Magic Comes Alive Up 395
ALL PHOTOS EXCEPT DEVIL'S POSTPILE AND RENO, BY STEVE BROWN. DEVIL'S POSTPILE COURTESY NPS. RENO COURTESY RENO-TAHOE CVB.
Kramer Junction is a dusty, noisy crossroads in the Mojave, bustling with cacophonous 18-wheelers, RVs, tourists, and bikers, heading toward the four points of the compass. Highway 58 winds east from Bakersfield, passing by, but no longer through, Tehachapi, Mojave, and sleepy Boron, on its way to Barstow and Route 66, and it’s here in Kramer Junction (some call it Four Corners), where 58 crosses Highway 395, heading north from Hesperia (it once extended farther south, but now the mighty interstates fulfill that duty) through Adelanto, and on to the mining towns of The Rand, Ridgecrest, up into the eastern Sierra, out of California to Carson City and Reno, Nevada, then back into California, to Alturas, and finally, Oregon. If you come from the south on Highway 395, looking down on Kramer Junction from a distance as the dust and diesel exhaust rise from the gas stations, fast food outlets, odd and impromptu vendors, a lone scrappy trucker motel, one halfway decent restaurant, long snakey freight trains, and a field of aging solar reflectors, you can almost hear Obi-Wan Kenobi warning Luke Skywalker about the place. “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” Obi-Wan reassures Luke, hand on his shoulder all grandfatherly, as they prepare to go grab some Cinnabon buns and mystery meat sausages off the rollers at the Pilot Travel Center. Oddly enough, according to the god of random and sometimes wildly erroneous information —the Internet—the 2000 census claims Kramer Junction had more than 2,300 residents back then, which I find fascinating because I literally cannot recall ever seeing one house there. The real estate site Trulia lists a variety of plots of creosote bushes, but no homes. If you want an inexpensive place to move, however, Boron is less than 10 miles west on the 58, with houses running down to less than $40,000. Kramer Junction is where we begin our journey northward, and it’s actually a good place to gas up, grab some road food, water, and let the family out to use the facilities, because we’re going on a road trip.
Though it may not look it, it’s a good place to begin, as you can arrive at Kramer Junction from east, west, and south; wipe your brow, sweaty from the heat of the Mojave; and head on through the northern Mojave on into the eastern Sierra, with a dash of the Great Basin thrown in for effect. It’s a magical journey that makes for a perfect end of summer/beginning of fall road trip. While we’ll be sticking to my rather straightforward itinerary of road tripping northward up 395 from Kramer Junction to Alturas, I always encourage folks to create their own adventures. You can go from this little crossroads north to Ridgecrest and then over to Death Valley National Park, or take Highway 178 over to Lake Isabella and Kernville, then on up into the midst of the giant Sequoias. Farther north, you can turn off east to Tonopah or Virginia City, or west into Yosemite National Park. Or pay the incredible Lava Beds National Monument a visit, or for that matter Lassen Volcanic National Park, as well as Clear Lake and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges. There are so many great lakes, forests, and desert destinations you can get to from 395 that it goes into my top 10 highway journeys and a scenic byway that must be traveled, preferably often, for any serious California road trip fan. But don’t take my word for it. Go.
Kramer Junction to Ridgecrest As you cross the railroad tracks that parallel Highway 58 east to west and head north on Highway 395, you’ll notice a solar power installation on your left. That’s SEGS 3-7, a 150-megawatt solar power plant that is one of several sites that comprise the Solar Electric Generating System. The Center for Land Use Interpretation notes that for nearly 15 years, this was the secon largest solar power plant in the world.
A little farther to the west, down Highway 58, lies Boron, a town fighting for life now that Caltrans has moved the highway so it bypasses downtown. Boron has a couple of interesting museums, a little art and shopping, and some dining, which includes Domingo’s, a Mexican joint that has been the hangout of test pilots and astronauts coming from nearby Edwards Air Force Base.
If you have the time, it’s always a good idea to stop off at the Rio Tinto Borax Visitor Center, just west of the town of Boron. From there, you can learn about mining for borax, its many uses, and you can watch the activity at one of the world’s largest open pit mines.
