Eastern Sierras, CA: The Real Unreal

After every long trip, people inevitably ask, “What was your favorite stop?” Well, folks, in twenty-seven stops of Summer 2023, THIS was our favorite! Along the Eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a 54-mile stretch of Highway 395 between Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes is truly unreal … but it’s real!! Here are just a few of our favorite things from this gorgeous, uncrowded, spectacular area!

In Bridgeport

(We camped at Willow Springs RV Resort.)

Travertine Hot Springs

Off Jack Sawyer Road and Highway 395, a series of small natural hot springs pools set in an alkali-crusted, travertine-rock lined canyon became one of our favorite hot springs experiences … ever! (Here are some of the others.)

Bodie Historic Ghost Town

Perhaps the best-preserved and certainly the largest of all Western ghost towns, with over 200 structures remaining, Bodie is kept in a state of “arrested decay,” meaning it exists exactly as it did when the last residents left when the gold dried up and fires destroyed a lot of the town. Everyone seemed to pack up and move out in a single day, leaving all their worldly possessions frozen in time. Hire a private tour guide through their foundation (money that goes to help fund Bodie repairs) and have a blast traipsing over, under and through the ghost town.

In the massive mining stamp mill, a crazy number of different technique — including using vast amounts of poisonous mercury — extracted gold from the rock hauled from the mines in the surrounding mountains.

In Lee Vining

Lee Vining is most notably the jump-off point across Tioga Pass, the road that crosses over into Yosemite National Park during the summer. We’d been to Yosemite in 2014, and heard horror stories of massive crowds there all summer long this year, so did not return. But Mono Lake, the Whoa Nellie, and an upside-down house caught our attention!

Mono Lake Tufa Towers

Mono Lake (pronounced Moan-oh, not Mon-o) is a bizarre ancient lake — North America’s 2nd-oldest, in fact — and is 2.5x saltier than ocean water. (Read about another cool one — Salton Sea — here.) A dog-friendly walking trail gets you up-close-and-personal with this 700,000-year old marvel! The only things that can live here are tiny brine shrimp and alkali flies, but these delicacies (yum, yum) attract tons of migratory birds, including more than 60% of California’s population of sea gulls. When lake water levels dropped in the 20th century, “tufa towers” — like weird drip sandcastles created when calcium in underwater springs meets the lake’s carbonate waters — were exposed.

Whoa Nellie Deli

Fabulous food … from a gas station? Yup, here at the Whoa Nellie Deli inside the family-owned Mobil gas station, on the corner of Hwy 395 where it meets Tioga Pass. Almost everyone passing through Lee Vining hikes up to a shady picnic table and tries something from the unlikely menu that includes lobster taquitos on Brazilian black beans, wild buffalo meatloaf, and grilled pork tenderloin with apricot-wild berry glaze. From. A. Gas. Station.

Upside Down House

This weird tourist attraction was inspired by a children’s book and created by silent movie star Nellie Bly (who also inspired the name of Whoa Nellie Deli above). It was just weird enough to catch our attention, and even the informational plaque and donation box were upside down. Furniture, a cat, boots on the floor (I mean, the ceiling), flower pots … everything is upside down, leading to a weird out-of-body experience as your brain tries to process. Step into the house, and step out of reality!

In June Lake Loop

(We camped at Silver Lake Resort RV Park.)

10 miles south of Mono Lake, the 15-mile June Lake Loop passing through a steep, horseshoe-shaped canyon highlights dramatic Sierra peaks and a chain of four gorgeous lakes:  Grant, Silver, Gull and June. They all have different personalities, and we spent most of our time at Silver Lake and June Lake. 

Silver Lake

We camped right at Silver Lake and literally walked across the street to drop our kayak in this pretty little gal. At the far end of the lake, a not-so-secret passageway led us to a little stream winding quietly into the marshland. Waterfalls tumbled, coyotes howled, and we were perfectly, pleasantly content in this little paradise.

