For a tour of the Sierra's often-forgotten eastern slope, hit the road.
Lush and majestic, the western slope of the Sierra Nevada looks exactly the way a mountain range is supposed to look. A fertile valley gives way to foothills that gradually rise to snow-dappled mountains dotted with forests, adorable lakes, and ski resorts.
Austere and arid, the Sierra's eastern slope resembles the setting for the 1981 movie The Road Warrior. Craggy peaks plummet to a forbidding desert that continues for three states. Foothills, where there are foothills, are strewn with outlandish rock formations. The pretty lakes are tiny and secluded, the ugly ones large and salty. Creeks sometimes run boiling hot.
In fact, there are few spots more diverse, fascinating, and, yes, beautiful than the eastern Sierra, with its thermal springs, desert wildflowers, and rich and varied birdlife. Through a quirk of geography, the western Sierra gets most of the rain and snow, but as far as I'm concerned, the eastern Sierra has everything else, including ghost towns, ancient bristlecone pines, and a rowdy history. Here you'll find the highest point in the lower 48 states (Mount Whitney) and the gateway to the lowest (Death Valley). And while the stony mountains at first appear impenetrable, they're full of hidden canyons and pockets of luxuriant greenery.
One of the best ways to get acquainted with the eastern Sierra is to drive Highway 395, a onetime American Indian trading route that travels for hundreds of miles near the California-Nevada border. The 230-mile stretch of highway between Carson City, Nev., to the north and Lone Pine, Calif., to the south links a series of towns and side roads leading to trailheads, hot springs, and cool trout streams. You can drive the route quickly in a day, but to do justice to the region you need at least five days.
Carson City, just east of Lake Tahoe, is an ideal launching point for a southward exploration of 395. After silver was discovered in the Nevada hills in 1859, thousands of miners flooded to this outpost, which became the territorial capital two years later. Of some 600 towns that existed in early Nevada, only a handful remain. Carson City is one of the few mining hubs that has not only survived but flourished.
And yet, despite recent growth, the Carson I saw still feels like a small town. Its casinos haven't undergone Vegas-style face-lifts, and at the Nugget in midday, the Garden Room Coffee Shop fills up with people eating Awful Awful burgers ("awful big, awful good") and washing them down with dainty, old-fashioned Summer Girls (orange sherbet, vanil la ice cream, and soda).
You can get a look at the city's past in the Nevada State Museum, housed in the 1870 Carson City U.S. Mint. This museum lays out the region's history, natural and human, with a crowd-pleasing life-size re-creation of a Nevada ghost town (complete with howling-wind sound effects).
At the south end of Carson City, the Nevada State Railroad Museum fills in the historical gaps, focusing on the area's railroads and the Chinese community's role in constructing them. In 1880 Carson City was home to one of the largest Asian populations in the state, as laborers had come by the hundreds to build the transcontinental railroad. By the 1950s the Chinese community had largely disappeared from Carson City, leaving little trace of what was once a thriving Chinatown.
The legacy of the Basques who began arriving in the late 19th century to work as sheepherders, however, is still alive in the area's restaurants. I couldn't pass up the chance to lunch at the Villa Basque Deli and Café, a Basque-Mexican coffee shop that sells its homemade spicy red chorizo by the link over the counter—and also uses it in salads, paella, delicious tamales, and omelets. (The flan is also highly recommended.)
More formal Basque hotels once served robust, inexpensive meals to shepherds, and a handful of these wonderful spots can still be found. In Gardnerville, Nev., a small ranching community 16 miles south of Carson City, I ate dinner at the J. T. Basque Bar & Dining Room. Instead of a menu, a bottle of wine appears at the table along with bread and soup, followed by vinegary green salad, oxtail stew (Thursdays only), and family-style platters of garlicky meat and paprika-sprinkled french fries. Across the street, the Overland Hotel Basque Restaurant and Bar (built in 1902) dishes up similar hearty feasts.
Between the Carson area and the ghost town of Bodie, Calif., travelers pass through a glorious high-desert landscape as 395 traces the winding West Walker River for much of the way south. This has been a well-traveled route since 1859, when miner William Bodey discovered gold on a remote bluff in the hills to the east. By 1879, Bodie (the name was misspelled on an early sign) had a population of about 10,000—as well as 65 saloons, three newspapers, a plethora of brothels, and, to quote just one disapproving local, a reputation as "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion."
Little evidence of lust or passion can be found in the 170 abandoned wooden buildings—some still containing iron bed frames, poker chips, and peeling layers of floral wallpaper—scattered over these windy, sage-strewn hills. As the mines eventually failed, Bodie's population dwindled and disappeared in the 1940s. But the weathered brown structures have been preserved by the State of California in a condition of "arrested decay." You'll need walking shoes, water, and most of a day to investigate every last shack and church, and you'll be glad you did.
Twenty miles south of Bodie, Mono Lake's salty waters support trillions of alkali flies and brine shrimp that provide food for some 90 species of waterbirds, from cinnamon teal to Wilson's phalaropes. In the 1940s, Los Angeles began diverting water from the streams that feed Mono and the lake dropped 45 feet, with disastrous consequences. But a decade ago environmental groups successfully sued to limit diversion, and today the Mono ecosystem is slowly recovering.