About five miles past the solar power plant, off to your left you’ll notice a a hill witih a rambling complex of buildings with a white radome ball on top of one. Once a military base, the Boron Air Force Station, in 1979 the site became a federal prison camp that closed in 2000. At its peak it housed about 540 male inmates in a minimum security facility where parts for mililtary vehicles were assembled. The FAA still operates the radar facility, while the rest of the site is being vandalized. The property may eventually be sold as federal surplus, so keep an eye on GSA auctions if this looks like your idea of a potential resort or something.
It may look like you’re driving through the middle of nowhere (something I can’t get enough of), but typical of the desert, there’s plenty you aren’t seeing that is all around you. For instance, between the radar installation and the next “town,” Atolia, the Silver Saddle Ranch & Club lies off to the west. It’s a private members-only club that’s a reminder of the potential that developers once touted around California City, one of the smaller cities in California when it comes to population, but one of the largest when it comes to geographic size.
Silver Saddle may be a good city slicker getaway, with a little lake and all sorts of fun stuff to do, but they’re only open to the public on rare occasions, so keep driving unless you’ve already joined and bought property. If you’re a bird watcher, you may want to inquire about access to Galileo Hill, as it is an excellent birding spot.
Right around where you’d turn off for Silver Saddle to the west, a dirt road cuts eastward to Cuddeback Lake, a dry lake bed used in a variety of film and TV productions. If you saw the program Mythbusters as they dropped a car 4,000 feet from a helicopter, you’ve seen Cuddeback.
You’ll begin seeing signs all around the highway of mining activity. Welcome to Atolia, a major tungsten mining town in the early 20th century that was, for a time, the largest producer of tungsten in the world. You’re now crossing The Rand Mining District and traveling through Atolia, Red Mountain, Johannesburg, and Randsburg. Randsburg’s a mile off the highway and well worth the stop, as is the Rand District Cemetery in Johannesburg. We’ll have more on The Rand, Trona, and Ridgecrest, in our next issue about the Ridgecrest area.
If you’ve traveled from the Los Angeles area or Coachella Valley, and you’ve been making stops along the way, Ridgecrest, just a short distance off of Highway 395, makes for a perfect first night stop, with a good variety of dining and lodging options, and plenty to do and see in the area.
Ridgecrest to Bishop From Ridgecrest, you head north into some of the most dramatic and beautiful country I’ve ever seen. There are numerous side roads that can make for great back country excursions, from here to Alturas. Just make sure you’re properly prepared before heading up these roads because cell phone reception can be spotty and you may be waiting for a while if you need a tow.
After you pass Little Lake just to the east of the highway, you’ll notice the increasing presence of past volcanic activity of the Coso Volcanic Field. Cinder cones and lava fields turn much of the landscape black and red. At the aptly named Cinder Road, turn off the highway and stretch your legs at Fossil Falls. This is a fun and often overlooked stop that I love.
The falls were created as glacial waters formed Owens Lake and the Owens River, and the basalt of Fossil Falls was smoothed by river water running south toward the Indian Wells Valley (where you can find Ridgecrest and Inyokern today).
You can camp here at Fossil Falls (basic, but a nice setting), and the hike to the falls is an easy, brief walk. If you go with children, please keep a close eye on them as there are some serious drop-offs that could be dangerous.
Think about the volcanic activity that has taken place in this region as recently as 20,000 years ago, and the forceful geology that has created the Sierra range to your west, the Coso, Inyo, and later the White mountains to your east. Think about the human presence here for thousands of years. You’ll pass by numerous reservations as you travel north where the indigenous peoples who have roots set deep in this region still live today.
Soon, you’ll come to Coso Junction with its rest area, gas, and store. You’ll begin to change to a more northwesterly heading as you pass the south and north Haiwee Reservoir to the east.
When you arrive at Olancha, you’ll now be traveling up the west side of Owens Lake. Olancha has been around in one form or another, since 1860. It’s most recent claim to fame was having a member of the Manson family arrested for swimming naked, and for its role in popular movies produced in the region, including Bug, Iron Man, Tremors, and others. It’s easy to see how the region with its varied and dramatic scenery found itself hosting numerous Hollywood productions over the years.
