Explore a ghost town. Venture to a sci-fi landscape. Bask in epic mountain scenery. Survey the oldest trees in existence. Scale the tallest peak in the continental U.S. Remember injustices of the past. And that’s just the beginning of an epic road trip on US-395 through Inyo and Mono Counties in California. Making its way through the eastern Sierra Nevadas, highway 395 is full of diverse and interesting points of interest. It is an epic road trip that has something for everyone.
Bodie Historical State Park
Heading south on the US-395, the first stop must be Bodie Historical State Park. If there is a place that earns the title of ghost town, it’s Bodie. A booming gold mining town in the late 1800s, Bodie was finally abandoned in the 1940s. Residents, taking only what they could carry, left behind many artifacts that are still in the buildings today. The result is an eerie yet fascinating time capsule that visitors can stroll through for glimpses of past everyday life. Count on spending at least a few hours at this amazing place.
Location – About 7 miles south of Bridgeport, turn onto SR 270 – 13 miles, the last 3 miles are unpaved.
One of the most amazing roads I’ve ever driven is the Tioga Pass. Talk about jaw-dropping scenery! You’ll wind your way up to the entrance of Yosemite National Park (at the highest point on the road – 9,943 feet). Entering Yosemite, there are gorgeous views of Tuolumne Meadows as you drive to Olmstead Point for a view of Half Dome. If you can handle the elevation (unfortunately, I cannot), there are popular hikes along the route including Cathedral Lakes.
Food Break – when you turn onto the 120 from the 395, on the left is Whoa Nellie Deli, serving up gourmet food. Their burger and fries far surpass your typical service station food.
Location – Just past Lee Vining, turn onto CA-120 W. A fee is required to enter Yosemite National Park.
Without effort, you’ve arrived on another planet when you stop at the Mono Lake South Tufa Area. A short loop trail takes you to the shoreline to witness the strange tufa formations. Made from limestone, the tufas are odd, delicate and beautiful all at the same time. I heard sunrise was the ideal time to visit. It most certainly was! The colors reflected in the still waters with the tufas disrupting the scene – nothing like it! There are toilets at the end of the parking lot and a small fee for parking.
Location – About 5 miles south of Lee Vining, turn onto CA-120 E, then a left onto Test Station Road (unpaved).
Stopping here, you suddenly find yourself in an Alpine Village. The Swiss Alps of California, Mammoth Lakes is the ideal area for hiking, kayaking, and skiing. Unfortunately, many of the trails are above 9500 feet, so I can’t hike them (though I really want to). But what I could take in of the area, it was stunning. The trees, the mountains, waterfalls – just idyllic (have bug spray handy).
While in the area, you could also take in Devil’s Post Pile National Monument and Rainbow Falls. Due to traffic, entry into the monument is only via bus during high season. I got there too late for the bus, so I’ll have to try again another day.
Location – From US-395, turn onto CA-203 W. The Village at Mammoth is 5 miles down the road.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
To see the oldest trees in the world – over 4,000 years old – head over to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. This was a place I was looking forward to visiting, but, upon doing research on the trail length in the forest, I discovered that the Visitors’ Center is at 10,100 feet! So, due to my issues with elevation, I had to pass. But I’ve heard nothing but amazing things from those who have been.
Location – At Big Pine, turn onto CA-168E and follow the signs.
Manzanar National Historic Park
During WWI, the U.S. government interned Japanese Americans at this site. After stopping by the Visitors’ Center, it is a self-guided car tour around the park. Several buildings have been reconstructed so visitors get a feel for daily life in the relocation camp. But the power of the site hits home when you come upon the cemetery. 150 Americans died while interned at the camp. Seven are still buried there. It certainly made me pause and reflect.
Location – About 9 miles north of Lone Pine directly off of US-395. The buildings are open until 4:15 p.m. but one can visit the site any time of the day.
Lone Pine/Alabama Hills
The small but charming town of Lone Pine is the gateway to the Whitney Portal, where you can hike to the summit of the tallest peak in the continental U.S. – Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet. The hike, permit required, is 22 miles round trip with an elevation gain of over 6,000 ft.
If taking a long hike is not your cup of tea (or are unable to handle the heights, like myself), you can drive into the Alabama Hills (just off Whitney Portal Road) and view Mt. Whitney through Mobius Arch. A short hike takes you to this amazing natural arch. And, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself boulder hopping for better views of the Sierra Nevada range towering above you. I love this area! The Alabama Hills have been used in countless Hollywood westerns, and, in town you will find the Lone Pine Film History Museum. This charming museum chronicles the area in films. Paraphernalia from different westerns and their stars are on display. Or, if old westerns are your thing, you can tour the hills and see locations for yourself.
Cottonwood Creek Charcoal Kilns
The remains of these kilns stand as a reminder of when the area was bustling from silver mining. These kilns were loaded with wood that was slow burned over 10 days, turning into charcoal, that was then sent over to the mines. I was iffy on stopping here, but I found the structures fascinating to explore.
Location – About 14 miles south of Lone Pine directly off of US-395. Blink and you’ll miss the small sign indicating the turnoff to the Charcoal Kilns, which are located a mile down a dirt road.
Death Valley National Park
Ok, so it’s quite a big detour (76 miles to Stovepipe Wells) to get to Death Valley from the US-395, but it is well worth it. There are many fascinating wonders to explore in this park. The drive is mostly uphill in beautiful mountainous scenery before descending into the valley.
Location – At Olancha, turn onto Route 190.
Don’t go to Fossil Falls expecting to see fossils or falls – neither are there. Rather, it is the remaining structure of what was a massive waterfall that flowed at the end of the last ice age. The river, that no longer flows in the area, carved odd shapes into the volcanic rock that filled the valley. What remains today is fascinating. A short, easy .21 trail from the car park (there is a vault toilet and picnic tables there, too), leads you to the top of the falls. The lava rock is everywhere in their odd, twisted formations. You can walk around the rim or opt to climb down into the falls. Just use caution as the rocks are quite smooth. I’ve been here twice, and it such a unique and wondrous place.
Location – About 40 miles south of Lone Pine. From the US-395, turn onto Cinder Road, and follow the dirt road for about a mile.
Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch
If you are heading south, the last portion of the US-395 is the least fun of the entire drive – lots of single lane traffic (with few passing lanes) followed by lots of street lights. Rather, finish the trip by getting your kicks on Route 66 and stop at Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch. The place is whacky, odd, whimsical, and just plain fun! Trees and trees made from glass bottles. Each tree has its own different topping – you’ll spot a saxophone, a guitar, sewing machines, rifles, and steering wheels amongst the wild assortment. It is a joyous stop filled with laughs and you leave with a huge smile. It was the perfect end to a perfect road trip.
Location – From US-395, turn onto Shadow Mountain Road and follow it to National Trails, formerly Route 66. After making a right, go 3-miles down the road.
The US-395 is perfect for a long weekend road trip only doing the highlights. Or, you can spend a couple weeks exploring this fascinating area in California. Each time I drive it, I find something new to explore. And, it is always fun to go back and explore old favorites, too. It is one unforgettable epic road trip.