Having done every possible road trip ever,* I can attest to this with authority: US-395 provides the greatest road trip in the United States.
Let’s consider its leading competitor: CA-1 (US-101). For those of you unfamiliar with the West Coast, Highway 1 (known as the PCH** to Southlanders***) runs from Orange County in Southern California to Humboldt County in Northern California along the California coast, where it joins with US-101 and continues all the way up the Oregon and Washington coasts to the Olympic Peninsula. It is absolutely gorgeous. A road trip along the Coast Highway usually results in the following:
Mile 1 – Ocean. “Oh my God, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Look at the water.”
Mile 20 – Ocean. “Oh my God, it’s still absolutely gorgeous.”
Mile 150 – Ocean. “My goodness, this is the most beautiful scenery ever.”
Mile 400 – Ocean. “Oh sweet! In ‘n Out Burger!”
Mile 700 – Redwood Forest. “Oh my God! Look at the trees! They look so much like trees!”
Mile 800 – Redwood Forest. “Oh my God! Look at the gas prices!”
Mile 1,000 – Ocean. “God dammit, @$&%in’ rainstorm!”
And that’s it. That’s all you see for over a thousand miles. Ocean. More ocean. Some trees. And then more ocean. Yes, it’s beautiful. But… what if you could go on a road trip where your environment changes rapidly from one scenic wonder to another within the span of mere dozens of miles?
Without further ado, allow me to introduce you to US-395. It may not have ocean or redwood forests, but it’s got everything else: deserts, mountains, lakes, decrepit farmland, meth – Everything. Other than the obvious scenic wonders, US-395 is significant for another reason entirely: it introduces you to a whole side of California completely neglected by the state stereotype. It’s not just palm trees, surfers, and gays here, people. I won’t go so far as to say Eastern California is True California, but it’s definitely California’s slightly unstable, neurotic alter-ego.
Part 1 – the Owens Valley
Your journey up US-395 will start you at the junction of CA-14 and US-395 near Inyokern, CA (creatively named for being at the border of Inyo and Kern counties). This is one of the most depressing and desolate regions of California, and for that reason, it has an eerie, often disturbing beauty about it.
The towns in this region are oft impoverished and decaying, but don’t judge them too harshly! They used to be flourishing (or something like that) centers of agriculture and mining until the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) bought out their water rights so movie stars could water their lawns. With little water, these towns lost the ability to sustain themselves, and thus remain a shell of their former states. You see, when you travel on 395, you’re not just seeing beauty, you’re experiencing history and suffering. Life isn’t just about joy and happiness – it’s about completeness, and part of that is experiencing sorrow, angst, and continuous drought.
But don’t worry: the alienation won’t last long. Before you know it, you’ll enter into the Owens Valley: one of the deepest valleys in the United States, surrounded by 14,000 foot mountain ranges on both sides. Although LADWP tried its best to completely destroy this region too, the towns continue to try to maintain a vibrant Old West feel. Against the backdrop of the Eastern Sierras, the Owens Valley has a humbling character.
There are two excursions near the town of Lone Pine I highly recommend:
1) Whitney Portal Road: Is the desert too hot? No worries, climb a 13-mile road 4,000 vertical feet to the lush Inyo National Forest and John Muir Wilderness to see the tallest mountain in the US outside of Alaska: Mount Whitney (around 14,500 feet). While you can’t climb Mount Whitney from Whitney Portal without securing an entry permit (nearly impossible), you can enjoy a brief picnic amongst the granite, forest, and creek with a stunning view of the desert beneath you and an even more stunning view of the mountains above you.
2) Manzanar: the Owens Valley isn’t all Old West and wilderness. Manzanar is the most famous Japanese internment camp from World War II, and sadly, you’ll probably be the only tourist there. A minute on the grounds of Manzanar will make you realize why the US government chose this of all places to relocate the Japanese; in the middle of a vast desert and up against the Sierra escarpment, there is nowhere to escape. To the west is an impassable wall of killer mountains stretching hundreds of miles in each direction and dozens of miles wide. In every other direction, there is no water, no shade, and no civilization.
One tours Manzanar via a 3-mile driving loop that takes you around the camp, pointing out where certain buildings used to be. Most striking is the cemetery at the far end of the loop, which is marked by a stubby obelisk with a Japanese character, standing alone against the backdrop of the cold, hardened, indifferent Sierras.
At the end of the Owens Valley is the bustling Western town of Bishop, CA. Bishop, unlike its oft sleepy neighbors, has active recreation and tourism. Many pass through Bishop on the way to mountaineering or skiing, and hence it has a relatively lively restaurant and bar life, not to mention the most randomly placed best bakery in California: Eric Schatt’s Bakkery.
