Driving for the pure fun of the road is one of my secret pleasures. Speeding along a highway going no particular place, windows down and the wind blasting my face, is an indulgence I usually choose not to resist.
And of all the roads in my life, U.S. 395 is like a love interest that I never quite get enough of.
Highway 395 is one of California’s great scenic routes, skimming the edge of the Mojave Desert and climbing up the Owens Valley of water-war infamy and into the Eastern Sierra as it cuts into Nevada. Still two lanes wide for long stretches, the road passes through groves of spiky Joshua trees, quirky desert outposts and awesome volcanic displays.
It’s the only highway in the country where you drive in a desert between two opposing ranges of 14,000-foot peaks. If you’re lucky, as I was on my recent three-day drive, an afternoon thunderstorm will lighten the air and entertain the senses.
Admittedly, the terrain is not to everyone’s taste. When I declare my periodic urge to drive up 395, some friends groan about too many miles of desert sameness and bad road food. Skiers who race up to Mammoth Mountain several times a year come to loathe the highway. Only those who rarely get to the high desert fully appreciate the soft colors and the carved granite face of the High Sierra looming above the road.
On this foray, with some of my favorite driving partners, I took the time to explore historic and volcanic sights I usually speed past. From Los Angeles the preferred route is up California 14 to Mojave, the wind-swept junction town where railroads and highways meet in a desertscape of fast-food outlets, semitrucks and aging motels. Those 747s parked on the edge of town are no mirage--a ghost fleet of mothballed jets stored at the local airfield until the airlines find buyers for them.
At the second stoplight, we swung north and followed Route 14 up the desert through rugged Red Rock Canyon State Park. Just before the turnoff to Lake Isabella, a white cross marked where a 1940 accident claimed Father John J. Crowley, the so-called “Desert Padre” who helped bring tourism to the area. After Highway 14 is absorbed into U.S. 395, a large water tower proclaiming “Hub Cap Capital of the World” was enough reason to stop and investigate Pearsonville.
There were acres of gruesomely twisted truck and bus carcasses--a junkyard of sunbleached highway wrecks--but not the mountain of runaway hubcaps I imagined. Inside a dusty trading post packed with old bottles and knickknacks, I had to ask: “So where are they?” Patiently, the storekeeper nodded toward a gleaming white building. A peek inside revealed thousands of wheel covers, cataloged and stacked neatly on shelves. Curiosity sated, I returned to the highway.
A landmark for me on 395 has always been Little Lake, the site of a burned-out lodge with a Confederate flag flying atop it. The region’s turbulent geology begins to reveal itself here, and the far edge of the private lake sloshes against a black volcanic cliff. A few miles north, a cone of red cinders rises beside the highway. A dirt road around the south side of the mound leads to a lava gorge and a landmark known as Fossil Falls.
A faint line at the base of the mountains rising west of the highway gives away the other great force that shaped this landscape. The 230-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct, built across the desert by William Mulholland, began siphoning water out of the Owens Valley in 1913. Irrigated farms and apple orchards once dotted the valley floor, but now it’s covered in a dry blanket of sagebrush, creosote and rabbit brush.
Now the L.A. Department of Water and Power is the biggest landholder along 395, a source of great local resentment, but also the reason that in a state where outlet malls and other sprawl seem to pop up in unlikely places, the views here remain as wide and unobstructed as ever. The DWP forbids any new use that competes for water. Even billboards are rare.
About two hours from Los Angeles, the desert breaks and tall old cottonwoods appear along the highway. Horses and cattle graze in the only green pastures seen for miles. This is Olancha, a former stagecoach station with creeks and shallow wells not controlled by the DWP. In this part of the Owens Valley, some ranches remain in private hands, including the Cabin Bar in nearby Cartago, bought by Anheuser-Busch for the water rights to ensure a supply to its Van Nuys brewery.
I stopped for lunch in Olancha at my usual spot, the Ranch House Cafe. Mounted ducks and a stuffed black bear give the cafe an authentic atmosphere, and the sandwiches are no worse than elsewhere along 395. Only later did I discover a surprising alternative, the Still Life Cafe, run by a French couple who promise “gourmet food with a French accent.” The day’s menu, written on a blackboard, and the Spanish melody playing were enough to ensure a stop here next time.
