Sky-high peaks, steamy hot springs, hiking trails galore, and a plethora of historic mining and railroad towns. It’s all part of the constellation of activities that make any eastern sierra road trip into California’s High Sierra one for the scrapbooks. In particular, Highway 395 makes for an epic couples, friends, or family getaway. And all within easy weekend driving distance of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and San Diego. Plus, without the crowds of Yosemite and Sequoia to the west, it’s an excellent choice for those looking for a more peaceful mountain retreat.
Recently, I loaded up some road trip snacks, grabbed a friend, and put on one of my favorite folksy playlists with the intent of doing one thing and one thing only. Crafting the perfect three night, four day itinerary for mountain-loving road trip fiends.
Day 1 – Mono County
A Ghostly Good Time
Our day began bright and early with a stunning drive past granite-studded peaks on the way to Bodie State Historic Park, locally referred to as simply “Bodie Ghost Town.” Once a booming gold rush town in the 1870s that housed nearly 10,000 people. The area has since gone bust, and only a series of crumbling wooden buildings and an impressively huge mine on the hillside remains. I meandered through the town for two hours, stopping to marvel at the park’s “arrested decay” style of preservation. The Park Service maintains the buildings to resemble their state of dilapidation in 1962, when the site was first designated. My friend Brian and I didn’t manage to spot any ghosts that day. But maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll hear their voices on the whisper of the wind.
After that, it was off to adorable Bridgeport, CA and its Walker River Lodge to lounge on our own private deck in the sunshine (with a riverfront view) and soak our feet in the lazy stream before supper. Next up? A quick taste of the town’s locally crafted beers at Big Meadow Brewing Co. Their most famous concoction is the Black Jack Red Ale, aged in bourbon barrels for extra flavor.
Burbling Creek For Dinner
On the road again, we sped off for Virginia Creek Settlement, a bright blue wooden establishment set against a burbling creek with one seriously tasty restaurant. I opted for the shrimp Alfredo. And while Brian and I waited patiently for our food to arrive, he purchased a jar of homemade BBQ sauce from the gift shop so that we could witness the main event – feeding the trout. With our humble bags of fish food, we watched as thousands of small fish in tanks below the restaurant wiggled and squirmed into position to obtain some of the treats we had brought. I never expected trout feeding to be so wholesomely gleeful. But the experience left me giggling the rest of the evening.
Day 2 – Mammoth Lakes
Time For Tufas
Once again, we rose early to catch the incredible morning light against the stunning Sierra peaks surrounding Bridgeport before jetting down to Mono Lake to witness its infamous tufa spires. Formed by calcium-rich springs that bubble up into the lake’s bottom, these funky rock formations are made up of calcium carbonate. They stop growing as soon as the lake’s level dips below the tip of the pinnacle, leaving behind a bevy of pockmarked knobs and fingers that look a lot like an above ground coral reef.
A Gondola To The Top
Songbirds darted to and fro, and when it was time for us to leave this strange wonderland of rocks, Brian and I continued south on our eastern sierra road trip to the Mammoth Adventure Center for a gondola ride to the top of Mammoth Mountain, at a lofty elevation of 11,053 feet. I watched as the ground fell away beneath my feet. Snowboarders and skiers zipped along below me until the summit was in view. From the top of the peak, the imposing rocky faces of the Minaret Range came into view, the soul of the High Sierra.
Dinner And A Nap
After that, it was time to check into our room at Alpenhof Lodge. A delightfully Swiss-themed chalet in the heart of the town of Mammoth Lakes. Brian took a nap while I moseyed around snapping photos as the light turned to an amber and coral glow before dinner.
That night, we ate at one of Mammoth’s most iconic fine dining restaurants – Brasserie. Tucked away above a rockin’ bowling alley, don’t let the setting fool you. This French restaurant has all the charm and elegance you’d expect from a special occasion or date night spot. From the freshly cut roses on the tables to the delicious fresh seafood specials. My favorite part of the meal might have been dessert, though. A Sabayon Grand Marnier that resembled a mix between ice cream and a frozen soufflé.
