At five hours drive from L.A. and 8,000 feet in elevation, the town of Mammoth Lakes served as our mountain basecamp for a 3-day weekend. And by basecamp I mean the Westin Monache Resort. It's like glamping but without the "-ping".
Actually, this was meant to be more of a touristy road trip than anything and we recommend this route highly. Here are the highlights and attractions we fit into the three day/two night trip:
1. Manzanar War Relocation Center (Inyo County)
2. Bishop, CA
3. Mammoth Lakes, CA
4. Bodie Ghost Town (Mono County)
5. Mono Lake/Lee Vining, CA
6. Devils Postpile (Madera County)
7. Whitmore Tub/Shepard's Hot Springs (Mono County)
1. Manzanar - The Manzanar War Relocation Center is a fascinating and somber self-guided tour through what's left of the World War II site. Once housing over 11,000 of the 110,000 relocated innocent Japanese Americans (total includes a fraction of incarcerated people of Japanese ancestry relocated from countries outside the U.S. into American internment camps), this desolate and windy tract of desert requires one's imagination to envision how it looked 70 years ago. All original buildings, save for the entry guard posts and an auditorium, were razed after the war. Now a large Interpretive Center houses artifacts and tells the story. After seeing the exhibit, visitors can drive and/or walk virtually unrestricted throughout the site. Original roads and foundations remain, as does a small cemetery, remnants of gardens and a fish pond, and several newly reconstructed examples of residential blocks.
Manzanar is a 3 to 3.5 hour drive north of Los Angeles, on highway 395. As you near Manzanar, look to the west where the Sierra Nevada mountain range rises up to the highest peak in the lower 48 states - Mt. Whitney has an elevation of 14,505 feet.
[click photos to view in lightbox]
2. Bishop, CA - 45 minutes north of Manzanar on 395, Bishop is a bustling small town where you'll find the most amenities before reaching Mammoth Lakes. The town has a brewery (it was too busy to find a table), several coffee shops (yes Starbucks, but also local joints), a popular bakery (frankly we didn't understand the hype), and a burger shack located outside town (yeah, we get the hype!).
The Bishop Burger Barn had one of the best veggie burgers I've had. It was a fat and sloppy bean and nut patty topped with the usual fixin's plus plenty of optional toppings (I recommend roasted green chilis, blue cheese, and grilled onions). A side of beer-battered sweet potato fries was a tasty option. Be prepared to find a dirt parking lot, a walk-up window, and covered outdoor seating. When we arrived it was raining, muddy, and worth it.
Afterwards we went to the century-old Erick Schat's Bakkerÿ. It's historic, it's a bakery, we should have loved it, we didn't. This place is packed with tourists and I just don't get it. That's all.
3. Mammoth Lakes, CA - Mammoth is a polished and pricey ski resort town 45 minutes north of Bishop. It's the largest on the trip with a population of nearly 8,000. Mammoth Mountain is a big deal for snow types but there other activities for people like me who prefer to remain upright. While Mammoth has plenty of amenities, be forewarned that restaurants close frustratingly early. By 9:00pm we had few choices left and ended up getting takeout from Smokeyard BBQ and Chop Shop; which, despite its name, had plenty of vegetarian options (pizza, veggie meatball sandwich, pasta, soup, salad, and many starters). Unless you grab takeout (subs, fast food), even basic entrees in Mammoth will easily run north of $20.
4. Bodie, CA - After our first night in Mammoth we drove an hour north to Bodie, a ghost town in Mono County. The bumpy dirt road to Bodie is worth your patience. And expect a lot of tourists to be making the same journey. The entry fee of $5 per adult (it's a state park) was well worth it, as was the $2 booklet with map. This gold rush ghost town covers many acres and can easily gobble up several hours. Brings snacks because there are no amenities besides restrooms. The site is listed as being in a state of "arrested decay", which essentially means don't wear flip-flops and don't both asking what time the interpretive reenactment begins. What you see is what you get- and it's a lot for a few bucks.
Bodie was that outlaw-ish old west town you see in movies: chock full of prostitutin', murder'n, gold stealin', and grimacing meanies. The remaining buildings (houses, shops, halls) are original, barely staged, and some you can walk through. The grounds are dog-friendly but watch for rusty metal and glass- seriously, this place is not manicured and should be considered "as-is".
5. Mono Lake/Lee Vining, CA - Bodie was the farthest point on the trip, so afterwards we headed back to the nearest small town of Lee Vining. A good stop for coffee and food. Dog-friendly Bodie Mike's Barbecue had a generously portioned, juicy, grilled veggie kabob dinner. Though the town only has a few hundred residents, it sees a lot of activity for two reasons: 1) it's an entry/exit point with amenities for those traveling through Yosemite and 2) it's home to the strange tourist attraction Mono Lake.
Mono Lake is an alkaline salt lake with one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. Few creatures can live in its potent water—mainly brine shrimp and bacteria. Alkaline flies are plentiful so bring bug repellent. And prepare to see a lot of birds, as this is an important migratory stopover. Mono Lake is most famous for its rocky limestone "tufa towers" that make the beach look more like the surface of a meteor. A storm in the distance during our visit produced a stunning rainbow backdrop:
6. Devils Postpile - We got back to Mammoth that evening with enough daylight to trek to Devils Postpile National Monument. It's a 30-minute drive from Mammoth- if you time it right. The curvy road to the monument is narrow so daytime traffic is restricted. Monument visitors are bussed in between then hours of 7am-7pm. The secret is to go right at 7:00 pm when there's nobody at the entrance gate to collect the fee. From the parking lot (with restrooms) it's an easy hike on a dirt path to the basalt column rock formation. Once you see it, you've seen it, know what I mean?
Note: Throughout this trip we reached elevations of 7,000-10,000 feet. The "thin" air at that elevation makes breathing more difficult. If you're unaccustomed to these elevations, take it easy and only venture out with a buddy.
7. Whitmore Tub/Shepard's Hot Springs - Just east of the Mammoth Yosemite airport, the desert terrain is dotted with hot springs and "tubs" that are fairly easy to access. The soaker tubs are man made concrete pools filled with a constant flow of hot spring water. There were a few people driving around when we visited, but the springs aren't heavily promoted as a tourist attraction. This link opens to a PDF describing the tubs and their locations. The tubs are also visible on Google Maps by searching for Whitmore Tubs Road and then looking for marked springs such as "Crab Cooker", "Shepard's Hot Springs" and "Wild Willy's".
After the springs we headed back to Bishop for a quick meal in the cute city park. Imperial Gourmet was decent American Chinese take-out and accommodating of vegetarians. We would have preferred trying the new Mountain Rambler Brewery but they're closed on Mondays.
We packed in a lot during this trip but there's plenty more to see along the eastern Sierra Nevadas. The ancient bristlecone pine forest in Inyo County, for example, is home to some of the oldest trees on the planet—between 4,000-5,000 year old. We also didn't have time to hike to Rainbow Falls near Devils Postpile.
Have you visited this region? If so, what were your favorite spots? I invite you to comment below.