If you have the time and are a fan of whimsical and funky metal art, you may want to take a quick break from the highway and follow Walker Creek Road a short distance west to pay a visit to the Olancha Sculpture Garden. The sculpture garden is the creation of artist Jael Hoffman who had a previous sculpture garden in Shoshone until it was removed after problems with theft.
At the junction of 395 and Highway 190 in Olancha, you can continue north on 395 to Lone Pine, or take 190 to the 136 for a jaunt around Owens Lake to the east through Keeler, or even over to Darwin (home of the dead Joshua tree of U2 fame), Panamint Springs, and Death Valley National Park.
For those of us who love our exploring, all I can say is there are enough side trips with meandering roads wandering off into the distance, up a canyon, or over a pass, that you can spend a lifetime traveling this route and not come to know them all. Each has its own surprises and side trips around Owens Lake can take you to wetlands with good seasonal birdwatching, sand dunes, and historical explorations to places like the Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns, Cerro Gordo (a privately owned ghost town—permission should be obtained prior to visiting), Keeler, Cartago, and Swansea. Look for signs of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the controversial water project that dried up Owens Lake, created massive amounts of particulate pollution, and essentially destroyed agriculture in the area.
To the north of Owens Lake, you’ll find Lone Pine, a great little town with spirit and the gateway to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48. You can head to the portal and hike to the top of Mt. Whitney—14,496 feet above sea level! That’s not a hike to take on a whim though. If you want to do that, it’s definitely accessible, but you should plan ahead.
Just before rolling into Lone Pine, fishing fun can be easily found at Diaz Lake, just west of the highway. There’s camping, fishing here, and at numerous lakes and creeks to come, many hidden from the highway, tantalizingly close, but invisible from the car.
Lone Pine is also home to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, a good place to stop and stretch your legs, use the restroom, pick up some books on the area, and get advice on day trips and hikes, fishing and more. The film museum here is well worth a stop, and the annual Lone Pine Film Festival held every October is great fun for film buffs.
As you head north, look for Tule Elk grazing in pastures to the west. There are locations where you can pull out to watch and shoot—photos, that is. The Alabama Hills (named after a Confederate sea raider) are also to the west and have their own rich film history.
As you follow the Owens River northward, you’ll come upon Manzanar National Historic Site, a worthwhile stop for those wanting to learn more about the forced relocation and detention of Japanese Americans during World War II. Nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned here during the war, ironically in an area where the Paiute, the original inhabitants of this location were themselves forced from their homes.
Manzanar (“apple orchard” in Spanish), was an agricultural settlement up until Los Angeles stole all the water from the valley and bought up most of the land. The U.S. Army leased land from Los Angeles, and Japanese Americans were imprisoned here during the war.
The visitor center hosts exhibits and a film introduction to the site. You can visit reconstructed barracks and a mess hall, as well as drive and walk a 3.2 mile self-guided tour to visit building sites, rock gardens and ponds, remnants of orchards, and the cemetery. As you look at the guard tower, imagine what it would have been like to have been forced from your home and relocated here, or for that matter, forced from your home here and relocated elsewhere. Both have happened in our history.
Not far past Manzanar is the town of Independence, county seat for the County of Inyo. A stop at the Eastern California Museum is in order. This is an excellent small museum that provides an interesting introduction to the region. You’re in “The Land of Little Rain,” now, where Mary Austin once lived and wrote her seminal book on the Owens Valley and the desert. Austin’s home, a California State Landmark, is located just a block from the museum.
The ruins of Fort Independence and the commander’s house can be found around town. Just north of the town lies the Fort Independence Indian Reservation. You’ll head north past Tinemaha Reservoir, Crater Mountain, and arrive shortly in Big Pine.
Big Pine is home to the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, a radio astronomy observatory owned by Caltech. The staff here also operates CARMA, the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy, about 20 miles east of OVRO in the Inyo Mountains.
It was in Big Pine where history was made in 1923 when Alice Piper, a young Native American living here was denied entry to a local school based on her ethnicity. Piper sued the school district over this segregation and the California Supreme Court unanimously found in her favor, noting that since her father was a taxpaying citizen, she also qualified as a citizen. In 1924 the Indian Citizenship Act was finally passed, granting full citizenship to the peoples whose lands had been stolen to form this nation.