Day 3 – Bishop
Instagram Famous Scenery
With a busy day ahead of us, we grabbed breakfast at Old New York Deli & Bakery Co. in Mammoth Village. We took our stacked bagel sandwiches to go as we drove across the arid foothills of the Owens Valley in search of a geological marvel. Stopping at Hot Creek Geologic Site, I instantly understood what made its picturesque viewpoints so Instagram famous. Perched two hundred feet above a winding, serpentine creek, Brian and I gaped in amazement at the incredible parade of turquoise, sapphire, and emerald that emanated from the hot thermal water flowing into a once chilly creek.
Anglers And A Convict
We snapped dozens of photos and set off for an easy 2-mile hike around Convict Lake. Anglers tucked into every available spot hoping to catch the big one. Traveling clockwise around the lake’s shoreline, I craned my neck to take in the stunning views of imposing Mt. Morrison and the craggy granite face of Mt. Laurel just beyond it. Cottonwood leaves fluttered in the breeze.
A Real Big Backyard
Next up on our eastern sierra road trip, it was on to the city of Bishop proper. Once a thriving railroad and cowboy town, the locale is currently in the midst of a cultural renaissance. Young artists and rock climbers are moving in and mingling with the older locals. Giving a nod to the area’s rich Native history, our first stop was the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center, which was in the midst of hosting a Great Basin art show full of up and coming Native artists from across the region. I loved wandering through the site’s cultural exhibits as well learning about traditional processes for roasting pine nuts and crafting colorful beadworks.
The Laws In Town
Brian at my side, I took the wheel and drove us to our next stop. We ambled around the Laws Railroad Museum and took in the sunshine and the fascinating cultural history of Bishop. The historic steam engine was impressive, to be sure. But our favorite part of the experience was discovering a somewhat morbid antique, horse-drawn hearse in one of the vintage buildings that line this quirky eastern sierra road trip stop. A must for any history buff in your group.
Sunset And Amazing Food
After a quick and seamless check-in at the centrally-located Vagabond Inn, we were getting hungry. We hit the road again for a taste of Bishop’s cuisine at Whiskey Creek Restaurant. This combination steakhouse-Thai food spot is one of the oldest eateries in town, dating back to 1924. We made sure to sample both sides of its incredibly diverse menu. Brian had the Salmon Rose, while I indulged in the Spicy Basil Stir-Fry with Tofu.
After that, it was off to gaze at the sun setting beyond striking Mount Tom. Turning the sky aflame from our vantage point on a dirt road just beyond the railroad museum.
Day 4 – Bishop and Drive Home
Pupfish Are So Adorable
Needing to hike off some of our hearty dinner calories, we grabbed a lighter breakfast at Pupfish Café in town. Hidden right behind Spellbinder Books, they’re known for their coffee confections and avocado toast. So, I put on my hipster cap and ordered two slices to prime myself for the day’s hike.
A Hike To Gable Lakes
Twenty minutes away, we parked among towering ponderosa pines at the Pine Creek Trailhead and quickly ascended switchback after switchback heading towards Gable Lakes. Scraggly-looking junipers dotted the crumbling mountainside. And as we ascended, we gleaned better and better views of a cascading waterfall to the south and a long-abandoned historic mine to the north. We didn’t make it all the way to the lakes, but with the phenomenal views we’d just witnessed, our exercise cravings had been sated.
To soak our weary hiking bones, we made our last stop on this eastern sierra road trip a relaxing one. Keough’s Hot Springs, established in 1919, has long been a locals’ favorite for taking in the healing thermal waters of the Eastern Sierra. We parked in a shady grove of trees, grabbed a couple of towels from the front desk, tossed on our bathing suits in the changing rooms, and gratefully plunged into the huge, hot pool in a shady corner of the bathhouse.
Letting the soothing warm water relax my tired muscles, I thought back over my epic long weekend in the High Sierra. How much history I’d learned, how much nature I’d hiked through, and how much I couldn’t wait to go back.
Author: Emily Pennington
The Brazen Backpacker. Writer. Photographer. Columnist at Outside Magazine.