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Posts tagged ‘Scenic US Highway 395’

The Whitney Portal Road

I love traveling Scenic U. S. Highway 395.  There are so many spots to see along the way, such as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine National Forest and Mono Lake. The road even connects with a gateway to Death Valley. (I’ve written on Death Valley’s history including Lone Pine and “The Wedding of the Waters” as well as its 2016 Wildflowers).

The other day, a good friend and I stopped overnight in Bishop, after driving the Tioga Road from Yosemite Valley.  Heading home to Bakersfield the next day, it made perfect sense to grab a deli lunch from Erick Schat’s Bakkery for a picnic at the Mt. Whitney Portal.

A Delightful Drive along the Whitney Portal Road

The Whitney Portal Road starts in Lone Pine, California, and runs 13.7 miles to the Whitney Portal Store, the staging area before hikers ascend to Mt. Whitney (14,505 feet).  The road to the trailhead was completed in 1936.  The Portal sits at 8,374 feet, a bit more than halfway way to the summit’s elevation.

As the drive begins, Mt. Whitney looms in the distance on a fairly straight, level stretch of road through the Alabama Hills.

Although not officially part of the Sierra Nevada, the Alabama Hills are part of the same geological formation and time frame as the majestic mountain range. The Alabama Hills were just shaped by different erosion patterns, giving them their rounded contours and boulders vs. the sharp ridges and jagged granite of the mountains.

The Alabama Hills are composed of two basic types of rocks.  The orange, rather drab weathered rock is metamorphosed volcanic rock from about 150-200 million years ago.  The other rock, biotite monzogranite, is from 82-85 million years ago; this rock type underwent spheroidal weathering and produced the potato-shaped large boulders strewn about the area.  This impressive public area was appropriately designated a national scenic area in March 2019.

This nice little brook was a pleasant surprise.

And I always like the breezes that make the grasses dance.

I’m not sure when this friendly mascot appeared on the scene, but he’s been welcoming visitors along the drive up toward Mt. Whitney for years.  I call him Cyril.

About half-way to the Mount Whitney Portal, the road starts to ascend into the Sierra Nevada. Its twists, turns and switchbacks follow a steep 9% grade for about 5 miles. The drive itself was prominent in two older films: Lucille Ball’s The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Humphrey Bogart’s High Sierra (1941).

A Fun Video:  Here is an excerpt from Lucy and Desi’s drive up the mountain!

The parking for the Portal Store is not very extensive, but the area is pretty.

Eventually, we found a place for our picnic before heading back down the mountain.

The views back down into Owens Valley and the Alabama Hills are spectacular.

I love this drive from Lone Pine, California, to the Mount Whitney Portal.

If you have not yet visited the Alabama Hills, add the drive to your to-do list.  You may even discover it looks familiar, since it has been used many times in television and movie productions, such as The Lone Ranger and Bonanza and Gunga Din and How the West Was Won.

A Little Trivia:  I lived in Alabama for a year and loved the red soil that I saw in the fields where I walked my dog.  I figured the Alabama Hills must’ve somehow been named for a similar soil makeup, given their color. But no.  The Alabama Hills were named after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship deployed during the American Civil War.  Many of the prospectors in the area were sympathetic to the Confederacy, so when news of the warship’s exploits made its way out to California, lots of mining claims were named after the ship.  Eventually, the whole range took on the name Alabama Hills.

U.S. Scenic Highway 395: Gateway to Yosemite’s Tioga Pass (Part 4)

Yosemite National Park.  It is such a vast natural wonderland. It is one of my favorite places.  Typically when I visit, I stay in the popular Yosemite Valley area, driving in through Wawona.  I bet most tourists do the same thing.  I’ve written about some of my past visits several times, once as a general overview and again about a more recent fall visit.

IMG_7903Last week, a friend and I wandered through Yosemite again, enjoying its wonders.  This time, however, we entered from the east via the Tioga Pass. This is the highest pass through the Sierras, reaching an elevation of 9,945 feet.   I had driven this pass before, years ago, but its magnificent vistas and wondrous geology had faded from memory.  If you have not already, consider using this eastern entrance close to Lee Vining, CA, off Interstate 395.

IMG_7918Highway 120 over the Tioga Pass follows a route that is not new.  The Indians in the area crossed the pass routinely for thousands of years, and then wagons started making the trek in the 1800s.  Eventually, the road was developed into an unpaved winding treacherous road that was used for decades, even though it took forever and was hell on tires.  In 1961, the National Park Service completed the major highway across the pass, greatly increasing traffic into Yosemite National Park from this entrance.

The day before our journey, it was rainy.  In fact, there were thunderstorms and downpours in Bishop, CA, where we stayed overnight.  The morning was dry, but still cloudy and grey with a 20% chance of thunderstorms in Yosemite itself.  We were hopeful—that we might get to experience one of those quick thunderstorms, but no such luck.  We did not get rained on.  We did see gorgeous scenery, some wildflowers and a couple animals throughout the day as we traveled the roughly 75 miles from the Tioga Pass into Yosemite Valley.

IMG_7894As we started the drive up over the Tioga Pass, the majestic grey mountains were dominant.  There was a relatively small body of water to the south hugging the road.




IMG_7924Later, when we stopped at another overlook, we realized we were in the alpine zone (9,500 to 13,000 feet).  It was easy to see the tree line, above which trees would not grow, on the rugged terrain high overhead.  The Pika is a little animal well suited to this terrain, and one came out to investigate—when he was not running hither and yon across the little meadow.