One of my favorite places anywhere is up in the White Mountains near Big Pine. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is northeast of Big Pine, accessible from Highway 168. It’s a bit of a drive up into the mountains, so plan to allow enough time for a visit as you’ll definitely want enough time to visit at least Schulman Grove. Past Schulman Grove on a 12 mile dirt road is the Patriarch Grove, home to the world’s largest Bristlecone Pine, the Patriarch Tree. We loved sunset up here looking west, but early morning light is also splendid. There’s nothing quite like talking a walk through a forest of the oldest life forms on Earth (the oldest being more than 5,000 years old).
About 10 miles on the western side of Big Pine, you can find the largest glacier in the Sierra, the Palisade Glacier. There’s a challenging nine-mile hike to the glacier with a 4,000 foot elevation gain, but there’s also great fishing and picnicking at the three lakes along the way.
For travelers who are also fans of hot springs, you may want to plan a stop between Big Pine and Bishop, at Keough’s Hot Springs. Established in 1919, the springs are billed as the largest natural hot springs pool in the Eastern Sierra, and are still very much in use today. You can camp or rent a tent cabin at Keough’s, as well as enjoy a large pool and a hot pool.
After passing Keough’s, you’ve almost arrived in Bishop proper, the largest town in the Eastern Sierra, and a great base for more adventures than you can fit into most vacations. Bishop has a good variety of lodging and dining choices, and plenety to do. Make sure to check out the Laws Railroad Museum or head to Bishop Creek Recreational Area, about 16 miles west of downtown Bishop, to take in the fall colors along Bishop Creek Canyon. You can even float the Owens River!
If you’re hungry, check out the Holy Smoke Texas BBQ right on Main Street, or grab some Original Sheepherder Bread at Erick Schat’s Bakery and then stop at my favorite place in town: Mahogany Smoked Meats. You can get mouth-watering smoked ham or double smoked bacon, pork loin chops, and tasty sausages—kielbasa (spicy and regular), knackwurst, thuringer, and breakfast links, or a host of jerky selections from elk and wild boar, to Buffalo, fish, turkey, and classic beef to choose from at Mahogany. We load up to enjoy a great picnic lunch.
Bishop to Reno It could be tempting to just remain in Bishop, wandering the mountains, lakes, and volcanic tablelands around the lone city of Inyo County. There are plenty of events here, including Bishop’s Mule Days every Memorial Day week. If you want to take a pack trip into the backcountry, this area offers outfitters to make it happen. You can ride and pack into the John Muir Wilderness, or Kings Canyon, and live life the 19th century way.
Or you could go rock climbing. Bishop has at least 2,000 bouldering sites nearby. But whatever you do, don’t miss a stop at Mountain Light Gallery before you hit the road once again. Mountain Light features the brilliant nature photography of Galen and Barbara Rowell and other artists and photographers. Both Galen and Barbara were killed in a plane crash that happened within sight of their home in Bishop in 2002, but the gallery lives on, celebrating their work and that of others who loved this area with a similar passion.
From Bishop, you can take Highway 6 through the Chalfant Valley and on up to Benton and its nearby hot springs, then on to Nevada, eventually finding yourself in Tonopah, which is not a bad thing, but it’s a long ways from the 395. For the purposes of our road trip, we’ll stay on the 395 and head on up to Tom’s Place, where you can stay in rustic cabins (no wi-fi!) and grab a bite at the resort’s Olde-Tyme Cafe & Bar.
Nearby Crowley Lake is popular for trout fishing, but is seeing other watersports from water skiing and wake boarding, to kayaking and paddle boarding, grow in popularity. Fishing season in the eastern Sierra runs until mid-November, so stop by the Crowley Lake Fish Camp if you’re looking to hit the water.
While Crowley offers a variety of recreational opportunities, not far away lies Convict Lake, which could just get by on its looks, but also offers excellent fishing for Rainbow and German Brown trout. It’s less than appealing name comes from an incident in 1871 when convicts escaped from prison in Carson City and were found by a posse near Convict Creek. It went poorly for the posse though, and two were killed.
