BISHOP, Calif. — Once called Three Flags Highway because it runs from Canada to Mexico, U.S. 395 at this time of year becomes a skiers' expressway. Southlanders crowd it to reach the slopes at Mammoth and June mountains and Lake Tahoe.
Few travelers bother to pause en route at such Owens Valley towns as Bishop, Independence or Lone Pine. As a result, they bypass a number of interesting attractions.
Along with the always spectacular views of Mt. Whitney, the area boasts museums devoted to Paiute and Shoshone Indians and early pioneers, a narrow-gauge railroad, the World War II Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar, the home of novelist Mary Austin and a landmark hotel called Winnedumah Country Inn. Other places are a trout hatchery, a viewpoint for tule elk and a bakery with 36 kinds of fresh breads.
If you're driving north, stop first at Lone Pine. Pull in south of town at the Interagency Visitor Center, which provides travel and recreation information for eastern California and offers a variety of exhibits and publications.
From there you'll get an excellent view of 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. But be warned: Lone Pine Peak in the foreground often is mistaken for Mt. Whitney.
At a stoplight in town, Whitney Portal Road goes west to Inyo National Forest and the trail that leads summertime hikers to the jagged pinnacle of Mt. Whitney. A drive of a few miles through the Alabama Hills takes in a beautiful landscape of boulders that has been the background for Western movies.
Just north of Lone Pine along U.S. 395, a marker is posted at the common grave of victims of an earthquake that shook the Owens Valley in 1872 and nearly destroyed the town.
Nine miles up the highway, look for two stone guard houses at Manzanar, the relocation camp for 10,000 Japanese-Americans from Los Angeles. Only these two small structures and a cemetery remain. The camp was closed in 1945 and it is now a national historic landmark.
You can see a handsome courthouse in Independence, a tiny town that serves as the seat for vast Inyo County.
Opposite is the columned entrance to the Winnedumah Country Inn, a vintage hostelry that's been welcoming U.S. 395 travelers since 1926. The inn's owner, Hattie Schafer, has been there since those early days, and greets guests from an easy chair in the lobby.
Drop in for a lesson in the area's history from Schafer, or just to warm yourself in the lobby before a log fire that burns in a fireplace built with ore samples from mines of the area. A plaque above relates the Indian legend of the hotel's namesake, Winnedumah.
The inn's 26 rooms are in need of an interior decorator, but the price is right: $40 a night, including a continental breakfast. Call (619) 878-2040 for reservations.
Drive west on Market Street and you'll see a state historical marker with a quotation from Mary Austin's novel, "The Land of Little Rain." It stands in front of the home that the author built in Independence in the early 1900s.
Continue west to Grant Street and visit the Eastern California Museum, which is filled with Owens Valley memorabilia from pioneer times to the present. The display of Paiute and Shoshone Indian baskets, beadwork and arrowheads is outstanding. Also look for the exhibit of mementos of the inmates at Manzanar.
Other items in the museum collection include a still-functioning 1870 music box and a set of dentures made with coyote teeth. Outside the main building are weathered wagons, machinery and buildings gathered from throughout the county. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission is free.
Farther along the highway is a turnout to view wildlife near the Tinemaha Reservoir. With luck and binoculars you may see some of the tule elk that roam the Owens Valley. A nearby turnoff leads to Fish Springs State Fish Hatchery, where tanks hold some of the 1 million trout raised there each year.
Beyond Big Pine, look right for the eight Caltech radio telescopes that listen to the stars. Then continue to Bishop, named for Samuel A. Bishop, who arrived in the valley with a herd of cattle in 1861.
Earlier residents were Indians, whose descendants now live on reservations and preserve the past at the Paiute-Shoshone Indian Cultural Center. To get there, turn west on West Line Street.
In addition to intricate basketry and beadwork, you can view displays that show how the Indians once obtained their food, medicine, clothing and shelter from plants and animals. Visitors can buy modern Indian jewelry, pottery and other items at the museum, which is open daily without charge.
On the other side of town, follow U.S. 6 a few miles northeast to the Laws Railroad Museum. Steam trains served miners and farmers in the Owens Valley from 1883, and the last run was made to Laws in 1960.
Since then, locomotive No. 9 and the vintage Laws depot have become the centerpieces of a mock frontier town and railroad yard that can be visited any day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pick up a "free" ticket with a map of the 12-acre site.
In Bishop, buy fresh pastry or pie at Schat's Dutch Bakery, where the original sheepherder bread is one of 36 varieties. Sandwiches and coffee also are served at Schat's, which is open every day.
Across the highway at 690 N. Main St., get the chamber of commerce guide to Bishop's 24 lodgings and 40 restaurants. Or call the visitors center, (619) 873-8405, which is open daily.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Bishop is 560 miles.