Bishop is a gateway city that marks the beginning (or end, depending on your direction) of the Eastern Sierras visual spectacle offered along Highway 395 that runs north-south in California, east of the Sierras, but not quite to Nevada.
If you’re going anywhere on 395, you’ll probably go through Bishop. This is a town that marks a change in landscape from a dry, arid desert to the south, to the rich, rugged views of the Sierra to the north. Don’t miss a stop at EriK Schat’s Bakery downtown, the only intersection with a traffic light. One could almost spend a whole day here sampling the delicious delicacies at this special bakery. In addition to the usual sweets, there are apparently dozens of different styles of bread. This is a “don’t miss” when traveling through Bishop.
Continuing north, you’ll find Mammoth Lakes. This haven for Angelenos escaping from the big city has turned what used to be a quiet mountain getaway into a viable community. The small town I knew a few years ago is now hidden behind luxury stores, condominiums, a high school, and a hospital. Getting away from the city to Lake Mary is still very enjoyable and the hike up to the Devil’s Pole Pile is very popular. to dissect the city center making it a bit confusing for the first time visitor. Go out into the countryside above the city with the lakes and postpile, this is wonderful.
Off the beaten track, and away from the hordes that seem to have grown up around Mammoth, lies Devil’s Post Pile. We love the scenery and this strange geological attraction is well worth a look. The hike from Post Pile to Rainbow Falls is also well worth it, about 3 miles, lots of drop offs and some steep sections.
Leaving Mammoth, one heads north to the sleepy hamlet of June Lake, which always seems primed for a photo for some Field and Stream magazine, sporting log cabins and plaid-shirted fishermen in abundance. The 14-mile June Lake Loop takes you back along the base of the mountains where a small ski hill can be found, a big learning hill for families. The northernmost lake, Lake Grant, is a reservoir lake and although it has fishing, it lacks the usual shoreline that makes the lakes so pretty. The other lakes, Silver and June, are natural and ringed by Aspen for fantastic fall color photos.
The next stop on the way is Lee Vining, a gateway to Yosemite and where Highway 120 intersects with Highway 395. A left turn will soon bring you into Yosemite National Park on Tioga Pass. But let’s visit some highlights of the Sierra Oriental before we come back here.
Lee Vining has a wonderful interactive visitor and information center that focuses on “lunar-esque” Mono Lake. The lake was, in recent years, the center of attention in terms of water use rights. Nearly drained by Los Angeles in the 1980s to meet its massive water needs, locals along with the help of various national agencies banded together and sued to get the water back. Mono Lake is now quite full and alive with shrimp, birds, and all sorts of little critters. The Lee Vining Visitor Center is a wealth of information, pictures, history, and learning opportunities about this unique part of California. Note: Previous lower water levels in the lake allowed for extreme views of rock figures common throughout the lake that are now mostly covered again.
As you drive north, away from the lake, look back and see that it goes on much further than you would think from your first view of the lake. You are now heading towards Bodie, be careful as there is only one often overlooked sign indicating the Bodie turnoff and that is a right turn then 12 miles. Once on the way to Bodie, civilization quickly fades and the road eventually turns to gravel. Watch out for the hillside shepherd and his dogs in the meadow on the right, very European! Once in Bodie, head to the museum. This is where you will pick up your passes for the Gold Stamping Mill Tour. Only a few bucks, but well worth it in history, local color, and interesting information about a bygone era. Tours are at 11:00 am and 1:00 pm daily. If you can’t take a tour, take a moment to ask one of the docents or rangers, they have in-depth knowledge and seem to really enjoy sharing it!
Here we have to decide which way to go after Bodie, back to Yosemite or to Lake Tahoe. Once the weather turns and it starts to snow, maybe in late October or early November, Tioga Pass will be closed to traffic until late May or early June of the following year. The next closest junction that clears up for the winter is Highway 88, a bit north of us, but another lovely drive! If you’ve planned your trip when the pass is closed, after Bodie, stay on 395 toward Tahoe, where you’ll have several options to continue your explorations, either east to Nevada or west to California.
If you travel in the summer months with the open pass, we backtrack a bit. After Bodie, return to Hwy 395 and south again to Hwy 120 at Lee Vining and turn right towards Yosemite. Stop for dinner at the Mobile gas station on your left. This is the Whoa Nelly Deli, signposted “Restaurant” and it’s a wonderful quick and low-key stop for a snack, lunch or full gourmet dinner…always delicious and at a very fair price. The Whoa Nelly Deli is only open while Tioga Pass is open. Preferred seating would be outside at a picnic table overlooking Mono Lake.
Going up the “hill”, you will soon reach the pinnacle, Tioga Pass. Stopping along the way for photo shoots is highly recommended, as well as enjoying a few days in the park. http://www.nps.gov/yose is the official website for Yosemite National Park and can provide the traveler with plenty of travel planning tools.
Coming out of the park if you are heading to San Francisco, you will return to Highway 120, past Crane Flat and out the Big Oak entrance, or exit in this case. Your next stop should be the gold rush town of Groveland. Interesting spots here include the museum at the intersection of 120 and Ferretti Road, open daily from 1-4 p.m. The Iron Door Saloon is a step back in time, and Mountain Sage is a destination in its own right, a wonderful stop on cafe, gardens and nursery, hammock garden, arts, crafts, books and sitting nooks. Another place where one could spend the day. They also have wireless here if you need an internet connection.
If Groveland is a place to sleep, http://www.StayNearYosemite.com can offer a diverse selection of lodging options in the area and http://www.groveland.org can provide a preview of dining options.