When someone from east of Nevada hears the word 'California', images of beaches, of youthful males and females in bathing suits splashing in the surf, of actors driving expensive convertibles on LA freeways, of San Francisco streetcars, of dotcom moguls sipping Napa wine and tranquil sunsets over the Pacific come to mind. Yes, these generic images describe a diverse land with lots of glitz and glitter, but there is another entirely different face of California. A drive down US 395 just west of the Nevada line and east of the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains will give the visitor from “back east” an entirely different picture of the geography and inhabitants of our most populous state.
From Oct 22 - 27, 2015, my wife and I went on a mini-vacation to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. This is a vast and largely rural area but it affords amazing opportunities for sightseeing and viewing, remarkable and unique geology, plant and animal environments, and the resulting plants and animals that inhabit the region, along with remnants of the hardy people – Native Americans, explorers, miners, ranchers and farmers – who passed through or settled it throughout our nation’s history. Given all these elements it comes as no surprise that this region affords many great opportunities for photographers to capture unique and inspiring images. In this note I lay out our itinerary for a whirlwind five day visit that brought us into contact with a large swath of the area, to include places to stay and eat, approximate cost, and things to see and photograph along the way. I should add that I have been to this region several times previously (and I hope to return many more times in the future) so this five day trip in no way does justice or provides the time to experience everything it has to offer. But if all one has is five days and wants a good sampling of the the eastern Sierra Nevada, the plan laid out here is not unreasonable, or if one has more than five days or is revisiting, what is laid out here can be useful as well.
Given the size of the region and the sparsity of roads, to maximize what one can see in a limited time a loop route – starting and stopping at the same place – is insufficient. So the route laid out here has one starting in the northern end, in Reno, NV, and driving south along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, primarily along US395, to the town of Lone Pine, CA, where it turns south east driving through Death Valley National Park (NP) and into Las Vegas for the tours end. Thus for my wife and I, from our home airport outside Baltimore we booked an outbound flight to Reno-Tahoe Airport and a return flight from Las Vegas. We then booked a one-way rental car from Reno-Tahoe to Las Vegas McCarran Airport. The five days of the rental car with a one-way drop-off from Enterprise Car Rental came in at less than $200.00. I consider this a real bargain!
Before I get into the details, here are a few of the highlights from along the route that illustrate what makes this area special and why five days is not nearly enough time to experience everything that you will pass through or that will be tempting nearby.
Virginia City, NV: the famous mining town that sprung up in the 1850’s with the discovery of the Comstock Lode silver deposits and which was immortalized in the TV show “Bonanza”.
Bodie, CA: an amazingly preserved gold mining town from the mid-19th and early 20th century, frozen in time and preserved today as a ghost town. Bodie is a Calif State Park and there is a $5/person admission fee.
Mono Lake: a large saltwater lake with large exposed tufa formations that were formed when the lake was much larger and deeper. There is a $3/person fee to visit the south Tufa formations along the lake.
The eastern side of Yosemite NP: a natural wonder that deserves its own multi-day visit. There is the usual National Park entry fee to be paid on entry to Yosemite proper.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest: this is the home of the oldest living thing on the planet with trees still alive known to be over 4000 years old. This is a $3/person (to a max of $6) per adult fee.
Mt. Whitney: the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.
The Alabama Hills: an amazing geological formation in the Sierra foothills, the location for many western movies and TV shows from the mid-20th century.
Death Valley NP: a natural wonder that deserves its own 5 day visit. There is the usual National Park entry fee to be paid on entry to Death Valley NP.
Although it was not specifically planned, given the dates of our trip in late October I knew there was some possibility of fall colors. Since I live in the northeastern US I expect that the best fall color photography is in my backyard and the eastern Sierra have much more enticing photo ops than fall colors. But, it turns out we were there when fall colors were at or near their peak and given the majesty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as backdrop, I expended a good portion of my photographic energy on photographing yellow and red aspen and cottonwood trees. Spring is also a good time for a photography visit given the possibility of wild flowers blooming. In winter, and into early spring, all the roads at elevation are closed due to snow, this includes Yosemite (Tioga Pass), Bodie, and the Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Finally, to conclude this preface,
Lodging rates given are approximate, one room for two, w/o tax (estimate tax at ~10%)
Fly Baltimore, MD, to Reno, NV, arrive approximately 9PM
Overnight Reno, NV: Hyatt Place at the Reno-Tahoe Airport
Afternoon drive Reno to Bridgeport via Virginia City, 125 miles
Stops for sightseeing/photography in Virginia City, NV
Overnight Bridgeport , CA: Silver Maple Motel $99.00 (nice, clean, friendly, continental breakfast)
Another interesting place to lodge in Bridgeport (note that I did not stay here) looks to be the Bodie Hotel. The proprietress, Jean, saw me photographing the exterior and invited me inside to photograph the interior of unoccupied rooms. It looked like one imagines how rooms in old west hotels would look (see the pics in my Sierra gallery), in other words it had lots of character and could make for a memorable stay.
