Pop quiz: which road travels more than 1,300 miles and connects both the highest point in the contiguous United States and the lowest point in North America? That’s right, it’s Highway 395 California!
Though not as well-known as California Highway 1 and not as busy as Route 99, it is a north-to-south road that is very much worth your travel time. As it ventures up the eastern side of the state, California Highway 395 passes by Death Valley, Mt. Whitney, Yosemite National Park, old mining towns, premium ski resorts, legit ghost towns, and famous film locations.
Where Is California Highway 395?
Stretching between the Mojave Desert and the Nevada State line, California Highway 395 (also known as the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway) winds through some of the most dramatic landscapes in California. The road connects to the cities of Las Vegas, Reno, and Sacramento and is frequented by everyone from van lifers to road trippers and outdoor lovers. Along the way, it passes by the highest spot in the lower 48 states, multiple 14,000-food peaks, the hottest place on earth, and some of the oldest trees on earth. You’ll cross through the arid desert in Southern California, lava boulder fields in the middle, and, after leaving Bishop, gain 2,400 feet in elevation as you pass the Sherwin Summit and arrive in the heart of the Eastern Sierra.
While the Death Valley area was historically the land of the Timbasha Shoshone people, the areas that are now Inyo and Mono County are the lands of the Mono tribe, Coso people, Timbisha, and Kawaiisu. The route generally follows the historic Camino Sierra, which once connected Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe and was frequented by prospectors in the Gold Rush Era. Though there wasn’t much worth mining in the immediate area, the greater Owens Valley was a fertile place where cattle and other goods were then traded with the miners.
California Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierra
To clarify, in California, the U.S. 395 is actually split into two parts because it exits and then re-enters California via Nevada. The southern portion ventures through the Mojave Desert, the Owens Valley and then heads just east of the Sierra Nevada, while the northern section crosses the Modoc Plateau. We’re covering the stretch from just past the Red Rock Canyon State Park when Highway 14 and Highway 395 merge until the Nevada border. Or the road from Olancha in the south to Topaz Lake in the north.
Tips For Driving Highway 395 California
Even if you’ve already read our California Road Trip Tips, you may still have questions. You may be wondering, “Is Highway 395 dangerous?” The answer is no! As long as you follow the speed limit and the road rules, you’ll enjoy this drive safely. Here are seven more tips for driving California Highway 395:
Take Your Time
You can drive from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe along California’s 395 in one (albeit long) day of driving. We recommend doing it in two to three days with overnights at campsites or in the towns of Lone Pine, Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, or South Lake Tahoe. Many of our travel clients who road trip in California do this drive in three days with a stop in Death Valley National Park, Mammoth Lakes, or Yosemite National Park, and then head on to South Lake Tahoe.
Drive At Sunrise Or Sunset
Driving through the Owens Valley, from Olancha to Bishop, is particularly gorgeous at sunrise and sunset, so we recommend you plan around those times, if possible. Also, we don’t recommend doing this drive during the nighttime. One major reason is that you’ll miss out on the beautiful landscapes, but also, the road is not lit, and parts are one-lane highways with oncoming traffic, which can be daunting for unfamiliar drivers.
The Weather Can Vary
The weather along Highway 395 California varies a lot! It can be triple digits down near Olancha and then frigid (or even snowing) once you’re in the Sierra. In the summer months, the main concern is high temperatures, but it can also get icy during the winter. Also, it is known for being windy, which can be a lot to deal with for such a long drive. Make sure you plan and carry everything from extra water to chains, and always have more than enough gas.
You May Lose Cell Signal
Depending on your provider, you may lose cell signals during parts of the drive along California Highway 395. Be prepared by knowing where you’re headed and check road conditions ahead of time. Also, make sure you have wifi in your car or an SOS button in case you find yourself in an emergency, as there are stretches without any support services like gas stations or rest stops.
Don’t Let The Straight Road Fool You
The road seems like it doesn’t turn at all from Big Pine to Bishop, but don’t let that fool you. Once you leave Lee Vining in the north until you get to Topaz Lake, the road has dramatic curves and elevation changes as it skirts Mono Lake and follows the West Walker River.
