Driving towards Conway Summit on 395

It’s almost as if this road was always meant to be here. Highway 395 is a thing of beauty that sculpts itself almost seamlessly into the curves of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, snaking all the way from Southern California to the Canadian-Washington border. To drive this road is to take a journey in scenic splendor and it’s a trip everyone should make….at least once in their lifetime.

Alex and Ellen bundled up for an early morning shot at Mono Lake

The caravan “pack” (Alex, Ellen, us and our 12 paws) decided we couldn’t miss it either, and despite forecasts of hard chill in the mountains we made the turn to Reno and picked up the 395 trail down south from there. This particular section of 395, the bit that runs through California, is undoubtedly one of the most scenic and I took dibs on the wheel so I could enjoy all it’s curvaceous beauty right from the driver’s seat.

Just another great sunset on 395

And it was just as fabulous as we expected. Not only is 395 a superb road in near-perfect condition (which is really saying something in California), but it’s a super-easy drive with stunning views, fabulous spots to camp, some of California’s most beautiful treasures (Mono Lake, John Muir Wilderness, Mount Whitney), cute little mountain towns (Lee Vinning, Mammoth Lakes), great food (stop at Dick’s Smoke Wagon in Big Pine for some lip-smacking BBQ), no end of sight-seeing and hiking, and a bit of history to boot.

California section of 395

California section of 395

The essence of 395 goes right back to the beginning of the highway system. Around 1895 two guys met with the idea of creating a ~14,000 mile network of state roads in California. The original 1896 map included a route passing through Inyo and Mono counties, the very first concept of 395. Many years later and much expanded 395 eventually developed into the massive 1,490-mile “Three Flags Highway“, a route touching 3 countries from San Diego (at the Mexican border) through 4 US states all the way to Canada. These days 395 ends further north at Hesperia, CA, but it’s still a significant road jam-packed with interest.

Our “pack” travelled the road over the period of about a week and a half from the high plateau of Reno to the peaks of Mammoth Lakes, past movie history in Lone Pine and into the desert. We took it at as it came to us, stopping for camping and hiking along the way, but for those looking for a little extra info you can download a free Hwy 395 Audio Traveling Companion and pick-up the most excellent (also free) Scenic Backroad Motortouring Guide  from any of the local visitors centers.

Paul contemplates the end of a beautiful journey at Lone Pine

And as for the temperature? Despite some night-time chills, day-time temps were near-perfect, the trails and roads were near-empty and fall colors were still gorgeous even a week after I saw the “peak” with my Nepal hiking buddies. In fact I would venture to say that fall seems as near perfect as it gets to make this drive and I’ve got to wonder why more folks don’t do it. Either way we were darn happy we made the turn at Reno. Scenic 395 totally delivered and, like all great experiences, has left us breathless with awe and wanting for more.

A long, beautiful stretch of road

Another hike in paradise…

Hiking in the John Muir Wilderness on a perfect weather day

The stunning Sierra Nevada Mountains by McGee Creek

View into the gorgeous Owens Valley

The wacky Alabama Hills

30 Responses to The Splendor Of Scenic Highway 395

  1. Jerry B. says:

    We spent a month this year in Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone. Nothing was more beautiful than coming home over 395 and into Yosemite. That Eastern Sierra highway is absolutely the most spectacular anywhere. We especially love the Bridgeport, Lee Vining area and Mono Lake. Thanks for that link to the audio tour, we have the guide book but didn’t know about the audio one.

    • libertatemamo says:

      Sounds like you guys had an awesome trip! We’re hoping to head to Idaho and Montana next year and
      will probably take 395 again if we can.
      Nina

  2. jil mohr says:

    looks wonderful…will it be my kind of road?….not scary?

    • libertatemamo says:

      I think you’ll be fine on ths one. There are some big(ish) passes, but the road is in really good conditon and easy to drive.
      Nina

  3. Marsha says:

    WOW…this road sounds just like what the doctor ordered. We may actually be able to do this next spring/summer. The drive would be so awesome. The scenery looks never ending! I love it. Thanks for all the links. Enjoy the ride.

  4. Laurie says:

    I am SO GLAD you took this road! It is such a winner, and known to relatively few travelers. Don’t know if you managed a trip to Bodie, one of the great “ghost” towns – but thought I mention it for other travelers in case you won’t be writing about it. And Manzanar? Okay, okay, I have to stop writing now, before I get carried away with the Whoa Nellie Deli, and the great little grocery in Lee Vining, and….! So much to see along the way!

