The highlights of this driving itinerary include majestic mountain peaks, endless outdoor opportunities and unusual natural attractions such as Mono Lake and the Buttermilk Boulders. This is California’s most scenic drive! Try to spend at least a week exploring this vast and beautiful part of the state.
EASTERN SIERRA DRIVING ITINERARY & MAP
The Eastern Sierra Mountain range is California's backbone and U.S. highway 395 which runs east of the Sierra Nevada range would have to be one of California's most spectacular drive's. The Eastern Sierra region, in our opinion would have to be one of California's most beautiful destinations, maybe even more so than highly popular Big Sur. And the fact that this area is not as well known or as highly visited as other parts of the state is part of the allure.
This is a one-way driving itinerary beginning in Los Angeles. At the end of your road trip you have a few options;
1) Return via the same route.
2) Head towards Sacramento and then back to L.A. via the I-5 or continue west to San Francisco
3) Take a road trip along Highway 50, America’s Loneliest Highway and then finish up in Las Vegas
We recommend getting a travel guide book to make the most of your trip! This way you won’t miss any special attractions or destinations along the way. We have Lonely Planet's ‘Best Road Trips in California’ and it was very helpful in organizing our itinerary.
LOS ANGELES TO RED ROCK CANYON - 120 MILES
Red Rock Canyon State Park
First stop on this road trip is Red Rock Canyon State Park. This park features scenic desert cliffs and dramatic rock formations in spectacularly vivid colors. Miles of trails meander through the dramatic landscape of the park and hiking is an intimate way to experience this desert landscape. You should consider hiking the Hagen Canyon Nature trail which is an easy 2 mile flat hike that leads you through inner parts of the canyon and allows you to see various rock formations along the way.
The park is open from sunrise to sunset for day use however the campground is open 24 hours. The campground is tucked up against the base of a cliff and offers primitive campsites with pit toilets, fire rings, and tables. There are no RV hook-ups or showers.
RED ROCK CANYON TO LONE PINE - 90 MILES
Indian Wells Brewing Co
Next stop as you make your way to Lone Pine is the Indian Wells Brewing Co. This little brewery which calls itself the 'biggest little brewery in the world' offers a variety of great beer including IPA's, stouts, porters and ales. They also make over 100 varieties of soda's with flavors like Bacon-Maple Root Beer and Sour Green Apple Soda. There is a nice outdoor seating area which is great for relaxing and taking in the high desert views.
Eventually you will reach Highway 395 and the small town of Lone Pine. Lone Pine was named after a solitary pine tree that once stood at the mouth of Lone Pine Canyon. The town's roots stretch back into the mid-1800's to supply local miners with provisions. As those Wild West days were coming to an end, the Hollywood Western style films were just beginning, and since the 1920's the area has been the backdrop to countless western films.
Lone Pine is a great jumping off point for the countless outdoor activities nearby. There are also quite a few attractions for history buffs too. We have listed the highlights below but for more in depth coverage of Lone Pine see this Lone Pine Travel Guide.
Things To Do in Lone Pine:
Visit the Museum of Western Film History
The Museum of Western Film History has an extensive collection of movie memorabilia including props, movie cars, costumes, posters and camera equipment. The museum even has modern memorabilia from the movies Django Unchained, Iron Man, Star Trek and Tremors. The museum is open year round and entry is by donation.
Take a driving tour through the Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills was a favorite filming location for classic western films including the more recent Django Unchained which starred Leo DiCaprio. The rounded rocks found here contrast sharply with the adjacent jagged peaks to the west. Take a driving tour through the area or get out of the car to explore. The area is known for dozens of natural arches found throughout the park.
Stop by the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor's Center
At the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center you can learn about the natural history of the area, find out about road closure's and weather updates, grab a map or pick up permits for hiking Mt Whitney. They have restroom facilities and you can fill up your water bottles here.
Hike Mt Whitney / Drive up Whitney Portal road
If you have the time AND you are in GREAT physical shape, this is where you could begin your journey hiking Mt Whitney. At 14,508ft, Mt Whitney is the lower 48's highest peak and is a prime destination for hikers, climbers and mountaineers around the world. The trail is 21 miles with 6000ft elevation gain and from our own personal experience it is definitely not to be taken lightly.
You can watch this video of the Mt Whitney Trail and see how beautiful the trail is to the top and why it was worth punishing ourselves for 18 hours. Even if you are not a keen hiker, the drive up to Whitney Portal (8,374ft) is stunning and worth the drive. There are a number of shorter hiking trails you can do up there, a campground, a store and restaurant.
LONE PINE TO BISHOP - 58 MILES
Manzanar National Historic Site
About 10 miles north of Lone Pine is the Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar preserves and interprets the legacy of over 110,000 Japanese- American's who were incarcerated here during World War II. There is no entrance fee and the Visitor Center is open daily. Allow about an hour here and if you have time be sure to watch the 22 minute film 'Remembering Manzanar".
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is home to the world's oldest living tree's. Some of the tree's here are over 4,700 years old making them the OLDEST LIVING THINGS ON THE PLANET! Getting there is a bit of a mission but we promise its worth it.
Take Highway 168 at Big Pine and from the turn off it is about 26 miles to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest National Scenic Byway and then another 45 minute drive up a long, steep and windy road. The road takes you up to dizzying heights but the views seen across to the Sierra mountain range are magnificent.
The Buttermilk Boulders are a quick 20-minute drive from downtown Bishop and is a popular destination for rock climbers. However, even if you are not a climber the area is still worth a visit because these jumbo-sized boulders are really cool to see, particularly in contrast to the craggy shaped peaks of the Sierra’s in the background. From here you get the best views of Mount Tom, Basin Mountain, Mount Humphreys and Mount Emerson. To get there take Highway 168 west out of Bishop and after ten miles turn right onto Buttermilk Road (a dirt road that is often in really rough condition).
