Take a Road Trip on Scenic Highway 395

Driving on Scenic Highway 395 in Eastern California

Betsy Malloy Photography

U.S. Route 395 starts in Southern California and stretches all the way up to the Canadian border. It's by no means the fastest route north, but it's one of the prettiest—particularly the stretch from its starting point in the Mojave Desert to the state border with Nevada. In fact, it rivals driving along the coast on Highway 1 as the most scenic road trip you can take in all of California, passing by dramatic rock formations, the highest peak in the continental U.S., the oldest trees in the world, and several national and state parks.

The route begins in the town of Hesperia, California, which is just 35 miles north of San Bernadino or about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. It's a long stretch of over 400 miles of desert, mountains, forests, and small towns until the next big city, which is the Carson City and Reno area across the border in Nevada. You could drive from Hesperia all the way to Reno in one long day, but this spectacular route is best thought of as a trip in itself. Take your time exploring, go for hikes, and camp out in one of the parks to truly enjoy this unforgettable road trip.

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Red Rock Canyon State Park

Baby Joshua trees in Red Rock Canyon State Park, California
David Kiene / Getty Images

About 100 miles north of Hesperia and a short detour off U.S. 395 is Red Rock Canyon State Park (not to be confused with the Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas). You could easily spend an entire day walking and hiking around this Martian landscape or camp out if you want more time. Apart from the deep-colored rock formations that give the park its name, it's especially well-known for being a superb place to stargaze. Smack dab in the Mojave Desert and miles away from any city, on a clear night with a new moon you'll be able to see the sky like never before.

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Lone Pine and Alabama Hills

Deep Within The Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California
Mimi Ditchie Photography / Getty Images

From Red Rock Canyon, head back to U.S. 395 and drive another 90 miles north to the small town of Lone Pine, designated a "frontier" town by the Census Bureau. The town and the nearby Alabama Hills are most famous from their prolific use in Hollywood Western films, such as "High Sierra," "The Gunfighter," "How the West Was Won," "Nevada Smith," "Joe Kidd," and more recent ones such as "Maverick" and "The Lone Ranger." Non-Western film credits include "Star Trek," "Gladiator," and "Django Unchained." Superfans can visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine before taking a drive around the Alabama Hills, with its wild rock formations and the Sierra Nevada mountains towering in the background.

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Mount Whitney

View of Mount Whitney from Lone Pine

Peter Prehn / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet high (and just 85 miles away from the lowest point in all of North America in Death Valley). If you've prepared for it, climbing to the summit is a challenging but rewarding endeavor. But for those just enjoying the road trip, it's worth making the 13-mile drive from Lone Pine to Whitney Portal, the highest point on the mountain that you can drive to and the trailhead for reaching the top. It's about halfway up at 8,000 feet above sea level, but the views alone are well worth the short detour.

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Manzanar National Historic Site

Monument at Manzanar Internment Camp
Betsy Malloy Photography

Just 15 minutes north of Lone Pine on U.S. 395 is Manzanar, a national historic site that chronicles a dark part of U.S. history. The site was the location of one of the 10 concentration camps used during World War II to forcibly intern Japanese citizens as well as American citizens of Japanese descent. It's the best-preserved of them all and today houses a memorial and serves as a way to preserve the legacy of the 10,000 prisoners who were kept within its walls.

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Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Bristlecone pine tree in California's White Mountains

Chao Yen / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Not many people can say they've seen the oldest known living organism on Earth, so if you're driving along U.S. 395 it's worth taking a detour to visit. Almost 60 miles north of Lone Pine is the small town of Big Pine, and from there you'll cut off U.S. 395 and turn onto White Mountain Road for about 25 minutes until you reach the entrance of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest—and the name isn't hyperbole. These trees are ancient and the oldest confirmed ones have been there for 5,000 years, before the pyramids of Egypt, before Stonehenge, and when mammoths still walked the Earth.

