Why Highway 395 is California's Most Underrated Road Trip

Don't miss one of, if not the best road trip In California. Running along the Eastern Sierra, Hwy 395 is packed with more adventure than you can handle!

By: Alex Anderson
June 28, 2016

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Roads Trips have become a staple of American culture! There is no better way to see this great nation and spend time with family and friends, then locked in a car playing road trip games. Aside from wrong turns, crying kids, the A/C breaking and being trapped in the car for hours, there is something special about a road trip that brings everyone together. Most of those memorable moments happen outside of the car on hikes, bikes, or swims in places we have never been to before. One of my favorite drives with some of the most outdoor adventures is the Eastern Sierra scenic byway on Hwy 395. Although Hwy 395 stretches from Washington to Southern California, this section of the drive packs the most adventure. This section offers endless amounts of lakes, like Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in the country, just 30 minutes off the 395. If an extreme climb is what you are looking for, Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in lower 48 is just one of many 14,000 foot peaks along the 395. And if checking off bucket list items is your thing, 4 of the nations 58 national parks are all within a few hundred miles.  Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Death Valley are all along this section of the 395! I don't know how much more adventure one road trip could handle! Once you work up an appetite, the 395 also offers some of the best BBQ in the country. Here are the top 8 Reasons To Drive Hwy 395 Along the The Eastern Sierras!

Mt. Whitney Trail
View from Trail Camp at 12,000 feet.

1. The Surreal Mountains

The 395 runs right next to the eastern sierras and the White Mountains in the Owen Valley. The endless mountain views are on both sides for 300 miles. The snow capped peaks are some of the largest in the country. These Mountains offer picturesque views from both the valley floor as well as the summit. The infamous Mt. Whitney stands tall, 20 miles off the 395 and can be easily seen from Lone Pine, CA. Climb to the top to see a birds eye view of the 395! 12 other 14,000 foot peaks majestically line the 395. People travel from all over the world to climb and hike these famous peaks and trails. Access to the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir trail is easy from many different points along the 395. Don't wait on the lottery, Hike Mt. Whitney in the winter and you can self issue yourself a permit, and also have the trail all to yourself!

2. The Endless Lakes

You don't need ocean front views when you drive the 395. Some of the most unique and beautiful lakes lie on, or near the 395. Both salt and fresh water lakes allow you the freedom to enjoy all our favorite water sports. Boating, Jet skis, swimming, cliff jumping and of course fishing are all a must on the 395. Scuba dive the crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe, which is the second deepest lake in America. Explore the salty alien like shores of Mono Lake or fly fish Thousand Island Lake, a high altitude lake near Mammoth Lakes loaded with fresh trout. If there is one item you bring on this road trip, make sure it's a fishing pole. Nothing will taste better than a fresh trout dinner cooked over the camp fire.

Piute Pass Lake
Fishing for Trout in Piute Pass Lake

3. The Epic Camping 

With more campgrounds than hotels on this strip of highway, sleeping under the stars is easier and cheaper on this road trip. Trade in that HBO and room service for whiskey and a starry sky. The best part is, most of the campgrounds are self service and are always near a great outdoor opportunity. Every campsite also has an amazing mountain view! Camp just off the 395 or load up your backpack and hike into the Inyo National Forest for a more isolated camping experience! Prepare appropriately, most trails along this section of the 395 will need a wilderness permit and proper gear. Winters here call for zero degree sleeping bags and snow shoes. Where summers call for sunscreen and a bear vault!

4. The Rare Wildlife

Everything from deer to coyotes call this section of California home. But the must see, is the Tule Elk herd that roams the 395. There are 5 populations of Tule Elk that roam California, but there is one population that has found refuge in Owens Valley just South of Big Pine, California. The herd can easily be seen from the road during most of the year. The heard is usually sighted near the Tinemaha Reservoir area. Bring a high zoom lens for your camera and a good pair of binoculars. Be on the lookout for other motorists on the side of the road as a good indication of the Tule Elk herd. Although Elk are a very beautiful and majestic animal, over population of the herd has been detrimental to the Elk and local area. A few California Elk tags are issued each year if you are one of the lucky few able to make this epic and rare hunt!

Camping on The John Muir Trail

5. The West Walker River

This section of the drive is the most fun and awe inspiring sections of the drive. The 395 weaves its way along side of the West Walker River as it cuts a beautiful canyon from Sonora junction to the town of Walker.  The canyon has sheer rock cliffs on either side which have been a favorite spot for rock climbers to boulder. The river itself is a great place to fly fish, camp, and spot a beautiful bald eagle flying above. Each July the town of Walker offers a free fishing derby. Catch the biggest rainbow trout between July 1st and July 31st, for bragging rights!

6. The Skiing and Snowboarding

With the highest mountain range in the lower 48 stretching 400 miles north to south and 70 miles across, The Sierra Nevadas are a skier and snowboarders dream. Snowfall some years can reach over 400 inches and winter sport enthusiasts can enjoy the slopes all the way until July 4th weekend! Some of the more popular Ski Resorts include Mammoth Mountain, Kirkwood, and Squaw Valley which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympic Games. If paying for a lift ticket isn't your thing, some of the best backcountry and cross-country skiing can be found in the Sierras. Pick any high alpine trail during winter and you will find plenty of snow!

Skiing The Yosemite NP Backcountry

7. The Mountain Biking and Cycling

Obviously once the snow melts, we trade in our skis for the mountain bike. We race down those same slopes and trails on two wheels instead of skis. From the deserts of Death Valley National Park to the high altitude trails of the Sierras, there are endless amounts of trails to ride. Some of the best mountain bike trails, as well as parks with jumps to ride, is right there at Mammoth Mountain. The mountain transforms from a ski resort to a Mountain Bike Resort. If rough dirt trails and jumps aren't your thing, the roads off the 395 are usually very isolated, smooth, and a great workout on a road bike. The 395 would also be a great challenge for any long distance biker.

8. The National Parks

On this section of the 395 you are never more than an hour from 4 of the most beautiful National Parks in the country. In the South, you have Sequoia National Park and in the East Kings Canyon National Park. In the West, Death valley National Park and in the North the legendary Yosemite National Park. You can hike, bike, climb or drive your way to all of these National Parks depending on the season. One of the best ways to visit Yosemite is over Tioga pass from 395. The pass climbs to over 10,000 feet and is only open in the summer for obvious reasons. The beautiful drive allows you to see the backside of Half Dome and the Beautiful Tuolumne Meadows. If you are looking for the challenge of a lifetime, try the Badwater Ultramarathon. Know as the worlds toughest race, the race starts at the Badwater Basin 279 feet under sea level and finishes 135 miles west at the base of Mt. Whitney!

Cooking a Fresh Trout Dinner in The Inyo NF

Bonus: The BBQ Reason!

With all this hiking, biking, and climbing, you will be sure to work up a serious appetite. The 395 has its fair share of great food and drinks! Including the amazing sandwiches at Erick Schats Bakery in Bishop, to the 395 IPA at the Mammoth Brewing Company in Mammoth Lakes. But, the real hidden gem on the 395, that you would never expect in this part of the country, is the BBQ! According to Yelp reviewers in 2014, Cooper Top BBQ in Big Pine, CA was named the #1 place to eat in the entire country. That is some BBQ worth trying! If you miss Copper Top, don't worry because Holy Smoke Texas BBQ in Bishop has mouth watering BBQ. And if you are headed down the 395 from the North, The Mountain View BBQ in Coleville, CA along the West Walker River is sure to satisfy your needs! Great BBQ is no longer only found in the south!

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.