As winter is in full swing here in the Northwest, I am in a California Dreamin’ kind of mood and remembering a special trip taken to the lesser known east side of the Golden State (at least to me) a few years ago.
Being from Seattle, I had been to Southern California many times, traveled up and down the Coast, seen the Redwoods, and left my heart in San Francisco. What I hadn’t seen prior to this trip was Death Valley (the lowest point in North America) nor the other side of the Sierra Nevada, including Mt. Whitney (the tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S.)
We started our road trip from the south after a few days of childs’ play at the happiest place on earth – weird maybe, but I still love Disneyland – to return through Death Valley. It was in the month of May so the area was not yet completely intolerable due to the heat.
So. Death Valley. It’s just what I thought it would look like and incredibly HOT! (No surprise there.)
We basically just drove through the park. Seriously, what would make you want to leave your air conditioned car for a furnace of 100 plus degree temperatures? The people who really want to hike here do not come in May (the smart people I guess you could say.) And warnings abounded for staying on the roads and carrying plenty of water with you. Okay, we did do a short walk on a simple trail and got our fix. And we stopped at the visitor center as we always do in the national parks.
But I have to say honestly that the best part of Death Valley was leaving it for the most amazing highway I had never heard of – US Route 395. Oh, what a find! 395 puts the ROAD in Road Trip! The highway climbs through broad, expansive, mountain country, crossing several mountain passes, the highest of which is Conway Summit at 8,143 feet. And you will have the road all to yourselves!
Our first major stop was at Lone Pine, a small western town and nearby Alabama Hills, which sits under the shadow of Mt. Whitney, and turns out to be the premier spot for filming Hollywood Westerns. (John Wayne filmed 13 movies in Lone Pine and was well known in town.)
One can travel the lonely road towards the Sierras into the strange rock formations of the Alabama Hills where over 400 movies have been made. The first one filmed on location in Lone Pine was The Roundup in 1920, starring Fatty Arbunkle (I love that name) and it was followed by hundreds more including, The Lone Ranger, Rawhide, High Sierra, North to Alaska, How the West Was Won, Gunga Din, Hopalong Cassidy, and Around the World in 80 Days.
Now I’m pretty sure I’m looking at Mt Whitney somewhere in this picture (correct me if I’m wrong) and it was very impressive. However. I still like my local Mt. Rainier better. Though Whitney is taller it doesn’t stand out as much since it’s surrounded by many similar peaks, whereas Mt. Rainier stands alone. (Feel free to take that with many grains of salt; I am after all from Rainier country and slightly jealous that Whitney is a mere 95 feet taller: 14,505 vs 14,410.)
The next major point of interest was the strange and salty Mono Lake, which is ringed by interesting formations of calcium carbonate (known as “tufta”.)
I picked up this postcard so you can see those weird formations more clearly. (Travel tip: I always buy postcards as cheap souvenir bookmarks.)
Before moving up the road I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can head west at Mono Lake and enter the wonderful land of Yosemite from its lesser traveled eastside via Tioga Pass (which we did on a later trip and have the picture below to prove it – the back side of Half Dome.)
Well time is running out so our last stop off US 395 will be Bodie, California, the most authentic, well preserved ghost town in the country and the largest of its kind. Bodie thrived after gold was discovered in 1859 and by 1880 10,000 people were living there. Now a state historic park, you can wander under the hot sun on its lonely hills (you will long for shade but find none) among the 200 or so abandoned structures frozen in time. (This is the real deal so don’t expect a Knott’s Berry Farm or Calico Ghost Town type of experience .)
Do you feel the heat yet? Well, hopefully this little journey has made you forget for a while the rain and cold and ice and snow wherever you are. Thanks for coming along for a little California Dreamin’.