Amazing Eastern Sierra Road Trip

Take an unforgettable drive past aspen-studded lakes, otherworldly landscapes, ghost towns, and more along the stunning Highway 395

Bruce Anderson and Ann Marie Brown
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The road to gold

After hundreds of miles of sagebrush desert, the Eastern Sierra soars 10,000 feet all at once. Heads must be thrown back to take it all in. U.S. 395 traces this vertiginous meeting of desert and mountains. From Lone Pine to Reno, every turnoff seems to shelter another wonder: The ghost town of Bodie. Mt. Whitney. The world’s oldest trees. The tufa towers at Mono Lake. Devils Postpile. And, in the early fall, glimmering, shimmering foliage that rivals anything in New England. Pack up your car and get ready for a road trip through the still-wild West.

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Alabama Hills

A whimsical maze of rounded boulders, golden-hued arches, and badland gullies, the Alabama Hills have been the ideal backdrop for dozens of Westerns. Pick up the Movie Road Self-Guided Tour booklet ($2 suggested donation) in Lone Pine. Take a walk on the Arch Loop Trail to snap photos of 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, highest peak in the contiguous United States, framed within the twisted span of Mobius Arch. lonepinechamber.org.

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Mt. Whitney Restaurant

Hungry? The Mt. Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine offers a range of burgers—bison, elk, ostrich, and, yes, beef. It also has a tasty beer menu that includes such regional favorites as Mojave Red and Golden Trout Pilsner. Black-and-white publicity photos for dozens of western films and actors cover the walls. 227 S. Main St., Lone Pine, CA; 760-876-5751.

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Manzanar National Historic Site

The sprawling desert site was the first of 10 camps used by the U.S. military to confine Japanese Americans and their families during World War II. A marker near the entrance says, “May the injustice and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again.” The visitor center has 8,000 square feet given over to exhibits and offers an outstanding 22-minute film called Remembering Manzanar. nps.gov/manz.

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Manzanar cemetery

The Manzanar monument, with 14,375-foot Mt. Williamson in the background, marks the little-used cemetery at the camp. The white obelisk, designed by stonemason Ryozo Kado in 1943, has three black kanji characters that spell out “I Rei To,” which translates to “soul consoling tower.”

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Eastern California Museum

Mountaineer Norman Clyde climbed more than 1,000 peaks around the West while hauling a pack loaded with hardbound books. His copies of Latin Grammar and The Epics of Dante are on display alongside Eastern Sierra flotsam: human dentures made from coyote teeth, an Ice Age mammoth femur, and jelly bean–size gnatcatcher eggs. An entire wing is devoted to 400 Owens Valley–Paiute and Panamint-Shoshone baskets, plus beadwork and arrowheads. inyocounty.us/ecmsite.

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Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery

The Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery looks like a Tudor-style wine country estate, but for nearly a century it served as a trout-raising factory. Today its vine-covered granite walls house a wildlife interpretive center. Spread a picnic on the shaded lawn or feed the mammoth trout in the pond. mtwhitneyfishhatchery.org.

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Copper Top BBQ

This no-frills take-out hub is the only place in Big Pine where you’ll find a crowd. Hungry diners share the outdoor space with a monster grill and smoker. Order tri-tip, pulled pork, ribs, or chicken at the window, then stake your claim on a picnic bench and admire the turrets and towers of the Palisades. 310 N. Main St., Big Pine, CA; coppertopbbq.com.

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Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

It’s easy to feel young when you walk among trees that date back more than 40 centuries. Great Basin bristlecone pines dot the lofty reaches of the White-Inyo Mountains. The drive to the bristlecone forest is slow going, with a 6,000-foot ascent from Big Pine and no gas stations or convenience stores along the route. At the Schulman Grove Visitor Center, walk among the ancients on the 1-mile Discovery Trail or the 4.3-mile Methusaleh Trail. $3/adult or $6/vehicle; www.fs.usda.gov/main/inyo.

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Laws Railroad Museum

The name doesn’t do it justice. Sure, there’s an 1880s steam locomotive, depot, and turntable, but they’re upstaged by 28 wooden buildings crammed with curios from pioneer days: antique sewing machines, 19th-century dentist tools, and vintage cameras. $5 suggested donation; Silver Canyon Rd., northeast of Bishop, CA; lawsmuseum.org.

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Mammoth Lakes Gondola

Ride the Mammoth Mountain Panorama Gondola to the 11,053-foot summit for an effortless 360° that takes in the Minarets, Mono Lake, and 400 miles of the Sierra’s highest peaks. From $23; mammothmountain.com.

