east side sierra nevada mountains

Road Trip Ideas: Highway 395 California

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Highway 395 California is one of the best road trip ideas. There is so much to see and do along this route that it’s hard to fit it all in in a week or even two. Picture hot springs, alpine hikes, breweries, craters, tufa towers, the Old West, and so much more.

Where is Hwy 395?

The southern terminus of 395 Highway is in the Mojave Desert at I-15 near Hesperia, California. The northern terminus is at the Canada–US border near Laurier, where the road enters British Columbia, Canada.

In California, where our Highway 395 road trip takes place, the road runs along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. On one side are the gorgeous peaks of the Sierras and on the other, the high desert. California Highway 395 winds through cute towns, past wondrous scenery, and has a lot of interesting offshoots.

The first stop on this road trip isn’t actually on Highway 395 in California, it is on Highway 14. I added it because a lot of people come from the direction of Los Angeles via Mojave and take Hwy 14 to California 395. On this route you drive right through Red Rock Canyon State Park, so you might as well stop and look around.

I think a trip on Highway 395 in California is one of the best road trips in America, along with some of my favorite road trips in Montana.

Mammoth sculpture with three people at Mammoth Mountain Resort in California

Road Trip Highway 395 Map

Pro Tip: Before you go, check California 395 road conditions on the Caltrans website.


Red Rock Canyon State Park

John Fowler, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You can see a lot of the gorgeous red rock right from your car, but it’s worth stopping for a bit in Red Rock Canyon State Park. In addition to towering red cliffs, you can see petroglyphs left by the Kawaiisu Indians and remains of 1890s-era mining operations.

The park has been used as a movie set for many Western films and Jurassic Park.

The Red Cliffs Trails is an easy 0.9-mile loop that leads through the Mojave desert to the aforementioned red cliffs. Red Rock Canyon State Park


Lone Pine, California

At the Western Film History Museum in Lone Pine you can explore a wide range of memorabilia and information about all the movies that were shot in the area, starting with the first silent Western, in the 1920s to some of the latest productions.

Lone Pine is where you hop off Highway 395 CA to get to Whitney Portal. Whitney Portal is the jumping off point for hiking up Mt. Whitney — the highest peak in the continental United States.

If you aren’t planning on climbing Mount Whitney, you may still want to take a drive on Whitney Portal Road to see the Alabama Hills framed by the Sierra Nevada. Roam around on foot or grab a Movie Road Tour brochure at the visitor center in Lone Pine and see where countless Westerns were filmed.

Stop at the Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery for lunch or Seasons for dinner (reservations recommended).


Manzanar National Historic Site

Entrance sign to Manzanar Relocation Center
Ansel Adams photo from 1943 or 44; public domain.

“In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II.” NPS

As you can imagine, visiting this internment camp is difficult, but important. Like visiting the Indian battlefields in Montana. It’s a part of U.S. history that gets swept under the rug.

Start at the visitor center and watch the 22-minute film Remembering Manzanar. Then walk over to the demonstration buildings of Block 14 — the mess hall, women’s latrine, and two barracks buildings. Manzanar National Historic Site

Side Note: If you want to read a great novel about a Japanese-American internment camp and the people who were kept there, I loved Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich. It’s set at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.


Bishop, California

Having Route 395 as a main street does detract from the town a little bit, but it’s still pretty cute, worth a visit, and you’ll find lots of things to do in Bishop, CA.

For Bishop, CA things to do, consider grabbing something sweet at Erik Schat’s Bakery – a charming place right on the highway. Or get a sandwich made on their Original Sheepherder Bread, which has been baked continuously since 1907. It’s very good; you might want to get a whole loaf. Take your food across the street to the city park and eat in the shade.

You can get a feel for Bishop by watching me walk through town :).

Stop in at Mountain Rambler Brewery for food and a beer if you didn’t fill up at Schat’s. I like the Aperture IPA and Skin Diver hard seltzer.

If it isn’t ridiculously hot, you may want to visit Keough Hot Springs and maybe even spend the night there. It’s about 8 miles south of Bishop.


If you are looking for something a little more beachy, consider a coastal California road trip.


Mammoth Lakes, California

three people in front of tallest waterfall near Mammooth

I was especially excited to spend some time in Mammoth Lakes, since I spent a summer working as a Wilderness Ranger for the Forest Service there. It had been almost 30 years since I had last been there and it definitely looked different, but the mountains and lakes remain the same.

