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The Ultimate California Road Trip: Route 395

The Ultimate California Road Trip: Route 395
November 06
08:00 2015


I am on the open road of California’s Route 395 extending all the way from the Canadian border to Los Angeles. I am making my way around Death Valley, aptly named for its extreme temperatures and desert landscape that makes living here difficult. As I drive past striped canyons and salt flats, it’s hard to believe just a few days ago I was in a dramatically different landscape of lush pine forests and low hanging clouds over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I remember driving down California’s popular Highway One when I was a teenager as my family and I traced the length of the West Coast, past Big Sur. It was the type of trip that stays with you long after the plane’s wheels touch the tarmac back home. The Pacific coast, the charming towns tucked away by the ocean, the swaying palm trees and sea­etched cliffs. Like most people, when I think of California I think of its glittering west coast with its sun-kissed beaches and celebrity-­ridden cities; I think of Los Angeles, of San Diego, of San Francisco and of the places I saw while on Highway One.

Dantes View-Death Valley--Photo credit- Max Whittaker

Dantes View-Death Valley–Photo credit- Max Whittaker

In contrast, Route 395 runs down the backbone of the state and is a testament to the diverse landscape that California offers. The highway winds its way from the tallest point of the continental United States at Mt. Whitney to the lowest point in North America in Death Valley; as I navigated the highs and lows of this underrated road, I found myself in the way of unfathomable natural beauty—from alien landscapes to genuine ghost towns–here I share a few of the highlights found along Route 395.

READ: The Insider’s Guide to USA Road Tripping – Route Suggestions

South Lake Tahoe

I hop onto Route 395 at Reno, Nevada and make my way to South Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe is beautiful in a melancholic, dark way that contrasts to the west coast. Fog hangs thickly over the pine trees, stormy clouds gather over the grey­blue lakes as the Sierra Nevada mountains kiss the sky. Lake Tahoe seems to have it all—paddle boarding, hiking, mountain biking, skiing—­depending on the season this scenic area caters to all travellers passing through. The highlights of South Lake Tahoe are Emerald Bay and the hiking for views of the Lake Tahoe Basin. Emerald Bay forms a natural horseshoe speckled with pines and a small island positioned in the middle of the bay. Lake Tahoe is only an hour drive from the Reno-Tahoe airport and a popular destination with plenty of accommodation, entertainment and activities for visitors.

Hiking at the Van Sickle Bi-State Park in South Lake Tahoe, California

Hiking at the Van Sickle Bi-State Park in South Lake Tahoe, California

Mono Lake Tufa State National Reserve

Mono Lake looks like the backdrop of a sci­fi movie with its calcium­carbonate spires (known as Tufas) rising dramatically from the land and water. The oddly shaped Tufas are formed naturally by the interaction of spring water and the alkaline lake water. It is essentially a natural chemical reaction that results in a view that is unlike anything I have seen in my travels. Mono Lake covers 65 square miles and is over 1 million years old making it the oldest lake in North America. Located just 45 minutes away from Mammoth, the Mono Lake Tufa State National Reserve is a wondrous spot for hiking.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

The Haunted Ghost Town of Bodie

75 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe is Bodie, a genuine ghost town where 10,000 people once lived back in the 1800s. In 1875 miners in Bodie uncovered an abundant amount of gold, turning this small town into one of the ten best cities in California back in its heydey. It might not look it now, but the dirt roads that lead to Bodie once were travelled with dripping anticipation as people flocked to the town’s hotels, saloons and shops. Today, Bodie is an abandoned pioneer town whose empty houses and main street look as though its inhabitants abruptly left without reason. The town is eerie with peeling cloth wallpaper, dusty roads and the haunted Caine house where a woman’s ghost has been spotted on multiple occasions peering out from the second storey window. There are no gimmicks at Bodie nor cheap attempts at being spooky – the town is simply preserved and said to be haunted. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, Bodie is considered haunted by visitors and park rangers alike and is said to put a curse on anyone who dares take something from Bodie they shouldn’t.

READ: The Insider’s Guide to USA Road Tripping – Most Asked Questions

Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth Lakes sits high in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains and is known as being a popular ski destination in California. Regardless of the season, Mammoth seems to have it all–from hiking to mountain biking to fishing to kayaking. Perhaps one of the more scenic spots of Mammoth is the Twin Lakes overlook, which seems like something straight out of a fairy tale, as a bright blue river runs down from the mountains and winds it way through the pine forests below. My favourite part of Mammoth is how contagious the lifestyle is as every person I met there spends their days active, in nature and enjoying the surrounding beauty. As someone who hails from New York and whose options for “natural beauty” are limited to Central Park, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy at these Mammoth locals going kayaking during their lunch breaks and hiking at the weekends.

The Ultimate California Road Trip: Route 395

Death Valley

The paradox of Death Valley is how alive you’ll feel when exploring it–from striped canyons to salt pans to rolling sand dunes–Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes. Known for its extreme temperatures, fickle weather and resilient wildlife, Death Valley is the hottest, driest and lowest national park in the States. Death Valley is the last stop on Route 395 before hitting Las Vegas and is worth spending at least a night to visit the park’s highlights and see the stars. From Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America) to Dante’s View (which overlooks the entirety of the valley), every turn seems to reveal a breathtaking landscape and view. At night, Death Valley offers a brilliant display of the constellations; with no city lights around, the Milky Way, star clusters and even Andromeda is visible with the naked eye.

The Ultimate California Road Trip: Route 395


The scar on America’s history undoubtedly happened in 1942 when president Roosevelt signed an executive order to have Japanese Americans put in internment camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. American citizens were stripped of their rights and put into barracks in desolate areas for no other reason than their race. Manzanar is one of the spots where more than 100,000 families were detained in military-­style camps. Visiting Manzanar is a profound experience as you walk through the remote, desert fields that Japanese families were forced to call home for years at a time. To tour the barracks where they once lived, the rock gardens they had built and the orchards they had planted is a sad reminder of the fragility of our society.

The Ultimate California Road Trip: Route 395

A monument at the Manzanar National Historic Site, one of ten camps where 110,000 Japanese American citizens were interned during World War II.

From the Sierra Nevada mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe to the canyons of Death Valley, Route 395 is the new Route 66 when it comes to American road trips. Taking you from the highest point of Mt. Whitney to the lowest point at Badwater Basin to WWII history to an 1800s ghost town, if there is one thing that Route 395 proves, it is this: behind every bend in the road a surprise awaits.

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About Author

Nikki Vargas

Nikki Vargas

Nikki Vargas is an NYC-based travel journalist with stories in VICE, FOOD & WINE Magazine, The Daily Meal, Matador Network and more. Nikki's blog, The Pin the Map Project, was voted a top 100 travel blog of 2015 and shares travel tips, destination guides, solo travel advice and more. Follow Nikki and her travels on Instagram!


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