California’s Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway stretches 250 miles on US-395 from Topaz Lake to Little Lake as it threads between the towering Eastern Sierra to the west and the arid and austere Inyo and White Mountain range to the east past some of North America’s most spectacular alpine, ranch lands and high desert scenery. En route, back roads coil to hiking trails that switchback to snowy peaks, glaciers and mining camps and you’ll get a warm welcome and tourist amenities ranging from home-style eateries to cozy, Ma-and-Pa motels in the small ranching towns along the byway.
These range from the sleepy ranching town of Olancha, with its old-time Ranch House Cafe to Mammoth Lakes, a glam year-round recreational resort and California’s top ski resort paved with chic resorts, eclectic cafes, fine dining and designer shopping. The byway also includes 23 scenic turn-outs and interpretive displays, all easily found by looking for the labeled turn-outs.
The Eastern Sierra range shoots up wall-like from the valley floor, from 4,000 feet to more than 14,000 feet, ending in craggy granite peaks that stand sentinel over the valley.
The scenic byway gives you a front-row seat to the many dramatic forces of nature that shaped them: massive sedimentation and erosion, seismic upheaval both gradual and abrupt and the slow but relentless power of glaciation, which lifted the High Sierra from the desert floor to ragged peaks and scoured out deep canyons and gorges painted in nature’s minerals in wild zigzags of colors.
With so many geologic forces at work and such a wide range of elevations, you’ll pass through a huge variety of micro-climates landscapes – from sagebrush desert and rock walls with ancient cryptic symbols to towering pine and spruce forests and snow-capped peaks — all in the span of 250 miles. In a good wildflower year, you can follow the blooms from the lower valleys of the High Sierra in April into the alpine mountain heights in late July and August. In the fall, the aspen turn yellow, orange and red in the high country; as the season progresses, the colors flow down the mountain in a river of gold.
From Little Lake, Highway 395 sweeps through the Owens Valley, a stark landscape located in the lowest valley on earth. As you motor through the flat stretch between Lone Pine and Big Pine, you can almost feel the desolation and despair blow in the dust from the deserted farmlands, abandoned railroads and the remains of Manzanar, the largest World War 11 internment camp where 10,000 Americans of Japanese descent were confined during the war. The name is Spanish for apple orchard and an important fruit- growing industry was centered here before the early 1900s and the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a short-sighted, behind-the-scenes political maneuver that within the space of a few years drained the once-fertile Owens Valley and by 1913, rendered it a dust bowl.
Considered an engineering feat equal only to the Panama Canal by the Los Angeles politicos who mandated it, the aqueduct kidnapped the Eastern Sierra’s water supply and piped it into LA so the city could continue to grow, leaving behind dry lake beds with swirling dust devils and scraggly, sagebrush pastures. Most of the small towns along the route were frozen in time as farmers left or foreclosed on their ruined farms and orchards and headed to greener pastures.
Despite the mass exodus, Lone Pine survived and today is bustling little town famous for the Lone Pine Film Festival and Mt. Whitney, which hovers over town like a sentinel. Two paved back roads — Horseshoe Meadows Road and Whitney Portal Road – spiral high into the Eastern Sierra, accessing campgrounds and trails that switchback past lakes, streams, waterfalls, meadows and crags. Even the tiny towns of Independence and Big Pine access pristine wilderness out their back doors via paved roads into the Onion Valley and Big Pine Wilderness, both offering spectacular hiking, backpacking, climbing, horseback riding and fishing.
From Big Pine, a highway climbs east into the ancient Bristlecone Forest on the crest of the White Mountains, the oldest known living trees to survive for thousands of years. In the windswept Patriarch Grove at 11,200 feet, violent storms that can drop several feet of snow alternate with silence and the incredibly clear light.
Bishop, the largest of the Eastern Sierra towns but still small with a population of less than 10,000, is the gateway to Bishop Creek Canyon, an outdoorsy town below a vast wilderness paradise for hikers, backpackers, climbers and anglers, offering many campgrounds, two awesome lakes and even a few old-time mountain resorts where you can rent a cabin or house and have dinner in a piney lodge.
