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Great California Road Trips: Fun on the U.S. 395

Driving Whitney Portal Road, just off U.S. 395

The U.S. 395 is a major north-south highway that connects California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington to the Canadian border. It has its southern terminus at Interstate 15 in the middle of nowhere, California, close to the city of Hesperia. While it has its beginning in the dullness of a spectacularly boring part of the Mojave Desert, 395 drives road trippers through some of the most stunning scenery, traversing desert to follow the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains as they travel north. There is much adventure to be had at many points on this highway as you drive from the middle of nowhere to Tahoe and beyond.

First time I ever went up 395 (that I remember anyway) was back in eighth grade. I was a bit of a rock hound, and in October 1995, my dad loaded the family along with my two best buddies into our sedan for what is now called Gem-o-Rama at Searles Lake, in the tiny town of Trona, California, about 20 miles from the desert city of Ridgecrest. Every year, hundreds of mineral lovers descend on the dry lake bed to dig for hanksite, pink halite, borax, and other salt crystals. Hanksite is rare, and can only be found at salt lake beds. The best area for collecting this rare crystal is at Searles Lake. So back in the day, a lifetime ago, we were among the multitude out on the mud flats collecting a nice stash of hanksite and trona, getting dirty and making some fun memories in the process.

I’ve come a long way since that weekend nearly 25 years ago. I now drive up U.S. 395 almost every year when I go to pick up the boys from their annual troop Sierra Trek. Not one to waste an opportunity for adventure, the girls and I will travel and explore points of interest either as day trips, or as we did last year, camp out for a longer exploit. The Tioga Road connects to 395 east of Yosemite and that is typically the route I’ve taken to enter the national park over the summer when California 120 is open. California Route 203, also off 395 in Mono County connects to the popular ski and recreation area, Mammoth Lakes.

A bit off the beaten path is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains. This ancient collection of Pinus longaeva boasts the oldest trees in the world. If you want an adventure up a winding and slightly terrifying road to a magnificent forest of twisted and gnarled trees whose age will make you feel the brevity of our limited time here on Earth, take the 168 turn off 395 for this unique and humbling experience.

Mojave Sunrise

Our 2020 U.S. 395 adventure was this past weekend from time of writing, and involved a full day of driving for me. I dragged Sami out of bed and into our fully pre-packed vehicle to begin our trek at about 4:00 am. There was much to see in a limited time, and as I love driving long distances, this would be a day of fun. I told Sam that we’d do very little hiking, and that she was welcome to sleep in the car. Though even she enjoyed the glorious sunrise over the Mojave Desert as we headed north.

Our first stop was Lone Pine. We grabbed some hot breakfast at the McDonalds, and headed west on Whitney Portal Road to our first planned activity. Mobius Arch is a really cool rock formation in the Alabama Hills at the base of the Eastern Sierras. The area features a landscape of rounded rock formations and stunning views of Mt. Whitney, and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The hike to Mobius Arch on the Arch Loop Trail was short and easy at just under a mile. We had some confusion as to where the arch actually was, but we found some really nice hiking couples and ended up becoming a small group. Together we found the arch, and took turns taking photos and regaling each other with our respective adventures. Sami enjoyed hopping on the rocks, and even a minor slip didn’t scare her enough to stop bouldering. After refilling our water bottles, we continued up Whitney Portal Road to scope out the Whitney Portal Campground, which is where we would be picking up the boys the following morning. I would have liked to have done a hike while up there, but many of the hikes in the area require wilderness permits. There are campgrounds and picnicking areas, but parking is extremely limited in comparison to the volume of hikers, so that really wasn’t possible for us getting up there so late- 8:30 a.m. ‘late.’ So after observing the area and enjoying the mountain views, Sami and I headed back down and headed north on 395 to Bishop.

Bishop, “a small town with a big backyard” is a really neat place and is a gateway for many a Sierra Trek. There are many recreation areas for hiking, backpacking, fishing, and pretty much any outdoor activity that comes to mind. There is also really nice lodging for those whose idea of camping is a rustically luxurious hotel along a bubbling creek (I’m looking at you, Creekside Inn), as well as good food choices. This is where we stopped for fuel and lunch, as we typically would heading up this route, with the intention of stopping at Schat’s for a sweet treat on the way back to Lone Pine later in the day.

Hanging out at beautiful Creekside Inn during our 2018 stay.