You Can Enter Yosemite From The East
As we talk about below, you can drive into Yosemite National Park from the 395 during the late spring to the fall. This park entrance provides access to the stunning Tuolomne Meadows and through-hikes like the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
You Can Access Lake Tahoe
Also, you can access Lake Tahoe by taking a variety of roads, such as the 89, the 50, or the US 80.
15 Must-See Sites Along Highway 395 California
What are the places that you need to see on California Highway 395? Below, we get into 15 stops worth your time as you road trip along the eastern edge of the Golden State.
Most of the sites are slightly off the road, so many travelers drive right past and miss almost all these (almost all free!) spots. But that’d be a shame.
Having grown up in California, I’ve visited this area of the state countless times, and I’ve lived in the town of Mammoth Lakes for over 3 years, yet I never run out of things to discover. From world-class peaks for rock climbers and scenic drives to endless hikes in the Inyo National Forest and National Parks, there are countless things to explore. I suggest you hit a spot or three on each trip you make along California Highway 395. However, if you’re taking your time and doing the drive over many days, you could see all the spots on this list.
Death Valley National Park
The first stop coming from the south is Deth Valley National Park. As the name suggests, this is a dramatic place that’s set more than a few records. It’s home to the Badwater Basin, which, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest spot in North America. Also, it has the hottest spot on earth’s air temperature because, in 1913, the air temperature was recorded to be 134°F at Furnace Creek. Go in the spring to enjoy the majestic Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, peek at the wildflowers, or see the moving rocks at the Racetrack.
Okay, the name may be a bit misleading because Alabama Hills is not a bunch of hills but rather a series of rock formations. Head here to hike, cycle, or rock climb among the boulders. And go at sunset when you can snap a picture of the famed Mobius Arch in golden light. You can spend time here getting lost in the rocks while reminiscing on all the movies that were filmed here, including “The Lone Ranger,” “How The West Was Won,” “Django Unchained, “Gladiator,” and “Iron Man.” If you want to dive deeper into the film side of things, be sure to visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine.
Standing at 14,505 feet and as the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney needs no introduction. To see it for yourself, take the Whitney Portal Road from Lone Pine and drive it to the end. Be forewarned that you need a permit to hike or climb Mt. Whitney, but you can still admire it from the base.
Manzanar National Historic Site
Just outside Lone Pine, you’ll come across the Manzanar War Relocation Center, which is a reminder of a darker side of America’s past. More than 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in these military-style camps during World War II. It’s an often-overlooked side of our history that is very much worth getting to know. Start your visit at the Visitor’s Center to take a guided tour or explore on your own. Be sure to stop by Block 14 to get a glimpse into daily life at Manzanar.
Hot Springs Jackpot
Spend any time in the region of U.S. Highway 395 that stretches from Lone Pine to Walker, and you’ll hear about natural hot springs. This part of California has been the nickname “hot springs jackpot” because of the high concentration of natural thermal springs. Note that some, like Hot Creek Geological Site, are not for bathing, while others, like the well-known Wild Willy’s Hot Springs and Keough Hot Springs, are where travelers can take a load off.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
When it comes to the “oldest” point on the 395, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest holds that distinction. Make your way high into the White Mountains along the California-Nevada border and walk the trails that wind among 4,000-year-old trees known as bristlecone pines. Note that it’s open in the summer, but when there is snow, the road closes at the Sierra View Gates. However, you can still access the area to hike, snowshoe, or cross-country ski.
Crowley Lake Stone Columns
Between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, you’ll pass Crowley Lake, which is a great place for boating and fishing in the summer months. But, when the water levels are lower, you can head out to the Crowley Lake Columns. These natural formations look like a Gaudi building and a child’s sandcastle merged, and they seem otherworldly and ancient. While they are decidedly of this earth, recent research suggests they are indeed ancient. It’s now believed that the Crowley Lake Columns are the byproduct of a volcanic explosion that occurred 760,000 years ago!