Just past Convict and Crowley lakes is the turn to go to Mammoth Lakes, which I recommend strongly if you have the time. While known as a major ski resort during winter months, Mammoth is the base for lots of fun events this time of year as well, with hiking, fishing, horseback riding, art, culture, and lots of variety for dining and lodging.
One spot you should definitely visit while in Mammoth is Devils Postpile National Monument (established in 1911 by presidential proclamation, for all of you who think President Obama is the only president to “abuse” his authority to establish national monuments). You have to see the giant basalt column formations and Rainbow and Minaret falls—truly beautiful places to stop in a land filled with beauty.
Being a lover of great beers (yeah, I know—it shows), I enjoy a stop at Mammoth Brewing Company. There’s nothing like enjoying bacon beignets, lobster corn dogs and house made pork rinds outside in the fresh air and washing it all down with a pint or two of Lair of the Bear or Fire & Eisbock.
Back on the 395, you’re being treated to some mighty fine dramatic scenery as you head up toward June Lake. If you have the time, definitely get off the highway at June Lake Junction for a loop that takes you around June and Grant lakes before rejoining the highway.
Up ahead lies two great choices for things to do: Mono Lake and Yosemite National Park. You can’t miss Mono Lake, and you most definitely shouldn’t. You’ll want to save time to visit the iconic tufa towers and formations this ancient saline lake is known for.
There are no fish here. Instead, there are literally trillions of brine shrimp and alkali flies (I can personally attest to the trillions of alkali flies!) that live in and around Mono Lake. But there are plenty of birds as well, and the 70 square miles of water are surrounded by natural beauty as far as the eye can see.
Keep your eyes peeled for a sign of pronghorn antelope in the nearby Bodie Hills, and then just south of the town of Lee Vining, take the 120 west into Yosemite National Park for a scenic drive to Tenaya Lake. You can swim at the lake, and there’s a modest beach area for picnics and just kicking back among dramatic granite domes.
If you have the time, you can continue westward throught the rest of Yosemite, but don’t try to rush it if you do. Make it an overnight stop if you’re going to try to squeeze the whole park in, or perhaps allot a lifetime or so to work it all in.
If you’d like to spend more time in this area, then spend the night in Lee Vining. It’s perfectly situated to explore Mono Lake, Yosemite, and our next must-stop: Bodie.
In 1859, gold was discovered in the mountains north of Mono Lake. By 1880, the town of Bodie boasted 10,000 residents. The town was not just bustling, but bad. It had a reputation as being dangerous, with its 65 or so saloons, frequent shootings, gamblers, prostitutes, and criminals. One little girl whose family was moving to Bodie reportedly prayed, “Goodbye God! We are going to Bodie.”
Now, the town, a California State Park located 13 miles east of Highway 395 at 8,375 feet elevation, is maintained in a state of arrested decay. Only a small part of the town still survives, but enough to give visitors a sense of life in a California mining camp of the 19th century. The interiors of buildings remain as they were, and the town is a photographer’s paradise.
Everything in Bodie is historic, and nothing may be scavenged or collected from the townsite. Leave your metal detectors at home—there’s far too much theft from historical sites as it is. Plus, there’s a curse.
According to Bodie lore, if you take something from the town, you’ll be plagued by misfortune and bad luck until you return the stolen object. Park rangers note every year they receive items in the mail that were taken from Bodie, sometimes acompanied by contrite apologetic notes from those who may have had enough of the curse. You can spend a short time or a long time visiting Bodie. Plan on the drive to the ghost town taking a while as the last three miles are a dirt road. We chanced across a shepherd with his flock down below the road on our way, with the tinkling of their bells rising up from the meadow where they grazed.
There are ghost walks and other special activities held at Bodie from time to time, so if you’re interested in ghost towns for their ghosts, which Bodie definitely has, then you may want to plan around one of those. No matter when you go, if you love ghost towns, Bodie is one of the best.
