I didn't have a car during my first year of college. When it came time to go home for the summer, my dad drove down to Southern California to pick me up. Instead of going straight home, we set off toward the desert to begin a road trip up U.S. 395 along the eastern slope of the Sierra.
That weekend Dad introduced me to a part of California that has been one of my favorites ever since. Although I had previously seen the section that I described last week, the remainder was completely new to me. This week we will pick up the journey at Mono Lake and continue south to Bishop.
Next week we will follow 395 down to Red Rock Canyon State Park in the Mojave Desert. With the aspen groves beginning their annual fiery transformation, this is one of the best times of the year to make the trip. Camping can be very cold, but there are plenty of motel accommodations along the way.
June Lake Loop
South of Mono Lake, 395 runs through high desert framed by jagged mountains. Highway 158 is an unforgettable 16-mile detour westward among peaks, lakes, and aspens. Grant Lake is the largest, but June, Silver, and Gull win the beauty contest. June Lake's motels and restaurants are open year-round, though 158 closes beyond June Mountain Ski Area in the winter. Closed this winter, June Mountain's website indicates that it will be reopened in the future.
Mammoth Lakes Area
Mammoth offers every kind of recreation, plus a wide range of lodging, restaurants, and services. Exit Highway 203 and 4 miles later you'll find yourself on the town's Main Street. To discover the area's true beauty, take the Lake Mary Road to the Lakes Basin where campgrounds and trails ranging from easy to challenging surround 7 alpine lakes. You can also continue up 203 to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and great views of the jagged Minarets at the road's summit. Mammoth boasts some of California's best downhill skiing, plus snowshoeing, downhill skiing, dogsled rides, snowmobiling, and dogsled rides. Beyond the summit, road access is limited to shuttle busses during the summer. Tickets are sold at Mammoth Mountain. From September until winter closure you can drive your own car by paying a $10 day use fee or showing a National Parks Pass. This gets you access to the unique volcanic columns of Devils Postpile National Monument and a variety of trails, including the 2-mile round trip hike to Rainbow Falls -- one of the best hikes in the state. The pack station at Reds Meadow offers day rides and overnight trips into the wilderness.
Located east of 395 on Hot Creek Hatchery Road, this is the Sierra's "Little Yellowstone" -- a place where dazzlingly blue boiling water bubbles up from deep below the earth's crust to fill pools along a popular trout stream. Grand views of the surrounding landscape and occasional geyser eruptions add to the fun.
Convict is a gem; one of the most gorgeous car-accessible lakes in California. Turn west on Convict Lake Road and you'll arrive at the lake in just two miles. It's a great place to fish and an even better place to see to enjoy aspens. The campground and cabins are popular places to stay.
Just off of the west side of 395, you can find lodging, a pack station, fishing, and some great aspen groves here. For an easy "fall color" walk, park at the end of the gravel road beyond the pack station and head up the creek. You don't have to walk far to be overwhelmed by color.
Rock Creek Lakes
A west turn at an outpost known as "Tom's Place" will take you to one of the easiest gateways to the Sierra high country. The road ends at 10,000 feet, putting the small alpine lakes of the Little Lakes Valley within an easy distance for just about anyone. Rock Creek Lodge offers year-round lodging -- with snowmobile transportation provided in the winter. South of Tom's Place old highway 395 is now named Lower Rock Creek Road. It's a great detour through aspen groves.
Below Tom's Place, 395 descends into the Owens Valley. The dry valley is framed by the Sierra on the west and the White and Inyo Mountains on the east. Bishop is the largest town, offering every kind of service you could need. We will pick up our journey there next week.
Adam Blauert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.