IMG_7930Mount Dana (13,057 feet) and Mount Gibson (8,412 feet) are two of the highest—and perhaps most unique—peaks in Yosemite.  Unlike the granite monoliths throughout the park, these two peaks are the aftermath of volcanic activity and the metamorphic rock that spewed forth through a long-ago eruption and then were later exposed through erosion.  When not covered in snow, they are more brownish in color that the rest of Yosemite’s grey peaks.


IMG_7941The Cathedral Mountain Range, an offshoot of the Sierra Nevada, is due south of Toulumne Meadows.  These peaks were formed by glaciers.  However, the tops of the range were above the level of the highest glaciation, so they remain un-eroded and thus have more spires than other peaks in Yosemite.



IMG_7937The area in the foreground of the Cathedral Range, as recently as the 1960s, was a wet meadow.  But the meadow is slowly drying out, giving rise to conditions that better support the growth of trees.  There are no definitive answers yet as to why this is happening, but most scientists agree it is a reaction to global warming.






IMG_7971As we traveled west, the road ran along sheer walls of rocks that were punctuated with trees and other plants that just put down roots and hung on.






IMG_8006Tenaya Lake is situated between Toulumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley.  Its surface sits at an elevation of 8,150 feet.  Even in 2015—the fourth year of a drought—the lake is impressive.  The lake’s basin was formed by the same glacier activity that formed Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley.  The Mariposa Brigade that entered the area in 1851 to relocate local Indians onto reservations named the lake Tenaya, after a local chief.  Chief Tenaya protested, saying the lake already had a name:  Pie-we-ack, meaning “Lake of the Shining Rocks.”









IMG_8017IMG_8015Olmsted Point is an overlook that offers an impressive vista, showcasing remnants of the powerful geological forces that shaped this landscape.  It was 80 to 100 million years ago that deep pools of magma crystalized into the massive granite blocks evident today.  The most recent glacier passed through this area about 20,000 years ago, polishing the granite with a smooth surface.  Whether they fell or were left behind by the passing glacier, huge granite boulders dot the landscape, looking as if some giant toddler dropped a bag of marbles.












From Olmsted Point the North Side of Half Dome is VIsible

From Olmsted Point the North Side of Half Dome is Visible


IMG_8052Our next mini-excursion was to drive the 1.7-mile narrow bumpy road out to the parking area for the May Lake Trail.  With the recent rains in the areas over the last several days, the landscape was luscious, green, wet.  The only thing not appreciated was the mosquitos enjoying the small pockets of standing water!
































IMG_8156On the main road again, heading to Yosemite Valley, we saw lots of wildflowers. Unfortunately, opportunities to photograph those flowers did not surface. We captured a couple shots of a small red flower nestled among the rocks, but we are not sure of its name.




The wildflowers we could name included lupine, wallflowers, snow plants, and dogwood.  The following photos are from earlier trips.

lupine 2

wall flower

snow plant


IMG_8165A sad note on the drive were the many brown and brittle trees along the road.  We speculate that either the drought or perhaps some blight have attacked the trees.  There did not seem to be evidence of fire in these locales.

The closer we came to the popular seven-mile Yosemite Valley, the more the most iconic images of Yosemite came into view:

Half Dome is the granite dome on the eastern edge of Yosemite Valley that rises 4,737 feet above the valley floor.



El Capitan is the 3,000 foot granite monolith at the north end of Yosemite Valley.


The Mighty Merced River is a 145-mile river than runs a steep and swift route through the southern portion of Yosemite Valley.






Bridalveil Fall is one of the most prominent falls in Yosemite Valley; it measures 617 feet in height and flows year-round.





The Road Through One of Several Tunnels, Like Driving Through a Mountain

The Road Through One of Several Tunnels, Like Driving Through a Mountain

IMG_8185There was even a small waterfall along the road, enhanced—it seems—by the overnight rain.  Many visitors stopped to gawk and snap photos.








Tunnel View on an Earlier Visit

Tunnel View on an Earlier Visit

Before exiting via the South Gate—heading to Highway 41, Fresno and eventually back to Bakersfield—we enjoyed my favorite view of the valley: Tunnel View.  I can still recall my first trip to Yosemite, coming out of the tunnel and seeing the panoramic sweep from El Capitan to Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall.  First constructed in 1993, the tunnel was renovated in 2008, mainly to improve drainage and add accessible parking and better pedestrian flow.  The actual tunnel and view were not changed, leaving the majestic view that as many as 6,000 people a day enjoy during the height of the tourist season.  Blue skies create a more dramatic view, but even the muted gray tones of this gloomy day were impressive.


Tunnel View: El Capitan, Cloud's Rest, Half Dome & Bridalveil Fall

Tunnel View: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome & Bridalveil Fall




IMG_8122Thanks go to my friend Raquel, who joined me on this Yosemite trip.  We shared my camera, but she took the photos that required hiking any distance from the car.  She plans to wait for another day to hike the 10 miles from the May Lake Trail to Yosemite Valley!

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A Few John Muir Quotes from His First Visit in Yosemite

“I have crossed the Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built; and rejoicing in its glory, I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray I may see it again.” 

“Everything seems consciously peaceful, thoughtful, faithfully waiting God’s will.”

“But now I’ll have to go, for there is nothing to spare in the way of provisions.  I’ll surely be back, however, surely I’ll be back. No other place has ever so overwhelmingly attracted me as this hospitable, Godful wilderness.”

“The basin of this famous Yosemite stream is extremely rocky—seems fairly to be paved with domes like a street with big cobblestones. I wonder if I shall ever be allowed to explore it.  It draws me so strongly. I would make any sacrifice to try and read its lessons.  I thank God for this glimpse of it.  The charms of these mountains are beyond all common reason, unexplainable and mysterious as life itself.” 





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