Being keen to explore, I turned east on California 190 to circle the alkaline flat that used to be Owens Lake. Nothing feeds the bitter feelings toward Los Angeles more than the now dry lake, which once filled 100 square miles, an area larger than San Francisco, and carried barges loaded with ore from the Cerro Gordosilver mine. After the DWP took the Owens River to fill the aqueduct, the lake dried up, baring a bed of alkali sediment that winter winds kick into dust clouds that the EPA says are among the nation’s worst air pollutants.
A good vantage point to overlook the dry lake bed is at Dirty Socks Hot Spring, known for its foul smell, but my goal was a patch of dust-blown houses in Keeler on the east shore. Keeler was once a busy lakeside town and the southern terminus of the Carson and Colorado Railroad. Now, an ironic sign points visitors to “Keeler Beach.” The old railroad depot and a mill are still standing, along with a post office and homes for a few dozen remaining residents.
Where the lake loop rejoins Highway 395, a visitor center offers maps and books about the region, restrooms and water. There is also a good view of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48 states. It is surrounded by closer peaks that look more impressive, but someone will usually help point out Whitney.
For a better view, drive a few miles into Lone Pine and take the Whitney Portal Road west out of town. It winds through the Alabama Hills, backdrop for many Western movies and inspiration for the annual Lone Pine Film Festival, and climbs steeply into the High Sierra. At the top, 13 miles from town, are creeks, trail heads and picnic areas in the trees. Lone Pine itself has a pretty good view of the east face of the Sierra, which rises 10,000 feet above the town. Gas stations, cafes, soft ice cream stands and some interesting architecture make Lone Pine a good place for a break. Just north of town, a sign marks the grave site for 16 victims of the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake, one of the strongest to hit California.
Nine miles up the highway, a stone guardhouse standing alone in the desert on the left marks the entrance to the former Manzanar relocation camp, where 10,000 people of Japanese descent, many of them Americans from Los Angeles, were confined during World War II. On first glance, the site looks empty, but foundations of long-demolished barracks can still be found in the brush.
To make a more emotional connection, I drove another 0.8 mile north on the highway and turned west on an unmarked dirt road. After another 0.8 mile, the road bears left and leads to a white obelisk hidden behind a windblock of trees. This was the camp’s cemetery marker--individual gravestones were not used. Japanese symbols on the tower read “Memorial to the dead.”
In the next town of Independence, the Inyo County seat, the Eastern Sierra Museum has a detailed exhibit on Manzanar, as well as an array of local artifacts: Indian baskets, a fossilized mastodon bone, arrowheads and paraphernalia from Camp Independence, a U.S. Cavalry outpost established nearby in 1862.
Bishop, with a population of about 10,000, is the largest town in Owens Valley and a logical overnight stop for a leisurely drive. Motels are numerous, a good thing because the Best Western Creekside Inn fouled up my reservation and left me roomless on a sold-out Saturday night. Fortunately, the desk staff found lodging next door at the Outdoorsman and graciously offered free use of the heated pool, which was my reason for stopping after a dusty day on the road.
A few years had passed since I last explored Bishop, and one of its most charming eccentricities--diagonal parking along Highway 395 in the town center--was no more. Now four lanes of traffic moved efficiently past such landmarks as the Sportsman Cafe and Schat’s Bakery. On the edge of town was progress of a different sort: the Paiute Palace casino.
Leaving Bishop, the highway climbs an ancient volcanic flow into the Long Valley Caldera, the Eastern Sierra’s most impressive volcanic feature. The 9-by-19-mile oval basin was left by an ancient explosion, many times more forceful than the Mt. St. Helens eruption. The caldera encompasses Mammoth Mountain, several smaller volcanic domes and cones and Crowley Lake, a DWP-owned reservoir popular with trout anglers.
