In California, PCH gets most nods when one thinks of stunning stretches of Western beauty. But Hwy 395 between the Mojave desert to the south and Lake Tahoe in the north is one of the most dependable corridors for adventure in the country. Sagebrush desert, bubbling hot springs, jagged mountains reaching to the highest points in the nation excluding Alaska, alpine lakes, clear rivers, boulders with historic problems, walls of world-class granite, ski runs from cruisers to couloirs, green meadows and black volcanoes. What’s more, the swath of land 395 accesses is blanketed in national parks, national forests and BLM land, making almost anything you see grounds for exploration. I’ve coursed this vein of adventure many times since moving to California and though I may return to the same pool to soak or site to pitch my tent, each experience is new, a testament to this area's vast uniqueness, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Driving from Los Angeles, it can be a lonely haul reaching the feet of the Southern Sierra. From Lancaster to Olancha, one passes empty desert, rotted out gas stations and billboards directed at varying degrees of poverty. Life in this area is noticeably difficult and likely has been since the inhospitable land was settled.
From Olancha, ancient mounds of dark sedimentary rock give way to young, sharp, and staggeringly tall mountains of blinding granite, growing ever taller as you roll into Lone Pine.
To me, Lone Pine is the start of it all: A bustling town that serves as the jump off to the High Sierra. In fact, Humphrey Bogart’s film ‘High Sierra’ was filmed around Lone Pine, as were dozens of iconic films, from classic westerns to Iron Man.
From the main street, lined with saloons, hardware stores and outdoor gear shops, a quick left onto the Whitney Portal Road gives one a classic introduction to the diversity of this region, and granite itself.
Named for the Confederate battleship USS Alabama (Lone Pine was sympathetic to the South), the area is a sprawling 30,000 acre playground of granite inselbergs, bubbled up millions of years ago, kilned into chossy red stone, weathered and smoothed by the ages. For over 10,000 years people have been roaming this desert to hunt and explore.
On its own, Alabama Hills would be a star on par with Joshua Tree National Park and the similarities are unmistakable. But where Joshua Tree’s famous rocks rest in the middle of the Mojave on a largely flat, austere plain, Alabama Hills sprawls across the skirt of the Whitney Group, anchored by its namesake, the 14,495’ Mt. Whitney.
In its foreground stands the equally remarkable Lone Pine Peak whose northeast ridge climbs 6,900’ directly from the desert floor to the summit. It is a striking feature presiding over the landscape, even dwarfing the deeper set and largely invisible Whitney.
We rolled into Alabama Hills at dusk and with a little luck, even on a busy long weekend, chose a turn off that led to a vacant site. Being BLM land, no reservations are required and despite its beauty, Alabama Hills receives much less traffic than if it had the distinction of a developed park. We setup a small cowboy camp, cheersed to some beers and turned in on one of the first warm nights of summer.
In the morning we roamed around the rocks, scrambling, exploring and scraping a couple knees before hitting the road to the next destination.
Just up the road in Independence is the Onion Valley, a zone sitting high above town that accesses more High Sierra peaks, as well as Kings Canyon and the Western Sierra over Kearsarge Pass. Kearsarge was the name of a mine in the valley but first it was the Union battleship, which eventually sunk the USS Alabama. Independence, being loyal to the Union, couldn’t help rub the victory in Lone Pine’s Dixie face.
We set off on the Kearsarge Pass Trail, heading to 10,700’ to camp on the shores of Matlock Lake and attempt the North Face of University Peak the following morning. A wildfire in the area cast a fog of smoke across the mountains and smell of burning wood filled the valley. As we neared the rarefied air at 10,000’ our gasps for breath were often met with lurching coughs, gagging on the smoke and sparse oxygen.
Matlock Lake is a stunning body of water, walled in by sheer cliffs and eroded slopes of scree at the foot of University Peak. As the afternoon sunk into golden hour, the smoke reflected tones of yellow, then orange and finally rich pinks before the sun passed behind the crest of mountains.
In the morning I woke at 6:00 to climb University. After enduring a cold for a week and sucking down smoke the day before, I hacked myself silly lacing up my boots and packing my bag. Just ten minutes circumnavigating the lake to the chute I’d follow to the North Face, I had little will or energy to make my way up. I took a seat beside the lake, watched the sunrise and trotted back to a pleased wife who wouldn’t have to spend the morning worrying about me solo on the Class 3 ribs of University.
Moving north through Big Pine, past Copper Top BBQ’s smoky aroma and Keough Hot Springs, a charming resort frozen in time, one reaches Bishop, perhaps the most iconic and best known town of the Eastern Sierra. Home of legends, historic and contemporary like Norman Clyde, Peter Croft and Galen Rowell, it's unsurprising with the access Bishop affords. Some of the best climbing in the world is here, from highball boulders to massive alpine routes. It's also rich in history.