There aren't any fancy resorts on Mono's shores or in lakeside Lee Vining, but two miles north of town you can rent a cabin at the Tioga Lodge and from your porch enjoy the sunrise over the weird calcium carbonate formations—called tufa towers—that rise from the lake's waters. A boat tour will help you appreciate this peculiar place. On the clear morning I went out, we spotted two ospreys and saw countless swallows before we stopped at one of Mono's islands. To these strange chunks of plantless rock—safe from coyotes and other predators—a full 85 percent of the California gull population comes each year to lay eggs.
Before leaving Mono Lake, anyone who likes a good meal should stop at the Mobil gas station at the intersection of Highways 395 and 120. Matt Toomey, formerly head chef at an upscale Mammoth Lakes restaurant, came here because he wanted to serve good food at fair prices. Instead, he serves fabulous food at fair prices. His no-frills Tioga Toomey's Whoa Nellie Deli, located inside the convenience store attached to the station, makes outstanding mango margaritas, lobster taquitos, and a world-class steak Caesar.
Five miles south of Lee Vining, the postcard-pretty scenery seems a universe away from Mono Lake's salty, fly-ridden shores: The 15-mile June Lake loop winds through a glacial canyon past four sweet mountain lakes abounding in trout and surrounded by aspen and pine trees.
Just a short drive farther south to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., you'll find yourself among the crowds at the posh ski resort of Mammoth Mountain. It's a popular destination in summer as well as winter. You can ride the gondola to the top of the slopes to take in the view or catch a shuttle to Devils Postpile National Monument, a spectacular 60-foot wall of basalt columns.
Hot Creek Geological Site, a few miles outside of Mammoth Lakes, is another of the eastern Sierra's geological oddities. The hot springs were a clothing-optional party spot in the 1970s, but on the drizzly afternoon I stopped by, all the bathers were properly attired. Scalding pools filled with brilliant, light-blue water puffed steam alongside the ordinary-looking creek. Water far beneath the earth's surface also seeps up and heats the creek in certain spots, making those areas as warm as a hot tub. The forest service has posted warnings to stay out of Hot Creek. Due to frequent earthquakes, jets of scalding water can spurt up unexpectedly, and bathers have been killed there, but people still take their chances.
South of Hot Creek and about an hour's drive into the White Mountains east of Bishop, Calif., you can visit another of the eastern Sierra's treasures—perhaps the greatest of all. Here, at 10,000 feet, in poor soil and with virtually no water, grow the oldest living trees on earth: the Great Basin bristlecone pines. Some of these weathered specimens date back 40 centuries—1,400 years more than the oldest giant sequoia—and grow as little as an inch in girth each century.
In Bishop, travelers should stock up on buffalo jerky from the Meadows Smokehouse and on Dutch sheepherders bread and sticky pullaway bread (tastes like coffee cake) at Erick Schat's Bakkerÿ, because after Bishop, 395 plunges into a wide, parched valley buffeted by scorching, dry winds. Towns are scarce—not to mention puny—in what local writer Mary Austin once called "this long brown land."
It was here in 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government built the internment camp of Manzanar and moved more than 10,000 people of Japanese descent (most of them citizens) from their homes to live in drafty wood-and-tar-paper barracks. Driving across the Manzanar grounds today, you'll find few obvious remnants of the camp besides a cemetery and some scraggly fruit trees. To get a sense of what life at Manzanar was like, visit the new interpretive center that's filled with thousands of photographs, constantly looping films, and interactive exhibits, including a brilliantly designed children's room with reproductions of vintage toys.
"Almost anyone able to cross a cobblestone street in a crowd may climb Mt. Whitney," John Muir once wrote. But as I stood on my motel balcony in Lone Pine, Calif., contemplating the jagged 14,494-foot peak—just one in a line of alarming crags—I decided he might have been exaggerating. Many of the gigantic rounded granite boulders at Whitney's base, however, present no particular mountaineering challenge. The Alabama Hills (named for a Confederate navy ship in the Civil War) are a fantastic place to climb around. It may feel strangely familiar: More than 300 movies and television shows—from Gunga Din to Tremors—have been filmed here.
The following day I backtracked to Independence, Calif., 16 miles north of Lone Pine. (The town had been practically shut down when I passed through the night before.) A jum ble of treasures were on display at the cluttered Eastern California Museum: paintings, swallows' eggs, Paiute winnowing trays, obsidian scrapers, pestles, saddles, and pipes. And then there was the set of coyote dentures. In the early 1900s, a local man who had lost his teeth melted some celluloid toothbrush handles, shaped them to his gums, and then pressed the scraggly, yellowish teeth of a dead coyote into the mixture. This bizarre artifact ultimately found its way here. You'll never see anything else like it in your life.
After my museum visit, I bought an ice-cold soda and a sandwich at Mairs' Market and headed to Onion Valley, a 20-minute drive almost straight up into the Sierra. The infernal temperature dropped with each mile I drove, and by the time I reached the valley, it was cool. Lupines, red currants, and penstemons grew on the banks of the creek where I picnicked. The humbling peaks of the eastern Sierra towered above me, and the beige and gray desert stretched out below like a map. This one afternoon summed up the extremes of this whole 230-mile stretch of 395, from the sublimely strange to the simply sublime.
Photography by Londie G. Padelsky
This article was first published in May 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.