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Hot Creek Geological Park and Hot Springs

Steam coming off the hot springs at Hot Creek Gulch
Betsy Malloy Photography

Continuing north on U.S. 395, you'll pass through the town of Bishop, which is by far the largest city in the Eastern Sierra. About 40 minutes further up on the route there's a turn-off from the highway that's marked by a lonely green church, leading to an area filled with natural hot springs, bubbling pools, and even geysers. It may seem you've driven all the way to Yellowstone, but the Hot Creek Geological Park and the nearby hot springs are a purely California wonder. It's worth stopping and walking around to check out this natural phenomenon, and don't forget a bathing suit so you can take a dip in these alpine waters with the beautiful Sierra Nevadas as a backdrop.

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Mammoth Lake and June Lake

June Lake in the fall
Betsy Malloy Photography

Mammoth Lakes and June Lake are two towns off of U.S. 395 that come up quickly after passing the hot springs (interestingly, there's no lake near the town of Mammoth Lakes that's actually called Mammoth). Whether you stop here or not depends on your interests and the season, as both cities are havens for winter sports enthusiasts. Mammoth Lakes is one of the largest ski resorts in California and is particularly well-known for its extensive snow season. June Lake has fewer slopes but offers a cozier atmosphere.

Even if you're visiting outside of ski season, both places have great hiking trails and scenic views of the nearby mountains. Near Mammoth Lakes, the Devil's Postpile rock formation is one of the world's finest examples of columnar basalt. In this unusual spot, hexagonal rock columns stacked closely together tower over 60 feet high. Two miles downstream, you'll find Rainbow Falls. In autumn, the scenery ignites with gold as the local aspen trees begin to change color.

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Mono Lake

Tufa Towers at Mono Lake
Betsy Malloy Photography

Mono Lake is one of the strangest bodies of water you'll find anywhere. The lake is located near the town of Lee Vining, which is just a few miles past June Lake. It's so alkaline that the only creatures that can live it are tiny brine shrimp and the alkali flies that hang out on its shores. When the lake level began to fall in the twentieth century, some odd geological features were exposed. The best-known feature of Mono Lake is its dramatic tufa ( pronounced two-fuh) towers, created when mineral-laden underwater springs met the lake's water.

For a much longer but unforgettable detour, Lee Vining is where you can divert to State Route 120—known as Tioga Pass Road—to enter Yosemite National Park. It's about 75 miles from Lee Vining to Yosemite Valley, although the journey will take at least two hours in the summer because of the windy and mountainous roads. The highway into Yosemite is closed all winter long due to snow.

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Bodie Ghost Town

Old car and buildings in Bodie Ghost Town
Betsy Malloy Photography

Perhaps the best-preserved of all Western ghost towns, Bodie is chockful of half tumbled-down buildings and remnants of the past. It's 13 miles east of U.S. 395 between Lee Vining and Bridgeport. Even the most casually interested visitors can end up spending a lot of time in Bodie, entranced by a bygone era of saloon fights, frontier brothels, and Wild West bandits. Over 200 hundred of the original structures remain around Bodie, and park authorities keep the buildings from collapsing but otherwise do no work to reconstruct, modify, or tamper with the original designs. Children and adults can live out their Old West fantasy in Bodie and it's easily one of the most unique attractions you'll come across on your trip.

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Welcome to Reno
Mitch Diamond / Getty Images

The scenic stretch of U.S. 395 in California comes to an end about 50 miles from the Bodie turn-off when you cross the state line into Nevada. From there, you can continue along the highway toward Carson City and Reno or cut off for another detour to South Lake Tahoe, all of which are within an hour from the border. From there, the rest of your road trip is up to you. Return to Southern California along the same route if you like, stopping at points of interest that you may have missed on the way up. Or, drive west toward Sacramento and San Francisco to change up the drive. If you've got the time and desire to continue on, U.S. 395 continues on for nearly 900 more miles after Reno to the Canadian border.