Salt & Wind Travel

15 Best Sites Along Scenic Highway 395 California

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 state’s eastern side, 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. 

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 five years, yet I never run out of things to discover. And, as a travel planner who curates itineraries to California, I know first-hand what travelers like (and don’t) when they travel California Highway 395. Here, I’m sharing 15 stops as you go from Olancha to the Nevada border, including Death Valley National Park, Alabama Hills, and Manzanar National Historic Site. 

Highway 395 California
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Lone boulder on riverbed in Death Valley

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 take a road trip along the eastern edge of the Golden State. Most sites are slightly off the road, so many travelers drive past and miss almost all these (almost all free!) spots. But that’d be a shame. 

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 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. 

Sunset view of rocks at Zabriskie Point Death Valley National Park

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 at Furnace Creek was recorded to be 134°F. Go in the spring to enjoy the majestic Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, peek at the wildflowers, or see the moving rocks at the Racetrack.

Alabama Hills

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, visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine.

Mt. Whitney

Mount Whitney needs no introduction at 14,505 feet and is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states. To see it 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, 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 worth getting to know. Start visiting the Visitor’s Center to take a guided tour or explore independently. Be sure to stop by Block 14 to glimpse 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 called the “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. 

Three bristlecone pine trees in Ancient bristlecone forest

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, an excellent place for boating and fishing in the summer. But, when the water levels are lower, you can head 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 ancient. It’s now believed that the Crowley Lake Columns are the byproduct of a volcanic explosion that occurred 760,000 years ago!

Sunrise landscape photo of Convict Lake with boulders and mountains

Convict Lake

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 rent a pontoon boat or do a short hike along the flat looped path. Also, the Convict Lake Resort has a classic steakhouse restaurant known for its martini bar if you’re searching for a comforting place to eat. 

Mammoth Lakes

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, 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. Head to June Mountain for easy winter 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

Women sitting on rock in Tenaya Lake looking east to Cathedral Peak

Yosemite National Park Via Tioga Pass

People are often surprised to learn 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 (stop at Whoa Nellie Deli for some BBQ!), then ascend 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 hike outside Ellery and Saddlebag Lakes.

Mono Lake

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, giving 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. 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, it’s technically open year-round, but the roads are often 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 further south, know you can also hit up Travertine Hot Springs. These hot springs are easy to access just east of Bridgeport, down a well-maintained dirt road. 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.

View of road with fall foliage June Lake California

Tips For Driving Highway 395 California

You may still have questions even if you’ve already read our California Road Trip Tips. You may be wondering, “Is Highway 395 dangerous?” The answer is no! You’ll enjoy this drive safely if you follow the speed limit and the road rules. 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. The main concern in the summer 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 discussed 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 various roads, such as the 89, the 50, or the US 80. 

Frequently Asked Questions

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 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 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. 

To clarify, in California, the U.S. 395 is 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. 

Along California Highway 395, travelers can discover various attractions, including the stunning landscapes of the Eastern Sierra, Mono Lake with its unique tufa towers, the ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, and the majestic Manzanar National Historic Site. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy Mammoth Lakes for hiking and skiing, while Bodie State Historic Park offers a fascinating glimpse into a preserved ghost town.

Where To Eat California Highway 395

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

Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency that specializes in California vacation planning? If you’re looking to plan a trip to California, our California trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.

Photo Credit: Mono Lake by Andrew S; The Racetrack at Death Valley by Bryan Brazil; Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest by Tomas Tichy; Convict Lake by Reiner in CA

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