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Dream Drive Up 395

Destination: California

Savoring quirky roadside attractions and changing scenery, from the Mojave, to the Owens Valley, to the High Sierra

October 04, 1998|KEVIN RODERICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Roderick is a senior projects editor at the Times

Being keen to explore, I turned east on California 190 to circle the alkaline flat that used to be Owens Lake. Nothing feeds the bitter feelings toward Los Angeles more than the now dry lake, which once filled 100 square miles, an area larger than San Francisco, and carried barges loaded with ore from the Cerro Gordosilver mine. After the DWP took the Owens River to fill the aqueduct, the lake dried up, baring a bed of alkali sediment that winter winds kick into dust clouds that the EPA says are among the nation's worst air pollutants.

A good vantage point to overlook the dry lake bed is at Dirty Socks Hot Spring, known for its foul smell, but my goal was a patch of dust-blown houses in Keeler on the east shore. Keeler was once a busy lakeside town and the southern terminus of the Carson and Colorado Railroad. Now, an ironic sign points visitors to "Keeler Beach." The old railroad depot and a mill are still standing, along with a post office and homes for a few dozen remaining residents.

Where the lake loop rejoins Highway 395, a visitor center offers maps and books about the region, restrooms and water. There is also a good view of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48 states. It is surrounded by closer peaks that look more impressive, but someone will usually help point out Whitney.

For a better view, drive a few miles into Lone Pine and take the Whitney Portal Road west out of town. It winds through the Alabama Hills, backdrop for many Western movies and inspiration for the annual Lone Pine Film Festival, and climbs steeply into the High Sierra. At the top, 13 miles from town, are creeks, trail heads and picnic areas in the trees. Lone Pine itself has a pretty good view of the east face of the Sierra, which rises 10,000 feet above the town. Gas stations, cafes, soft ice cream stands and some interesting architecture make Lone Pine a good place for a break. Just north of town, a sign marks the grave site for 16 victims of the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake, one of the strongest to hit California.

Nine miles up the highway, a stone guardhouse standing alone in the desert on the left marks the entrance to the former Manzanar relocation camp, where 10,000 people of Japanese descent, many of them Americans from Los Angeles, were confined during World War II. On first glance, the site looks empty, but foundations of long-demolished barracks can still be found in the brush.

To make a more emotional connection, I drove another 0.8 mile north on the highway and turned west on an unmarked dirt road. After another 0.8 mile, the road bears left and leads to a white obelisk hidden behind a windblock of trees. This was the camp's cemetery marker--individual gravestones were not used. Japanese symbols on the tower read "Memorial to the dead."

In the next town of Independence, the Inyo County seat, the Eastern Sierra Museum has a detailed exhibit on Manzanar, as well as an array of local artifacts: Indian baskets, a fossilized mastodon bone, arrowheads and paraphernalia from Camp Independence, a U.S. Cavalry outpost established nearby in 1862.

Bishop, with a population of about 10,000, is the largest town in Owens Valley and a logical overnight stop for a leisurely drive. Motels are numerous, a good thing because the Best Western Creekside Inn fouled up my reservation and left me roomless on a sold-out Saturday night. Fortunately, the desk staff found lodging next door at the Outdoorsman and graciously offered free use of the heated pool, which was my reason for stopping after a dusty day on the road.

A few years had passed since I last explored Bishop, and one of its most charming eccentricities--diagonal parking along Highway 395 in the town center--was no more. Now four lanes of traffic moved efficiently past such landmarks as the Sportsman Cafe and Schat's Bakery. On the edge of town was progress of a different sort: the Paiute Palace casino.

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Leaving Bishop, the highway climbs an ancient volcanic flow into the Long Valley Caldera, the Eastern Sierra's most impressive volcanic feature. The 9-by-19-mile oval basin was left by an ancient explosion, many times more forceful than the Mt. St. Helens eruption. The caldera encompasses Mammoth Mountain, several smaller volcanic domes and cones and Crowley Lake, a DWP-owned reservoir popular with trout anglers.

Mono County is rich enough in sights to spend several days exploring. Lodging is available in June Lake, Lee Vining or Bridgeport, but we made base at the Snowcreek Resort in Mammoth Lakes to take advantage of its health club. It was also a good choice on the culinary scale. The Inn at Convict Lake, five miles south, has been a favorite stop along 395, offering fresh fish and a deep wine list in a cozy old lodge, and it did not disappoint. In Mammoth Lakes, Cervinos is an Italian newcomer with a gorgeous view of the caldera and some nice touches.

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