By Lynn & Cele Seldon
Generally running about 350 or so meandering miles through California’s stunning Eastern Sierras region, the Golden State’s scenic route 395 stretches from Topaz Lake at the Nevada state line south to Victorville—where Historic Route 66 fittingly passes through as well, on its way west. For those with time before or after the drive, beloved Lake Tahoe and well-situated Tahoe Valley RV Resort are just an hour to the northwest.
The official “start” (or end) of this classic California drive is just south of Topaz Lake and the Nevada-California state line. The beautiful mountains in the distance as the curving road hugs and then leaves sparkling Topaz Lake to provide a hint of things to come in the next 300-plus miles. Signs also note that the road is part of the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway and the National Historic Trails program.
With stunning scenery seemingly in every direction, the first town of note on the drive is Coleville, 10 miles south of Topaz Lake. Meadowcliff Lodge just south of town has a small restaurant. Much busier Walker is another five minutes, with lots of shopping (like Out West Gallery and Trading Company, Walker Antiques, and more) and dining (including popular Walker Burger and equally tasty Mountain View BBQ). A “Begin 395 Scenic Route” sign just south of Walker provides another welcome to trailblazing road trippers.
The road now starts winding through the towering mountains that were once in the distance up at Topaz Lake, passing through Sonora Junction (US 108) 15 minutes south of Walker. Another 15 minutes leads to busy Bridgeport. It’s the home of the Mono County Courthouse, Big Meadow Brewing Company, the historic Bridgeport Inn’s popular restaurant, and the sweet-smelling High Sierra Bakery.
Just seven miles south of Bridgeport, look for the left-hand turn on to CA 270 towards Bodie State Park. The winding road is paved for the first 10 miles and then it’s another three miles on gravel road (long campers not recommended) before the entrance to the ghost town. A visit to Bodie State Park is highly recommended if time allows in that it’s a fascinating “ghost town” that was once a thriving mining mecca with thousands of inhabitants. Many of the picture-worthy buildings and rooms have been left “as is” and there are also lots of informative displays, a film about its heyday, and more.
Back out on 395, the town of Lee Vining 15 miles south is next. Driving into town, look for the Mono Inn overlooking Mono Lake (typically only open from spring to fall). There’s also Tioga Lodge’s Hammond Station Restaurant 1.5 miles further south.
On the drive past Mono Lake look for the unique bright white alkaline deposits at the edge of the lake, which are caused by lowering lake levels. The left-hand turn for the Mono Lake Scenic Visitor center makes for a quick outing to the overlook to learn more and get some more unique 395 pictures.
Once in Lee Vining proper, Nicely’s Restaurant is an old-fashioned diner featuring filling specials with all the fixings, like classic fried chicken with soup, house salad, mashed potatoes (with gravy, of course), corn on the cob, and a roll. Just south of town, Test Station Road on the left leads fives miles to the South Tufa Area and short hikes that lead to close-up views of the lake’s tufa formations.
The four-season mountain town of Mammoth Lakes is next and it’s just 30 miles beyond Lee Vining. About five miles north of Mammoth Lakes proper, look for the Mammoth Lakes Scenic Loop drive on the right. Running through the forest for about four miles, it provides an easy way to also head up the Main Lodge and more at Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, which features recreational opportunities all year. Except for during the region’s long winter season, the road past the Main Lodge is open for the drive up to incredible views at Minaret Vista and pictures of the unique rock formations at Devils Postpile National Monument.
Once in town, lots of outdoors activities await visitors year-round. From mild to wild mountain biking from spring to summer to lots of winter sports, Mammoth Lakes makes for a great stop of several days. Trailblazers in town at night should most definitely head to Mammoth Rock ‘n’ Bowl to bowl a few frames in a hip setting and then head upstairs to Mammoth Rock Brasserie for contemporary French fare. It makes for a fun and tasty evening.
Just seven miles from Mammoth Lakes on 395, take the right-hand turn to Convict Lake. The views are well worth the very short diversion (it’s less than three miles to the lake). Four-season Convict Lake Resort features fine dining at the Restaurant at Convict Lake. The photogenic lake with mountains as a backdrop is a classic 395 picture stop.
Back on 395, the road runs along Crawley Lake to the east and features beautiful views on the drive down to bustling Bishop, with a drop of more than 2,000 feet in elevation. Known as the “Small Town with a Big Backyard” and surrounded by towering peaks, the Western-leaning outdoors-oriented town of Bishop features the Law’s Railroad Museum (about four miles east of town and packed with memorabilia for railroad buffs), as well as lots of kitschy storefronts, colorful murals, and homestyle restaurants. Aaron Schat’s Roadhouse & Rotisserie is highly recommended for its steaks, burgers, and rotisserie chicken, as well as live music, while Erick Schat’s Bakkery features famed sheepherder bread and more.
Keough’s Hot Springs is just south of Bishop on the right and is well worth the stop for a quick soak in the modern facility (including the largest hot springs pool in the Eastern Sierras). Established back in 1919, the original springs building still stands (barely) and makes for a great picture. Picnicking with a view (and between hot springs sessions) is also possible here.