We were hosted for three nights at the Sierra Nevada Resort and Spa and it was a great basecamp for all our Mammoth activities. We were there in the summer of 2020, so we didn’t quite get the full experience – the lobby was closed etc., but we loved the rustic charm and all the amenities we needed for a comfortable stay.

There is a lot to do in Mammoth and we barely scratched the surface in three days. Even if you only have a couple hours, I recommend adding a mini road trip to Mammoth Lakes to your Hwy 395 California road trip. Driving to Mammoth is only ten minutes off of Hwy 395.

Our priorities were hikes, lakes, breweries, and hot springs.

Hiking in Mammoth Lakes

There are so many great trails near Mammoth. We hit the classics:

hwy 395 road trip basalt pillars at Devils Postpile National Monument

  • Devils Postpile National Monument and Rainbow Falls: This is a very popular, but spectacular hike to basalt pillars and the tallest waterfall in the Eastern Sierras at 101-feet. In summer you must take the shuttle from Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center to Devils Postpile National Monument ($8.00 for adults, $4.00 for children aged 3-15) or go before 7 am or after 7 pm. The trail is 5 miles roundtrip. Go early because it gets hot and crowded. We started hiking at 8 am and it was lovely. On our return around 10, it was heating up and there were lots of people on the trail, especially near the postpiles. Devils Postpile National Monument

fault in the earth's crust, highway 395 California

  • The Earthquake Fault: This isn’t really a hike, more like a short walk. Very short. It’s a great place to learn about the geology of the area and a good stop on your way to the Inyo Craters. It’s more accurately called a “fracture” than a “fault” since neither of the sides move separately from the other. It is a huge crack in the ground that you can walk around. From Hwy 395 take the Mammoth Lakes (Hwy 203) exit, then make a left.  Take Hwy 203 (Main St) to the second stop light.  Make a right onto Minaret Rd. The Earthquake Fault is located just up the hill on the right hand side. Earthquake Fault

three people looking at a crater with turquoise water, Road Trip Ideas: Highway 395 California

  • Inyo Craters: These two craters are about a 20 minute drive from Mammoth on the Mammoth Scenic Loop Road. It’s a 1.6 mile out and back (or loop), mostly in the shade. The craters were formed in the mid-1500s after the eruption of Deadman Creek, Obsidian, and Glass Creek domes in 1350 CE. Like the Earthquake Fault, the Inyo Craters serve as evidence of a dramatic period of geologic unrest.The craters have filled with a lovely turquoise water. Inyo Craters
  • Crystal Lake: We didn’t hike to Crystal Lake on this trip, but I remember walking up there 27 years ago and it was beautiful. It’s an easy way to get to a crystal-clear alpine lake. Sit on the rocks along the shore or take a refreshing swim. It’s only 3.1 miles round trip, but it is kind of steep. Start at Lake George.

Lakes in Mammoth Lakes

With a name like Mammoth Lakes, you know there will be plenty of places to swim, paddle board, fish, and otherwise recreate on the water. Here are the lakes we visited:

boy by a lake

  • Lake Mary: Of the 11 lakes in the area, Mary is the largest and most developed. It’s not over the top developed, though there is a campground and a marina. We found a quiet spot on the shore for a picnic by parking the car on the side of the road and walking down to the lake. I would have loved to have my SUP there.

two people standing in June Lake at the June Lake Beach

  • June Lake: Mammoth’s neighbor June Lake has a big beach and campground on the north end. We spent several hours here, swimming in the lake and laying on a blanket. There was a little operation renting paddle boards and kayaks. Take State Rte. 158 from Highway 395 to June Lake Beach Road, passing through a campground area and low brush before coming to the beach parking lot. We visited the Earthquake Fault and Inyo Craters en route to June Lake.
  • Other Mammoth Lakes: Lake George, Lake Mamie, Horseshoe Lake, and Twin Lakes also make for good spots to dip your toes or cast a line.

