Scenic U.S. Highway 395: A Few Stops (part 1)
If you have traveled by car throughout California, en route to a wide variety of tourist attractions, then you know that the state has a great highway system. The freeways are well maintained, the exits are well marked, and rest stops are numerous along major routes. Along the west coast, Highway 1 travels down the coast past some of the most scenic landscape in the state, maybe the country. Interstate 5 is the major north-south freeway that runs from San Diego to Los Angeles, close to San Francisco, and then up through Oregon and Washington en route to Canada. Highway 99 runs parallel to I-5, traveling roughly from Mexico to Canada. Highway 99 was supplanted by I-5 in the 1960s as the primary thoroughfare up and down the state, but it still serves residents well.
Highway 395 also runs north-south through the state, east of both I-5 and Highway 99. Although it does not run through large cities such as Los Angeles or San Francisco and it does not extend from Mexico to Canada, it is a lengthy impressive route. It runs from about 140 miles north of San Diego up basically to the Oregon border. It also travels for a short time into Nevada. It connects such natural wonders as Death Valley, Lee Vining near Yosemite National Park, and Mammoth Lake. This 557-mile route runs along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, giving access to many impressive locations.
I never drove extensively on Highway 395 until one year, almost 20 years ago now, I took my dad on a trip to Bishop, California. Bishop sits at the northern end of the Owens Valley at an elevation of 4,150 feet. Nestled against the Sierra Nevada, it was named for Bishop Creek that flows out of the mountains. Although the Bishop area represents the largest population in Inyo County, Bishop has fewer than 4,000 residents as of the 2010 census. The purpose of our trip was to seek out fall colors, and we were successful. The colors were glorious, the mountain vistas were impressive, and the fishing holes seemed popular. What I remember the most is that Dad had a great time!
On that same trip, days later, Dad and I ended up in Lee Vining, California, for lunch and quickly realized how close we were to Mono Lake. Mono Lake is an immense inland sea, one of the oldest in the western hemisphere. It measures 70 square miles and fills a natural basin that measures 700 square miles. Ancient volcanoes created the lake, which is thought to be anywhere from one to three million years old. Many tributaries fill the lake, but the there is no natural outlet, so Mono Lake retains sulfides and carbonates, making it an alkaline lake with a ph of 10. Mono Lake is almost three times as salty as the ocean.
Its salinity fluctuates, especially since 1941 when Los Angeles began diverting water from the lake’s tributaries to Los Angeles consumers. Some restoration and preservation measures have been enacted since then, so the danger of Mono Lake becoming a dead area has passed. But it is still at lower water levels and higher salinity counts than it would have been since the initial water diversion. The restoration measures preserved the lake’s main biology of algae, brine shrimp and alkali flies. The area still serves as a major bird migratory path and nesting site. As the water level fluctuates, various formations such as spires and peaks become visible, giving the lake an otherworldly look. The spires are called tufa and add to the picturesque appeal of Mono Lake.
Dad and I spent the afternoon hiking around Mono Lake, waiting for dusk’s afterglow as the sun set opposite the lake. We thought about waiting around for the moon rise later that night, but we were not really prepared for the stake-out. And once the area became pitch black and we got lost a bit in the sands surrounding the lake, we decided to head in for dinner instead. We talked about going back to both locations—Bishop and Mono Lake—at some point, but we never did.
My goal is to return to Mono Lake at some point. Since California has been experiencing drought for the last three years, I imagine the water level has dropped a bit. I also hope to visit other natural wonders that are accessible via Highway 395, like Death Valley. Maybe I’ll travel there in the winter.
HAVE YOU DRIVEN HIGHWAY 395?
WHAT SITES ALONG ITS ROUTE HAVE YOU VISITED?