Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Scenic Route to Mammoth: U.S. Route 395

Mammoth is one of the most amazing snowboarding destinations, but we're never in a hurry to get there.  The compelling 300-mile roadtrip itself offers so much to see that it's worth pulling over often to soak in the many sights.  Every time we make this drive, we find new places to explore, or we make it a point to visit the same places to see how they have changed with the seasons. Also, it's fun to eat at those family-run diners, cafes, and barbecue places--dining in what feels like the "middle of nowhere" is a refreshing change of pace.  Our favorite stops so far--from South to North--are the Alabama Hills (and the cafe/diner there), Fossil Falls (and the surrounding lava fields), Coppertop Barbecue (well-deserved #1 restaurant on Yelp in 2015), Manzanar (very moving experience), Mahogany Smoked Meats (their huge, meaty sandwiches!), Convict Lake, and the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve (well, this is already within Mammoth but a worthy addition to the end of the roadtrip).  Still got stuff left on the bucket list though, and always on the lookout for more ideas.

Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm

Alabama Hills

Somewhere near Bishop

Mahogany Smoked Meats sandwiches

The Eastern Sierras

Fossil Falls

Arriving in Mammoth during one of the snowiest seasons in Mammoth history!

Red Rock Canyon State Park
Cantil, CA
~120 miles in
Immediately visible from behind the wheel, Red Rock is an awesome cluster of canyons and buttes formed where the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada converges with the El Paso Range.  Looks totally out of place by the freeway (or should I say, the freeway looks totally out of place HERE) - it's hard to drive by and not want to get out of the car.

Alabama Hills
Lone Pine, CA
~215 miles in
Mysterious rock formations and natural arches, the backdrop of hundreds of Old West films, small town feel, barely any visitors, wouldn't want to be here alone in the dark with "The Spooks."  Golden hour here sure is goosebump-inducing.



Spring flowers!

Same tree from November - from yellow to green. Maybe one of our favorite spots.

Alabama Hills Cafe
Definitely a mix of locals and outdoorsy tourists here.  They make their own bread loaves (not talking about the artisanal boules that people seem to love in LA - just your average rectangular loaves), they're generous with their portions, and they have great big floppy cookies for the road.  Wes swears by the chicken fried steak, although he has also been utterly happy with a triple-decker club sandwich here. 

Fossil Falls
Little Lake, Inyo County, CA
~170 miles in
Not the type of fossils you'd think - these are "waterfall fossils." The cavernous and jagged rocks are what's left of a rushing river thousands of years ago.  Stark, black lava rock surrounds a deep canyon, hinting at a traumatic past.  Despite being so breathtaking when you're standing right next to it, this geological feature is completely invisible from the road and there isn't much signage advertising its existence.

"Red Hill"
 Inyo County, CA
~170 miles in
Wes calls it Earth's pimple.  Right next to Fossil Falls, it is - unlike Fossil Falls - impossible to miss while driving on the freeway.   The funny thing is that nobody really visits because it's easy to think that it's just a mountain of manmade rubble...but it does look a little out of place and a little too perfectly-round to be manmade. A little research reveals that it is a cinder cone, created by a volcanic eruption 10,000-15,000 years ago.  It is currently being mined for pumice, but signs of active mining are mostly discrete and not noticeable until you pull up near it.

Manzanar National Historic Site
Independence, CA
~230 miles in
Manzanar is the site of one of the American concentration camps where over 110,000 Japanese Americans were unfairly incarcerated during World War II from 1942 to 1945.  Here, we learned a lot about daily life in the camp, and it was both a sobering and a stirring experience coming to understand what really took place here.  Sure, there were social events, their own newspaper, and there was a school, but there was also disease, death, and zero privacy.  The living conditions and amenities were substandard, and yes, it was extremely rough in the winters.  Though Manzanar today is pretty barren save for the wooden signposts labeling what buildings used to stand in a given plot, we think that this emptiness is what deepened the experience even more.  It allows the viewer to fill in the gaps.

Grave sites of the babies who passed away at Manzanar

Beautiful.  People still come all the way out here to hang paper cranes in remembrance.

Copper Top Barbecue
Big Pine, CA
~250 miles in
On that note, let's move on to something a little happier...barbecue!  Not sure if there's any other reason to pull over for Big Pine (other than the big pine tree that seems smaller than the ones in Lone Pine...).  Hank, the owner, has been smoking and grilling out of Big Pine for ever, and he is downright hospitable and a total pro at what he does.  The first time we drove past, we didn't stop but we couldn't help but notice the green grassy lawns dotted with picnic tables and cheerful American flags and bright red umbrellas.  Copper Top was Yelp's #1 rated restaurant in America in 2015.  How?  No idea what algorithm Yelp was using to assign this rating, but we'd say that it's some of the best barbecue we've had and we wouldn't mind eating it both on the way up and the way back.  The only downside is that they aren't open Monday or Tuesday, and close at 6 PM every day, so you really have to plan your road trip around those hours!  (It's worth it)

The sides are also worth raving about.  Potato salad (with olives!), cole slaw (not gloopy), and fire roasted green chili.  I think we got too much food.

Everything was good. Tri-tip, ribs, and chicken.  All good.

More views by the road:

In November 2016:

In February 2015:

"The Cookie Monster," R.I.P. Wes's old car
In March 2017 (one of the snowiest winters to date):

Quirky stuff by the road that I randomly took photos of:

Gus's Fresh Jerky - a billion signs.  Not sure if it's that good - we haven't tried it.
They repaint that giant Mammoth beanie every year to match the season's beanie.  Always fun to point out.


The only motel for miles I guess

Creepy "lemon house."  I didn't dare look into the windows.
Lone Pine. We've tried the barbecue here - it's not as good as Copper Top in Big Pine.

The Owens Valley salt flats.

Mahogany Smoked Meats
Bishop, CA
~275 miles in
Love the thinness of the slices and the sheer amount between the bread.  They don't use any fancy bread and they don't care about fillers. The smoky, flavorful meats do the talking.  A lot of people like to get sandwiches at Schat's Bakkery down the street, but Mahogany is so much better (in terms of meat) and way less crowded.

Convict Lake
Mammoth Lakes, CA
~315 miles in
Eerie story about this place - some prisoners escaped from jail and hid here in the 1800's.  Not a bad place to go into hiding, I guess.  It now has somewhat of a small cabin resort built around it, but when we were there in November, it was mostly empty.  Easy stop off the road.

Mono Lake Tufa Natural Reserve
Mono County, CA
~340 miles in
Ever heard of a tufa?  Tufas are calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America (over 1 million years old!) and is 2.5 times saltier than the ocean. It's also 65 square miles, and visible from the top of a peak in the ski resort.  This place is just an easy 15-minute drive beyond the resort area.

I forgot to mention that it's a surprisingly comfortable drive overall, with very unnoticeable elevation gain - Wes says that he prefers the 5-hour drive to Mammoth over Big Bear's winding (and often jam-packed) roads.  On our first trip up in 2015, we were pleasantly surprised to be sitting at the base of Mammoth's pristine ski slopes after a relatively flat drive.  So anyway, that's it for now!  This journey is such a beautiful one.

On the way back home, passing through the wind farm again.

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