Heading into Big Pine, look for the left-hand turn on CA 168 out to Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Those with time will find the 24-mile one-way drive worth it, thanks to photogenic trees that are more than 4,000 years old.
About 25 miles south of Big Pine, look for the right-hand turn and short drive to the Historic Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery, just north of Independence. There’s a pretty old stone hatchery building, a stocked fish pond, great picnicking, and tours, if they’re open. In town, there’s the Eastern California Museum.
Manzanar National Historic Site is six miles south of Independence and interested visitors should plan on a stop of two to four hours. In 1942, the U.S. Army turned the abandoned township of Manzanar into an internment camp for more than 10,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants and part of a larger World War II internment program.
The must-see Manzanar Visitor Center has many exhibits about the camp and area history, as well as a film and bookstore. The grounds, which include a three-mile self-guided driving or walking tour, a cemetery, Japanese gardens, and recreated Block 14 (one of 36 blocks of living quarters, mess halls, and more), are open daily.
Just ten miles south, Lone Pine is well worth a lengthy stop. There’s a turn for the “Alabama Hills” about five miles north of Lone Pine. Dubbed “Movie Road” the beautiful gravel drive leads through one-time movie sets and landscapes for hundreds of feature films, including: “Gunga Din,” “Rawhide,” “Django Unchained,” and so many more. Because it’s part of Alabama Hills Recreation and Scenic Area, dry camping is allowed—and, it’s like camping in the middle of a western movie!
Once in Lone Pine, the movie’s theme continues at the sprawling Museum of Western Film History. With lots of memorabilia from movies filmed in the area, film buffs will want to plan on a visit of one or two hours, minimum. Because Lone Pine is a popular 395 stop, several restaurants have a loyal visitor (and local) following, including: kitschy Mount Whitney Restaurant (including lots of movie-related pictures); creative Seasons Restaurant; Totem Café; and Alabama Hills Café and Bakery.
About 18 miles south of Lone Pine, look for the left-hand turn to Cottonwood Creek Charcoal Kilns. These two abandoned beehive-like charcoal kilns once produced much-needed charcoal for the rich Cerro Gordo mine. Walk in the more complete one on the left, which is now a remarkable echo chamber.
Several other unique stops await. First, in the tiny town of Cartago, look for the “Lemon House” on the left-hand side. It’s the shape and bright yellow color of a half-lemon.
After passing the Crystal Geyser water plant on the left and Ranch House Café (which gets good food reviews), look for the turn to Death Valley (which is also accessible somewhat more directly from Lone Pine, though several 395 attractions would then be missed). It’s about an hour one-way to Panamint Springs resort, including a very curvy downhill drive, but it’s well worth it for those who want an introduction to the Death Valley environment. There’s a general store and a restaurant, but those who want more of a Death Valley experience will want to head 30 miles further to Stovepipe Wells and beyond.
Back on 395 at Olancha, immediately look for Gus’s Fresh Jerky on the left. They have a wide variety of traditional beef jerky flavors, as well as elk, buffalo, venison, turkey, salmon, and more, plus tasty olives, honey, nuts, other tasty treats. Celebrity visitors have included Quentin Tarantino (in the area to film “Django Unchained”), Colin Farrell, The Band Perry, and many others.
Heading further south toward Victorville and the end of the scenic drive, look for the iron statues on the right-hand side. There’s an easy turn off for pictures of varied people, characters, animals, symbols, and more. Fossil Falls is next, with dark black rocks looking like lava floes just off 395. It also provides a great picnic spot.
Next, look for the right-hand turn off 395 and onto Route 14 for a short diversion to Indian Wells Brewing Co. and tastes of their many beers—as well as the flavored bottled sodas they produce for Rocket Fizz (including flavors like dill pickle, mustard, butter, PB&J, ranch dressing, and many more). Both the beers and the sodas make for unique 395 souvenirs. Adjacent Indian Wells Resort has a restaurant. It’s just a few miles back to 395, after passing through little Inyokern (“100 Miles from Everywhere”) and more dining options.
Another short diversion is to the classic western-style town of Randsburg. The Randsburg General Store is a standard stop, thanks to food at their lunch counter, groceries, and more, but “local” joints like The Joint (across the street from the historic Randsburg Inn) provide an even better place to meet friendly locals.
Just north of Victorville, Adelanto features the Thiền Viện Chân Nguyên Buddhist Meditation Center. Visitors are welcome with open arms at this unique center, which includes regular meditation and other activities.
Though it’s about six miles east of 395, the California Route 66 Museum in Old Town Victorville provides for an appropriate diversion for road trip aficionados. The quite interactive museum features photogenic settings, including a 1950s diner, a VW “love bus,” a 1917 Model T Ford, and the first “End of the Trails” booth from the Santa Monica Pier. Appropriately, the museum partners with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and the first Cracker Barrel in California is just seven miles southwest.
The Victorville area marks the end (or start) of this amazing 350-mile section of California’s US 395, where the highway intersects with I-15 in Oak Hill near the historic Outpost Café (next to the busy Pilot Travel Center), which was founded back in 1928 and still serves weary travelers (and lots of truckers) to this day. Their daily specials and classic diner fare remain legendary and well worth a stop any time of day or night. The Outpost Café serves as great ways to start or end this classic California road trip.