Rush Creek Trail to Agnew Lake

The most difficult hike of this entire trip due to steep elevation, we took the Rush Creek Trail to only the first lake (Agnew) of multiples located up above Silver Lake. Further up, it intersects the Pacific Crest Trail, and we saw many many people on this Labor Day weekend lugging backpacks that were twice as big as the humans (remember “Monster” from the Reese Witherspoon movie Wild? Yah, like that.). It also crosses a cable tramway a few times, built in 1915 to haul materials, one tiny cartload at a time up an 18% grade, that were needed to build three arch dams up there.

June Lake

June Lake is the more “beachy” lake of the Loop, and the one to which all the par-tay people go. It’s also the place with the brewery (exactly one; only local beer is sold in Mono County so don’t expect to order a Bud Light anywhere) and a few restaurants. There is also a monument to the legendary slot machines that may-or-may-not be dumped in June Lake. The story goes that before a 1940s raid by state revenue agents, area bars and cafes are said to have dumped their illegal slot machines in the lake in the middle of the night. Subsequent dive teams haven’t found them (yet) but the monument with pieces of an old slot machine keeps the urban legend alive.

Even Labor Day weekend, this is as crowded as it got

In Mammoth Lakes

(We camped at Mammoth Mountain RV Park.)

In winter, it’s Mammoth Mountain for epic skiing, and a lot of it … fourteen separate lift areas worth, in fact! In summer, it’s a huge array of unreal adventures in this natural wonderland! It was also one of the most dog-friendly places we’ve ever been … dogs are allowed almost EVERYWHERE.

Lakes Basin Area

Interestingly, there is no place called Mammoth Lake in Mammoth Lakes. But, the Lakes Basin is the place to be for water fun, with many shockingly gorgeous lakes (Mamie, Mary, Horseshoe, George) all close together, with various campgrounds, marinas, and trails nearby. You could easily spend days or weeks exploring this area.

Crystal Lake Trail

This don’t-miss hiking trail is only 3.2 miles. Easy-peasy, right? Umm, no. For one thing, you’re starting at 9,000 feet and even if acclimated, you’re still probably huffing and puffing. And, you’re gaining almost another 1,000 feet in just a mile and a half. But, take the challenge and get a prize, because the views of Lake George, Crystal Crag, and a perfect little picnic spot at your endpoint, Crystal Lake, are worth it! Our fave hike of the area.

Biking Town Trails (wherein tragedy ensues)

In the Lakes Basin, there’s a beauty of a paved bike path, but it’s mostly uphill. Solution? Because we haven’t taken the leap to electric bikes just yet (hello, Santa?!), we instead threw our bikes on the free trolley service up, enabling us to relaxingly cruise downhill all the way back! It was also here that I picked up a little Mammoth Lakes souvenir, in the form of asphalt embedded in my arm and a bad leg injury when I went over the bike handlebars while absentmindedly gazing around. Leaving the RV can be dangerous! And don’t even get me started on the damage to my pride. There are also literally hundreds of miles of exceptional mountain bike trails of all levels around Mammoth Mountain. When we go back, we will definitely rent mountain bikes (AND PADS, or at least a bunch of bubble wrap) and give it a try!

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile, originally part of Yosemite National Park, has been said to look like a giant’s tidy lumber pile, or a wall of giant matchsticks — what do you think? These 60-foot tall basalt columns were formed when lava erupted and pooled 100,000 years ago, and then cooled and cracked at exact 120 degree angles, forming nearly symmetrical, hexagon-shaped columns. To visit here requires effort on your part, specifically, a mandatory 45-minute shuttle bus ride along a steep, curvy, narrow road to the valley of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, below Mammoth. But so worth it — really cool! A loop trail takes you beside, and if you wish, up top of the pile.

