My 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.