It's hard to avoid making comparisons between the most beautiful places I've ever seen and the visual world created by Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings films. One particular part of that world -- the arid hills and jagged mountains of Rohan -- reminds me of one of my favorite places in California.
That place is the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, paralleled by U.S. 395. While the western slope of the Sierra rises gradually like the "easy riser" stairs in the Winchester Mystery House, the eastern slope plunges downwards like a ladder at dangerous angle. It's a landscape with a harsh, haunting beauty. Etched in my memory, it's a place that will always call me back.
In the fall the prolific aspen groves turn from green to gold, golden orange, and flame orange. When the sun shines through the leaves on a crisp day, it's hard to believe that anything could be more beautiful. A few trees are already beginning to turn this year and the peak of the display should occur about mid-October. Fall nights can be very cold -- motels and cabins are the most comfortable places to stay unless you have camping gear for very low temperatures.
Snow blankets and transforms the land in the winter, closing Highways 120 and 108. By late spring the roads begin to open.
During the summer months the eastern Sierra provides unparalleled road access to the highest reaches of the Sierra and great fishing, hiking, camping, and scenic driving.
Highway 395 begins in the Mojave Desert and ends in northern Washington. This week I'll share some favorite stops along the Eastern Sierra section between Highways 108 and 120; next week I'll continue the journey south. You can make a nice loop trip by connecting 108, 395, and 120.
Bridgeport: 17 miles south of the 108 junction, Bridgeport is the only "major" stop between Lee Vining and the Carson Valley. For a town of about 800 residents, it has a surprising selection of restaurants, motels, and supplies. Its quaint Main Street and historic courthouse may convince you that you've traveled a few decades back in time. The annual 4th of July celebration and rodeo offer entertainment and fun for all ages. Bridgeport Lake has excellent trout fishing and boat rentals. Nearby Travertine Hot Springs offers warm soaking in a beautiful landscape.
Twin Lakes: Campgrounds, beautiful scenery, great fishing, and boat rentals make this a great vacation destination. Large rainbow trout are caught every year. Mono Village and Twin Lakes Resort offer cabins, motel rooms, food, supplies, and live music. The Robinson Creek Trail heads up into the aspens before reaching beautiful Barney Lake and entering Yosemite's northern wilderness.
Bodie State Historic Park: The state's best ghost town is preserved in "arrested decay" -- maintained to look just like it did when the state took it over in the 1960's. 13 miles east of 395 at the end of Highway 270, the town has over 100 long-abandoned businesses and homes. Looking through the windows you can see what people left behind when mining ended and the town died. You can visit the museum and tour the Standard Mill during the summer.
Virginia Lakes: At an elevation of 9,600 feet, the beautiful alpine lakes around this summer resort offer stunning Sierra scenery and good fishing for small trout. You can camp at Trumbull Lake Campground or rent a cabin. In the fall, paved Virginia Lakes Road and unpaved Dunderberg Road are great places to see colorful aspens.
Lee Vining and Highway 120: Yosemite's Tioga Pass road drops down to Highway 395 just south of Lee Vining. Like Bridgeport, Lee Vining offers everything you might need on your trip.
Mono Lake: East of Lee Vining, the vast salty waters of Mono Lake stretch out towards Nevada. It's an otherworldly landscape with oddly-shaped calcium carbonate tufa formations rising above the waters. Follow the signs for the South Tufa Area off along 395 and take the short, easy walk to the lake.
AAA's Eastern Sierra Guide Map is a great resource for learning about the area and planning a trip. The eastern Sierra is relatively close until the first major snow closes 120 and 108. No matter when you make the trip -- this fall or next summer -- you won't be disappointed. If you drive all the way around via Tehachapi or Tahoe during the winter, you'll find your journey was worth the long detour.
Adam Blauert can be reached at email@example.com.