Bishop proper has many motels, restaurants and shops as well as the gallery of the late photographer Galen Rowell, who immortalized the dramatic beauty of the Eastern Sierra is his stunning photography. North on the scenic route at Tom’s Place, a cozy mountain resort with cabins and a restaurant, the highway coils to Rock Creek Canyon, dead-ending near a cute cabin resort where the nearly-world famous Pie in the Sky pie/coffee shop has fueled many back-country hikers with home-made pies, soups and sandwiches. Trails curl into a wonderland of meadows and alpine lakes set beneath jagged peaks.
Just north of Tom’s Place is Crowley Lake, an anglers nirvana, and about 15 minutes north of Tom’s Place is Mammoth Lakes, the only real resort town on the byway and a year-round recreation haven. You can do nothing or all of it here — from golfing at the highest resort in the U.S. to tennis, hiking, rock climbing, backpacking, mountain biking, cycling, fishing, horse back riding and take advantage of a slew of guided activities for children and families. In the midst of the Sierra Nevada Mammoth is the ideal location for music festivals and concerts and live theater presentations. The town also has a packed calendar, with concerts, plays and festivals like the Mammoth Lakes Jazz Jubilee, Bluesapalooza and Festival of Beers.
Further north in June Lake, the 14-mile June Lake Loop winds past four alpine lakes with fabulous trout fishing, towering mountains, and incredible alpine scenery. Not for nothing is June Lake called “Little Switzerland” — June Lake proper, with the requisite cafes, gift shops and bakeries, looks like a town in the Swiss Alps.
The tiny town of Lee Vining is the gateway to Yosemite and spring through fall, you can follow the road all the way across the mountains into the park and continue west to the historic town of Sonora in the western Sierra. Just north of town is famed Mono Lake, whose prominent Tufa formations draw thousands of visitors each year. The 70-square-mile lake has no fish, but is home to trillions of brine shrimp and alkali flies. Millions of migratory birds also visit the lake, making it a prime spot to photograph birds.
Beyond town, the dramatic Sonora Pass climbs into the high country, threading a narrow course through towering forests and passing waterfalls tumbling from stony heights and lush wildflower meadows as it climbs to the panoramic summit and then descends down to the town of Sonora.
In Bridgeport, the western view opens to miles of green pastures in the shadow of craggy peaks. A paved road veers west into Twin Lakes sparkling beneath the Sawtooth Range. Or you can head east to Bodie, a well-preserved boom-to-bust gold mining town where you can peer into the windows of crumbling homes and taverns and see food cans sitting on dusty shelves inside the general store. The town once boasted a population of 10,000 after small traces of gold were found in 1875.
If you have 4WD vehicle, you can follow a remote, seldom-traveled back road that was once the stage route between the rival mining towns of Bodie and Benton, driving through high-desert country dotted with the tumbledown ruins of old ranches and farms and where nothing seems to move except the wind.
Between Bridgeport and the end of the route at Topaz Lake on the Nevada-California border, several back roads climb west into the foothills. North of Coleville, a road spirals up through grassy Antelope Valley where gold miners left a nearly intact stamp mill. Or follow switchbacks into the Sierra to the quaint 1884 mountain town of Markleeville (population about 200), which boasts a charming old-fashioned country hotel and restaurant. From there, back roads twist and snake up through the forested mountains to South Lake Tahoe.
The Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway between Little Lake and Topaz Lake is open year-round. Just 250 miles long, it can easily be driven straight through in six hours. But plan to devote a weekend or week to soak up the awesome scenery and explore the many sights along the way. The best time to do the drive is between late spring and fall, when the back roads that climb into the Eastern Sierra and Inyo and White Mountains as well as the resorts, motels and restaurants located on those back roads are open and you won’t run into heavy snow in the norther portions of the route between Tom’s Place and Topaz Lakes,which can close the road and leave you stranded miles from a motel or restaurant.