After our El Pollo Loco lunch, we hit the road again and continued north another 67 miles into gorgeous Mono County to Lee Vining, and Mono Lake, specifically the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Mono Lake is an interesting place. Located at the base of the Eastern Sierras and the Great Basin, the lake is estimated to be over 1 million years old, one of the oldest in North America. Minerals from freshwater streams feeding the lake flow from the Sierras, and with no outlet, the lake is extremely salty and alkaline. Swimming is permitted in parts of the lake, and with its salinity being over two-and-a-half times that of ocean water, it makes for an unusually buoyant swim. It also made the unusual lake particularly stinky, about two-and-a-half times stinkier than ocean water. Sami did not love the experience, even with all the birds fishing for brine shrimp. It was all I could do to get her to take the short hike along the nature trail to see the beauty of the lake with the calcium carbonate tufas towering over the water. There was no way that she was going to swim in the lake. We had a reservation to go kayaking on the lake two summers ago, but the smoke from the fires at Yosemite prevented that. I’m not sure now how she would have handled that based on her crankiness on this visit, but I’ve heard that it is a fun experience that allows you to see the wildlife of the area.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
Seagulls play in the saline waters

Our next stop was more exciting for Sami, and I got no complaint from her as we headed back south on 395 to the June Lakes Loop, and June Lake Beach. June Lake is a natural subalpine lake at 7621 feet above sea level. It was carved from glacial movement, and is fed by mountain springs in the area. The delightfully cool water was refreshing after the long day of driving. While the beach was fairly busy, it was expansive enough to maintain social distancing, and Sami and I had fun splashing in the shallow blue waters surrounded by magnificent mountains and pine forests.

Too soon we had to leave to head back to Lone Pine. The only consolation was that we stopped in Bishop a second time on the return trip. No visit to Bishop is complete without a treat at Erick Schat’s Bakkery, the Dutch-style bakery famous for its sheepherder bread. While this bread is indeed delicious, this is not usually what we come in for. Schat’s has a mouth-watering selection of sweet treats, such as tarts, cakes, doughnuts, and more. We usually pick one or two (or five) pastries to enjoy in the car, as well as a bucket of butter spritz cookies. We did show some restraint on this trip, purchasing only a tart and a scoop of gelato, and a cappuccino for the drive. We did bring a bucket of cookies home, but escaping with only about $22 worth of damage was a small miracle for us.

The sun sets over Lone Pine behind the Sierra Nevadas.

Lone Pine was once one of my least favorite places in California, second only to Ridgecrest with its blistering heat comparable to the fiery furnaces of hell. However after several visits, it is beginning to grow on me. The views of the Sierras from the Best Western where we usually stay are truly amazing, and there are some nice areas within this tiny town. After picking them up from their trek, we had a picnic lunch for the boys at Spainhower Park on the northern edge of town, and it was pretty perfect, with plenty of shade out of the desert heat and a nice little creek bubbling through it. The Pizza Factory lunch was a delicious tradition we continued at the end of their Sierra hike, and Sami found that in addition to some pretty good pizza, the pasta dishes are well worth a try, especially the fettuccine alfredo, a deliciously cheesy treat. I wouldn’t say Lone Pine, California is on my top ten list, but it has definitely moved up from the bottom five.

Spainhower Park is a Lone Pine oasis, beautifully shaded with a small creek running through it.

This is only a snapshot of the fun that can be had as you travel along U.S. 395. We have had many more adventures on this stretch of highway in California over the years. I hope that as you travel from So Cal up to Tahoe or Reno, that you might make a stop maybe off the beaten road and explore one of the many jewels along 395. Just pick a happy trail and go.

Some things to consider:

My car parked by Mono Lake. We had a brief moment of panic when the ABS light came on, but fortunately I had cell service to check in with my Kia dealer and it shut off after driving a few feet.

There are stretches of highway without services. I always carry a couple gallons of water for drinking or in case of a radiator emergency, as well as a small car repair kit. I recommend carrying enough drinking water and snacks for your party. I also planned fuel and toilet stops accordingly.

I had cell service on the drive and on all of our stops on this year’s trip. There are areas off the main road where signal is weak or nonexistent, so be prepared to be without cell signal if you go down some of the roads, such as White Mountain to the Ancient Bristlecones or Rock Creek. Be prepared for possible emergencies, car and otherwise.

There is so much to see and enjoy along U.S. 395, from the Mojave Desert at sunrise, to the majestic peaks of the Eastern Sierras, to stargazing at night. Be prepared for your specific adventures, and enjoy this amazing drive.

Technically she can say she hiked the Mt. Whitney Trail. One day, we’ll make it to the summit.

For more information and to plan your adventure, visit:

Alabama Hills:
https://www.blm.gov/visit/alabama-hills

Mono Lake:
https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=514
https://www.monolake.org/

June Lake:
https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/232268
https://junelakeloop.org/

Bishop, CA:
https://www.bishopvisitor.com/
https://www.cityofbishop.com/

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