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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 California Highway 395!
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.
Stretching between California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and the Nevada State line, California Highway 395 ventures past old mining towns, premium ski resorts, legit ghost towns, and famous film locations.
About California Highway 395
Its location means Highway 395 connects to the cities of Las Vegas, Reno, and Sacramento. And along the way, it passes by the highest spot in the lower 48 states, the hottest place on earth, and some of the oldest trees on earth.
And as you travel it, you’ll cross through the arid desert in the south and lava boulder fields in the middle. Then, after leaving Bishop, you’ll head on a 2,400-foot elevation gain over the Sherwin Summit that puts you in the heart of the Eastern Sierra.
This route roughly follows the historic Camino Sierra that 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 because it exits then re-enters California via Nevada. The southern portion ventures through the Mojave Desert, the Owens Valley, and then head 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 the 14 and the 395 merge until the Nevada border or from Olancha in the south to just past Coleville in the north.
Tips For Traveling California Highway 395
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 a few other tips for driving California Highway 395:
Take Your Time:
You can drive from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe in one (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.
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 if possible.
The Weather Can Vary:
The weather can be triple digits down near Olancha and then frigid (or even snowing) once you’re in the Sierra. 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. Be prepared by knowing where you’re headed ahead of time. Also, make sure you have wifi in your car or an SOS button in case you find yourself in an emergency.
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 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 early fall.
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.
Must-See Sites On California Highway 395
What are the places that you need to see on California Highway 395? Below we get into 13 places worth your time.
To be honest, most of the sites are slightly off the road. So, you could drive and miss almost all these (almost all free!) spots as many are a bit off the highway. But that’d be a shame.
We suggest you hit a spot or three on each trip you make along the 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.
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 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 hills but rather a bunch 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 also visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine.
Standing at 14,505 feet and as the tallest mountain 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
Also just outside Lone Pine, the Manzanar War Relocation Center dives into a darker side of America’s past. More than 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens 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 in the Visitor’s Center to then 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 the US 395 that stretches from Lone Pine to Topaz Lake and you’ll hear about natural hot springs. It’s even garnered the nickname “hot springs jackpot” because of the high concentration.
Note that some like Hot Creek are a geological sites and not for bathing while others like the well-known Wild Willy’s Hot Springs and Keough Hot Springs are where travelers 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.
Note that it’s open in the summer but, when there is snow, the byway closes at the Sierra View Gates. However, you can still access the area to hike, snowshoe, or cross-country ski.
We know, a spot named Convict Lake might not be top of your list for a stop but it’s well worth it. There are estimated to be more than 1,000 glacial lakes throughout the Eastern Sierra, but, as you can guess, many are hard to get to but that’s not the case with Convict Lake.
It’s considered to have incredible trout fishing but you don’t have to be a fisherman to enjoy it. You can drive up to the edge of the lake and walk the flat looped path, weather barring. 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 Mammoth Lakes is one of our favorite spots to get outdoors in California. It’s home to Mammoth Mountain and the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center so you have plenty to do in the winter.
While 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 what to eat in Mammoth Lakes.
Devils Postpile National Monument
One of the most popular sites around Mammoth Lakes is Devil’s Postpile. 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.
Mono Lake is also 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 that you can’t swim in but can admire. Of particular note are the tufa or limestone formations sticking out of the lake that gives it an other-worldly feel.
Bodie Historic State Park
We promised you this route also has ghost towns and the most well-known of all is 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.
Looking for 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