The Eastern Sierra Byway is particularly beautiful in the spring and summer, when wildflowers carpet the green hillsides and meadows. In springtime, the southern portions of the byway from Little Lake to Bishop are cool to warm, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s and cooling at night to 40 and below. By Memorial Day, most of the back roads accessing the Eastern Sierra and Inyo Mountains are usually open and free of snow, although there may still be snow pack in higher elevations and on peaks.
In the summer, the southern portions of the Eastern Sierra Byway between Little Lake and Bishop are hot, with temperatures in the low 100s. The temperatures drop as the byway heads north toward Mammoth, where summer temperatures are typically at least 20 degrees cooler than they are in Bishop.
Autumn is one of the most beautiful times to drive the Eastern Sierra Byway, when the slopes, hillsides and mountains are torched yellow, red and orange with aspen. The southern portions between Little Lake and Bishop may be very warm or cool, depending on the time of time. By the time you reach Mammoth Lakes, you’ll definitely need a sweater or jacket during the day and a ski jacket at night, when temperatures can dip below freezing in town and in the back country.
The town of Bishop posts a foliage alert and updates it on a daily basis. Peak foliage is typically between mid-September to early-to-mid October, depending on the year and the elevation. By the end of October, most of the leaves are down and some of the higher passes, such as Rock Creek Canyon, may already be closed.
During the winter months, towns between Little Lake and Bishop have pleasant weather, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s but dropping to the 30s at night and lower in the high country while sections of highway north of Tom’s Place to Topaz Lake can be in the low 20s and 30s during the daytime and below freezing at night. This stretch of highway may be temporarily closed to traffic in the event of heavy snowfall, and motorists are required to use or carry snow chains.
On winter weekends and holidays, the byway between Little Lake and Mammoth can get crowded with ski traffic and there are many speed traps and police officers patrolling the route.
Just 250 miles long, the Eastern Sierra Byway can be driven straight in six hours or less, but to absorb the awesome scenery and explore the many sights along the highway and in the High Sierra, plan to spend anywhere from a weekend to a week driving the route.
The best time to drive the Eastern Scenic Byway is between late spring and fall, when the back roads that climb into the Eastern Sierra and Inyo and White Mountains as well as the resorts, motels and restaurants located on those back roads are open and you won’t run into heavy snow in the norther portions of the route between Tom’s Place and Topaz Lakes. In the spring and summer, when wildflowers carpet the green hillsides and meadows. During the winter months, towns between Little Lake and Bishop have pleasant weather, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s but dropping to the 30s at night and lower in the high country while sections of highway north of Tom’s Place to Topaz Lake can be in the low 20s and 30s during the daytime and below freezing at night. This stretch of byway may be temporarily closed to traffic in the event of heavy snowfall, and motorists are required to use or carry snow chains.
On winter weekends and holidays, traffic may be heavier anywhere between Little Lake and Mammoth as skiers from Los Angeles and Reno head north or south to ski resorts in Mammoth Lakes and Lake Tahoe. However, with a few exceptions, the majority of the Eastern Scenic Byway is 4-lane, so you’ll rarely encounter city-style traffic jams that pose significant delays. Keep an eye peeled for speed traps and police officers patrolling the route.
The Eastern Sierra Byway is generally sunny between spring and fall, but heavy flooding in spring may temporarily close portions of the byway near Olancha while heavy snowfall may temporarily close the highway for a few days at a time north of Tom’s Place. When driving the byway in winter, always carry chains (chains are mandatory when there is heavy snow in Mammoth), warm clothing, boots, a sleeping bag and ample food, water and hot beverages.
Whether you’re a millionaire or a starving student, the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway has lodging, activities and restaurants to fit your bank account.