    • libertatemamo says:

      Laurie,
      You’re so right that there is simply no end of good stuff to do on this road.
      We didn’t make Bodie (on our list for next time), but we DID get a breakfast at Whoa Nellie Deli after our sunrise photo shoot at Mono Lake…what a treat! No doubt we’ve got to come back and explore more.
      Nina

  5. Couldn’t agree with you more! We drove 395 north in April / May this year, and 395 south in August / September. LOVE that highway! In April, of course, the Sierra were magnificent with snow.

    • libertatemamo says:

      I have to say the shots from your blog of your trip down 395 this year were very inspiring to us!
      Nina

    • Bill Klein says:

      Hi folks, I’m thinking about taking my RV down 395 through Oregon & California next April. Did you encounter snow & ice on your 395 trip?

      • libertatemamo says:

        The roads have always been completely clear when we’ve done the drive, although we’ve had a “dusting” of snow at higher elevations depending on the weather. Just check the forecast for the high passes before you go. Worst case you should be able to wait a few days to cross the higher elevations (around Mammoth Lakes).
        Nina

  6. Erin says:

    Sounds like a lovely road to drive at a nice relaxed pace; going on our list.

  7. [...] led to another month exploring the fabulous Oregon coast. We ended the year with probably the most beautiful drive ever down 395 to the splendors of the desert in winter. Oh, and of course we managed to do at least one totally [...]

  8. Jennie O says:

    Thinking of heading North to Reno from the desert in mid April. Any closures or winter treachery to be wary of?

  9. [...] way possible. 3/ Take The Eastern Route Thro’ The Sierras (Hwy 395) – We did this last year coming South and it’s our absolute fav route….scenic, relaxed, pristine & road in near-prefect [...]

  10. [...] Lake and then (possibly) another fall drive down our favorite highway in the entire country (spectacular Hwy 395) before we land our jacks for a month of spa at Desert Hot Springs. After then? Likely some random [...]

  11. [...] scenically through the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I gushed about this drive when we did it last time. It’s just one of those drives you have to do at least once (twice, fifty?) times in your [...]

  12. […] 395 is one of the most scenic drives in the west and this is going to be our 3rd time doing it. We’ll hit some late weather (no doubt), but […]

  13. […] mountains and pine tress, on the road to green grass and lush meadows. We’re on one of our absolute favorite highways Hwy 395, but we’re driving it further north than we’ve ever been. As we motor down the […]

  14. Bob says:

    I rode US-395 from it’s intersection with US-97 all the way south years ago on my touring motorcycle years ago. A great ride!
    –Bob

    • libertatemamo says:

      We just love that highway. Have driven the Sierra section 4 times now and it never gets old. This is the first time we’ve taken it north of Susanville.
      Nina

  15. dan says:

    We are looking forward to driving 395 on our trip to Napa Valley from Texas, this June. Would you suggest picking it up off of 58 near Barstow in the summer? I like the idea of avoiding Hwy 5 this time.

    thanks,
    Dan

    • libertatemamo says:

      Sure, why not. It’ll be hot in Barstow that time of year, but the drive is nice the whole way. By the time you hit Lone Pine you’ll be up in elevation and should start to see some relief. You probably won’t see real comfy temps until around Mammoth Lakes, but it’s all gorgeous driving. I’ll do anything to avoid the 5 too.

      Nina

  16. Kent & Sydney says:

    How hard are the passes? We have a 31 foot gas class A. Just coming from Tucson on I-8 we were down to 35 mph.

    • libertatemamo says:

      There are a few good-sized passes along 395, but nothing greater than 6%. There are two longer passes -> One by Conway Summit (just before Mono Lake going south) which is 6% for 4 miles and the other coming into Bishop (going south) which is 6% for 8 miles. We found all the passes easy (nice, wide shoulders, good road), but it just depends how your engine handles it. I honestly don’t remember any big passes coming into Tuscon on the I-8, so the 395 may be bigger than you’ve done to date.

      Nina

  17. Sylvia says:

    Gone as far as Mammoth and fell in love with 395. This weekend planning road trip from LA to Reno/Tahoe with 90-year old adventuress…Mom. She loves getting out on the open road and Scenic 395 offers that and much more.

    • libertatemamo says:

      What a wonderful trip with you mother…and at 90 too! I’m impressed with her adventurous spirit and hope to be exactly the same way at that age. Enjoy the 395. We’re going back AGAIN this year.

      Nina

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