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Twin Lakes

Walk the shore of Twin Lakes and then treat yourself to dinner at the Tamarack Lodge’s Lakefront Restaurant. Depending on the time of year, you may find red elk or venison osso buco on the menu, or maybe line-caught Alaskan halibut or venison striploin. No matter the season, there will be something to tease your tastebuds. lakefrontmammoth.com.

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Devils Postpile National Monument

Geology meets geometry at this massive basalt oddity alongside the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. Lava flowed through this valley 82,000 years ago, filling it 400 feet deep. After cooling, it contracted and cracked into six-sided columns. From the ranger station in the valley, walk 15 minutes to the base of the 60-foot-high columns. On the pile’s summit, you can see a cross-section that was polished by glaciers, creating a mosaic of honeycombed tiles as shiny as a dance floor. $7/shuttle entry ($10/vehicle starting early to mid-Sep); nps.gov/depo.

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June Lake

In late September and October, the quaking aspens in and around June Lake put on a show. As summer days shorten, the trees’ translucent leaves glow like stained-glass windows. To see them, drive the June Lake Loop, starting on the north side to get the full effect. Pass Grant Lake, a deep blue tarn nestled in the sagebrush. Cruise around aspen-lined Silver Lake, then continue past 10,909-foot Carson Peak on your way to Gull Lake and the village of June Lake. junelakeloop.org.

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Double Eagle Resort and Spa

You’re nearly halfway through this road trip, so it’s time for a little pampering: a king bed and whirlpool tub, a hot stone massage, and dinner with a view of Carson Peak. The Double Eagle Resort in June Lake has all of that, plus a 60-foot indoor pool. Rooms from $199; doubleeagle.com.

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Mono Lake

Mark Twain called Mono Lake “one of the strangest freaks of nature to be found in any land.” In September, phalaropes and eared grebes show up for the lake’s all-you-can-eat buffet of brine shrimp and alkali flies, joining more than 300 other avian species. At Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve ($3 entry), a trail skirts past knobby clusters of tufa. Stop at either the Mono Lake Committee, in downtown Lee Vining, or the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor’s Center. monolake.org.

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Bodie State Historic Park

The story of the West’s ghost towns is framed by the antipodal themes of boom and bust. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Bodie, which was one of the West’s rowdiest cities in 1877 when gold mining fever gripped the Eastern Sierra. Today Bodie is the country’s largest unrestored ghost town, with more than 200 deserted buildings still standing. Peer in the windows to see tables and chairs, wallpaper and calendars, all abandoned when the mining boom went bust. $5; bodiefoundation.org. Please note that the site is currently closed due to earthquake damage. Please call ahead to see if the park will be open when you plan to visit; 760/647-6564.

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The Methodist Church, Bodie SHP

In its prime, Bodie had 70 saloons and residents withstood ravaging fires, harsh windstorms, and rampant bad behavior—including constant street fights and public drunkenness. Eventually, it also had a Catholic church and a Methodist church. The Catholic church burned down, but the Methodist church, built in 1882, still stands, which is nothing short of a miracle.

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Travertine Hot Springs

It’s liquid nirvana: five mineral pools in an alkali-encrusted meadow a couple of miles east of Bridgeport. Spas charge big bucks for this kind of mud. Here it’s free, plus it comes with a bonus view of the Sawtooth Ridge. The thermally heated water is scalding at its source, but it cools to a comfortable temperature as it flows down travertine rock formations to reach the pools. monocounty.org.

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A sign on the front door of the Genoa Bar & Saloon makes the house rules clear: No horses allowed inside. Tie up Trigger and stop in for a libation at Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor, where cowboys have been tossing back cool ones since 1853. Scan the array of dusty bric-a-brac for an oversize leopard-print bra, which locals swear belongs to Raquel Welch. Shine a flashlight in the bar mirror and you can see its flashy silver backing, or “diamond dust.” genoabarandsaloon.com; genoanevada.org.

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Reno River Walk & Arts District

The Reno Arts District has infused the Biggest Little City with flair. Revive your muses with an artsy stroll along the River Walk, where the Truckee traipses through the city. Have lunch overlooking the water at Wild River Grille, then browse the boutiques along Sierra Street and California Avenue. Head over to the Truckee River Whitewater Park to watch the kayakers paddle and play in 11 drop pools. renoriver.org.

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Owens Valley

Famed as L.A.’s water source, the area is also legendary for its unruly thermals created by high peaks and a deep valleymaking it the perfect place for a paragliding adventure.