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Exploring Highway 395: Northern California

I grew up skiing at Mammoth Mountain, hanging out at the McCoy Station eating cheesy ravioli during a snowstorm and rocketing down the slopes smelling the sulfurous volcanic effluence. I remember the drives up, stopping in Lone Pine to eat instant mashed potatoes from the local greasy spoon and getting Mt. Whitney postcards, but not much else. Maybe I was snoozing most of the time. Our family was notorious for getting my sister and me up and leaving at the darkest hours of the morning, so sleeping on the long drive from southern California to Mammoth seemed reasonable to me at the time.

We would ski at Mammoth and then drive the long drive home. Mammoth seemed like an island, eight hours away from anything else worth stopping for. If I only known that just about every turnoff, every unassuming dirt road on the way had something mind blowing, things would have been different (as in I would have been an even more obnoxious back seat driver).

Highway 395 has so much to offer, from relaxing natural hot springs to energizing hikes with epic views of mono lake, alpine lakes, and jagged peaks. The volcanic activity in this area makes for some rad natural features, which adds to the interesting and stark landscape. Starting south and moving north, I'll lay out a few of my favorite spots to hike, camp, eat, and soak along the Mammoth Lakes area. This would make a great 3 to 4 day camping trip full of incredible and diverse sites.

1. Wild Willy's Hot Springs

About 30 miles south of Lee Vining off 395, you'll find (maybe) a scrubby field with gregarious cattle grazing amongst crystalline salt flats and steaming rivulets, surrounded by defined mountains. And right in the middle, a beautiful natural hot spring. A long meandering boardwalk leads you from the parking area right up to the hot spring to protect the landscape and provide a nice morning or evening short walk to the springs. There are two pools, one a bit farther from the boardwalk that is smaller, and the main pool. At times, the pools can get mildly crowded, but most people are congenial and at the least, entertaining.

Try your best to get up early with the sunrise to enjoy a spectacular and colorful view as you warm up in the water. It gets quite hot here during the day May-September, so come here at night, camp under the stars, and soak before bed and early in the morning the following day. Camp close to the parking area or the hot springs themselves. Make sure to bring ample water, lotion, sunscreen, and a towel. Clothing is optional, so go with what you feel comfortable in or out of.

This special spot is a prized find, so i'll leave it to you to find the local directions to get to the hot springs. Getting there is half the adventure, so enjoy the journey and then go for a nice soak.

2. Obsidian Dome

Just north of Mammoth Lakes lies Obsidian Dome, or what I saw it as: a goliath pile of basaltic shards. Some might find this disappointing, while others get completely stoked on this rocky volcanic playground. I loved it, and my travel partner found it completely entertaining to document their superhuman-like ability to pick up huge pumice rocks that look a lot heavier than they are. Here you can wander all over this moonscape at your own risk; some of the rocks are super sharp, so wear closed toed shoes.

Besides the beautiful selection of shiny obsidian, there is a colorful array of pumice and basalt, ranging from light pink to yellow rust to sparkling black. It is fun to wander amongst the piles and observe the volcanic variety. Be mindful if you collect anything, or simply come to look.

3. June Lake Loop

Driving northward towards Lee Vining, you'll see signs for the June Lake Loop, which you should take if you have some extra time for a scenic ride. Why not see gorgeous lakes and stop at a local brewery for refreshments?

This 15-mile route will take about 25 minutes and winds around four main lakes that are accessible spring through fall. If you want to stop at June or Gull Lake, you can partake in a variety of water sports, like fishing, windsurfing, or water skiing or just chill on the waterfront. If you continue driving, you'll find Silver Lake and then Grant Lake, the largest of the four. This road provides access to a variety of hikes and backpacking spots, if you are down for more extended outdoor adventures.

We drove for the scenic views but we didn't stop until we saw a sign signifying that there was local beer in this tiny mountain village. We almost swerved off the road and quickly parked. Here we found June Lake Brewing, a surprisingly hip and comfortably casual spot with killer beer. They even have extra large to-go cans from the tap, which make you feel pretty badass when you're drinking it on the top of a mountain somewhere nearby. I recommend that. Beer always tastes better on a mountain.