Families and tourists on a budget will find many inexpensive and moderately-priced motels, fast food joints, cafes and restaurants along the route, plus free and inexpensive campgrounds. For those who can afford to spend more, Mammoth Lakes has a cute downtown with many tourist amenities (a supermarket, drug store, fast food, casual to gourmet dining, cafes, shops, motels, hotels and condo rentals and golfing at 8,000 feet and a quaint mountain village with upscale lodging, gourmet dining, cafes and eclectic shops.
June Lake’s swank 4-star Double Eagle Resort & Spa offers designer cabins (some with full kitchens), a fishing pond, upscale restaurant and health club/spa overlooking rushing streams, soaring granite peaks and a dramatic waterfall cascading thousands of feet from a craggy cliff.
The town of June Lake also has several inexpensive rustic cabin resorts overlooking rushing streams, several campground resorts and affordable restaurants and cafes where you can eat and hang with the locals. Don’t miss the thrift shop, library and quaint pint-sized downtown.
Locals in the know gas up at Fort Independence Travel Plaza, owned and operated by the Pauite tribe and selling the cheapest gas on the byway or at times $1 less per gallon than elsewhere on Highway 395. The gas station/convenience store’s outdoor Grill serves burgers, BBQ, fries and homemade milk shakes and check out the Pauite artwork, basketry and bead work for sale in the store. From the parking lot behind the gas station, a hiking trail built and maintained by the tribe switchbacks into the sagebrush hills to “bench stops”that showcase artwork by local Pauite painters and sculptures. En route you’ll also enjoy spectacular views of the eastern Sierra peaks.
If you forget to fill your tank at the Independence Travel Plaza, other places with inexpensive gas include Von’s gas station and the Paiute Palace Casino, both in downtown Bishop. North of Bishop, gas stations become progressively more scarce along the byway, and the price of fuel escalates until you reach the Nevada border at Topaz Lake, where the price of gas per gallon plummets by $1 or more per gallon and gets progressively cheaper the closer you get to Reno.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
N/A = Not applicable
Free = Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ = Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ = Tickets $26 per person
$ = Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ = Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ = Rooms $300 for a double
$ = $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ = $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ = $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ = Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ = Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ = Tickets $26 per person
To save money on car rentals, rent a car at the Los Angeles International Airport or at the Reno international airport. Car rental agencies are nonexistent in towns along the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway, with the exception of Bishop and Mammoth, where selections are limited and prices exorbitant.
If you’re visiting the Eastern Sierra from out of town, plan to fly into Reno or LAX, or directly to Mammoth-Yosemite Airport in Mammoth Lakes.
Most restaurants, gas stations and motels/hotels along the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway accept credit cards and you’ll find ATM machines in gas stations and convenience stores in even the smallest towns along the route. That said, some restaurants don’t take credit cards, so bring some cash.
There is no public transportation on the scenic byway. For the best rates on car rentals, rent a car at Los Angeles International Airport or Reno’s international airport. The towns of Ridgecrest, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes have car rentals but the rates are more expensive.
Bishop Airport does not have any commercial airline service. The Mammoth- Yosemite Airport has nonstop flights year-round from Los Angeles and in the winter ski season, nonstop flights from San Francisco, San Diego and Denver.
If you’re traveling to the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway from out of town, plan to drive to the route or rent a car at LAX or the Reno international airport. Public transportation is scarce along the byway.
The Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway traverses the entire length of the Owens Valley, entering the valley near the former site of the Owens Lake north of Little Lake, the beginning of the scenic route. The valley, named for one of explorer John C. Fremont’s guides, was primarily home to Timbisha and Paiutes before European settlement. Formerly a fertile lake and valley, Owens Lake and the southern portion of the valley are now dry. Water from the valley is channeled for use by the City of Los Angeles, via the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in what is commonly called the “California Water Wars.”
Along the shores of Owens Lake, the highway passes the tiny towns of Cartago and Olancha. Just north of the lake is the recreational/Western movie town of Lone Pine, which has access roads to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in North America, and Death Valley, the lowest point. Both Mt. Whitney and the mountains surrounding Death Valley are visible from US 395.
