Bishop to Bodie and Beyond, Exploring California’s Eastern Sierras

Bishop is a gateway town marking the start (or end depending on your direction) of the Eastern Sierras visual extravaganza offered along highway 395 which runs North and South in California, East of the Sierras, but not quite to Nevada.

If you are going anywhere on 395 at all, you are likely to pass through Bishop. This is a town that marks a landscape change from a dry and barren desert to the south, to the rich and rugged Sierra vistas to the north. Don’t miss a stop at EriK Schat’s Bakery in downtown, the only intersection with a stoplight. One could almost spend a full day here tasting the delicious treats in this special bakery. Besides the usual sweets there are seemingly dozens of different styles of bread. This is a “don’t miss” when traveling through Bishop

Continuing north you will next find Mammoth Lakes. This haven for Los Angelean’s getting away from the big city has turned what used to be a sleepy mountain getaway into a viable community. The little town I knew a dozen some years ago is now hidden behind high-end shopping, condos, a high school and hospital. Getting away from town up to Lake Mary is still very pleasant and the walk to the devils post pile popular.This year-round resort town has a ski hill with a chair lift right in the middle of town along with two golf courses who’s greens seem to dissect the downtown making it a bit confusing to the first time visitor. Get into the countryside above town with the lakes and postpile, this is wonderful.

Off the beaten path, and away from the hordes that seem to have grown up around Mammoth is the Devil’s Post Pile. We love the scenery and this odd geological attraction is worth a look-see. The hike from the Post Pile to Rainbow Falls is worthwhile also, about 3 miles, lots of downhill and some steep sections.

Leaving Mammoth one heads north to the quiet hamlet of June Lake which always seems to be a poised for a picture for some Field and Stream type magazine sporting log cabins and plaid dog shirts Los Angeles shirted fishermen in great abundance. The 14 mile June Lake Loop tucks you back in along the base of the mountains where one can find a little ski hill, a great learning hill for families. The Northern most lake, Grant Lake is a reservoir lake and while it has fishing, lacks the usual coastline that make lakes so pretty. The other lakes, Silver and June are both natural and Aspen ringed for fantastic fall-color photography.

The next stop along the way is Lee Vining, a Gateway to Yosemite and where Highway 120 intersects Highway 395. A left turn here will soon bring you to Yosemite National Park at Tioga Pass. But let’s visit a few more Eastern Sierra Highlights before we backtrack to here.

Lee Vining has a marvelous interactive visitor and information center focusing on the “lunar-esque” Mono Lake. The lake was, in recent years, the center of attention regarding water use rights. Nearly drained by Los Angeles in the 1980s to feed their massive water needs, the locals along with the help of several national agencies got together and sued to get their water back. Mono Lake is now quite full and alive with shrimp, birds and all manner of little critters. The visitors center at Lee Vining is a wealth of information, pictures, history and learning opportunities about this unique bit of California. Note: the earlier lowered water levels in the lake afforded extreme views of the rocky figures common all around the lake that are now mostly covered again.

As you drive north, away from the lake, look back and see that it continues on far further than you would think from your first view of the lake. You are now heading towards Bodie, watch carefully as there is but one oft-missed sign indicating the Bodie turnoff and it is a right turn and then 12 miles. Once on the road to Bodie, civilization quickly falls away and the road eventually blends to gravel. Watch for the hillside Shepard and his dogs in the meadow on the right, very European! Once at Bodie head for the museum. This is where you will pick up your passes for the Gold Stamping Mill Tour. Only a few dollars, but worth a mint in history, local color and interesting information on an era long past. The tours are at 11:00 am and 1:00 pm daily. If you can’t make a tour time, take a moment to query one of the docents or rangers, they have a depth of knowledge and seem to genuinely enjoy sharing it!

Here we need to decide which way to go after Bodie, back towards Yosemite or up towards Lake Tahoe. Once the weather changes and the snow starts falling, perhaps late October or early November, Tioga Pass will close to through traffic until late May or early June of the following year. The next closest cross-over that is cleared throughout the winter is Highway 88, somewhat north of us, but another lovely trip! If you have planned your trip when the pass is closed, after Bodie, stay on 395 towards Tahoe where you will have several options for continuing your explorations, either to the east and Nevada or the west and California.

If traveling in the summer months with the pass open, we back track a bit. After Bodie head back to Highway 395 and south again to Highway 120 in Lee Vining and turn right for Yosemite. Make a dining stop at the Mobile gas station on your left. This is the Whoa Nelly Deli, sign posted “Restaurant” and is a low-key marvelous and quick stop for a snack, lunch or complete gourmet dinner…always delicious and very fairly priced. The Whoa Nelly Deli is only open while Tioga pass is open. Preferred seating would be outside at a picnic table with views to Mono Lake.

Heading up the “hill” you will soon reach the pinnacle, Tioga Pass. Stopping along the way for view photo shots is highly recommended, as is enjoying a few days in the the official website for Yosemite National Park and can provide the traveler with bunches of travel planning tools.

Leaving the park if you are San Francisco bound will be back on Highway 120, pass Crane Flat and out the Big Oak Entrance, or exit in this case. Your next stop should be the Gold Rush town of Groveland. Interesting places here include the museum at the intersection of 120 & Ferretti Road, open daily from 1-4pm. The Iron Door Saloon is a step back in time and Mountain Sage is a destination in its own right, a marvelous coffee stop, gardens and nursery, hammock garden, art, crafts, books and sitting nooks. Another spot one could spend the day. They also have wireless here if you need a connection to the internet.

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