When you read about California’s landscape, what’s the first thing you think of? Usually palm trees and sandy beaches, right? And although California does offer some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, there is a whole side of the beautiful Golden State that is left in the dark. I am ofcourse talking about the Eastern side of the state, away from the Pacific Ocean. Won’t you join me as I take the infamous US-Highway 395 up the backbone of California, through National and State: parks, historic sites, recreation areas, and forests!
We’ll be making stops along way to: camp, hike, fish, backpack, rock climb, and much more. We’ll even dabble in any local events we find ourselves to come across. Let’s start from the south, at Red Rock Canyon State Park, where state HWY-14 and HWY-395 are about to merge.
But, before we go, Petey’s got some helpful hints before we hit the road, so I’ll let him have the stage for a moment:
Thanks Peety. Oh, and by the way, here is a map of our route:
Did you put on Willy Nelson’s, “On the Road again?” Good. Let’s get going to our first stop:
Located just 20 miles outside the city of Mojave on CA-State Highway 14, and another 20 minutes from where the highway merges with the famous HWY-395, Red Rock Canyon State Park is an absolute California gem!
Most people might drive by this state park on their way to Mammoth Lakes, and simply pass the canyons with merely a glance. It’s their loss, because when you enter the park, you find more than a Shangra-La for geologists. The park offers serenity and peace, with hiking trails that lead to vantage points to observe the rust colored monolithic columns created hundreds of thousands of years ago. The park is a favorite among backyard astronomers who search the expanse of space and time while the warm desert breeze brings with it wisps of scented cactus nectar and the whispering dust of earth’s beginnings.
Lake Isabella/ Kern River Reserve
Driving up just a little further (approx. 20 minutes) we’ll hit a junction on Highway 14. You’ll see a sign point you to the west in the direction of Lake Isabella via Highway 178. Make your way up the highway to Lake Isabella and the Kern River Preserve. You’d never expect to find such a beautiful lake surrounded by dry chaparral! Rent a boat, drop your line in for a chance to catch some trophy trout, or travel up further along the Kern River to end up in Kernville, and the Kern River.
Here at the south end of the Sequoia National Forest, you’ll find ample opportunities put your waders on and dry-cast your flies on the large pools of the river. If it’s too hot to fish, strip down your gear and take a dip in the cool and clean waters. Travel up the river further if you seek to camp along the way, and reach deeper into the Sequoia National Forest. The Kern river runs all the way to Sequoia National Park, so you’ll have a lot of opportunities to take an excursion off the road and discover the surrounding mountains teeming with nature.
9 mile canyon/ Chimney Peak
So we’re back in our car, and driving down Highway 14 to merge with the 395 (which is coming up in a minute) On the left you’ll find the tiny town of Indian Wells which hosts a gas stop as well as its own desert craft-brewery. From here, we head north on the 395, and we’re seeing desert…lots of desert.
But then we see a sign to the left that reads: 9-mile Canyon road. If you’re up for an adventure, make your way west towards the Sierras, because this road offers 9 miles of Joshua Tree forests, and Spring wildflowers no one would expect in this part of the California desert. Once you cruise the nine-miles, you’ll end up at Chimney Peak Basin where you can park and hike up the peak for a panoramic view of China Lake and Ridgecrest, or keep on the road towards Kennedy Meadows where you’ll find just that: meadows. Meadows of wildflower blooms, tall grasses and empty land waiting to be appreciated.
It’s important to note that if you travel on the Kennedy Meadows Road, you’re traveling right outside of the National Forest, so you’re going to need a fire permit (which you can print online) if you are going to stay the night. You should stay the night if you’re looking to be with your own thoughts under a blanket of stars to tuck you in at night.
Coso Range Wilderness Area
Back on HWY-395, you’ll be driving past a long stretch of lake called the North/South Hawee Reservoir. This is the best indication that you’re approaching the town of Olancha, the launching pad to the Coso Range Wilderness Area. You’re going to want to take Cactus Flats Road off HWY 395 to get there. You can either park anywhere and hike towards the peaks, or take the road until the end –which is the base of the range.
A favorite among hunters, the Coso Range Wilderness Area is accessible for those visitors seeking to test the springs of their 4×4 vehicles. Some parts of the range are closed to off-road vehicles though, so keep an eye out for the signs. Coso Range is also popular for academics because of the archaeological sites found on the acreage. If you do stumble upon a fossil or cave-drawings, please report them to your local ranger station so that they can send a team of archaeologists out there to investigate. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a new species of dinosaur!
Once we’re back on HWY-395, we don’t need to go far beyond Olancha, to get to HWY-190 the corridor to Death Valley National Park.
Home to the Sailing Stones, desert sand dunes, mining ghost towns, carpets of Spring-wildflowers, Badwater Basin – the salt flats as far as the eye can see, Darwin falls, and the lowest and driest area in all of North America, Death Valley National Park is a treasure of California you are sure to remember for a lifetime.