But before you get to Bishop, the Ancients await…
Part 2 – the White Mountains
To the east of the Owens Valley lies the White Mountains of California, and in the White Mountains live the oldest living things on Earth.**** These would be the Bristlecone Pine trees, which are claimed to be around 4,000 years old. When Moses parted the Red Sea, these trees were already investing in their retirement.
While the Bristlecone Pines might be the most appealing reason to take the short detour into the White Mountains, the mountains themselves provide an exquisite view of the Sierras opposite the valley. Additionally, White Mountain Peak, the tallest of the White Mountains and the third tallest mountain in California, is an easy (if you have the lungs of a Tibetan monk) and fascinating hike through barren alpine tundra.
Part 3 – Mammoth Lakes area
Once you leave Bishop, you’ll immediately climb a couple thousand feet out of the Owens Valley and into Mono County. Suddenly, things are greener, trees are more plentiful, and mountains are closer. Also, you’re miles away from arguably the best ski resort in California: Mammoth Mountain. But watch out! Mammoth Mountain is due to explode, and might actually kill you in your sleep.
After hitting up the Mammoth Lakes Brewery, which, as of writing, gives you a free sampling of all of their beers, you can descend into Mono Lake, one of the oldest lakes in North America, which was almost killed by none other than the LADWP (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) until a lawsuit forced the company to restore the lake. This is good news for the birds of the USA, many of whom use the lake as a migratory rest stop (up to 80% of the country’s seagulls). In addition to being a haven for birds, it’s also chillingly beautiful with its unique calcium tufa columns.
After you’re done with Mono Lake, you can sample Lee Vining’s $5.00/gallon gasoline and during the summer months, take Tioga Pass into Yosemite. But that could be a whole new road trip, so allow us to continue northward into the picturesque anus of California…
Part 4 – California’s butt-crack
Just north of Mono Lake lies Bodie, an infamous ghost town known back in its day for lawlessness, inhospitality, horrible weather, daily murders, and burning down all the time. It’s also a royal pain in the ass to get to due to the poor condition of its dirt road which is often closed in the winter (in other words: all the time). Although it’s a pain in the ass, Bodie is well worth the detour and car damage. The town hasn’t changed much since the 1940’s, even though it very well looks like it could’ve been right out of the 1860’s.
A couple miles down the road from Bodie is Bridgeport, the site of the Mono County courthouse. There’s not much to do in Bridgeport other than look at how adorable it is. However, you can go to the Mono County Museum, where you can pay two or three dollars to learn about the way of life in Mono County! Yipee!
Beyond Bridgeport is the Toiyabe National Forest and a canyon that runs into the Antelope Valley. At this point, you can opt to take Highway 89 up to the most isolated county in California, Alpine County – but watch out: Alpine County has a tendency to be closed for the winter. If you actually have the fortune of entering Alpine County, the largest town and county seat is Markleeville. It is literally a stretch of road about a football field long with a booming population of 200 people, although I have really no idea where those 200 people live.
When you reach the casino sticking up out of the middle of nowhere, you know you’re in Nevada, and your road trip is over. But! If you’re feeling adventurous, continue on to Reno and then to Northeast California, because if you do, you could be the only person you know that has ever stepped foot in Modoc and Lassen Counties.
Part 5 (Optional: proceed at your own psychological risk) – The Forgotten and Neglected Northeast California
I call this part of the road trip optional because, unlike the preceding stretch of US-395 described above, the beauty displayed in Northeast California is not stunningly glorious and diverse. In fact, it’s often drab, depressing, and a little frightening. And because of that, I love it. You see, you really can find beauty in the most unexpected of places if you approach it with the right frame of mind.
Upon reentering California from your brief stint in Nevada (you know, the part that isn’t Vegas), you will drive through exactly two incorporated towns in the next roughly 200 miles. This is the California people don’t know about: civilization is sparse and transportation is limited. Cows outnumber people, and dilapidated barns and warehouses outnumber cows. Yes, this is Lassen County***** and Modoc County. Welcome to the most alienated psychological environment in California. I can only show pictures.
Congratulations with the completion of the road trip! Good luck on your ten hour drive in the opposite direction back to civilization!
P.S. Lassen County is most known for its high security Pound-Me-In-The-Ass prison, so don’t pick up any hitchhikers.
* actually not true.
** Pacific Coast Highway
*** a term for Southern Californians used probably only by me
***** interesting tidbit about Northern California counties: Mount Lassen is in Shasta County. Mount Shasta is in Siskiyou County. Absolutely nothing is in Lassen County. Ta da!