Scenic Highway 395 – [Photographing the California Sierra Nevadas]

Alabama Hills at Sunset near Lone Pine, California

The California Sierra Nevadas, running roughly North and South along the portion of HWY 395 from Ridgecrest on the South to Bridgeport on the North is 226.6 miles of one of the most scenic highways in the US.

This highway lies between the Sierra Mountains to the west and the White Mountains to the east. Having traveled this route, both fly fishing and photographing, for over 30 years, this post will share some of its histories and lore.

Although 395 actually starts in Hesperia, the first real point of interest is the Petroglyphs in Ridgecrest. The Maturango Museum, which is just east of the 395, conducts scheduled trips to view the Mojave Desert petroglyphs which are actually on the U.S. Navy’s China Lake property. It’s worth the visit remembering however, there are only two weather zones here, sweltering and frigid – your choice.

Proceeding north from Ridgecrest are the towns of Olancha, Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, Bishop, Mammoth, Lee Vining, and finally Bridgeport.

Olancha offers little more than a diner – with a population of 192, you could hardly expect more.

Lone Pine is, to the west, and traveling Witney Portal Road (the only street with a stoplight,) home to both Alabama Hills and Mount Whitney. Alabama Hills is the film location of countless western and even sci-fi movies over the years, while at 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. This is a sunrise location, but sunset shots are also possible. Because of the mountains, sunsets are earlier than posted and sunrises later. Alabama Hills also has a number of smaller arches that are relatively easily accessible, in addition to a Mars-like landscape from every possible direction.

About two hours to the east of Lone Pine is none other than Death Valley. This has always been a tough place to photograph – at least for me. Although the various hills are colorful, they are not quite photogenic without a spectacular sunrise or sunset and with copious clouds. Additionally, the sand dunes are simply not picturesque with footsteps interrupting the natural shapes and ridges. Either offseason or overnight winds are required to pull this off.

Independence, another booming town with a population of 669 is little more than a stopover. I believe, however, at least in the spring, there are some flower fields worth photographing after the rainy seasons.

Big Pine, used to be the home of “Rossi’s Steak and Spaghetti” with their own piano man, but on the recent visit, this family-run restaurant is no longer in business. Sad, there was a lot of history in this restaurant and the same people worked there over the last 30 or so years.

Big Pine is also the gateway to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest approximately 24 miles to the east and in the White Mountains. The White Mountains are deceptively high and cold so you need to check conditions before attempting to photograph the Bristlecones, especially in Spring and Fall.

Next, Bishop is second in size to Mammoth and is constantly hosting events, such as Mule Days, around Memorial Day, and Antique Car gatherings. One of California’s most successful bakeries in Bishop – Erick Schat’s Bakery. Highly recommended, Schat’s is proof that anything done well can be successful – especially if it’s Dutch :).

On the corner of 395 and Line Street is the Galen Rowell Mountain Lights Gallery. Galen and his wife, Barbara, died tragically in a private plane crash near Bishop in 2002 but his gallery lives on and is always a treat and inspiration.

To the west of 395 on Line Street, one of the only streets in town with a stoplight is access to the Sierra Nevada’s mountains and opportunity after the opportunity of Aspen colors in the fall.

East of Bishop is also special. The area is home to a number of petroglyphs with Sky View being one of the most impressive and well-known exhibits. These glyphs are difficult to find and rightly so. Unfortunately, some without consciences have taken to disfiguring these ancient spectacles. Others, have actually taken onsite power saws in an effort to profit from their rarity. As it is now, you really need to know someone to find the petroglyphs. I am deeply indebted to JS for taking the time to show me a number of these wonders.

Sierra Nevada Petroglyph
Off the edge, Sierra Nevada, CA

Petroglyphs of the Sierra Nevada

Fly fishing is available north and west of Bishop on the Owens River, east of the Mammoth Airport on Hot Creek, and east and west of Bridgeport on the Walker River. These are the wild trout streams. A number of lakes host hatchery fish.

Mammoth, of course, is one of the principal ski slopes in California and has a number of retail outlets in town. It is the largest of the towns up and down the 395. Just north of Mammoth is Lee Vining and the Mono Lake with its Tufa formations.

Right after Mammoth is Tioga Pass which leads directly into Yosemite from the east. This route is only open in the summer after the snow is cleared. It is doubtful that the pass will be opened in 2017 because of the high snow. Oh, one of the best places to eat here, believe it or not, is the Mobile gas station at the junction of 395 and Tioga pass.

Lee Vining’s Momo Inn and Ansel Adams Gallery just north of town is a restaurant, which was owned and operated by the granddaughter of Ansel Adams. Open only during tourist season, the last visit showed that the restaurant is only open Thursday through Sunday for dinner and is currently “for sale.” It would appear that this too may soon disappear.

Mono Lake’s South Tufa is easily accessible while the north side of the lake is extremely difficult to access but worth the effort, especially for sunrise shots.

Mono Lake. California

Mono Lake., California

Between Lee Vining and Bridgeport, to the east is the ghost town of Body. This town is up in the White Mountains and is the only accessible part of the year. Now a part of the Park Service, Body is a historical treat.

Finally, at the top of Highway 395 in Bridgeport. One of the highlights of Bridgeport is the Bridgeport Inn, both hotel, and restaurant built in 1877 and still serving meals to this date. It’s also not to be missed.

There you have it, a brief tour of 395 highlights from 30 years of exposure. Truly one of the best trips a photographer can take, and I’ve only scratched the surface.