Highway 395: Tripping Down California’s Backbone

When we first heard about a friend’s ailing condition on social media our hearts sank. The symptoms were very identical to that of Nina’s high school classmate who was suffering from leukemia. Later, a battery of tests confirmed our worst fears. Our friend was indeed suffering from the disease.

Fel had been a long-time colleague and mentor in our previous organization. He and his wife Lorrie had always treated teammates as family. Believing the best in their team members, they have often brought out the best in us. But it was our bonding as a family that stood out over time.

Fall colors along the 395 near Bodie
Fall colors along the 395 near Bodie with the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background

Back in 2008, our 3-year work stint in America came to an end. Before we left San Diego for the Philippines however, Fel – a native San Diegan himself – offered to take us on a road adventure through a stunning stretch of road along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. He was supposed to drop by his son at UC Davis near Sacramento. From there we would visit Lake Tahoe before taking Highway 395 on the way back to San Diego. Highway 395 is a scenic, if lesser known, stretch of road, one with varied scenery ranging from desert tundra to subalpine forest. To take us on such a long but exhilarating trip was very typical of Fel, who would often go out of his way to accommodate others.

After stops at Davis and Lake Tahoe we spent our second night at Reno, Nevada, where we briefly met with Nina’s niece. The morning after was the start of our trip down the 395.

ranch land near Carson Valley, photo 1

ranch land near Carson Valley, photo 2
Ranch lands at the Carson Valley just past Reno

The first scenes that greeted us after Reno were the ranch lands of the Carson Valley. The ranch views gradually gave way to mountain and forest scenery around Lake Topaz on the California-Nevada state line. Afterwards came the quaint towns of Mono County including the former mining town of Bodie. It was early fall when we came here and the clumps of trees along the roadway and in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada had become a colorful tapestry of yellow, orange and green colors.

fall colors at Mono County with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background
Fall colors at Mono County
the Sierra Nevada mountains viewed from Highway 395
Pouring rain at the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background

The most popular destination in the area is of course Mono Lake, famous for its tufa or limestone formations that tower out of the water in strangely beautiful columns. These tufa formations are the result of the lake’s high alkaline content which also induced the queer smell we encountered. The lake’s western shore is immediately accessible from the highway but we didn’t get to see the dramatically tall tufa there; the ones we saw were much shorter. We later learned that the tall tufa formations may be found at the South Tufa Grove, accessible via a 10 mile drive south from where we stopped and another drive along Highway 120.

tufa formations at Mono Lake
Mono Lake
the western shores of Mono Lake
Mono Lake: the western shore

Just after Mono Lake is the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite National Park – the park’s eastern entrance. The eastern side of the park is less known and therefore less frequented compared to the western side of the park that includes Yosemite Valley. A little further down south past Lee Vining is the entrance to Mammoth Lakes with the Owens Valley beyond.

another view of the Sierra Nevada peaks from the 395
Sierra Nevada mountains

The most spectacular scenery along Highway 395 in our opinion are the alpine views between Mammoth Lakes and the Owens Valley and where the 395 passes through the Inyo National Forest. Besides the excellent scenery, this area also offers a variety of tour options of the aforementioned sites and the Sequoia National Park and Forest. There are also sweeping views of Red Slate Mountain, Mount Tom and Wheeler Crest. The Sierra Nevada has several peaks here that tower above 13,000 feet. You get a sense of awe while driving along the highway with the imposing, cloud-shrouded masses of these magnificent heights framed by colorful fall scenery in the valleys below.

ranch scene along Highway 395
Ranch scenes like this are common along the 395
Philippine-made jeepney at Eric Schat’s Bakery in Bishop
A not-so-common sight: a Philippine-made jeepney at Bishop

Driving along the 395 also took us through quaint rural towns this side of California where time seems to stand still. However, we were in for a rude shock when we saw a Philippine jeepney (complete with décor and its original Sarao markings!) at Eric Schat’s Bakery in Bishop. Getting off the car, Fel insisted on discovering how the jeepney got there. Unfortunately Eric Schat wasn’t around although we were told by the bakery staff that Eric was a former serviceman who was posted to the Philippines, got fascinated with the jeepney and brought back one with him to America.

desert scenery at the Owens Valley
Desert plants at Owens Valley
sagebrush in an are near Lone Pine
Sagebrush are common in the dry sections of the 395 leading to the Mojave Desert; this is an area near Lone Pine.

By the time we got to Bishop, the landscape had already begun to shift into desert scenery of the kind we often see in western films. South of Bishop is Lone Pine, a town that appears to have come straight out of a western movie. We later discovered that the town, along with the neighboring Alabama Hills, had indeed been the shooting location for many Western movies and TV shows. Lone Pine is also the access point for two contrasting geographical features: the lowest point in North America – Death Valley National Park – and the highest point in the contiguous United States – Mount Whitney.

a section of the 395 just before the Mojave Desert
Driving towards the Mojave Desert section of the 395

It was almost dark when we began to enter the Mojave Desert section of the 395. Somehow we even saw glimpses of Joshua trees looming on both sides of the highway but it had grown too dark to see these plants in all their glory. After a brief stop at Victorville for dinner we were soon driving into the night and into San Bernardino County, then finally back towards San Diego.

Our ride along the 395 had taken practically the whole day and a good chunk of the evening hours. It was a tiring but exhilarating tour, one that we’ll always think about when reminiscing about our time in America.

Most of all we’ll always remember how Fel went out of his way to treat us to this road adventure. We pray that you’ll get well soon, friend. Always looking forward to more adventures with you.

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