Randsburg is not a usual stop for tourists, though the Maturango Museum is interesting. http://www.maturango.org/ If your timing is right, you might hit one of the museum's guided trips to the petroglyphs within the borders of the China Lake naval weapons center.Edited: 28 October 2012, 13:23
Sorry, in #2 I meant Ridgecrest is not . . .
Thanks for hose Ridgecrest suggestions :)
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