Spanning 250 miles from Topaz Lake in the north to Little Lake in the south, this breathtaking California byway showcases some of the most spectacular scenery on earth and is dotted with fascinating things for everyone in the family to enjoy.
Just south of where the byway starts in Little Lake, take the loop road through Fossil Falls and stretch your legs with a stroll to see the petrified waterfall! About 15 minutes north in Olancha, have breakfast at the historic Ranch House Café, an oldie but goodie tucked under towering cotton willow trees.
As you drive north towards Lone Pine, you’ll see the jagged peaks of the Mt. Whitney range – a slew of 14,000-plus foot peaks that would give Pikes Peak a run for its money, coming into view on your left. Check out the Beverly & Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History to learn about the hundreds of Hollywood Westerns that were made in the Alabama Hills above town.
Then then take the scenic loop through the Alabama Hills on the Movie Flats Road. The drive threads through picturesque jumbles of rock that were eroded by water into weird shapes. At the 2.7 mile historical marker, hang a right and learn how it all started in 1920 when Fatty Arbuckle came to Lone Pine to film The Round Up. For more info on Lone Pine, visit the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, Film Commission and Tourist Information Center.
Lunch with a View
For a scenic lunch you’ll never forget, take the Whitney Portal Road to the top. Check out the crashing waterfall, lake and trailhead where you can weigh your backpack on a hook and nab an outdoor table overlooking the views at the Whitney Portal Base Camp, where the cheeseburgers and fries are legendary and backpacker-sized.
Manzanar and Independence
Back down on Highway 395, head north toward Independence and stop for the intriguing, heart-wrenching tour of Manzanar, a World War II internment camp where about 100,000 Japanese Americans were confined during the war.
After the tour, drive into downtown Independence – check out the huge courthouse where Charles Manson was arraigned. Hang a left on Onion Valley Road for a dramatic road trip up into the breathtaking alpine valley. At the top, take a hike past a rushing stream, waterfalls and through a boulder field to a succession of lakes before reaching the summit at Kearsage Pass.
Base Camp in Bishop
Back on the highway, drive north to Bishop, an outdoorsy town with a cute downtown crammed with gear, clothing, fishing and tackle, cafes and book stores and a tiny cinema that plays first-run family flicks.
Check out the Mountain Light Gallery to see photographs by the late Galen Rowell, who immortalized the Eastern Sierra in his dramatic work. Then check into the Creekside Inn, where you’ll see more of Rowell’s photographers on the walls in the grand lobby.
Bishop has oodles of great places to eat dinner; if you like Asian food, it doesn’t get any better than Imperial Gourmet in town or Thai-Thai, a funky eatery located at the pint-size Bishop Airport. Karma has great Indian fare while Yamatani, which is always mobbed with hikers and tourists from LA on weekends, serves killer teriyaki and tempura. For spicy, authentic Mexican fare, head to the unassuming Astorga’s Mexican Grill, plus cold beer and coke served in glasses to wash it down.
The Creekside serves an impressive complimentary free breakfast or check out The Village Cage, a local haunt set in a cottage where you can get great pancakes, eggs and dishes with a Mexican twist.
North to Tom’s Place and Rock Creek Canyon
Head north over Sherwin Summit to Tom’s Place, hang a left and drive up, up, up to Rock Creek Canyon, another alpine stunner where you can follow the trail past a succession of alpine lakes set in a glacial cirque. After your hike, stop by Pie in the Sky at Rock Creek Lodge for a slice of homemade pie, then head back down to Tom’s Place for lunch, a roadhouse-style vibe with great burgers, fries.
Back on the highway, go north toward Mammoth and June Lake and take the June Lake Loop, whose glacier-carved setting recalls the Italian Alps. The drive roller coasters through dense forests and past a succession of sparkling alpine lakes. Past the quaint town of June Lake, which looks like it popped out of a cuckoo clock, pull in to Silver Lake and the Silver Lake Resort, offering family-friendly lakeside cabins and a cozy home-style cafe that serves the best breakfast in the Eastern Sierra.
If you prefer more luxury digs, the gorgeous Double Eagle Resort and Spa, set in a forested cove backed by Carson Peak and Horsetail Falls tumbling hundreds of feet from a rugged cliff, has deluxe hotel rooms facing a fishing pond and two posh pine cabins with modern kitchens, decks, fireplaces, wood stoves, TV and Internet connection.
Late spring through fall, you can hike out your back door to trails that climb to mirror lakes and craggy peaks and come back to the resort for a steam, soak or massage at the elegant Creekside Spa. The resort’s spectacular Eagle’s Landing has a fir-paneled dining room with huge windows that let in shafts of light from Carson Peak and serves upscale chop house fare, sumptuous salads and fine wines. They will even pack you a box lunch for the trail.
North of June Lake is the tiny town of Lee Vining, home to Mono Lake. Spend a morning exploring the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve. Stroll along the boardwalk to the beach and check out the Old School House Museum, filled with fascinating antiques and artifacts that trace the cultural history of the Mono Lake Basin.
The Wonders of Rock Creek Canyon
Backtrack a few miles on Highway 395 and hang a right on Tioga Pass. On your left is Whoa Nelly Deli, one of the best places to eat in the Eastern Sierra. People drive for miles — from as far as LA and San Francisco — to savor the deli’s famous fish tacos served with black beans and an exotic fruit salsa.
Nab a picnic table outside and savor the views and don’t leave without savoring one of the deli’s delectable homemade desserts — from triple chocolate cake to homemade berry pies. The deli is open when the pass is — roughly from May through September. On Thursday and Sunday nights, there is live music on the lawn and the deli hosts a film festival in the fall.
The Eastern Sierra’s Most Famous Ghost Town
After lunch, head north on Highway 395 to the turnoff for Bodie State Historic Park. The back road wanders through sage-scented flats before climbing to the boom-to-bust mining town founded in the 1860s. Nearly $100 million in gold bullion was dug from the hillsides and people from all four corners poured into the tiny town with hopes of getting rich quick.
At one point, Bodie swelled to 10,000 people and had two banks, a Chinatown with opium dens, a red-light district and scores of saloons. The town burned down in 1932 and was designated a National Historic Site in 1961. Today, the tumbledown shops, stores and homes are in a state of “arrested decay” and offer a fascinating glimpse of everyday life during California’s crazed gold rush days.
Back on Highway 395, retrace you steps south to Tioga Pass and drive three miles west to the summit and Tioga Pass Resort Café, an undiscovered gem tucked in a log cabin. Despite its tiny size — the restaurant has about 16 seats plus a counter with stools — the kitchen cranks out killer cuisine like lemon chicken, flaky biscuits, homemade boysenberry pie and wine by the glass. With panoramic views of peaks piercing the sky in every direction, it’s the perfect place to pay tribute to the mountains.