Sierra Nevada: In the shadow of tall mountains on Route 395

Oh, the places you'll go and the things you'll see ... when you drive along the back side of the Sierras. The places pull in sojourners like magnets: Lone Pine, Bishop, Bodie, Mono Lake, Mt. Whitney. The things overwhelm: tallest mountain in the continental United States; oldest living things on earth; a relocation "camp" that held 10,000 Japanese Americans for more than three years. This less-traveled, well-maintained highway through the backside of the Sierra Nevada is U.S. Highway 395, designated the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway. The byway part stretches from the Ridgecrest area of Southern California to Carson City, Nevada. Let's take a road trip.

Long Pine Area

The seventy miles from Ridgecrest to Lone Pine are an introduction to varied scenery. The flat sagebrush-covered lands become high desert as they rise to 4,000 feet, with a dry lakebed and mountains bordering the road. Traveling in mid-March you find warm days with white snow covering the steep mountains peaks. Back again in late June, the hot weather opened roads into the mountains and the gray mountaintops had only traces of snow.

Just south of Lone Pine, at the junction of Highway 395 and State 136, the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center makes a good stop. Among the complimentary materials, "Scenic 395" is invaluable. Many regional books are for sale, some by John Muir who labeled the 400-mile-long Sierra Nevada "The Range of Light." Patient clerks answer questions about roads and museums. In June, Whitney Portal Road, closed in winter, was open.

It's a good road for an ordinary car the clerk said, but don't try it in a big motor home or trailer. The thirteen miles from Lone Pine to Whitney Portal would take about 45 minutes.

Before tackling the road, we checked into the Dow Villa Motel. Part of the motel is a vintage 1920s hotel, with lobby displays of movie memorabilia from the days when John Wayne and Roy Rogers made Westerns nearby. Where? The movies were shot amidst the weathered, red-hued granite rocks of the Alabama Hills. Whitney Portal Road cuts through those hills. We were ready.

As our Buick sedan climbed almost a mile in altitude up the jagged face of the Sierra Nevada, wide vistas of the desert flatlands and the Inyo Mountains to the east came into view. Mt. Whitney showed its peak in many spots. The switchbacks aren't bad . . . for the passenger. Whitney Portal has a rustic store with cafe, a tree-shaded Forest Service campground, picnic site and a roaring waterfall. Registered hikers come here to climb the Mt. Whitney Trail, 11 miles to the mountaintop.

Manzanar and Independence

Nine miles north of Lone Pine, history comes alive at the Manzanar Relocation Center. Japanese Americans, most from Southern California, were interned there from 1942 -1945. The National Park Service chose Manzanar from 12 camps throughout the West to tell the story of reactions to panic in a democratic country.

Manzanar National Historic Site takes in more than 800 acres of scraggly trees and scrub brush accented with barracks markers and remains of rock gardens. The park service has a new Interpretive Center and museum in the original dining hall-auditorium.

Rangers lead walking tours on designated days. Visitors will also find self-guided driving brochures at the guardhouse entrance. We drove and also walked throughout the camp. We felt the heat, the dry wind, the barrenness of the land, and the confinement of the forbidding barbed-wire fences.

Independence, six miles north, was settled in the 1860s. This is a small walking town -- mosey past historic buildings and houses, so close to the tall Sierras, and find the outstanding Eastern California Museum.

The Bishop Area

The Scenic Byway bordered by mountains and wildlife areas passes Big Pine and continues on to Bishop. For those with time, Highway 168 at Big Pine leads east and up 10,000 feet into the White Mountains to the oldest living things on earth. Those Bristlecone Pines have been growing for more than 4,000 years.

Bishop, the metropolis of the region where Highway 395 turns into a four-lane road, has abundant choices of restaurants, shops, galleries and museums. The Laws Railroad Museum captured us for a half day.

The original 1883 train depot, a 1909 engine and cars, and weathered wooden buildings make up the museum. Each building has a collection theme such as a ntique stoves, medical paraphernalia, tools and musical instruments.

Lee Vining Area

Highway 395 ascends the Bishop grade and crosses the 7,000-foot Sherwood Summit, decorated with yellow wildflowers in summer. June Lake, another scenic site on the Byway map, is a refreshing 15-mile loop with three lakes, woodsy cabins and rustic resorts.

In March, on our first trip, a freezing wind tore through Lee Vining. But in warm June, we stopped to follow signs to Mono Basin Historical Museum, an old schoolhouse. It was closed that day, but worth the short detour for the setting close to Mono Lake with its tufas and birds.

Mono Lake first comes into view from Highway 395 approaching Lee Vining. Its limestone tufa spires look like bizarre beings from a science fiction movie. Mono Lake is also a bird habitat and a flyway for 300 bird species.

Bridgeport, Bodie and Carson City

Highway 395 passes through Bridgeport, which offers fishing and historic sites. Eleven miles from the highway, a dirt road leads to Bodie State Historic Park. This Old West ghost town that was a mining town in the 1880s is worth the dusty drive. We paused for a half-day in Carson City, Nevada to visit the Nevada State Museum housed in a former governor's mansion. Entrance rooms hook the visitor with money--old coins and gold nuggets. Three floors of history follow, but a sub-basement mine steals the show. Wood planks hold back crumbling earth from walkways mixed with iron rails. Displays, inset into the walls, light up paraphernalia that hauled rock to the earth's surface.

We left Highway 395 in Reno thinking... That is one captivating road to travel.

Nell Raun-Linde, a free-lance writer with a travel specialty, has been published in AAA, Senior, regional, inflight, wine and web magazines, as well as in San Francisco Bay Area newspapers and others in the U.S. She resides in historic Benicia, a small California town, incorporated before the gold rush. An almost-around-the-world traveler has a passion not only for travel but for reading, history and family . . . and drinking wine.

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Updated: July 28, 2019

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