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United States Highway 395 runs from the Cajon Pass northeast of Los Angeles to the Canadian border. The 395 in California is famous for its spectacular scenery as it parallels the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains for some 400 kilometers.
Heading north from Los Angeles, Highway 395 begins at the southern end of the Owens Valley. Sandwiched between the Sierras and the Inyo Mountains, the valley is flat, desolate, and very dry (Death Valley is to the east, just beyond the Inyo Mountains). Along with the low humidity, wind-whipped dust makes the air irritating to breathe and hazy. It’s hard to believe that at the beginning of the 20th century the Owens Valley was lush and fertile farmland. To meet a growing need for water, the City of Los Angeles bought up most of the land in the valley and built a system of aqueducts spanning 400 kilometers, an engineering marvel of its time. The system began diverting almost all the valley’s water in 1913, allowing the semi-desert of Los Angeles to bloom with urban sprawl. By 1924 the Owens Valley was a dust bowl.
The first substantial town you’ll reach is Lone Pine. Its main attraction is Mount Whitney, whose 4417-meter summit is the highest point in the continental United States. The Whitney Portal Road twists and turns for 21 kilometers from Lone Pine to the 2550-meter-high Whitney Portal trailhead. From there a 17.1 kilometer trail leads to the summit. The trail is so popular that the Forest Service requires permits for all hikers, limited to a daily quota. A hiker in excellent physical condition who gets an early start can make the round trip to the top in one day, but most who make the complete trip camp overnight on the mountain. Many more people take a short hike that doesn’t require a permit, so the lower section of the trail can have a human traffic jam even during the off season.
The Whitney Portal Road offers another attraction that doesn’t require any hiking at all. You may not have heard of the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine, but you’ve probably seen them many times. To early moviemakers the rocky desert setting invoked the “Old West,” so the Alabama Hills have been a prominent feature of western films ever since. More recently the hills have served as a terrestrial stand-in for alien landscapes in science-fiction films and television programs, and as the background for numerous commercials. The road through the hills is called, appropriately enough, Movie Road. It’s a dirt road, but quite passable in a car if you take your time.
Arriving during the Civil War, miners sympathetic to the Confederacy
named their claims in the hills for the battleship Alabama that
had harassed northern shipping. The name eventually stuck to the entire
area. The low, rounded hills were originally part of the towering craggy
white Sierras in the background of these pictures. Faulting separated
them from the mountains, and the combination of earthquakes and weather
eroded them down to rock piles. The landscape reminds me very much of Joshua Tree National
Park, which also owes its cracked rock formations to earthquakes.
Although both places are high desert, the Alabama Hills are at a much
higher elevation and colder, so there aren’t any Joshua trees.
One of the delights of Highway 395 is exploring the many side roads into
the mountains, following a creek or leading to a lake or cabins. From Big
Pine, 72 kilometers north of Lone Pine, Glacier Lodge Road winds its way
to the Glacier Lodge “resort” complex of cabins and campsites. At the
entrance to Glacier Lodge is a trout pond and picnic area that provides
a surprising view.
At the north end of the Owens Valley, Bishop (population 3600) is the
metropolis of the eastern Sierra. The Bishop area offers year-round
recreational opportunities, but it’s particularly renowned among autumn
“leaf peepers” for its colorful aspen displays. While Bishop lacks the
stereotypical red barns, hay bales, and white churches that enhance
innumerable autumn pictures of New England, the Sierras surely provide
more than adequate compensation.
Highway 168 (“West Line Road”) heads west from Bishop and rapidly gains
elevation as it enters Bishop Creek Canyon. The first notable scenic
point is a lake with the romantic and evocative name of Intake 2. The
name is a pointed reminder that Bishop Creek is a source of
hydroelectric power for the region, and that some of the most scenic
lakes are artificial or “managed.” A small campground next to the lake
has prime campsites right on the creek.
Highway 168 continues along Bishop Creek, past the hamlet of Aspendell.
Secluded amid aspen stands at an elevation of 2590 meters, Aspendell
really lives up to its name (although I suspect it’s somewhat less
attractive in February). Past Aspendell near the end of the road is
Cardinal Village, one of a number of “resorts” in the Sierras that rent
cabins for fishermen and hikers. At Cardinal Village I saw a tranquil
pond that was covered with floating fallen leaves.
A fall foliage trip is necessarily a gamble. Planning involves
researching historical information about when leaves typically change
color. But as with weather, forecasting autumn color based on historical
data doesn’t always work out. The “peak of color” in Bishop Creek Canyon
is usually at the end of September. I couldn’t get there until
mid-October, but I had good luck because unusually warm weather had
delayed the color change.
At the end of South Lake Road is, not surprisingly, South Lake. Viewed
from the side away from the dam, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the
lake is artificial. Besides providing a source of hydroelectric power,
the lake is popular for boating and fishing. It’s also a trailhead for
hikes to remote, completely natural lakes that don’t generate any