Mono County is rich enough in sights to spend several days exploring. Lodging is available in June Lake, Lee Vining or Bridgeport, but we made base at the Snowcreek Resort in Mammoth Lakes to take advantage of its health club. It was also a good choice on the culinary scale. The Inn at Convict Lake, five miles south, has been a favorite stop along 395, offering fresh fish and a deep wine list in a cozy old lodge, and it did not disappoint. In Mammoth Lakes, Cervinos is an Italian newcomer with a gorgeous view of the caldera and some nice touches.
Some of the locals seem finally able to accept their lot as the heart of a significant volcanic area. A shop in town calls itself Volcano Clothing, and a U.S. Forest Service naturalist devoted her whole evening campfire program to the area’s volcanic attractions--assuring us that no eruption was imminent. The ranger station in town provides printed updates on seismic activity and maps of volcanic sites.
Not on the map is one of the freshest and starkest reminders, located at Horseshoe Lake. About 100 acres of pines are bleached a ghostly gray, either dead or dying from carbon dioxide gas recently noticed exuding from inside Mammoth Mountain. Also not on the map are the Inyo Craters, at the end of a mile-long dirt road off the Mammoth Lakes Scenic Loop. A short walk through Jeffrey pines leads to the lip of two nicely funnel-shaped craters.
From there we stocked up on water and drove past the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery for another 2.3 miles along a dirt road. At the bottom of a gorge is Hot Creek, its banks lined with steaming vents and puddles of scalding water.
Stepping carefully, you can ford the stream and soak in a warm pool where scalding hot and cool water mix. Official signs discourage soaking and warn that some nighttime partyers have died in the treacherous gorge, but half a dozen German tourists were taking the plunge anyway. I usually like to bask in naturally hot water, but I took a pass.
Hot springs scattered around the caldera offer a less involved soak. Locals don’t like outsiders overrunning their favorites, but Web sites and books available in town reveal some choice locations. One of the easiest to find, and largest, sits on a little rise off the Benton Crossing Road. Look for parked cars and be prepared to soak with naked strangers.
Going north from Mammoth Lakes, the highway parallels a valley of pumice deposits and a chain of small volcanoes called the Mono Craters. To explore the region’s most recent eruption, go east on California 120 for 3.3 miles to the turnoff for Panum Crater. A short walk to the top of the rim provides access to its inner plug dome, formed in the last 600 years. From the crater’s lip the view looks across Mono Lake, with its two volcanic islands.
Highway 395 continues north for 800 miles, weaving into Nevada, back into California, then snaking through Oregon and up the eastern edge of Washington state until reaching the Canadian border.
But my Highway 395 trip ends around Mono Lake. If you tire of exploring volcanoes, from Lee Vining, next to the lake, Highway 120 west climbs through spectacular Tioga Pass and in less than 45 minutes will bring you to the gate of Yosemite National Park.
And from 120, down below, there is a clear view of Highway 395, which would carry us home.
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Getting there: U.S. 395 begins in the Mojave Desert near Victorville. From Los Angeles, take the Antelope Valley Freeway to Palmdale; continue north on California 14 through Mojave. The road becomes U.S. 395 near Inyokern.
Where to stay: Roadside motels are concentrated in Lone Pine, Bishop and Lee Vining. One of the most modern is the Best Western Creekside Inn, 725 N. Main St., Bishop 93514, rates: $89-$139; tel. (800) 273-3550. At Snowcreek Resort, 124 Old Mammoth Road, Mammoth Lakes 93546, one-bedroom condos start at $100 with health club and indoor heated pool; tel. (760) 934-3333.
For more information: Go to https://www.395.com/ for regional maps, weather and information; also https://thesierraweb.com/ for listings of lodgings and restaurants. Or call the Mammoth Lakes Visitor’s Bureau, P.O. Box 148, Mammoth Lakes 93546; tel. (888) GO-MAMMOTH. An interagency visitor center at the junction of 395 and California 136, tel. (760) 876-6222, has tourist information and sells books on the area. The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, P.O. Box 429, Lee Vining 93541, tel. (760) 647-3044, has detailed materials.