Mammoth Lakes — the Town

Mammoth has a nifty little village that is the heart of the action. Not only the hub for all the free shuttle routes that run all over the place, it’s also the location of stores, restaurants, and in the case of Labor Day weekend, an annual Whiskey and Music Festival. We also met up with Jeff and Nancy, full-timer RV’ers who were parked next to us at our previous campground in Silver Lake, for strong mai-tai’s at the polynesian bar called Lakanuki. Say it fast, and you’ll realize it’s a term for ill-health caused by lack of, umm, uhh, sexual activity. A weird name, so seems like there must be a story there someplace, but good times with new friends.

Mammoth Mountain Base Camp and summer scenic lifts
We dined at Skadi, a tiny Nordic-themed restaurant with only 10 tables — we sat at the “chef’s counter” to watch all the action

Forest Fun

Wild Willy’s Hot Springs

It’s supposedly called Wild Willy’s because there are usually a lot of naked people here, but on this busy holiday weekend, everyone stayed blessedly clothed. The Hot Creek Geologic Area in which it is located has water heated by pockets of volcanic magma three miles below the earth. There are four or five different hot springs of varying temps — we avoided the Crab Cooker pool, based solely on the dangerous-sounding name. But this crazy hot springs in the middle of flat barren land and grazing cows was a lot of fun, and we chatted with visitors from France, Japan and other far-flung places whilst getting our soak on.

Convict Lake

The prettiest, and crowded-est (is that a word?) lake is named for prison escapees who shot it out with a sheriff’s posse here in the 1870’s. A hiking trail follows the circumference of the lake, with surprising elevation changes and lots of opportunities for a certain retriever named Finn to swim in the lake. Convict is one of the prettiest lakes in eastern California, with 170 acres of clear blue water and surrounded on three sides by towering granite peaks. As one online reviewer put it: “This place is a postcard waiting to happen.”

Manzanar National Historic Site

Though outside the 54-mile zone highlighted above, but still on Highway 395, Manzanar is worth a mention. 90 miles south of Mammoth Lakes, Manzanar is where, in 1942, over 110,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were forced from their homes and sent to live in remote, military-style camps in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, simply because of their ethnicity. 10,000 of them lived here at Manzanar for up to three years; it was “not a prison” according to the government, yet was overseen by armed guards in a tower and ringed with barbed wire, so you decide.

2/3 of these people were born in America, and not a single one of them was ever convicted of espionage or sabotage. Yet they managed to forge a community that included schools, gardens, basketball courts, orchards, and more. The setting was beautiful; the conditions were awful.

36 blocks of 14 barracks housed up to 300 people. Complete strangers were housed together and privacy was non-existent. Preschool kids took their naps on flattened cardboard boxes, and the formula the government gave them for babies was Carnation instant milk mixed with Karo syrup. Re-created barracks and buildings provide a sense of their lives here, but are indeed much nicer than the originals (in order to comply with modern building codes so that visitors — including dogs! — can enter).

Most facilities were shared: meals eaten in a mess hall, clothes washed in a public laundry room, shared latrines and showers. Most of the buildings were removed when the camp closed, but remnants of life evoke strong emotions. “A pipe sticking out of the ground becomes a water faucet where children splashed their faces in the summer heat. Ten iron rings embedded in a concrete slab evoke the humiliation of ten women forced to sit exposed next to strangers, enduring private moments on public toilets.”

A trip down Highway 395 should include a stop at Manzanar, for “…we must learn from our history and we must learn that history can teach us how to care for one another.” Could this happen again? We must ask ourselves.

Woot Woot! We’re Published Again

RV America Magazine, a publication of Passport America (a great 50% discount campground program) just published an article we wrote about Safe RV Navigation in Heavy Traffic! Click here to view the entire Fall 2023 issue for free.

What’s Next?

Charming Adventures returned to Phoenix for some extensive baby snuggling with our three grandchildren — Connor – 2, Violet – 8 months, and Graham – 4 months. We’ll also soon be helping my parents get settled into their new house … in our very own neighborhood! And of course, the planning and dreaming for future RV trips never ends. In 2024, we’ll be picking up the last 7 states we haven’t yet visited of the lower 48, along with some long-time bucket list destinations, in our 11th year of RV’ing!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *