U.S. Highway 395: California’s ‘mother road’

Times Staff Writer

EVERY road sings its own tune. Route 66 is a classic, sometimes raucous ditty from Chicago to L.A.; Highway 1 a twisty ballad to the voluptuous California coast; and U.S. 395 a mandolin-driven ode to the West that evokes images of cowboy boots and roadside diners.

Route 395 is our mother road. Its two-lane panoramas of the Eastern Sierra — especially from Lone Pine to Mono Lake — are an invitation to shift into a simpler time. The miles are marked by a beef jerky shack, a Dutch-style bakery, a herd of grazing elk, a courthouse that dates to the Civil War and a snowcapped mountain range born in the Jurassic.

And this time of year, less than a week before trout season begins (Saturday), 395 is the gateway to the state’s premier fishing lakes and streams.


In late March — well before the anglers, the peak baggers, the photographers and the Tahoe-bound tourists hit the road — I took a few days to explore the character, the vistas and the fishing holes of this backcountry treasure. These are a few of my snapshots.

1. Whitney Portal

The two-lane paved road winds and climbs past desert sage, gray rock formations and deep green pine forests. I leaned forward and looked through the car’s windshield at the famed peak. From the road, the summit — at 14,495 feet, the tallest peak in the Lower 48 — looks close enough to hike in a couple of hours. That’s the appeal — and hazard — of Mt. Whitney.Although it was spring, a thick layer of snow blanketed the trail head. At the Whitney Portal campground, a waterfall had become a cascade of ice. The A-frame Whitney Portal Store, where hikers carbo-load on pancakes the size of Frisbees, was closed for the season, but it would be packed again in a few months. And I was told that bright green and yellow leaves would border the cascade by the time the spring thaw started splashing over the black granite slabs. The smell of pancakes and pine trees would fill the air.

At Lone Pine, take Whitney Portal Road 13 miles west to the Whitney Portal campground. Mt. Whitney Ranger Station, (760) 876-6200

2. Alabama Hills

Giant, worm-like creatures are tunneling under the desert, gobbling up the simple folks of a small Nevada mining town. Sure, the premise to the 1990 horror movie “Tremors” was laughable, but the location was perfect. The Alabama Hills near Lone Pine cover 30,000 acres of desert, festooned with Dr. Seuss-world rock formations. Even without special effects, these rocks look like molten monsters, granite boils and bulbous faces, the result of a cataclysmic uplifting more than 100 million years ago and shaped by centuries of wind, rain and snow.

More than 400 movies and television shows, including 1939’s “Gunga Din” and 1960’s “Hell Bent for Leather” have been filmed here. I didn’t recognize any backdrops, but I spotted a few places ideal for an ambush.

Take Whitney Portal Road, west from U.S. 395 in Lone Pine and turn right on Movie Road.


3. Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum

of Lone Pine Film History

The only real night life in Lone Pine — besides a couple of saloons — is at the local film museum. I pulled into town on a Thursday night and found a crowd gathered for a showing of “North to Alaska,” starring John Wayne. Unfortunately, the projector broke before the show started.

I took in the exhibits of movie costumes, posters and props, including swords from “Gunga Din,” Fatty Arbuckle’s belt from “The Round-Up,” a Fender guitar designed for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, a life-size stagecoach and, my favorite, a killer earthworm from “Tremors.”

701 S. Main St., Lone Pine; (760) 876-9909.

4. Season’s Restaurant

The California Beef Council named Season’s one of the top 31 beef restaurants in the state. If eateries were ranked by the views, Season’s would be near the top of the list. At sunset, I found a booth near the entrance. I was tempted to order a Mt. Whitney — coffee with brandy, amaretto, peach schnapps and whipped cream. Instead, I asked for a cold beer and a steak and watched clouds swirl and envelop the famous jagged peak as the sky darkened.

206 S. Main St., Lone Pine; (760) 876-8927.

5. Dow Hotel

Since the 1920s, the Dow Hotel in Lone Pine and, later, the adjacent Dow Villa Motel, have hosted stars like Wayne, Rogers, Gene Autry, Errol Flynn and Robert Mitchum, who worked on films in the nearby Alabama Hills. The accommodations range from a single room with a communal bathroom down the hall to a suite with a whirlpool tub, a wet bar and a plasma-screen TV. Hollywood still loves this place. When a movie production is in town, the Dow gets the booking.

310 S. Main St., Lone Pine; (760) 876-5521.

6. Manzanar National Historic Site

A wooden tower. A few stone guard stations. A pale green gymnasium. These few buildings are all that remains of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, where 10,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were interned during World War II because of their ancestry. When the center closed in 1945, many of the original buildings were sold and moved throughout the Owens Valley and used as apartments, homes, a bar and grill and even a Boy Scout meeting hall. But you can’t conceal the past that easily.

In the interpretive center, I saw how those interned at Manzanar played, studied, farmed and worshiped. Late in the day, I drove around the 814-acre site to the cemetery, where six graves remained. Coins and bits of shiny porcelain were scattered on the graves, a tradition to honor the dead. On a white, spired memorial, silhouetted by the Sierra Nevada peaks, I studied the black Japanese characters etched on the front. “Soul consoling tower,” they read.

Eight miles north of Lone Pine, look for the signs on the western side of U.S. 395. Manzanar National Historic Site, (760) 878-2194, .

7. Eastern California Museum

Inside this air-conditioned museum, behind glass cases, I discovered the history of the Owens Valley: handmade baskets, Civil War-era pistols, arrowheads and dog-eared photos of Paiute and Shoshone Indians. It was a stirring education, but the warm morning sun drew me to the Mary DeDecker Native Plant Garden, just outside the museum. I strolled among four-wing saltbush, desert figwort, red columbine, Antelope bitterbrush, lupine and water birch. Crusty lizards darted through the underbrush.

1551 N. Grant St., Independence, three blocks west of U.S. 395; (760) 878-0364, .


8. Mt. Whitney State Fish Hatchery

A school of brawny rainbow trout hovered in the shallow water, so close I could almost reach out and grab one. If only fish were so accommodating when I’m lakeside with my rod and reel.

Instead, I was at the Mt. Whitney hatchery, the historic facility that produces 160,000 pounds of trout annually for lakes and streams from Bishop to Lone Pine. The egg fertilization takes place in the main building, a 1916 granite stone structure that resembles a Swiss chalet. Outside, in long concrete troughs, called raceways, the trout bulk up to a catchable size — at least 12 inches long. I bought a handful of pellets from a coin-operated dispenser and tossed some in. The water swirled and splashed as a fish melee broke out.

About two miles north of Independence, turn west from U.S. 395 to Fish Hatchery Road and follow the signs; (760) 878-2272.

9. Keough’s Hot Springs

South of Bishop, Keough Hot Springs Road seems to lead into a desolate patch of desert at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. But hidden in a cluster of pine and birch trees is an oasis for road-weary travelers. Billed as the largest natural hot springs pool in the Eastern Sierra, Keough’s Hot Springs saw its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s — and it looks it. The structure is weathered, worn and painted Mylanta green. When I got there, kids were splashing in the 90-degree swimming pool under a giant cold-water spray. “Keep it down,” I thought as I soaked in the adjacent 105-degree tub. Still, the tension of a three-hour car ride vanished like steam off the water.

Seven miles south of Bishop, turn west on Keough Hot Springs Road; (760) 872-4670, .

10. Erick Schat’s Bakkery

I made my way through a forest of rolling racks stacked with garlic cheese bread, cinnamon bread, dark volkoren bread, mule bread, beer bread, sourdough, French rolls and pound cake. Deer antlers and brightly painted wooden shoes hung from the walls and ceiling. The smell of yeast, flour, nuts and sugar filled the air. Lots of sugar.

I got a sugar high just walking around the racks. This Dutch-themed bakery has become a tourist magnet. I resisted the draw until my blood-sugar level dipped to critical levels. I walked out with $15 worth of baked goods, including the bakery’s famous Sheepherder Bread.

763 N. Main St., Bishop; (760) 873-7156.

11. Jack’s Restaurant

Before checking out a few fishing spots, I stopped by Jack’s Restaurant in Bishop for breakfast, a 60-year-old fishing tradition. If this place doesn’t get you in the mood to fish, nothing will.

Mounted trophy fish decorate the walls, and wagon-wheel chandeliers hang from the ceiling. After a Denver omelet and coffee, I mentioned I was looking for a few places to drop a hook. Next thing I knew, two apron-wearing waitresses were rattling off half a dozen of their favorite spots. One of them — a middle-age woman with a tight hair bun — confided that she practiced fly casting into a tire on her front lawn. The town pharmacist walked in and offered his favorite spots. I wondered: How much do you tip for fishing advice?

437 N. Main St., Bishop; (760) 872-7971.

12. Sabrina and South lakes

Snow had closed the road from Bishop into Bishop Creek Canyon. I had hoped to scout Sabrina and South lakes, two mountain pools cradled between 10,000- to 11,000-foot snowcapped mountains. Both have a reputation for great high-altitude fishing, accessible by car once the snow melts. I drove back to Bishop, where I heard more about these spots. A park ranger in Bishop raved about the drive to South Lake.

Once you climb into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the road cuts past small pinyon and juniper trees. Near the lake, the ranger said, the giant Jeffery and lodgepole pines loom overhead. At the lake, aspens and water birch crowd the shores. “In the fall, the aspens turn yellow and red, and it looks like the whole lake is on fire,” she said.

At Mac’s Sporting Goods on Main Street, a longtime fisherman said both lakes are bountiful with rainbow, brown and brook trout. He suggested night crawlers, Power Bait and salmon eggs to hook the fish. I set my mental alarm clock for June. The snow should be long gone by then.

From U.S. 395 in Bishop, take California 168 west for about 20 miles.

13. Tom’s Place Resort

The scraggly bearded man running the general store looked like a crusty prospector from an old western. The store, a small ‘50s-era diner, the hotel and an adjacent bar make up the resort. The proprietor handed me a room key and a copy of a fishing map — circa 1946 — for nearby Rock Creek. He told me that the diner shuts down at 8 p.m. and that the bar closes whenever he decides to throw out the last customer. My small room was sparse but clean. No television. No mini fridge. No problem. I studied my hand-drawn, black-and-white map and prepared to wake early the next morning to scout Rock Creek.Twenty-two miles north of Bishop, take Crowley Lake Drive south, then take the first right;

(760) 935-4239.

14. Rock Creek

This shallow, fast-moving creek flows in and out of Rock Creek Lake. West of the lake, the creek slips in and out of seven smaller lakes, one every quarter of a mile. Half a dozen campgrounds with picnic tables and cooking grills line the creek. Aspen, pine and water birch border the water, which is crystal clear and no more than 2 feet deep.

Pockets of deep eddies create prime fishing spots that draw anglers back year after year. The rocks in the bed are rusty brown. Red Mountain, snowy and tall, rises in the west. Wheeler’s Ridge, distant and bare, looms to the east. Sit quietly on the banks and watch rainbow, brown and brook trout dart about, snapping at surface insects.

About 15 miles north of Bishop, take Rock Creek Road west. Stop at any campsite along the way or continue nine miles to Rock Creek Lake.

15. Crowley Lake

During last year’s trout opener, about 7,000 anglers converged on Crowley Lake. It was so crowded that people joked you could walk across the lake — from one boat deck to the other. I looked at this 5,000-acre, man-made pond and wondered how such an ugly pool of water could be so popular. The shores were bare and nearly devoid of shade. It looked as if a zillion gallons of dirt-brown water had been dumped into a desert crater.

The reason for Crowley Lake’s popularity? It is the biggest, most accessible lake in the valley. The boat launch is a stone’s throw from U.S. 395. Second, the fish are plentiful — big, feisty rainbow, brook, cutthroat and brown trout. Each August, the state dumps half a million of them into this ugly lake; each year, the lake gives up about 50,000 fish on opening day alone. Now, those are beautiful numbers.

From Bishop, go 30 miles north on U.S. 395, turn east on Crowley Lake Drive.

16. Convict Lake

From 395, I turned west on Convict Lake Road, a few miles north of Crowley Lake, and headed toward a bland, sage-covered hill. But the view I saw as I rounded the hill was anything but bland. My eyes locked on a deep blue, mile-long lake, bordered by white-barked aspen and birch trees, in the saddle of Mt. Morrison and Laurel Mountain. When the wind is calm, the blue waters offer a mirror image of the dramatic, serrated peaks.

When I fished Convict Lake a few years ago, the view was so stunning that it distracted me from the fishing. The lake, named after an 1871 prison break in Carson City, Nev., that ended nearby with the death of a sheriff, is stocked with hefty brown, rainbow and trophy-size Alpers trout. A trail that circles the northern shore leads to several backcountry lakes with much prettier-sounding names, such as Genevieve, Dorothy and Cloverleaf.

About six miles north of Crowley Lake, turn west on Convict Lake Road. Inyo National Forest, (760) 924-5500.

17. Owens River

A cold wind swept across the flat grasslands as the sun broke over the White Mountains to the east. The morning pink faded to blue. My hands were almost too cold to tie on a lure, but I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. I woke up early to have the entire river to myself.