From Lone Pine to Bishop, the byway loosely follows another abandoned rail line, the Carson and Colorado Railroad. The US 395 corridor from Lone Pine north to the Nevada state line is noted for its high concentration of natural hot springs, leading to area being called the “hot springs jackpot.”
Past Lone Pine, the highway passes by Manzanar National Historic Site, a concentration camp where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II. The next community is Independence, the county seat of Inyo County and home to the Eastern California Museum. Just north is the small Fort Independence Indian Reservation and the Tinemaha Reservoir. Nearby is where the Los Angeles Aqueduct is tapped from the Owens River, with more vegetation visible north of this point.
At the north end of the valley sits Bishop, the largest city in the Owens Valley. Bishop serves as a gateway for the recreation areas of the Sierra Nevada, including Mammoth Mountain. At the north end of Bishop is the former separation with, and current terminus of, U.S. Route 6, a 3,205-mile route which ends in Provincetown, Massachusetts on the east coast.
The scenery changes dramatically past Bishop as the highway reaches the end of the valley and with a single ascent, gains over 3,000 feet in elevation at Sherman Pass, at 7,000 feet the first of five mountain passes crossed by the highway in the Sierra. The highway leaves Inyo County and enters Mono County midway up the ascent, called the Sherwin Grade.
After cresting Sherwin Summit, the highway travels along the west shore of Crowley Lake, a reservoir for the City of Los Angeles’s aqueduct supplied by the Owens River. From Crowley Lake, the scenic byway heads northwest to Mammoth Lakes across the Long Valley Caldera.
Eight miles past the junction leading to Mammoth Lakes, the byway crests Deadman Summit (8,036 feet), which separates the Owens River watershed from that of Mono Lake, a salt lake with approximately three times the concentration of salt as the ocean. Along the descent towards Mono Lake, the highway passes near the small town of June Lake, a recreation area where there are several freshwater lakes famous for trout fishing, and the June Mountain Ski Area. The June Lake area is served from June Lake Junction by the June Lake Loop Road (SR 158)
Just before arriving at Mono Lake, the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway has a brief concurrency with SR 120; the two routes separate at the southern end of Lee Vining. At this junction, US 395 is 12 miles (19 km) from Tioga Pass along route 120, which is the highest paved route in California as well as the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park.
Visible for miles, the highway finally passes Mono Lake, squeezed between the lake and the Sierra crest. The next geographic feature is Conway Summit, at 8,138 feet (2,480 meters) the highest point along the Eastern Sierra Byway and also the highest point along a U.S. highway in California. This summit also separates the Mono Lake watershed from that of the East Walker River.
The highway descends Conway Summit via the tributaries of the East Walker River, heading towards the tiny town of Bridgeport and the Bridgeport Reservoir. Along the descent, the highway passes a back road that leads to Bodie, a ghost town which the state park system has preserved, including items still on the shelves in the abandoned stores.
The Eastern Sierra Byway crosses the fourth and last summit at Devil’s Gate Pass, elevation 7,519 feet (2,292 m). The winding descent from Devil’s Gate follows the West Walker River, exiting near the small towns of Walker and Coleville in the Antelope Valley just a few miles south of Topaz Lake on the California-Nevada state line.
Although the Eastern Sierra is primarily rural, there are many museums, art galleries, as well as year-round music, food & wine and cultural festivals in the towns of Bishop and Mammoth Lakes.
Cuisine is limited to fast food and homespun fare in many small towns along the Eastern Sierra Byway although you’ll find a wider range of options, including ethnic cuisine and gourmet fare, in Lone Pine, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes.
English is the predominant language along the Eastern Sierra Byway.
Many Hollywood Westerns and sci-fi flicks were filmed in the Lone Pine region. For more details, see Lone Pine.
Consider a sound track from a Hollywood Western filmed in Lone Pine.
The towns of Lone Pine, Independence, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes publish local guides to the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway that include maps and you’ll also find maps and information in The Reader, a shopper published in Bishop, and Sierra magazine, published in Mammoth Lakes.