In my last blog I suggested that the snow capped mountains rising vertically from the desert floor, lush green meadows, ghost towns in “arrested decay,” more or less dormant volcanic craters, thermal hot springs, stunning waterfalls and tufa towers of the Eastern Sierras were one of California’s most beautiful destinations.
Getting there also offers unique pleasures. While the first half of the 300-mile trip can be visually boring even that stretch offers some noteworthy points of curiosity. The second half of the drive is visually beautiful and intellectually satisfying. Making the trip an all-day drive with stops along the way rather than a 4 ½ - 5 hour one-shot drive can be a source of lifetime memories.
An apt starting gate for your trip is the Cascades of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, where Eastern Sierra snowmelt water exits the aqueduct, cascades downhill and flows under the 5 Freeway into a filtration plant. The Cascades are clearly visible as you pass through the Sylmar area of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley where Interstates 5 and 405 merge. The aqueduct supplies about one-third of L.A.’s water.
Shortly after passing the cascade you will turn east on State Route 14 and enter the Mojave Desert where you will pass the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster and drive through the city of Mojave. While some citizens might disagree, for me the primary interest Palmdale and Lancaster offer is the blood feud between their mayors. The link I have provided is from an article published in 2013. However, the same two people continue as mayors and the feud continues to this day.
Continuing on State Route 14, before reaching Lancaster, you will pass Vasquez Rocks, a 745-acre park highlighted by unique geological rock formations; a history trail tour of the Tatavian Indians and Spanish settlers; and the place where Tiburcio Vasquez hid out and was involved in a gunfight. The movie Austin Powers and some episodes of Star Trek were filmed here.
The Rosamond exit off CA 14 is also the exit for Edwards Air Force Base. Edwards is where the sound barrier was first broken, the first landings of the Space Shuttle took place and the around the world, nonstop, unrefueled flight of the Rutan Voyager began and ended. Free, general public tours of the base are offered once a month but it requires advance reservations and fill up fast. The tour provides access to the base museum – the best of the Edwards museums. The West Gate and North Gate have museums displaying various aircraft that are open to the general public and do not require reservations.
The city of Mojave began as a construction camp for the Southern Pacific Railroad and was the western terminus of the 165-mile, 1880s twenty-mule team borax wagon route that originated in Death Valley. Today, Mojave’s small central district is primarily a junk food alley interspersed with gas stations. The impulse to drive through quickly is dampened only by the fines levied for speeding.
Notwithstanding its unappealing appearance, Mojave may be renewing its relevance not only as home to a private space port but with giant wind farms on one side of town and nearby Kramer Junction’s solar electric generating plant, the world’s second largest. Mojave is also home to dozens of not-in-use airplanes, stored in the open because of the dry desert air and partially visible from the highway.
As you drive through the Mojave Desert you will see a number of Joshua Trees – evergreen trees with dagger-like leaves that look like stick drawings on steroids. If you have not visited Joshua Tree National Monument and would like to see more Joshua Trees than the scattered samples visible from CA 14, take the Isabella-Walker Pass road (CA 178) turn-off, drive the relatively short distance to Onyx and from there until you reach Walker Pass you will be in the midst of 12 miles of Joshua Tree forest.
State Route 14 passes through Red Rock Canyon, with its vivid shades of deep red and offers a break from the visual monotony of your drive up to that point.
It may seem incongruous but a large naval base sits in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Just before CA 14 ends at the junction of U.S. 395, it passes the outer borders of the U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Station at China Lake.
As you drive along Interstate 395 the rock-faced, jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range will gradually overshadow the barren foothills on your left. Normally, and especially this year, their peaks are capped with snow the year around.
After passing Little Lake, a former marsh, dammed in 1905 as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct project, you will see black, volcanic rock scattered along either side of 395. There will also be a sign for Fossil Falls, a unique geologic landscape formed by volcanic activity and meltwater from glaciers, well worth making a short stop to view.
Olancha and Cartago (now hardly more than signs on the road) mark the southern tip of the salty remnants of Owens Lake. During the gold rush era the lake covered about 100 square miles and was up to 30 feet deep. Steamships plowed the lake carrying ore from the lake’s eastern shore to Cartago and Olancha. From there the ore would be carried by wagon to San Pedro. Today the dry salt beds of Owens Lake bear witness to the impact of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
From Olancha you may detour through Death Valley although I would recommend a separate trip to North America’s lowest elevation. However, a side trip to Darwin will take less time and will provide a lifetime of cocktail party conversation.
Continuing on 395 the Sierras will come into clear focus and you will arrive at four towns that mark the eastern border of the Eastern Sierras.
Located just outside of Lone Pine, with its maze of exotic rock formations the Alabama Hills have been the location for 100s of motion pictures and television productions, many of them B-westerns of the 40s and 50s but also including more recent productions such as Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Generations and Disney’s Dinosaur.
Lone Pine pays homage to its film history with an annual film festival and also with its Film History Museum. The museum is worth a quick stop if you are interested in American film; the Alabama Hills are worth a pass through if you enjoy unique scenery.
The Lone Pine area’s best-known attraction is Mt. Whitney. With its elevation of 14,496 feet, it is the highest elevation in the United States outside of Alaska. It is visible from Lone Pine and from Badwater, Death Valley – North America’s lowest point. You can drive to Whitney Portals from Lone Pine. From there the popular trailhead for the trail to the top of Mt. Whitney begins. It is a steep but not difficult trail that requires a forest service permit.
Lone Pine has the best selection of eating places before Bishop. I generally buy some picnic style food at the market in the center of town and then go to Russell Spainhower Park with its shade trees and small creek at the north end of town to eat. In the alternative, I will go to the Frosty Chalet hamburger and ice cream stand across from the park and buy my meal there. Their hamburgers are multiple times the quality of Lone Pine’s McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants.
Between Lone Pine and Independence you will pass the remnants of the Manzanar Relocation Camp, one of the camps where Americans of Japanese ancestry were interred during World War II. Little is left of the original camp but the visitors’ center provides a depressing history of a shameful past.
When passing through Independence you should do more than glance at its historic courthouse on your right. Take some time to tour the Eastern Sierra Museum. As opposed to many of the local museums you will see throughout the Eastern Sierras this one is professionally (rather than through volunteers of local historical societies) managed and has an extensive collection of materials pertaining to the Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierras.
You may also wish to drive by the privately owned and occupied Mary Austin House. Mary Austin, a friend of Jack London and Ambrose Bierce, was a popular writer during the first part of the 20th century. Her book “The Land of Little Rain” describes the Owens Valley and is still in print.
Big Pine is the gateway to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to the world’s oldest living item of any species at 5,000 or more years. A bit of a detour from your final destination but nevertheless and interesting site.
Bishop is the largest city in the area, full of restaurants and hotels. If your drive has been leisurely, Bishop is a convenient place to spend the night. Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ is a well-known, somewhat overrated, tourist stop because of its selection of Dutch based breads and other baked goods.
I suggest refilling your gas tank at the Paiute Indian Reservation just north of Bishop’s central district. The price of gas increases substantially as you get into the Eastern Sierras and the reservation gas is sometimes substantially cheaper than any other gas station in Bishop or further into the Eastern Sierras.
I have only mentioned a few sites of interest on the road to the Eastern Sierras. For a well-written, exhaustive description of sites to see, purchase a copy of Ginny Clark’s, “Guide to Highway 395: Los Angeles to Reno” or check it out from your local library.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.