Discovering Route 395

After Overland EXPO, we wanted to go somewhere to shoot pictures of the 917 in action. Bad weather put paid to plans to return to the Valley of the Gods, so we headed west, across Death Valley to California.

Along the way we stopped for the obligatory photo on old Route 66,

We did not spend any time in Death Valley; we merely popped through the 20 Mule Team Canyon, but that said, it is spectacular.

The grades into the valley test your exhaust brake to the maximum! Oh, and the views are amazing. But with an 18,000 lb. vehicle, the road commands a lot of attention.

A grade of almost 10%. Note the road continuing across the valley.

In May the temperature in the valley is not bad, but you can imagine what it is in high summer!

Climbing out the the valley, we camped at an abandoned work site, known as “The Slabs.” (The old foundation slabs make nice level campstites!)

Once into California, we turned north on US 395. We had never heard of Route 395 which runs along the Sierra Nevada, but we very much enjoyed driving it.  We are not alone – it even has a Facebook group.

Our first stop was the Alabama Hills. The Hills have been Hollywood’s secret weapon since the 1930’s. You want the Hindu Kush (“Gunga Din”), the Lone Ranger’s massacre site, Afghanistan (“Iron Man”), a burned villa (“Gladiator”), or simply spectacular scenery for westerns, great and not so great? The Alabama Hills provide it all in an area about two by five miles. We drove around the rocks a bit (proving that the swing away rear bumper would swing!) and then settled in for the night.

No, we are not in the Hindu Kush.

The next day dawned grey and dismal, but we still drove under Gunga Din’s bridge, almost by accident. (Sadly, Annie, the elephant, was no longer there.) This is a great video: https://vimeo.com/8561946

The bridge spanned from the concrete in the foreground to the rock on the other side of the truck. The “yawning chasm” was a matte shot. You are standing where Annie the elephant stood when she shook the bridge.

We left the Alabama Hills and headed into Lone Pine to visit the Film History Museum.  This was most interesting with everything from cars used in the era to memorabilia and posters from different movies.  Fred especially liked the old movie camera car, used to film racing cowboys and crashing wagons.

The town of Lone Pine has what may be the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world. (We went to the espresso bar, not as scenic, but better coffee.)

All of the scenery on Route 395 was incredible, though we could have wished for better weather – rain, clouds and even snow were our constant companions. 

Then it was time for a visit to a most moving and sad location, Manzanar, National Historic Site. One of the Japanese Internment Camps, established after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it housed about 120,000 ethnic Japanese of which 60% were US citizens. They, for the most part, lost everything; homes, businesses, and even pets were abandoned at short notice. Allowed to carry, only a suitcase, they were forced into the windy, dusty high desert environment.  Parts of the camp have been reconstructed and interviews with former residents tell their stories. A very sad and shameful part of our history.

As we continued our drive north, we stopped at the Laws Train Museum and Historical Site, a collection of old houses and memorabilia from the late 1800’s and one of the last narrow gauge engines and cars from west of the Rockies.  The Laws Depot from 1883 is there.  Other than the falling rain, it was pleasant.

Heading north still, we decided to see the Obsidian Dome, a volcanic feature amongst a number of volcanic calderas, cones and lava flows.  As the road climbed, the rain turned to snow and we found ourselves in deep drifts.  Of course we managed to get stuck as we were not expecting this and were not even in 4×4.  (Yes, we should have been).  This posed a bit of a problem – we had sand ladders and “Go Treds” but no shovel. (Don’t even say it!) We successfully extricated ourselves using the rear winch. For the first time in our lives, Mr. “I-don’t-need-no-stinkin-winch” was saved by a winch. (Yes, we did have a nice new tree strap.) Actually, the truth is that Denise ran the winch while Fred drove.

Denise, a beautiful wench, or is it winch?

Once out, the snow was falling, so we decided to stay put and camped beside the drift!!  Next morning we had a dusting of snow on us but the sun was shining!  We had not seen it in so long!

Our final stop on 395 before heading into Nevada was at the Mono Lake, known for its tufas.  Mono Lake is a salt lake, which forms tufas, strange spires and knobs, when fresh water springs containing calcium bubble up through the lake water and combine with the carbonate-rich waters of the lake. 

We started at the Visitor Center and then retraced our steps to the South Tufa area where a footpath led down to the lake and close encounters with both dry and wet tufa.  There are no fish in the lake only briny shrimp, which are a favored source of food for several migrating birds.  There are also alkali flies which are a food source.  There were a few birds around but we did not visit in the main migration season.

The Mono Basin is very volcanic with the youngest mountain range in the US.  For example, Panum Crater only erupted 650 years ago.

As we left, we went to the Panum Crater, and climbed up the side to view the lake and the crater, before heading into Lee Vining to enjoy an ice-cream on the first sunny day in a week!  And on to Nevada where we planned to visit friends, for the Memorial Day weekend.

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