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Highway 395: Your Route to the Sierra's Secret Wonders

Beat the summer crowds and hightail it to the eastern side of the mountains to find beautiful views, poignant history, and good food.

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  • Exhibits at Manzanar National Historic Site off Highway 395, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy of National Park Service
    Photo caption
    Manzanar’s exhibits show how people lived and worked in the internment camp.
  • Devil's Postpile near Highway 395, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy of National Park Service
    Photo caption
    The 60-foot towers of columnar basalt give Devil’s Postpile its name.
  • Abandoned buildings at Bodie State Historic Park off Highway 395, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy of California State Parks
    Photo caption
    In the ghost town of Bodie, the abandoned buildings remain remarkably intact.
  • Taps at Mountain Rambler Brewery in Bishop off Highway 395, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Julianna Weise
    Photo caption
    At Bishop’s new Mountain Rambler Brewery, try the Peaklet Porter on draft.
  • Canoeing on Mono Lake near Highway 395, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy of Mono Lake Committee
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    Canoe tours take visitors up to Mono Lake’s limestone tufas.
  • A guard tower at Manzanar National Historic Site off Highway 395, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Courtesy of National Park Service
    Photo caption
    A guard tower rises above Manzanar, where 11,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned.

On its eastern slope, the Sierra Nevada seems to end all at once. The dramatic bare cliffs plummet thousands of feet to meet Highway 395, a quiet, twisting ribbon of asphalt that feels like a secret route to backstage California. Here, on the far side of the state’s largest natural wonder, the vistas blow wide open and a string of beautiful, uncrowded attractions await.

 

To Learn: Bodie State Historic Park
Once home to 8,500 people and more than 60 dance halls and saloons, this raucous boomtown faded in the 1940s after its mines tapped out and a series of fires consumed most of its buildings. The several dozen that remain are remarkably well maintained and still display the belongings residents left behind, including books and a globe in the schoolhouse and a dress form in the window of a general store. During the warm season, daily hour-long tours of the former stamp mill show visitors how gold was extracted from quartz and transformed into bullion.

To Explore: Mono Lake
Three times as saline as the ocean, Mono Lake is so heavy with carbonates and sulfates—baking soda, basically—that it’s dubbed a “soda” lake and gives rise to ghostly limestone towers called tufa wherever underwater hot springs bubble up. Visitors who join a one-hour Mono Lake Committee canoe tour on summer weekend mornings can paddle right over new ones as they form.

To See: Devils Postpile National Monument
In a high mountain valley west of Mammoth Mountain, this park’s main attraction is its namesake, a wall of 60-foot hexagonal towers of columnar basalt that formed from a cooling lake of superhot lava. But don’t skip the easy walk through nearby Agnew Meadows, the perfect place to spot the purple-and-yellow petals of the Sierra shooting star and other wildflowers as the annual bloom peaks late June through mid-July. Expect to spend half a day here.

To Eat: Mountain Rambler Brewery
Try to pick out the eight named Sierra mountaintops visible through the windows of this year-and-a-half-old Bishop brewpub, where the smooth, easy-drinking Peaklet Porter pairs perfectly with summer evenings and the completo burger, which comes loaded with avocado, arugula, chimichurri, and a fried egg.

To Remember: Manzanar National Historic Site
For three and a half years during World War II, some 11,000 Japanese people, most of them U.S. citizens, were imprisoned behind barbed wire at this site 10 miles north of Lone Pine. During a one- to three-hour visit, the most moving experience might be standing in two spare, reconstructed barracks. There you can see how prisoners lived eight to a room with dust storms blowing through the floorboards, and hear their voices, telling their stories in their own words.

This article was first published in July 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.