Just north of the turn-off for Bodie you’ll reach Bridgeport, a small town that is a great base for enjoying the fall colors of the eastern Sierra. Dining options are somewhat limited in this region, so the Bridgeport Inn makes for a good stop. Don’t expect them to reach the pretensions they aspire to—they’re good, not great, and the historical inn ambiance is delightful. The Inn also offers accommodations and you can stay where Sam Clemens once spent some time while out this way.
From Bridgeport you jog west to Sonora Junction near the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, before heading north again to Topaz, the nothernmost town in Mono County, and then the Nevada border. Topaz Lake is yet another great trout fishing destination, and there is a full service marina at the lake, with a full service casino just over the state line.
This part of Nevada, which always seems to be the bastard step-child when compared to Las Vegas, is one of the most beautiful regions of that state. With Lake Tahoe nearby, the Carson Valley has so much to do and see year-round that you could easily find yourself just moving here instead of passing through.
The town of Genoa, the oldest town in Nevada, dates back to 1851. Here you’ll find both the Mormon Station State Historic Park and the oldest bar in Nevada, the Genoa Bar, that has been serving thirsty travelers since 1853, as well as a winery, and boutique shopping. Minden’s downtown historic district is worth a stop, as is Main Street in Gardnerville. Look for restaurants with a Basque influence and wash it all down with Picon Punch.
Carson City, the capitol of Nevada, is a great little city to visit. I recommend staying on Business 395, the old route for the highway, which takes you through town instead of onto a generic freeway. There’s a lot of history in this city, and plenty to see and do, so the more you can avoid the sterile speedy freeway, the better. Plus, you can’t visit the abundance of museums or enjoy the capitol’s historic district if you zip by to the east.
There are musuems to match just about everyone’s interest here: the Nevada Railroad Museum, with rides on a train with a 1905 steam locomotive, a 1910 McKeen Motor Car, or a 1926 Edwards Motor Car. Or the Nevada State Museum, where you can view the silver service from the battleship USS Nevada, fashioned from 5,000 ounces of silver from the mines around Tonopah and finished with gold accents from Goldfield. There’s also the Warren Engine Company Museum, devoted to the oldest established volunteer fire fighting company in the country (you can get personal afternoon tours unless they’re out fighting a fire), and see a 1912 Seagrave Fire Truck, redwood water mains, and antique fire fighter uniforms.
Carson City also boasts a children’s museum, the Great Basin Art Gallery, the Stewart Indian Cultural Center, and you can also visit the Nevada State Capitol.
All too soon you’ll find yourself on a freeway, which should, by this point in your journey, feel somewhat alien. But no worries. You’ll want to make sure to stay in the right lane and get off at the exit for Eastlake Boulevard and Bowers Mansion Road, the latter putting you right back on old 395 as you meander your way toward Reno.
Stop by Bowers Mansion Regional Park in the North Washoe Valley, and pay a visit to the historic Bowers Mansion. Journey back in time to see how Comstock millionaires, Eilley and Sandy Bowers, live during Nevada’s heyday. There are mansion tours available, a swimming pool heated by a natural hot spring (only open weekends through Labor Day), and walks throughout the park.
After Bowers Mansion, you can ontinue on Alt-395, the Carson-Reno Highway (AKA: Virginia Street), into downtown Reno proper. Yes, there are plenty of casinos, but truth be told, there’s so much more to Reno than mere gambling that it would be an injustice to focus on slot machines instead of places such as the Nevada Museum of Art that even includes Andrea Zittell’s Wallsprawl, an aerial photograph of Nellis Air Force Base converted into custom wallpaper. Art afficianados shouldn’t miss a visit to the Arts District along the Truckee River downtown, the Stremmel Gallery, or Artouring, visiting artist studios not ordinarily open to the public. Historic walking tours are also available through the Historic Reno Preservation Society.
Of course, for car fans, the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection) hosts more than 200 cars including a Celebrity Autos exhibit featuring classic cars owned by Andy Griffith, Jack Benny, Mary Pickford, Al Jolson, James Dean, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, Elvis, and others, as well as a host of cars that are movie stars in their own right, including the 1960 Flying Caduceus Experimental Streamliner, the first turbo jet car to run at Bonneville Salt Flats, featured in 2005’s The World’s Fastest Indian.
