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Highway 395, California

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Owens Valley - Hwy. 395 Drive

Adelanto California to Reno Nevada

Lying just east of the Sierra Nevada and north of the Mojave Desert, the Owens Valley is one of the least known and thus most underrated places for vacationing in the state.

With the High Sierra to the west and the Inyo and White Mountains to the east, this spectacular valley provides the entrance to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, and to a wealth of other outdoor adventure attractions including the John Muir Wilderness, and Death Valley National Park. The route also includes the amazing Mono Lake, one of the saltiest bodies of water in North America and the survivor of one the most audacious water grabs in American history.

Along the Drive

Starting just east of Los Angeles, in the Mojave Desert, U.S. 395 provides one of the great drives in the United States. It begins in the high desert of Southern California, and ends at the Canadian border

In-between, Route 395 crosses some of the most desolate land in California, as well as taking you to high elevations and some of the most magnificent mountain views in the world, where the Sierra Nevada range stretches high from the desert floor, with the lower 48's highest peak looming above the town of Lone Pine.

This story is about the southern part of the Hwy. 395 drive.

Lying just east of the Sierra Nevada and north of the Mojave Desert, the Owens Valley is one of the least known and thus most underrated places for vacationing in the state. With the High Sierra to the west and the Inyo and White Mountains to the east, this spectacular valley provides the entrance to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, and to a wealth of other outdoor adventure attractions including the John Muir Wilderness, and Death Valley National Park.

Side trip to Red Rock Canyon

Highway 395 begins its northward trek at Interstate 15, a few miles west of Victorville. It passes the growing town of Adelanto (motels, shopping plazas, subdivisions) and runs through 30 miles of open desert. Before reaching the Owens Valley from the south, I recommend taking a 20 mile side-trip eastward (via Hwy. 58) to Red Rock Canyon -- north of the town of Mojave on Highway 14. Red Rock Canyon State Park, with a campground situated in a setting of uplifted layers of sandstone, lava and tuff. There is a short nature trail and the whole park -- with its canyons and unusual rock formations -- begs to be explored. Beyond Red Rock Canyon -- if you take Hwy. 14 north to return to Hwy. 395 (about 35 miles) -- the Owens Valley appears.

Back on Highway 395

If you miss Red Rock Canyon and continue northward on Hwy. 395, you drive through flat desert, close to the Edwards Air Force Base dry lake, and then passing the old mining towns of Randsburg and Johannesburg. Randsburg is a funky ghost town, well worth visiting. Ridgecrest is a modern community a few miles east of the highway. Then you approach the Owens Valley -- passing the exit to Death Valley and circling around the northern edge of the dry Owens Lake bed. A short trip around the southern edge of the lake bed provides access to Dirty Socks Hot Springs -- a long-deserted pool in the desert, off a side road from Highway 190. Be warned, the hot water stinks from sulphur like its namesake hosiery.

Before the early 1900s, this long, narrow valley east of the Sierra Nevada was home to the Paiute Indians -- part of the Shoshoni people -- and to pre-historic natives. The Paiutes were nomadic desert inhabitants who were hunters and harvesters. In the winter they lived in pit houses, covered with aspen branches, grass and shrubs. And during the hot summers, they built more simple shaded lean-tos. Jedediah Smith, and other mountain men discovered the valley in 1827 and white settlers soon followed. They brought their cattle and horses, started farms, irrigated the land from the Owens River, and drove the natives from their homelands. In the short space of 38 years, Indian life in the valley was extinguished.

The Modern Saga of the Owens Valley

Farms established by early settlers prospered throughout the valley, irrigated with the plentiful water of the Owens River. Then in the early 20th century, the tentacles of a growing Los Angeles reached into the valley and the ravaging of the farmland truly began. In 1904, the city began using the water of the Owens River for its water supply, by buying water rights from the farmers. By 1907, the first part of the L.A. Aqueduct was completed without too much effect on valley farming. However, Los Angeles needed even more water and in 1921, more water rights were needed and many more farms were bought up, more water was pumped into the aqueduct, and farms quickly disappeared from the valley. Wells dried up and the desert reclaimed what the early settlers had made green.

What used to be Owens Lake is now almost dry -- hard-baked salt and sand. Yet even after this environmental calamity, the valley remains a treasure house of mountain beauty and is a superb recreation area. In recent years the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been ordered by the courts to provide enough water to keep the lake bed from producing dust storms. You can see some water on the lake bed fringes and more Owens River water is to be added.

Traveling up the 110 mile length of the Owens Valley is a vacation treat that everyone should undertake for historical and recreational enjoyment. Highway 395 is the main north/south route through the valley, passing through several distinctive towns including Lone Pine, Olancha, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop (the largest). Near Lone Pine are the Alabama Hills with unusual twisted rock formations, where many of the early western movies were shot including films starring William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes, Gene Autry, Gary Cooper and others. Scenes of the recent movie, "Django Unchained" were filmed in the Alabama Hills.

Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine

The star attraction of the valley is Mt. Whitney, at 14, 495 feet the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. It is possible for experienced hikers to walk to the summit from Whitney Portal, a delightful park situated high on the Mt. Whitney slope, easily reached by driving west from Lone Pine on a paved, winding road. The Portal offers astounding views of Mt. Whitney amidst pine and sequoia forest with mountain streams tumbling to the valley below. There are four campgrounds along this road: two near Lone Pine, another half-way along the route and one at Whitney Portal. North of Lone Pine is Independence, the seat of Inyo County which includes nearby Death Valley. A visit to the old (and still operating) Winnedumah Hotel will restore memories of the days of the western movies, when the actors stayed in this very inn while filming in the Alabama Hills. The Museum of Eastern California features displays on the valley's native heritage and mining history; outdoors is a collection of early farm implements.

The peaks of the White/Inyo Range have elevations of 11,000 feet and over, and with the even higher Sierra peaks to the west, the views up and down the valley are awesome. An excellent place to view the Inyo Range and valley scenes is from Onion Valley Road, at the town of Independence, the Inyo County seat. This road runs west for 14 miles with campgrounds along the way and in the high Onion Valley. A trail through Bishop Pass offers eastern access to the Kings Canyon area. The trailhead is at the end of Onion Valley Road and the trail climbs to the Sierra crest through the John Muir Wilderness.

Highway 395 leads further north, past the California Bighorn Sheep Zoological Area (on the eastern Sierra) and through the Big Pine Volcanic Field, where cinder cones and black basaltic flows are seen on both sides of the road.

The highway crosses the lava field at Taboose Creek.

Big Pine & the Bristlecones

Big Pine, a town of nearly 4,000 people, is close to Sierra glacier country. For glacier views, take Glacier Lodge Road, west of town. To see the oldest living trees in America, take Highway 168 to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where there is an information center and then the road continues to the Schulman and Patriarch Groves. One of the largest of the pines, "The Patriarch", is more than 1500 years old and has a circumference of 36'8". The trees are burly, much shorter than sequoias and have twisted, gnarled limbs and trunks. Bishop, a city of 4,100 people in the Chalfont Valley, has a good range of motels and visitor services. Highway 395 continues north, passing the ski and summer resort town of Mammoth Lakes, on the way to Carson City & Reno.

North of Reno, the route heads back into California, passes west of the Cascade mountain range and crosses the Oregon border. It ends at the Washington/British Columbia border.

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