It’s a long sand-bottom river that cuts a serpentine path from north to south. The shallow water moves fast in some spots and swirls and pools in others. There are no trees or brush to snag a cast. Sparrows and wrens twitter in the grass nearby. I cast a line and wished this moment could last forever.

About four miles north of Crowley Lake, take Benton Crossing Road east. After crossing the first bridge, take an immediate left on narrow gravel road and follow the river.

18. Hot Creek Geologic Site

When the kids are getting antsy in the back seat, consider offering this: “Who wants to see a boiling river and steam shooting out of rocks?” It’s really a terrific geology lesson, but you don’t want them to know that.

The Hot Creek site sits a few miles east of 395, near Mammoth-June Lake Airport. I followed Hot Creek Hatchery Road and continued along a gravel road that ended at a parking lot. I hiked down a switchback path until the smell of rotten eggs hit me. I saw billows of steam rise from the creek bed below. This is the result of water seeping down into a chamber of hot magma three miles beneath the surface. The scene is prehistoric. Posted signs warn that the water has scalded and killed swimmers, but when I got to the shore, I spotted a young couple soaking in the bubbling water. Sometimes, the most sensible advice is wasted on youth.

Turn west on Hot Creek Hatchery Road after passing Mammoth-June Lake Airport and go about three miles to a paved parking lot.

19. Mammoth Lakes Basin

The lakes in the basin range in elevation from 8,400 to 9,600 feet and will still be frozen by Saturday’s trout opener. But waiting for these lakes to thaw is like waiting for Christmas morning to open your gifts. Many can’t wait. They strap on snowshoes and drill holes for ice fishing.

Lake Mary, Mamie Lake and Twin Lakes are strung along Mammoth Creek, south of Mammoth Mountain. Towering pine trees shade their shores. Lake Mary is the biggest, but anglers rave about the fishing at Mamie and the twins. They’re still talking about the 20-pound brown trout a Yucaipa man pulled from Twin Lakes in 2000. No need to rough it here. These lakes are easily accessible by car and are within a five-minute drive of the high-end condos, restaurants, coffee bars and hotels of Mammoth Lakes.

From U.S. 395, take California 203 northwest toward Mammoth Lakes until it becomes Lake Mary Road.

20. Silver Lake and June Lake Loop

The June Lake Loop refers to four lakes bordering California 158. They are strung like jewels on a necklace, about 14 miles north of Mammoth. Fishermen debate which of the four — June, Gull, Silver or Grant — produces the biggest bounty, but for me, Silver Lake topped them in sheer beauty.

This 80-acre lake is bordered on the west by a grove of aspens that will shimmer green in the spring and blaze red and yellow in the fall. Jagged 11,000-foot Carson Peak rises from the south and is reflected in the crystalline waters. The bed is mossy green. It’s no wonder film director Frank Capra made his home on the eastern shore in a colony known as Millionaire’s Row. When Silver Lake is at your doorstep, it’s always a wonderful life.

Drive about 14 miles north of the exit for Mammoth Lakes along U.S. 395, turn west on California 158 and continue about seven miles. Look for the Silver Lake Campground on your right.

21. Bodie Ghost Town

Although most of the sights along 395 celebrate what John Muir called the “eternal youth of Nature,” Bodie State Historic Park is a memorial to what has long since died.

Bodie consists of 170 buildings that the state preserves in “arrested decay.” I didn’t get a chance to visit the park during my trip, but an enthusiastic state history interpreter told me that these cold days before summer are the ideal time for a visit. “Right now, it’s so serene, and you can really grasp the brutality of the land, how difficult it was to survive,” she said.

Seven miles south of Bridgeport, take California 270 east for 13 miles; (760)-647-6445.



The 411 on the 395

U.S. 395 covers about 1,300 miles, from California through parts of Nevada to Oregon and Washington state.

1895: A 14,000-mile network of roads — including what would be bits of 395 — is recommended to the California Legislature.

1926: U.S. 395 is born as a federal highway.

1968: U.S. 395 gets trimmed. The roadway once extended south to San Diego, but now Hesperia becomes its southern terminus.

1998: Robert Adams writes a graphic novel of blacktop carnage titled “Highway 395.”

2000: Fred Dryer (of TV’s “Hunter”) produces, stars in and directs the low-budget film “Highway 395.” Nearby routes often become stand-ins.

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