Some of the locals seem finally able to accept their lot as the heart of a significant volcanic area. A shop in town calls itself Volcano Clothing, and a U.S. Forest Service naturalist devoted her whole evening campfire program to the area's volcanic attractions--assuring us that no eruption was imminent. The ranger station in town provides printed updates on seismic activity and maps of volcanic sites.
Not on the map is one of the freshest and starkest reminders, located at Horseshoe Lake. About 100 acres of pines are bleached a ghostly gray, either dead or dying from carbon dioxide gas recently noticed exuding from inside Mammoth Mountain. Also not on the map are the Inyo Craters, at the end of a mile-long dirt road off the Mammoth Lakes Scenic Loop. A short walk through Jeffrey pines leads to the lip of two nicely funnel-shaped craters.
From there we stocked up on water and drove past the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery for another 2.3 miles along a dirt road. At the bottom of a gorge is Hot Creek, its banks lined with steaming vents and puddles of scalding water.
Stepping carefully, you can ford the stream and soak in a warm pool where scalding hot and cool water mix. Official signs discourage soaking and warn that some nighttime partyers have died in the treacherous gorge, but half a dozen German tourists were taking the plunge anyway. I usually like to bask in naturally hot water, but I took a pass.
Hot springs scattered around the caldera offer a less involved soak. Locals don't like outsiders overrunning their favorites, but Web sites and books available in town reveal some choice locations. One of the easiest to find, and largest, sits on a little rise off the Benton Crossing Road. Look for parked cars and be prepared to soak with naked strangers.
Going north from Mammoth Lakes, the highway parallels a valley of pumice deposits and a chain of small volcanoes called the Mono Craters. To explore the region's most recent eruption, go east on California 120 for 3.3 miles to the turnoff for Panum Crater. A short walk to the top of the rim provides access to its inner plug dome, formed in the last 600 years. From the crater's lip the view looks across Mono Lake, with its two volcanic islands.
Highway 395 continues north for 800 miles, weaving into Nevada, back into California, then snaking through Oregon and up the eastern edge of Washington state until reaching the Canadian border.
But my Highway 395 trip ends around Mono Lake. If you tire of exploring volcanoes, from Lee Vining, next to the lake, Highway 120 west climbs through spectacular Tioga Pass and in less than 45 minutes will bring you to the gate of Yosemite National Park.
And from 120, down below, there is a clear view of Highway 395, which would carry us home.
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Getting there: U.S. 395 begins in the Mojave Desert near Victorville. From Los Angeles, take the Antelope Valley Freeway to Palmdale; continue north on California 14 through Mojave. The road becomes U.S. 395 near Inyokern.
Where to stay: Roadside motels are concentrated in Lone Pine, Bishop and Lee Vining. One of the most modern is the Best Western Creekside Inn, 725 N. Main St., Bishop 93514, rates: $89-$139; tel. (800) 273-3550. At Snowcreek Resort, 124 Old Mammoth Road, Mammoth Lakes 93546, one-bedroom condos start at $100 with health club and indoor heated pool; tel. (760) 934-3333.
For more information: Go to http://www.395.com/ for regional maps, weather and information; also http://thesierraweb.com/ for listings of lodgings and restaurants. Or call the Mammoth Lakes Visitor's Bureau, P.O. Box 148, Mammoth Lakes 93546; tel. (888) GO-MAMMOTH. An interagency visitor center at the junction of 395 and California 136, tel. (760) 876-6222, has tourist information and sells books on the area. The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, P.O. Box 429, Lee Vining 93541, tel. (760) 647-3044, has detailed materials.