Also check out Death Valley on ParkVisitor’s Top 10 list of National Parks for Spring Wildflowers
Mount Whitney/Lone Pine
Assuming you’re going to leave Death Valley for another weekend vacation, let’s drive on down the highway a little more, passing Owens Lake (once half the size of Lake Tahoe) until we reach the quiet town of Lone Pine. In Lone Pine, you’ll find a small town with a lot to offer. You can either stay on Main Street and enjoy the small shops and cafes lining it, or you can head out to Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 States.
Remember though, if you decide to hike all 22 miles of this 14,000+ foot giant, you need to be prepared with more than hiking boots and a bottle of water. Permits are required from the National Forest Service, and are given year-round for overnight hikers. If you’re feeling exceptionally tough, those seeking to complete the strenuous trek in 18 hours can also attain permits. Either way, take all precautions to enjoy the majesty of this California landmark.
Driving past this historic site would have been easier ten years ago when there was nothing but the old remnants of a dark chapter in California’s history. But, the site now hosts an Interpretive Center run by the National Park’s service, as well as a large, in-depth and very informative museum that educates visitors about the Japanese internment camp which imprisoned 110,000 Japanese American citizens during World War II.
Here we are, on the road again! Not soon enough either, because we’re approaching the town of Independence’s Onion Valley Road, the path you’ve never heard of.
Once you reach the town of Independence, veer off to the West by way of the Onion Valley Road to experience a hidden pocket of the Sierra Nevada’s. Rich with a pearl of lakes interconnected with streams and rivers between each of them, you’ll find this backpacking and camping destination quick to satisfy your “nature bone.” The famous “Sierra High Route” trail (195 miles) starts at the end of the road here and takes nature enthusiasts weaving through the Sierra Nevada’s, joining up with the ever famous John Muir Trail right past Bullfrog Lake.
If you don’t want to hop on to the Sierra High Route for a month, join back with me in the passenger seat as we cruise down HWY-395 to the city of Big Pine. The city itself hosts a great nostalgic feeling for me. I remember passing Mom n’ Pop fishing stores where my dad would walk in to buy a cup of worms or some lures to let the good residents of Big Pine know that we appreciate the city being around for so long, staying the quiet and friendly place we remember everytime we drive through.
Make your way from the town’s main street to the road that reads ‘Glacier Lodge Road,’ which will take you towards the Sierra-Nevada’s to a piece of nature you couldn’t begin to imagine exists only 3 hours outside of Los Angeles. At the end of the road, lock your car and pack your gear. If you’d like to see the turquoise waters of the “numbered lakes” then head up along the North Fork where it will lead you to a pearl of lakes until you reach Big Pine Lakes. The camping is magnificent, the hiking is moderate, and the views are indescribable. Pack your fishing gear as well to try your luck on some of the rainbow trout and browns present in these waters.
Make your way from Big Pine on HWY-395 to the City of Bishop, and you’ll find the smallest big city tucked under the Eastern-Sierra’s. The town is home to local shops, cafes and bakeries. If you’re looking to get away from the friendly folk Bishop is filled with , head on a bit more north onto HWY 168 towards Lake Sabrina.
At roads end, you’ll find choices. Camp out at the designated campsites all along Bishop Creek, or drive back to North Lake where you’ll park, load your gear and hike past Bristle Pines , and miles of untouched wilderness to end up at Loch Leven Lake. Loch Leven is the first lake on the trail of a much longer backpacking trail that can take you across hidden lakes, streams and forests. This is a great place to backcountry camp, and I suggest that you bring your fishing pole for a chance to catch some record brown trout in the streams.
Bishop hosts its annual Mule Days in May. It’s a fun way to experience the beautiful city tucked under the Eastern-Sierras, and family friendly to boot!
The last stretch of HWY-395 before we’re completely surrounded by forests, and mountains is from Bishop to Crowley Lake. Crowley Lake for me has always been that “big lake we always drive by,” when I was a kid. In the years following my adolescence, the Crowley Lake area became more known to me. It became the lake you could catch record sized trout in, or even perch! Down the road though is Tom’s Place, a classic convenient store on the 395. From here you can go west (upward) towards Rock Creek Lake (which hosts a handful of campsites along the way), or east (across from Tom’s Place and the highway) where you’ll find the lower Owen’s River. This has always been a great fishing spot for me and my family during the late Spring. Those seeking to rent a boat and drift across the green waters of Convict Lake can do so if they venture up HWY-395 a mile from Crowley Lak. This is a great stop on our road trip, and one that brings back a lot of joyous memories for me.
This is the part of the road trip where we start to drive on an incline and begin to be surrounded by pines, heavy bushes and the snow-capped granite mountains of the high Sierras as we climb up HWY 395.
Mammoth. The city will never be what I remember. Once, few people knew where Mammoth was, and my brothers and I would be woken up in our tents by my dad to get in the car and fish the June Lake Loop at 5:00am, or to drink a hot coco on the mountain slopes during the winter skiing season. It’s still that Mammoth, but much more popular now. But, that’s not to say Mammoth is “touristy.”