4. Mono Lake - South Tufa and Panum Crater

Once you pop out of the June Lake Loop and get back on the main 395 vein, you'll be close to another scenic spot: Mono Lake. Mono Lake is huge, and spans 70 square miles, making for awe-inspiring views from any side. The lake has shrunk over decades of draining its tributary streams to satiate Los Angeles' water demands, but has since been better regulated. As it shrunk, the salinity increased, making Mono Lake almost three times saltier than the ocean! In addition, the water is very alkaline (pH of 10) due to chloride, carbonates, and sulfates present, which makes the water feel slippery. When you visit, touch or swim in the water to feel the difference.

Visit South Tufa, where you'll see the alien columns made from limestone jutting from the shores. Tufas form when calcium-rich water runs up from an underground spring into a carbonate-rich lake, forming calcium-carbonate deposits. Years of draining the lake have exposed the tufas, while more continue to form under the surface.

This is a beautiful place to watch the sunset and snap some photos of the tufas and the surrounding mountains. Watch for birds, like California seagulls and sandpipers, as Mono Lake is known as a hotspot for migratory and nesting bird species. This is an easily accessible and satisfying place to take in the scenery of the Mono Lake Basin.

If you want to get a view from higher up, stop by Panum Crater, where a short walk either around the rim or into the center of the crater will give you fabulous views of Mono Lake to the North and the string of Mono Craters to the South.

5. Lee Vining

Coming east from Tioga Pass from Yosemite or north from Highway 395, you'll run into the charming town of Lee Vining. Before entering the town, stop at the Tioga Gas Mart, not for gas, but to stop in at the Whoa Nellie Deli. This spot has it all; from organic chapstick to wilderness maps to fish tacos, this is a funky spot to check out and get a bite to eat on the way to your next destination.

Once in town, check out the Mono Lake Information Center and Bookstore to get directions for hikes and free 'Keep Saving Mono Lake' bumper stickers. Right next to the bookstore is a charming cafe called Latte Da Coffee Cafe, which is also connected to a quaint motel. A blossoming garden of marshmallow and sunflowers overhang while you sip house-made cold brew, watching both locals and travelers stream through. They have great grub too! Come here for freshly baked goodies and caffeine before heading out for more adventure.

6. Lundy Canyon

After your coffee, hike through Lundy Canyon to find beautiful landscapes studded with cascading waterfalls and lush foliage. To get to the trailhead, drive 7 miles North from Lee Vining and turn left on Lundy Lake Road. Drive 5 miles to Lundy Lake, check it out, then continue on the dirt road 1.5 miles to the Lundy Canyon Trailhead.

The main hike is a 5.6 mile moderate hike in-hike out trail, intertwining with the river and multiple waterfalls. If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can continue scrambling up the canyon over to Helen Lake and further to the 20 Lakes Basin towards Yosemite. This is a great area to backpack for 2 or 3 days. Be careful on the hike up to the lake though, as the loose scree is sharp and uneven. This difficult section is only 0.8 miles and it is totally worth it to get up to the lake. I had a couple moments of immobility getting up this section, wondering if it was worth it at the top. It is.

This is simply an incredible day hike full of scenic views, craggy mountains, and pristine alpine meadows.

7. Travertine Hot Springs

Need to re-energize after a long hike in Lundy? Soak it up at Travertine hot Springs further north on 395. Driving north from Lee Vining you'll head towards the town of Bridgeport. Stop at the viewpoint on the highway of Mono Lake to get a view from the other side before continuing on. A quarter mile before Bridgeport, turn right on Jack Sawyer Road right after the ranger station and continue on the dirt road for about a mile until the parking lot.

These are populated, yet enjoyable hot springs with a stunning view of the mountains to the west. Another great spot for the sunset! Bring a beer and relax in the comfortable 103 degree F waters, watching the water flow down the rocks. Clothing is optional here too.

8. Bridgeport

Drive through this little town to get $4 foot-long burritos at the Jolly Kone and $3 mom jeans at the thrift store. No need for directions. You'll see them along the main strip.

9. Buckeye Hot Springs

If you haven't soaked enough (never!), turn left onto Twin Lake Road at the edge of Bridgeport and cruise for 7 miles, turn right at Doc and Al's Resort and drive over the bridge. You can stop and camp soon after the bridge, or continue uphill along a gravel road, past Buckeye Campground to the parking lot on the other side of the river. Scramble down to the river, where you'll find four to five rock pools containing the hot mineral water. This a great spot to go at any time of day, as you can always dunk into the icy river if you start overheating. Clothing is, again, optional, though there is a good deal of families that come dressed in their best suits.

This is but a taste of the amazing sites, eats, and adventures out on highway 395. I have fallen in love with this magnificent area and can't wait to explore more.

Until the next adventure.

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