4 Scenic Hidden Gems Off California Route 395
US Route 395 stretches basically the entire length of the western United States, from the Mojave desert in the south (due east of LA), to just shy of the Canadian border in the north. Running along the Eastern Sierras, the highway has served as a backbone to the state of California since the 19th century gold rush. It’s also an entry to both the highest point in the contiguous US (Mount Whitney) and the lowest point (Death Valley). As you may imagine… it makes for some of the most beautiful, unique and varied scenery one can witness.
Check out all of my favorite hidden gems along California Route 395 below, starting from Lake Tahoe and descending south to the Mojave. I suggest taking at least 3 days to make the trek- there’s camping, AirBNB & motels reminiscent of the wild west to rest your head. Let’s go!
As you head southbound on Route 395 from Lake Tahoe, the first destination I suggest hitting is Mono Lake (pronounced moh-no), located about 2 hours south. Mono Lake is thought to be one of the oldest lakes in the US, dating back ~760,000 years. It is large, shallow and salty; and without an outlet to the ocean, the alkaline salt water forms iconic limestone towers known as tufa.
I arrived to Mono Lake at sunrise and the snow-capped mountains reflecting on the glassy lake with the tufa sporadically emerging truly took my breath away. The solitude was almost eerie, like I could feel nature’s wisdom speaking to me through my ancient surroundings. It felt like a dinosaur might pop out from behind a rock. Layla wasn’t as worried though, and we played fetch on the shoreline for over an hour, careful to not let her submerge in the salty water.
Just south of Mono Lake is Mammoth - a village renowned for hiking, skiing and resorts. It will definitely warrant its own post once I visit, and would be a great place to stay if you’re doing this 395 road trip over the course of a few days.
Our last little stop off in this area was Convict Lake as it was just off the highway. It was totally unplanned, and a majestic spot to meditate and get a quick photo.
Continuing into Inyo National Forest, you’ll pass through the town of Bishop, (which is a great place to fuel up, get snacks, etc), and then into Big Pine. If you have the time, take Highway 168 East to Pine Forest. It’s a 45 minute detour both directions, but you’ll be rewarded with the oldest known trees in the United States at Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Take it all in with the Methuselah Grove Trail, a 4.5-mile loop hike that passes by the oldest living tree in the world (germination sometime around 3,000 BC; making it over 5,000 years old!)
Alabama Hills is easily one of the coolest places I’ve been in the US… or anywhere for that matter. It feels otherworldly, specifically like you’ve landed on Mars. But you haven’t, you’ve actually driven several miles down a dodgy dirt road to the rocky red foothills of Mount Whitney.
The red and burnt orange round rock formations and arches are from volcanic activity over 100 million years ago. Loads of movies have been filmed here, especially westerners needing to portray a rugged scene. Next time I road trip the 395, I’m definitely camping here.
You can also access Mount Whitney from here, the highest point in the contiguous US! Another item on the California Bucket List. The more I check off, the more I learn about and the more I want to see. It’s never ending, this travel game.
Gem-O-Rama & The Trona Pinnacles
The last stop I have for you is the tiny desert town of Trona, California, where I’m sure there’s a lot of strange shit going down.
I went with my best friend Kaitee of Moon Body Soul on the second weekend of October to attend the 72nd annual Gem-O-Rama and Pink Halite Mining Field Trip. It was an experience of a lifetime, digging pink rock salt out of a briny lake. We had rubber boots, an axe, buckets, and about 2,000 of our new closest friends for the day. If you’re a crystal or rock nerd, don’t miss out on this annual event. Read all about our experience and how to mine these pretty pink halite crystals here.
Also check out the Trona Pinnacles if you are in the area! Remember the tufa formations from Mono Lake? They’re back! And here, some of them tower over 140 feet and are more dense and hide all the creepy things lurking in the area. Am I the only one who feels on edge in the desert? I think Breaking Bad really stuck with me.