Breweries

You know we had to visit a couple breweries. We hit up the Mammoth Brewing Company and June Lake Brewing.

woman tasting a flight of beer in Mammoth California off Highway 395 road trip

  • Mammoth Brewing Company has indoor and outdoor seating and serves food. I had the veggie Cali Bowl and a tasting flight of beer. Oh my goodness, it was tasty.

adult and kid holding beer and soda at June Lake Brewing near Mammoth, California Highway 395

  • June Lake Brewing is a straight up brewery – no food. There is a food truck called Ohanas 395 that shares the outdoor sitting area, but it seems to be open just a few days and for lunch only. The beer was good, though!

Hot Springs

hot springs near mammoth

One of my favorite things to do is soak in hot springs (see Hot Springs in Montana and Hot Springs in Idaho) and I always search them out when we visit a place with geothermal activity.

When I worked as a ranger out of Mammoth, we’d visit the desert hot springs past “the green church” on our days off.

On this trip, Henry and I got up early to watch the sunrise from a hot spring near Mammoth. We originally planned to soak in Hilltop Tub, but there were several cars there so we went to Wild Willy’s instead.

Wild Willy’s Hot Spring is super well known and popular, but there is one large, long pool and a smaller pool, so there is plenty of room. When we arrived the small pool was full and there were maybe six people in the big pool. We found a large space just for us and watched the sunrise over the desert.

man in hot springs called Wild Willy's near Mammoth

Most of the wild hot springs are off Benton Crossing Road and Whitmore Tubs Road. From Hwy 395 CA, turn northeast onto Benton Crossing at the Green Church to access both roads. Benton Crossing is about 6 miles south of the Mammoth Lakes turnoff. A lot of hot springs are on Google Maps, including Wild Willy’s and are easy to find.

Be aware that these hot springs are clothing-optional and you may see some naked bodies. You might be one of those naked bodies.


Lee Vining, California

While we were at the Inyo Craters we met a couple who recommended visiting Mono Cone for soft serve ice cream. When someone suggests getting ice cream, we do it!

three people with ice cream cones in front of Mono Cone in Lee Vining on Highway 395 California

The woman who recommended Mono Cone had been coming to Lee Vining for 40 years and had fond memories of camping there as a child. She suggested that we take our ice cream around the corner to see the Upside Down House at the outdoor historical museum. This was a good call since I love roadside attractions like this and there was ample shade in which to enjoy our ice cream. Make sure you read the historical notice on the Upside Down House to understand how truly cool it is.

My new friend also suggested the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Tioga Gas Mart (Mobil Station). You wouldn’t think that the best food in town is at a gas station, but the food gets rave reviews. Fish tacos and taquitos are meant to be delicious. We already ate lunch and didn’t get a chance to try it ourselves.


Mono Lake

mono lake tufa with the backs of two people, top attractions on hwy 395

One of the top Highway 395 attractions is Mono Lake. When I was in high school I remember having a “Save Mono Lake” sticker and seeing them around. The City of Los Angeles was draining the lake by diverting water from its tributaries as they tried to meet their growing water needs.

The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center is a good place to start your visit to Mono Lake. It’s an impressive visitor center with information about the geology, wildlife, culture, and history of the whole Mono Basin. You can find out about guided walks in some of the tufa areas there. The Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association runs a great bookstore out of the visitor center and has books etc. about the Mono Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

My first choice is to visit the South Tufa Area next. It has some of the best views of the tufas— columns of calcium carbonate which form from the interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. The area was closed while we were there because of fire danger or something, so we went to Mono Lake Park instead. It was a lovely shaded park with a boardwalk through a marshy area to some tufa towers.


Bodie Ghost Town State Park

Woman looking in window in Bodie Ghost Town State Park

A lot of ghost towns just have a few buildings or one main street, but not Bodie – it’s a full-on town. Bodie is a genuine California gold-mining ghost town that was once home to 10,000 people. Only a small part of the town is left in a state of “arrested decay,” but it seemed pretty big to me.

Despite its somewhat remote location, it’s a popular place. We got there right as it opened and there were only a few other people for the first hour, then more gathered, so I’d advise getting there early or late.

I recommend buying the self-guided tour book at the entrance kiosk. We spent about an hour and a half walking around and reading about each building and they really came to life. You could also take a ranger led tour. Count on spending about two hours in Bodie.

From U.S. 395 seven miles south of Bridgeport, take State Route 270. Go east 10 miles to the end of the pavement and continue three miles on a dirt road to Bodie. The last three miles can at times be rough. Reduced speeds are necessary. Call the park if there are any questions about road conditions. Bodie Ghost Town State Park

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