From here, you can find some of the best skiing in the state of California, and still enjoy a log cabin welcome during Winter. If you’re more of a “sunny” kind of person, look to visit Mammoth in the Spring season when cycling, hiking, and rock climbing are the most popular activities.
“The Black Mirror Mountain.” It’s no surprise to find obsidian or pumice in an actively volcanic area; Mammoth Mountain being the dormant volcano that provided us with this beautiful location. The Obsidian Dome found off of HWY-395 offers fantastic hiking trails that make this a wonderful afternoon destination. Even if you’re not a geologist, you will appreciate the beauty of these molten stones as you walk past them on the trail. Be careful though, they are very sharp to the touch.
June Lake Loop
This was the first time I remember making a decision to memorize the numbers 3-9-5, because they led me to the June Lake Loop. HWY-395 became the pathway to my past, and that past started at the June Lake Loop. I remember the lakes here because there are four, and so my family all “received a lake.” June lake was my dad’s, Gull lake was my brother William’s, Silver Lake was mine, and Grant lake was my brother Hrant’s (who we sometimes called Grant.) My dad taught my brothers and I how to tie a proper fishing line at Gull Lake, and how to cast without tangling the spool. My brothers and I would sprinkle corn around our barged boat in an attempt to attract fishes to our power-bait loaded hooks.
The ‘Loop’ is a great place to bring the family, rent a boat to cruise the lakes, or find a tree on the shores of one of the lakes to have a picnic.
Leaving behind the June Lake Loop and hoping back onto HWY-395, let’s keep going up north shall we? Soon we reach the town of Lee Vining right across from Mono Lake. Mono Lake is located in a basin and is considered a saline soda lake, which basically means it’s salty…very salty; so salty that the lake’s water is alkaline dense. No matter, the tufa stone towers in and around the lake make this a beautiful and scenic location to visit, especially throughout the year when nearly two-million migratory birds arrive to feast on the brine shrimp that thrive in these waters.
East of Lee Vining you’ll find the Tioga Road. When it’s not closed by winter snows, the road leads to a niche of the Sierras that is rich with untouched nature and beauty. Glaciers sit atop the mountain crests here which feed into hundreds of steams and lakes that you can hike and backpack along. Some of the higher altitude lakes even offer a chance to catch the exquisite Golden Trout, California state’s fish.
Veer off to the East on to Hwy-270 from the 395, and you’ll end up in Bodie, CA. Bodie offers a dusty look at rich California history. This once booming mining town has long been deserted by gold prospectors. The facade of the town still exists, while the streets and surrounding offer a picturesque look into the California Gold Rush, and the towns that rose and fell from an attempt to “strike it rich.”
Bridgeport and beyond
It is here in our trip where we start to approach the end of our journey. Bridgeport is the last large settlement before HWY-395 heads West towards Sequoia National Park, through Topaz lake, then to the Nevada border, past Lake Tahoe, and all the way to Northern California and into Oregon.
On the way between Bridgeport and Topaz Lake, you can find yourself immersed in untouched wilderness, as you pass endless expanses of pines, rivers, streams and wildlife. Print out a wilderness permit, park your car anywhere on the road and explore as nature goliaths like Muir, Witman, and Thoreau did in a time when ‘connecting’ meant more than finding a Wi-Fi hotspot.
For this road trip, you’ve seen how HWY-395 has led us from desert camping, mountain climbing, backcountry hiking, wild-stream fishing and everything in-between. Just like a lot of opportunities in life, the 395 is paved for us, and available anytime we choose to use it. It’s important to remember that, although we may have excuses throughout our lives to avoid such excursions that seem out of the way, that roads such as the 395 offer us to explore more than just campsites and fishing holes. The National parks, and forests have preserved more than just a recreational area to visit during a summer vacation. These entities exist as an iconic American identity. Nowhere else in the world will one find such natural preservation of its land than in America’s National Parks.
As for me, my best memories have been forged by road trips up and down this historic highway. I listened to my first country songs by Waylon Jennings, and would sing Johnny Cash while driving up with my dad and brothers. Sometimes my grandpa would join us on a visit to Mono Lake, and I would catch him looking out, searching the flat and dry landscape as if it were teeming with life. I would ask him what he was looking at, and he would kiss me on the forehead, shrug and say “just looking.”
If you find yourself in California, you’ve already done half the work. HWY-395 leads right into the heart of California’s wilderness where nature has preserved itself for you. Don’t leave it hanging with its open arms waiting for an embrace. Most things in life can be put on hold for a weekend, except for life itself. Pack up, gas up, and make your way up (or down) HWY-395; you won’t regret it.
[ All photos that have not been credited are brought to you courtesy of my talented brother Hrant. He's got that 'eagle eye' for photography as well as for spotting fishing holes that no one would expect to pull a 10" trout out of...but he seems to everytime. Thanks Hrant.]