We know a spot named Convict Lake might not be on your list for a stop, but it’s well worth it. There are estimated to be more than 1,000 alpine lakes throughout the Eastern Sierra, but, as you can guess, many are hard to reach. Luckily, that’s not the case with Convict Lake, as you can drive up to the lakeside parking lot of this crystal clear lake. Convict Lake has incredible trout fishing, but you can also rent a pontoon boat or do a short hike along the flat looped path. Also, the Convict Lake Resort has a classic steakhouse restaurant that’s known for its martini bar if you’re in search of a comforting place to eat.
We’ve already written about how the town of Mammoth Lakes is one of our favorite spots to get outdoors in California. That’s so much the case that I have lived here for the last 3 years! It’s home to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, so you have plenty to do in the winter. You can backpack, rock climb, horseback ride, fish, mountain bike, or hike in the summer. Read our Mammoth Lakes travel guide for more info, or head here for where to stay in Mammoth or where to eat in Mammoth Lakes.
Devils Postpile National Monument
One of the most popular sites around Mammoth Lakes is Devil’s Postpile and Reds Meadow. Home to one of California’s most fascinating geological formations, the “postpile” is a cliff of basalt columns that stick almost 60 feet out of the ground. Head there to see the postpile, then, if you have time and are up for it, continue hiking to Rainbow Falls.
The area is open roughly from June to September, and you’ll want to plan your visit. If you plan to drive, head there very early in the morning before the parking shuts down. Otherwise, you’ll be at the whim of the free shuttle from the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center.
June Lake Loop
One of the best Highway 395 attractions is right off the road as a detour. If you have time, you can take this 12-mile detour called June Lake Loop.
You’ll loop around the lake with beautiful mountain views, pulling over every few seconds to get more pictures of the breathtaking scenery as you pass June, Gull, Grant, and Silver Lakes. In the fall, this is one of the best places for fall foliage in the Eastern Sierra. In the winter, head to June Mountain for some easy skiing for the whole family. And, if the full road is open, be sure to stop in the town of June Lake for a bite at June Pie for New York-style pizza or to sip on local craft beer at June Lake Brewery.
Yosemite National Park Via Tioga Pass
People are often surprised to learn that you can enter Yosemite National Park from the east. Open from spring to fall (depending on snowfall), the jaw-dropping Tioga Pass connects the 395 to Yosemite. To do so, turn onto the 120 at the Lee Vining Mobil (make sure to stop at Whoa Nellie Deli for some BBQ!), and then ascend up the pass into the park. The pass itself is dramatic and worth a drive in and of itself. Even if you don’t enter the park, you can go on hikes just outside around Ellery and Saddlebag Lakes.
Just past the small town of Lee Vining, you’ll come upon Mono Lake. Truth be told, Mono Lake is technically more of a “basin” than a lake since it allows water to come in, but there’s no way for it to get out. The result is what’s called a saline soda lake that was formed more than 750,000 years ago. Translation: this is an ancient saline lake where you can not only admire the views but also swim! The lake water is super high in saline, meaning it’s denser than ocean water and makes for a super buoyant swim. If you don’t feel up to swimming, walk the marked paths or admire the unique ecosystem, which includes more than 80 species of migratory birds. Of particular note are the tufa formations or limestone formations sticking out of the lake that give it an other-worldly feel.
Bodie State Historic Park
We promised you this route also has ghost towns, and the most well-known of all is the ghost town of Bodie. Back in the Gold Rush Era, this town had more than 10,000 residents and was a significant mining town. Now, it’s one of the best-preserved ghost towns in California, and you can take a tour or visit on your own. Heads up that it’s technically open year-round, but the roads often are closed during snowy months, so it’s best to visit from spring to fall.
Travertine Hot Springs
I know; we already mentioned hot springs. But, in case you didn’t get a chance to stop by the hot springs that are further south, know you can also hit up Travertine Hot Springs. Just east of Bridgeport, down a well-maintained dirt road, these hot springs are easy to access. They can get busy with weekend warriors during the summer months, so we think the best time to visit is during the weekdays to avoid crowds.
Where to eat on California Highway 395
All that adventuring will likely leave you hungry. If you’re planning to bring along food, be sure to check out the recipe roundup of our favorite road trip-worthy foods.
Or, head here for where to eat on California Highway 395.
California Road Trip Planner
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