Reno really lives up to its motto: The biggest little city in the world. With its nearly overwhelming variety of choices it offers in events and attractions, dining, nightlife, and lodging, outdoor recreation opportunities, and cultural offerings, Reno really does seem to pack most of what the “big” cities have into a city of around a quarter million residents. It may no longer be the gambling destination it used to be, but it’s a good bet you can find something you’ll enjoy here.
Reno to Alturas Most travel writers would end their Highway 395 itinerary at Bridgeport or the Nevada state line. But the Nevada stretch of 395 offers so much, it would be dereliction of duty to leave it out.
So why are we still on the road, leaving Reno and heading north? It’s not really territory considered the eastern Sierra now, is it? Nah. But it is still Sierra Nevada territory.
I’ve never been much for borders. They’re so artificial and arbitrary. And there’s always something fun on the other side. So bear with me, because this stretch of the trip offers its own natural beauty that I can’t get enough of, and you may just find yourself loving it too.
Heading northwest out of Reno, the 395 is a freeway. You’re not missing too much unless you’re in need of a zoo fix. I have mixed emotions when it comes to zoos, so I don’t stop at the Sierra Safari Zoo. If this was a zoo for all exotic rescue animals, maybe I’d feel better, but it’s just an underfunded privately operated zoo that looks too small from the highway, and gets highly mixed reviews.
I’m sure Sierra Safari wants the best for their animals and is doing all they can to care for them. They’re the largest zoo in Nevada, and they operate with a lot of volunteers, including those from the community work program run throught the local sheriff’s office. While I don’t want to be critical of those doing their best to care for animals, from the reviews I’ve read, there may be serious issues regarding cramped quarters, cleanliness, and care for the animals that leave me unable to recommend a stop.
Instead, I recommend staying on the 395 and rolling back into one of the least populous regions of California. By the time the freeway is ending by the Hallelujah Junction Market, you’re entering Lassen County, which is where the Sierra Nevada meets the Modoc Plateau and the Great Basin.
Out here, it’ll feel like Reno was just a passing dream, as the expansiveness of this landscape washes over you. It may feel as if there’s nothing to do here, but there is, it’s just a different kind of place where you can visit Lassen Volcanic National Park, Susanville and its Old Main Street Susanville murals (it’s right off the 395 and well worth a visit), Eagle Lake, and, of course, a host of outdoor recreational opportunities you’d expect by now.
The Nevada border is never very far to the east as you head north until you hit Omira and Doyle where the 395 takes a more northwesterly bearing. You’ll roll on through agricultural lands and Great Basin desert, past Herlong Junction. Herlong was built in 1942 to house the civilian workers at the Sierra Army Depot, an ammunition storage facility deemed far enough inland to be safe from Japanese attacks. During World War II, Herlong had around 5,000 residents, but is now down below several hundred.
Now, instead of storing ammunition, Herlong stores inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution, Herlong. Well, that’s not really true. The Sierra Army Depot is still there, a munitions disposal site for the U.S. Army. A civilian contractor there burns munitions, releasing a variety of toxins into the air, including heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs, and fiberglass, according to Global Security. Evidently, they’ve been blowing up or burning unwanted bombs, bullets, rocket engines, and other munitions in open pits for more than three decades, with more than 53 million pounds of explosives detonated every year.
So..... hold your breath and drive as fast as you can while feeling grateful you’re not living in one of the Nevada communities downwind.
At Honey Lake, a big pretty dry kind of lake (the kind we’re all familiar with out here in the desert), you’ll head back onto a more northerly bearing, then go northwest again, following Secret Creek toward the Modoc County line. This is the lonely stretch of 395, desolate and beautiful. Wide spots in the road count as towns here—Ravendale, Termo, Brockman, Madeline, and into the actual (if tiny) town of Likely, where you can grab a bite at The Most Likely Cafe before continuing the last leg of your journey to Alturas.
As you near Alturas, you’ll encounter more wetlands and agricultural lands, sparsely settled. Alturas is the county seat for Modoc County, and it has around 3,000 residents. That should tell you something about Modoc County.