Highlight of this area: Bodie Ghost Town State Park ($5/person entry fee)
Sidetrips to Bodie and Twin Lakes, CA
Additional stops for fall colors photography along US395
Bridgeport to Bodie, 24 miles but 1 hour travel time (final 3 miles are gravel, suitable for any car)
Bridgeport to Annett’s Mono Village at Twin Lakes via Twin Lakes Road: 27 miles roundtrip
Overnight Lee Vining, CA: Lee Vining Motel $70.00 (you get what you pay for, look elsewhere unless you really want to save money - we didn't necessarily want to go cheap but oh well, we didn't have this blog)
Highlight of Lee Vining: Mono Lake (note that Bodie is also within short drive of Lee Vining)
Sidetrips to eastern Yosemite NP via Tioga Pass on CA120
Sidetrips along June Lake Loop for fall colors, CA158
Photography everywhere – Mono Lake, June Lake Loop, Tioga Pass, etc
Lee Vining to Olmstead Overlook in Yosemite NP via CA120 and Tioga Pass, 30 miles
Lee Vining to Bishop via June Lake Loop & Benton Hot Springs along US395-CA158-US395-CA120-US6: 140 miles
Overnight Bishop, CA: Creekside Inn $130.00 (very nice, substantial breakfast, worth the expense)
Highlight of this location: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (outside Big Pine, CA)
Additional highlight: Manzanar WWII Japanese Internment Camp
Bishop to Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest via Big Pine along US395-CA168: 45 miles
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest to Lone Pine along CA168-US395: 74 miles
Overnight Lone Pine, CA: Dow Villa Hotel & Motel $87.00 for room in hotel (nice, clean, comfortable). The hotel is historic, and many movie/TV personalities have lodged here (1940’s – 1950’s) while filming westerns in the nearby Alabama Hills
Highlight of Lone Pine: Alabama Hills and entrance road to Mt. Whitney
Stops for photography in Death Valley Junction and Tecopah
Route through Death Valley NP merits multi-day visit but we’ve been here before so except for a pass-through it was not on our “stop and visit” list this time.
Lone Pine to Shoshone via CA136-CA190-CA127 through DVNP and Death Valley Junction: 162 miles
Shoshone to Las Vegas through Tecopah via CA127-Old Spanish Trail Highway-NV160-I15: 90 miles
Finally, fly Las Vegas, NV, to Baltimore, MD, departing Las Vegas at 4:40PM arriving BWI at midnight.
Meal Suggestions with approximate price or price range
Taste rating scale: Blah, OK, Good, Very Good, Outstanding, Excellent
Reno: Peg’s Glorified Ham and Eggs
Outstanding skillet breakfasts with southwest flair (chili relleno, tamales, etc), $8
Bridgeport: Burger Barn
Outstanding hamburgers, $5 - $9
Lee Vining: Nicely’s Diner
Good breakfasts, $5 - $9
Lee Vining: Latte Da Coffee Shop
Very good breakfast sandwiches $5
Very good coffee
Bishop: Back Alley Bowling Alley. Yes you can still find great food in the lounge of a Bowling Alley. Is this a great country or what?
Excellent Fried Chicken, $12
Very good Ribeye Steak, $24
Bishop: Erick Schat’s Bakery. You have to see this place to believe it! As one who loves good bread and baked goods, I was in 7th heaven.
Very good sandwiches
Lone Pine: Texas Barbecue (across street from Dow Villa Motel)
Outstanding beef brisket
Shoshone, CA: Crowbar Café and Saloon
Very good breakfast omelets, outstanding pancakes!