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Trips: RVing East of the Sierra Mountains

| Updated May 19, 2015

sierra1My beautiful bride Sharon has been asking me for a while to drive Highway 395 east of the Sierra Mountains from the Mojave up to Lake Tahoe, just to see the beautiful scenery and to get away from the crowds. Earlier this month, we were sitting around in New Mexico, and decided to do just that. Leaving Albuquerque, we stopped at Bluewater Lake State Park for a few days, and then drove straight west on I-40.

Quite a drive it was, too, with weather blowing through the area, turning to snow east of Flagstaff, but altitude is your friend if you want to change the weather, so we continued east and in less than three hours went from snow, Ponderosa pines, and 34 degree temperatures at 7,500 feet down to the Mojave with 80 degrees and ocotillo and Joshua trees as we crossed the Colorado River, 400 feet above sea level. We continued on from there to Barstow, CA, where I-40 ends at I-15, where we spent the night.  The next morning, we were off the interstate and onto the old Federal two-lane highways we enjoy driving so much.

The Lone Pine tourist information center. The view is south, and those are the Sierras on the right.

As you go north, the highway steadily climbs from 2,000 feet near Barstow up to 3,700 feet at Lone Pine, the first town of any size we came to, and the desert changed from Mojave vegetation to scruffy bushes and eventually trees, and the mountains started closing in on us – the Sierras on the west and the White Mountains to the east. We started to see snow on the peaks as the mountains became taller and closer to the road.

This is a salt devil – a whirlwind over the dry bed of Owens Lake. The locals complain of respiratory problems when the wind blows – it's easy to see why.

The Owens Valley we were driving through was the scene of the California water wars of a hundred years ago, a struggle between the monied interests of Los Angeles and the farmers and ranchers of the valley. Guess who won. First Owens Lake became a salt flat, and then Mono Lake further up the valley also had its water supply diverted and began to become more salty. The abundant meltwater from the mountains on each side of the valley all went to the city via aqueduct, and the local economy crashed.

Looking north, those are the White Mountains to the right (east). Vegetation at Tuttle Creek is sagebrush in the flats, and cottonwoods along the streambank at the back of our campsite.

We snagged a spot in the Tuttle Creek Campground, a Bureau of Land management campground east of Lone Pine. There's water, a dump, and widely spaced campsites with fire rings. It's right at the foot of Mount Whitney, all 14,900 feet of it.  Because the Sierras are formed by a mountain building process called delamination, they have no foothills – there's a relatively level plain going right up to the foot of the mountain. That means you can drive a passenger car right up to the summit trailhead, which we could see from our campsite. This access isn't all it's cracked up to be, because inexperienced and poorly prepared climbers (referred to as knuckleheads by the rangers when there's nobody around to hear) often try a one-day summit and need assistance when the weather changes because they just didn't plan ahead.  Watching the weather roll in and out of the mountain valleys from my campsite, I gained a healthy respect for the dangers of such activity.

Sunset at Tuttle Creek, as the clouds pour through the mountain valleys and the rays of the setting sun light up the sky.

After a few days at Tuttle Creek, which is a great spot named for the stream of mountain meltwater coming right through the middle of it, we headed up the valley an hour to Bishop, Calif. to shop and receive a care package from my nominal mailing address, which was time sensitive because it contained an absentee ballot I had to return.

How we work things we can't handle online is have my family mail a package to a UPS or Fedex store c/o us, which they will hold and let us pick up at our leisure for a nominal fee. All we have to do is figure out where we will be in a week or so, do an Internet search for the available stores, and send this information back to the mailers.  Sure enough, our package was there waiting for us, and the desk clerk, who looked even more like some mountain man than I did, had a chuckle about the discrepancy between my current appearance and the 10-year-old driver's license photo I presented as identification.

Our overnight neighbors in Bishop, CA.

Bishop was another slice of small town America as we sat in the municipal park until dusk, watching the softball games and enjoying the (well-irrigated) greenery, and we settled down for the night in the local free overnight parking accommodations, a Kmart with a Von's grocery store nearby. It must have been pop-up night at the parking lot, because our neighbors were a Sportsmobile Sprinter and some Chevy Astro Class C conversion. We stocked up with groceries, fueled up, and hit the road for Yosemite. The trail up 395 is a nice area to meander through if you want to get away from the usual tourist bustle, enjoy the scenery, and meet some friendly locals.

RV Lifestyle

Published on 2015-05-19

2 Responses to “Trips: RVing East of the Sierra Mountains”

October 06, 2015at12:12 am, David Vallerga said:

We love the Eastern Sierras. It is never crowded, camping is inexpensive and always available and the mountains seem to rise right in front of you. There is a quality to the light that lends the area to some spectacular photography. One of several “must see” stops is the National Historical Park at Manzanar, not far South of Bishop. This is a now partially restored Japanese “relocation” camp from World War II. It features audio interviews with internees. The life they built in a very hostile environment in a short time was quite impressive. I have led tours to the area and always get to see jaws drop when the impact of the place sets in.

May 25, 2015at1:19 pm, Robo99 said:

We do US395 often between Reno NV (where my sister lives) and Barstow CA area (to get to Palm Springs area where we spend winters), and yes it is great fun to travel. In late fall, winter, and spring you have to watch those mountain passes south of Topaz CA, some of which exceed 8,000 feet and require chains or are temporarily closed due to snow. You might find it interesting that US 6, 2nd longest US route in the country, ends in Bishop CA, all the way from Massachusetts. We live (summers) just 2 miles from US 6 in northern Pennsylvania and did a “Route 6” journey to CA one Fall. It was one of those slow, off-the-beaten-paths Mike Wendland talks about all the time. It is also one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever done, in places like near the continental divide in western Colorado: gorgeous mountain scenery. US Route 6 used to reach all the way to LA but CA changed the road designations some time ago. Bob Ross, Wellsboro PA.

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