For me, the big attraction here is the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge. September and October are great months for wildlife viewing at the refuge, especially during the morning and evening hours. Like shooting photos of wildlife? You’ll be in happy land here.
If you’re a birder, you’ll be in heaven here. A total of 246 species of birds have been observed at the refuge, with at least 76 species nesting here. There’s American White Pelicans, Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, ducks, geese, and my favorites, the Sandhill Cranes.
While the refuge is oriented toward providing migratory birds with wetland habitat, keep your eyes open for its other residents, ranging from mink and badger to bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, mule deer, and highly entertaining river otters.
As far as I’m concerned, the wildlife refuge is enough of a reason to visit nearby Alturas, but the town itself has something to offer as well. I love the Niles Hotel, for instance, that opened in 1908 as the Curtis Hotel, but shortly thereafter was purchased by Jay Eugene Niles who completed the hotel and renamed it after himself.
By the 1970s, the two other large hotels in Alturas had either burned or been torn down, and the Niles wasn’t in much better shape. It closed to the public in 1976, but Stephen and Cheryl Baker purchased the hotel and undertook a 12 year, one million dollar renovation. Since then, the hotel has seen a couple other owners, and is now owned by Jim and Elizabeth Cavasso, who purchased the Niles in 2011.
Here in Alturas, where tourists and travelers are few and far between, the Niles’ future may be uncertain. I strongly urge you to push that uncertain future toward absolute success. The Niles now boasts the Niles Coffee Company, with great food for breakfast and lunch, and Alturas’ “Little Free Library.” Then there’s the High Grade Dining Room for dinner, the J.E. Niles Room for special events, a couple of other meeting/event rooms, and the Niles Saloon with its 16 foot oak Victorian bar built in 1875.
The rooms here are well appointed with vintage furnishings, and the rates are quite reasonable. There are even hostel style accommodations. Just keep in mind the hotel is more than a century old and you’ll be walking up stairs to get to your rooms. There’s no TV or telephones in the rooms, and who cares? You’re in Alturas. Plus, they have free high-speed Wi-Fi. It’s like the skipped the entire 20th century and went straight from the 19th to the 21st!
I could easily stay at the Niles Hotel to explore this area for a month or so and I doubt I’d get bored. You can tell the Alturas folks aren’t used to being a big tourist destination. Heck, the folks at the local chamber of commerce didn’t seem to know what to do when a traveler (me) walked in to ask where to get lunch in town, though they seemed pleased I had somehow found the place.
There’s a nice little museum in town that’s worth a visit, the Modoc County Historical Museum (where the chamber is located), the Desert Rose Casino, if you must have one, over at the Alturas Indian Rancheria, some other pretty decent dining and lodging options, including a basque restaurant, and even some antiquing and shopping. Outdoor recreational opportunities abound.
Alturas is a cozy little town, welcoming, and comfortable. Drive and walk around a little and make sure to see the courthouse and a couple of other architecturally interesting historical buildings in town.
If you’re feeling let down at the end of your journey because your road trip is now over, well, I have good news for you: you’re in Alturas. Unless you’re going to take up residency there, which doesn’t really seem to be that bad of an idea, you’re going to have to get home, or keep on road trippin’.
Lucky for you, if you want to keep going, Alturas is situated near Lava Beds National Monument, Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and another favorite of mine—Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. You can wander over to Mount Shasta, or cross the border over to Klamath Falls and Crater Lake. Or just keep following those 395 signs through Oregon to Pendleton, then on to Spokane in Washington, finishing up at the Port of Entry Laurier on the Canadian border.
Or, you can just turn this magazine around and go back the way you came, south down Highway 395 through some of the most gorgeous and captivating landscape you’ve ever seen. I guarantee you didn’t see it all on the way north.
If you’re like me, you won’t tire of this journey. You’ll crave more. It’ll creep into your consciousness when you least expect it, and you’ll start wondering what your favorite lake looks like now, or if there’s big snow in Mammoth, or if the Sandhill Cranes are as loud, and the otters as playful today as they were when you were in Alturas last.
This journey was just an introduction, and if you’re on your first trip up 395, you now have a new friend. It’s a friend you’ll want to keep for life.
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