Bishop is the second largest town in the Eastern Sierra and a hub for outdoor enthusiasts because there are plenty or recreational opportunities nearby for climbers, hikers, cyclists and anglers. The town is surround by the high peaks of the Sierra’s to the west and the White Mountains to the east. Needless to say then the town has unbelievable views in whichever direction you look.
Bishop offers quite a few lodging options and there are a number of eateries that are surprisingly good. If you’re looking for something to do in town, we recommend stopping by the Mountain Light Gallery which displays and sells the photography of Galen Rowell and his wife who are re-known for their stunning captures of the Eastern Sierra landscape.
BISHOP TO MAMMOTH LAKES - 42 MILES
As you head towards Mammoth Lakes on highway 395 you will pass Benton Crossing road which has a tiny green church on the corner. You want to take a right turn here if you want to visit the hot springs or Hot Creek Geologic Park.
Wild Willy’s Hot Springs
The most popular of the hot springs in this area is called Wild Willy's and you need to go over two cattle grids before you come to a dirt road on your right. Take that all the way to the end and it will get you to the parking lot for Wild Willy’s. You will find a larger body of water to soak in and there is a smaller pool which can fit about ten people or so.
These hot springs are always quite busy, especially since the rise of instagram and with geo-tagging locations. These pictures were taken a few years ago and I’m guessing you might be hard pressed to find it empty like this anymore but even with a crowd it is still fun and worthy of your time. The view is literally to die for.
Hot Creek Geologic Park
Hot Creek is a scenic wonderland containing dozens of natural hot springs bubbling up within the rocky walls of a river gorge. At Hot Creek you can see geology in action; boiling water bubbling up from the creek bed, fumaroles and periodic geyser eruptions. The area is really beautiful, especially with the mountains looming in the background.
To get to Hot Creek Geologic Park, continue down the same road that was taken for Wild Willy’s (mentioned above) until you reach Whitmore Tubs Road and then take a left and keep going until you see the parking lot.
The town of Mammoth Lakes sits at 8,000 feet and funnily enough does not have a lake called Mammoth. Rather, the town is most well-known for the premier Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort which boasts the longest skiing season in California. Obviously the town is very busy in the winter and lodging can be expensive during this time, but Mammoth is a great place to visit year round for its many hiking and biking trails and really cool mountain town vibe.
There are too many good options for places to eat here and a lot of the bars offer great happy hour deals. We like Slocum's and John's Pizza Works. Accommodations are plentiful, from motels to first class resorts, and cozy a-frame cabins to rustic lodges.
MAMMOTH LAKES TO LEE VINING - 30 MILES
June Lake is Mammoth’s smaller sister town and also has a ski area although not as popular. The town does offer a few lodging options and restaurants. We recommend stopping by at the June Lake Brewery which is popular with the locals.
On your drive to Lee Vining, consider taking the June Lake Loop Drive. The June Lake loop drive is a stunning drive through alpine scenery where the road winds past a series of sparkling glacial lakes that are surrounded by majestic jagged peaks. The area is particularly beautiful in the fall. Other activities in the area include fishing, hiking, horseback riding and canoeing.
Mono Lake is a beautiful ancient lake that reflects the snow capped peaks in its perfectly still waters. The most unusual feature of Mono Lake are its dramatic tufa towers which forms when underwater springs rich in calcium mix with the waters of the lake that are rich in carbonates. Over time the buildup of limestone formed towers and when the water level of the lake dropped, the towers became exposed. The greatest concentration of these towers is located at the South Tufa area of Highway 395.
Lee Vining is located on the southwest shore of Mono Lake and is only minutes away from Tioga Pass (Highway 120 that takes you into Yosemite National Park). The town is very peaceful and small with a population of only about 300 but gets busy in the summer from tourists visiting on their way to or from Yosemite. There are a handful of motels and hotels in town.
LEE VINING TO RENO - 140 MILES
Bodie State Historical Park
Bodie State Historical Park was once a booming gold mining settlement but now is a ghost town where visitors can walk down the deserted streets that once had a population of nearly 10,000 people. Bodie had a bad reputation and it is reported that at one point there were 65 saloons in town. Among the saloons were numerous brothels, gambling halls and opium dens. Today, the California State Parks System maintains the 100 or so structures that remain in a state of arrested decay.
To get here take Highway 395 to Highway 270 and drive 10 miles east until the paved road ends, then continue for 3 miles down the unpaved dirt road. There is a small entrance fee. Check ahead for road closures in the winter.
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE
South Lake Tahoe is a resort city known for it’s views of Lake Tahoe’s unreal sapphire colored waters. It is a popular destination year round for its ski resorts in the winter and water activities in the summer. The lake is the second deepest lake in the USA and has 72 miles of shoreline which you may take a scenic drive around. There are many sandy beaches and lots of companies you can rent kayaks and boats from to enjoy on the crystal clear waters. Other things to do here include taking the Heavenly gondola up to get panoramic views of Lake Tahoe or visiting Emerald State Park which offers some of the best hiking in the area. One day here is not enough so if you have enough time in your schedule and if your budget allows, you should consider a few extra nights and a possible upgrade to lake-front accommodations.
Reno is Nevada’s second largest city behind Las Vegas and while it does bare some resemblance to Vegas with its abundance of casino’s, there is actually a lot more to Reno. Reno is beginning to evolve with many new funky restaurants and bars popping up downtown and an emerging art scene. There is a fun Riverwalk district and a whitewater park that runs through town that is more than enjoyable in summer. You can hug Lake Tahoe on your drive up to Reno or take a detour via Virgina City which is a historic old west town we highly recommend you visit.