LONG VALLEY CALDERA
Our first stop followed in the footsteps of Rowell but more significantly eight thousand years of Paiute Americans. On an undisclosed stone in the midst of the Long Valley Caldera is a magnificent account of human history, an ancient petroglyph of stunning beauty, in an environment free of ropes, tickets and turnstiles. The petroglyph, which I won’t name, for its lack of discovery and commercialization, exists in a vulnerable position as the internet trades years of sniffing out clues and miles of misdirection for Google and Geotags. An hour online will surely turn up the directions but will also yield examples of disrespect and idiocy. Please, please treat this relic and the others surrounding it with respect and care.
From the caldera, following the serpentine flow of the Owen’s River, we headed back toward town and out again to the bouldering mecca known as The Buttermilks. Named for when sheep grazed here and miners would wander down from the local mine to lunch on cold milk in the hot sun, The Buttermilks these days attracts more stone masters than miners and holds some of the biggest and baddest problems in the world. Much of the Buttermilks is privately owned by the city of Los Angeles since Mulholland pilfered the Owens Valley’s water at the turn of the 20th century with Teddy Roosevelt’s consent. Though remembered as a conservationist, Roosevelt was first an imperialist and thought it more useful and strategic to have another major city on the west coast than a bunch of apple trees in the Owen’s Valley.
The rest of the land is BLM and like Alabama Hills, campsites are readily available. Even if you don’t boulder, this is a great place to hike, camp and enjoy the Bishop Creek streaming down from the mountains above.
From the Buttermilks it’s easy to get into the alpine with a quick drive up thousands of feet. South Lake and Lake Sabrina are fantastic jumping off points to incredible wilderness with a glut of lakes to fish and peaks to scramble. Wildflowers blanket the area in summer in stark contrast to the mountains that hold snow through the season.
Advancing further north, one passes Mammoth Lakes, my favorite town along 395, a town that has it all. Amazing lakes, skiing from November to July, hot springs, mountain biking and hiking trails, Rainbow Falls, Devil’s Postpile and the Ritter Range in Ansel Adam’s Wilderness. There is an undeniable energy in this town, blended between its sensational nature and the community that’s developed around it. I’m leery of our mountains being developed with new lifts and lodges but also grateful for the fun those that exist today afford. Mountain towns are a guilty pleasure for sure and I hope resorts will adapt best practices to co-exist with nature.
Further still, past June Lake, Mammoth’s sister hill, we reached Lee Vining and the mighty, nearly million year old Mono Lake. Though we’ll often travel up to Bridgeport and even as high as Tahoe, this is usually where we break from 395 and drive west on Hwy 120 to Tioga Pass and Yosemite National Park. 120 enters Yosemite’s high country at Tuolumne Meadow. It’s a stunning zone with a gorgeous river, a glacially manicured meadow and granite domes to scramble. Despite being much less popular than Yosemite’s iconic valley, Tuolumne still receives a staggering number of visitors and campgrounds fill up quick. Acting as a decoy, the Google search known as ‘Yosemite camping’ allows the area surrounding the park to be all but vacant.
The Hoover Wilderness holds among the most beautiful Sierra alpine scenery I’ve had the pleasure of surrounding myself in. Dozens of lakes below incredible peaks like North Peak, Conness and Dana, filled with rare Golden Trout, a footpath that rarely climbs or falls, all above 10,000’ and nary a backpacker in sight. What’s more, in a state where wilderness permits are snatched up months in advance, where we set alarms for 6:00am at the first of months to score coveted admissions, the Lakes Loop from Saddlebag has no quotas.
We hiked out to Shamrock Lake and, wading in the cold lake, with waves still licking at snow on its shore, walked to a shallow island and setup camp. We poured wine and fished, catching Brooks and Goldens nearly every cast, waved to the few dayhikers that passed our private lake and dined on empanadas as the sun went down, followed by more wine and bed.
GHOST TOWN OF BODIE
Once a boom town with its own newspaper, school, brothels, hotel, barber, church, Chinese laundries and even a town lawyer who made the 10 day wagon ride from San Francisco a few times a year, Bodie has been protected under the California State Parks Department since not long after the gold dried up. Many buildings are just as they were and it’s amazing to peer through the warped windowpanes with golden patina for a snapshot of how life once was for a brief bit of history on this grassy range.
After Bodie, we stopped at Travertine Hot Springs though didn’t linger long as a hot spring is the last place one wants to be on a 85 degree day in Bridgeport. So back we retreated to Sawmill Campground, stopping at the beloved Tioga Pass Resort for beer and hearty meatloaf.
As the sun went down and the campfire grew, we lamented that we’d have to follow the signs for 395 South the next day, retracing our tracks back to Los Angeles. So much left unturned, so many miles untraveled, we’d return soon, with a change of season, a new clue to explore, a trailhead to saunter down, a mountain to climb and a lake to splash in. 395 will never cease to amaze and its travelers should never yield upon it (except on passing lanes).