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Alabama Hills, California
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The ultimate California Route 395 road trip

Visit some of the most amazing destinations in California on the ultimate Route 395 road trip

Written by
Joanna Kalafatis
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The Pacific Coast Highway might get all the glory when it comes to a West Coast road trip, but travelers on the lesser-know Route 395 through California will experience the jaw-dropping diversity of environments the Golden State as to offer. Start in the Mojave, move up towards the high desert, and suddenly you will find the landscape turning green as you follow the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range on your left-hand side. After you pass the town of Bishop, a rapid 3,000ft elevation gain takes you into the high mountains, before you wind your way back down past the lakes and forests of northern California. Sounds magical, right? 

To sum it up: A journey up the 395 will take you by California National Parks, ski resorts, national forests, picturesque small towns, and even important historic sites. PCH, who? 

California Route 395 road trip

Alabama Hills & Lone Pine
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1. Alabama Hills & Lone Pine

A favorite spot for hikers and campers, Alabama Hills is a collection of rugged-looking hills and rock formations that have provided a scenic backdrop for many old Western films. Hike the Arch Loop trail up to Mobius Arch to admire some otherworldly panoramas, and then drive out on Movie Road, where you will get an incredible view of the snow-capped Sierras rising above the rocky, dry desert. You can camp in Alabama Hills overnight or stay in the nearby town of Lone Pine, right on Route 395, where you can also check out the Museum of Western Film History.

Manzanar National Historic Site
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2. Manzanar National Historic Site

One of the more sobering stops on this route, Manzanar National Historic Site is located on the site of one of 10 Japanese interment camps during World War II. Stop by the visitor center to learn about the dark history of this area, and then explore Block 14 to see how over 10,000 Japanese Americans who were kept at Manzanar during the war lived day to day.

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Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
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3. Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Many Californians don’t know that within their state they can find a collection of the oldest living organisms in the world—bristlecone pines. Some of the trees in the Bristlecone Pine Forest are over 4,500 years old and have survived the dry, high and harsh conditions of the area by twisting and growing in some truly unique ways. Explore Schulman and Patriarch Groves, which are accessible during the warmer months, for a look at these ancient beauties.

Bishop & Keough’s Hot Springs
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4. Bishop & Keough’s Hot Springs

Located on the Paiute Reservation, Bishop attracts rock climbers and outdoors enthusiasts from around the country thanks to its location next to many popular bouldering and hiking spots. However, the town itself is also worth a visit thanks both to its beautiful murals and the Laws Railroad Museum.

The museum includes the Slim Princess—an over 100-year-old locomotive that was the last to be operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad in this area—and preserved historic buildings set up around the original 1883 train depot.

Travelers will also want to visit Keough’s Hot Springs, the largest natural hot springs in the entire Eastern Sierra region. The hot springs pool includes a snack bar and picnic area, and even offers visitors therapeutic massages.

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Mammoth Mountain & Lakes
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5. Mammoth Mountain & Lakes

Probably one of the most well-known resort areas in California, Mammoth Mountain is one of the premier skiing and snowboarding destinations in the world. Try out some winter sports if you’re here in the colder months. In the summer, hike out to one of the many beautiful alpine lakes in the area. Crystal Lake, accessible from the Lake George Trailhead, is one of the most popular hiking destinations.

Yosemite National Park & Tioga Pass
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6. Yosemite National Park & Tioga Pass

For a whole different look at Yosemite National Park, turn off Route 395 near Lee Vining and head into the park through the Tioga Pass. Most visitors stop in Yosemite Valley and rarely venture outside it, unfortunately missing the alpine beauty around Tioga Pass.

Stop and picnic in Tuolomne Meadows, admire the blue hues of Tenaya Lake and take in the beautiful vista at Olmsted Point. Be warned, the road is at a high altitude and not for the faint of heart, plus the pass is usually closed in winter due to snowfall.

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Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
Photograph: Courtesy Visit California

7. Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

Bearing the reflection of the stunning mountains and nature around it, the one-million-year-old Mono Lake is beautiful in every season. Here you'll find tufa towers, a relatively rare phenomenon where limestone ends up forming towers that line the banks of the lake. The fragile tufa are to be looked at and not touched, but they provide a unique backdrop for some spectacular photos of the area.

Bodie State Park
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8. Bodie State Park

Known as one of the best preserved abandoned Old West towns in the entire US, a visit to Bodie State Park feels like taking a giant step back in time. The few miles of dirt road you will have to follow off Route 395 are worth it to see this Western town, with perfectly preserved saloons, hotels, houses, general stores, and even a jail, school, and church. Only a couple of buildings may be entered, as rangers are constantly working to preserve the site, but you can look into almost any structure to see the items and life Bodie’s inhabitants left behind.

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Travertine Hot Springs
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9. Travertine Hot Springs

The second hot springs on this list, right outside Bridgeport on the 395, are quite a bit different to explore. Unlike Keough’s, Travertine Hot Springs are located in true California wilderness. Take a plunge into these geothermal springs, which can reach 180°F, while admiring the multi-colored rocks and scenic mountain vistas around you.

Lake Tahoe
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10. Lake Tahoe

Surely one of the most famous (and longest) detours off Route 395, Lake Tahoe is an outdoor lover’s paradise all year round. Ski and snowboard in the winter at the sight of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and hike, bike and kayak on the bright blue and emerald-colored lake in the summer. In the warmer months, you can also enjoy one of the many outdoor concerts and waterfront restaurants in the area. Don’t forget to stop by Emerald Bay State Park, home to one of the most vividly colorful sunset panoramas in the whole state.

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Modoc National Forest
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11. Modoc National Forest

As you follow Route 395 further north, there are fewer notable stops, but one last overlooked one near the Oregon border is Modoc National Forest. Locals love to spend their days wandering this little-known forest and the area’s low profile means you won’t find too many crowds around. Among the best places to explore are the Medicine Lake Highlands, a volcanic area with unique features including Undertakers Crater and Burnt Lava Flow, which give visitors a glimpse into California’s amazing geologic past.

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