Sunrise on the Sierra Nevada
Along the Sierra Parkway, officially known as U.S. Route 395, lie a host of awe-inspiring sites, including Whitney Portal, the gateway to the highest peak in the Lower 48. Often overshadowed, but just as attractive and significant, are stops such as Bodie ghost town, Travertine Hot Springs and Mono Lake. These are some of the most alluring of California’s wild attractions most visitors to the Sierra Nevada never get to see.
Besides being free of charge, other than nominal camp fees, many of these attractions are free of crowds as well. Yosemite National Park and other big shows such as Sequoia National Park that lie primarily on the western slopes of the Sierra draw the majority of visitors to this mountain range. However, if you are willing to push past the “main attractions” and spend time on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, a surprisingly wide variety of terrain, fauna, flora and outdoor activities await.
BODIE GHOSTS. William Bodey, one of the many hopefuls caught up in the California Gold Rush, discovered small amounts of gold in 1859 along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in what was to become known as Bodie. In 1877, one prospector struck paydirt there, and Bodie was suddenly on the map. During its heyday, Bodie had a population of more than 10,000 and was known throughout the West as being a rough mining town that was full of wickedness.
One little girl whose parents were taking her to the infamous town wrote in her diary: “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.” Robberies, stagecoach holdups and street fights occurred regularly, thanks in part to the town’s 65 saloons. By 1882, though, the big finds of gold were a thing of the past and the inhabitants began to go elsewhere.
Bodie is ghostly quiet now, standing just as time and the elements have left it — in a state of “arrested decay” as one California State Park ranger put it. Today, Bodie is one of the largest and best-preserved ghost towns in the West. More than 170 buildings remain.
Although this is a mere fraction of the number of its original structures, there is enough remaining to give visitors a feel for the place. You can peek inside old schoolrooms, hardware stores and homes. You won’t find souvenir stalls, re-created saloons, nor overpriced restaurants here — only three drinking fountains and public restrooms.
Designated as a California State Historic Park in 1962, Bodie is maintained by the park service and is open year-round from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Look for the Bodie turnoff on Highway 270, approximately six miles south of Bridgeport. It’s a 13-mile drive, 10 on a paved surface, from Route 395. There are no restaurants, cafes, nor gas stations along this road, so have a large breakfast, put on your sunscreen and gas up the car before setting out for Bodie.
OLD MAN MONO. Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in the Western Hemisphere — over one million years old. Originally fed by giant glaciers during the Ice Age, the lake was once 60 times larger than it is today.
Ringed by volcanoes, Mono Lake is twice as salty as the ocean and has 80 times more alkaline because it has no natural outlet. The only way water disperses is through evaporation, so the minerals and salts build up. Over time, they have combined with mineral waters bubbling up beneath the lake, resulting in giant tufa towers visible along the shoreline. Some of the tufa formations are more than 30 feet tall.
Mono Lake is full of life and supports a simple and productive food chain. Algae serve as food for two species: brine shrimp and brine flies, which serve as a major food source for millions of birds. It’s estimated that more than 80 percent of California’s seagulls were born at Mono Lake, and there are another 80 species of waterfowl that call Mono Lake home. Bring your binoculars and your bird books — this is an avian paradise.
A swim in the salty lake is a novel experience. Since the water is so dense, it gives the body buoyancy. Old-timers claim that a soak in Mono Lake will heal whatever ails you, thanks to the high mineral content of the water. The ruins of an old hot spring resort in the middle of the lake remain, though it closed down when its source of hot mineral water died out.
Like Bodie, Mono Lake attracts photographers from around the world for its unique and almost spooky atmosphere. It is otherworldly at dawn and twilight — photography workshops and tours are frequent in the area.
The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center, just off of Route 395 north of Lee Vining, is a great place to start your visit. Knowledgeable park rangers give daily tours of the area. Bird walks are at 8 a.m. on Fridays and Sundays, May through September. The Visitor Center has a wealth of information on the area, including camping advice, weather conditions and maps.
HOT TUBS. The large number and variety of hot springs in the Sierras, the unique qualities of the waters, and the stunning natural settings are enough to please even the most jaded outdoor enthusiast, camper and hot-spring soaker.
The hot springs near Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes are not commercial establishments, so you won’t have to deal with pesky snack bars or restaurants. Bring your own bottles of water and food and make a picnic out of the day.
Travertine Hot Spring lies on California State Park land just south of the town of Bridgeport along Route 395. It is one of the easiest hot springs to get to and features a stunning view of the Sierras while you bathe. All types of people visit Travertine, including the nearby park rangers, campers, families, couples, and single travelers. Limited camping space is available on the short dirt road leading to the hot springs, but is not allowed in the immediate area of the pools. Take Route 395 south of Bridgeport half a mile. Turn left at Jack Sawyer Road, just before the Ranger Station. Follow Jack Sawyer Road approximately one mile.
Buckeye Hot Spring is a part of Toiyabe National Forest, just north of Bridgeport and on the edge of Yosemite National Park. Buckeye features pools next to an adjacent babbling brook, very soothing to the senses and frayed nerves. The hot mineral water cascades over a cave. Troglodytes and kids will enjoy soaking in the cave, while others will be content in the outer pools adjacent to the stream. The majority of bathers are campers, thanks to the nearby campground.
To get to Buckeye from the northern end of Bridgeport, turn off of Route 395, turn west on Twin Lakes Road and travel seven miles. Turn right just past Doc and Al’s Resort, then cross the bridge going over the creek. Continue uphill along a gravel road, past Buckeye Campground. At the top of the hill you’ll find a parking area. The springs are down the trail from the parking lot.
South of Mono Lake is Hot Creek. Maintained by the National Park Service, it has more of an official air to it, as can be seen by the numerous warnings to avoid scalding water along the hillside. Visitors are well advised to heed these warnings. The hot water, heated by magma three miles below the surface, mixes with the cold creek water. By changing position in the creek, you can adjust the temperature of the water to suit you.
Hot Creek is very popular, and many international visitors come to bathe while admiring the Sierra Nevada in the distance. Two miles south of the Mam-moth Lakes turnoff from Route 395, turn left onto Hot Creek Airport Road and follow the signs for about three miles.
HOT TOWNS. Along Route 395, there are three main towns, each with their own special qualities: Bridgeport, Lee Vining and Mammoth Lakes. Bridgeport still retains some of its Old West, small town flavor. If you’re tired of the tent or if the campgrounds are full, there are a couple of historic hotels, as well as bed and breakfasts in town. The Bridgeport area would be the most convenient area for dips in the hot springs as well as fishing at Twin Lakes.
Lee Vining, about the same size as Bridgeport, is the village next to Mono Lake. There are more hotel choices there, and the views of Mono Lake are of a totally different landscape than that of Bridgeport and Twin Lakes. Many people prefer the atmosphere of Lee Vining to Bridgeport, in part because of the views of Mono Lake and its more central location.
Farther south of Lee Vining is Mammoth Lakes, just off of Highway 395. Mammoth Lakes is a busy ski resort in winter, and a cool and sometimes crowded retreat in summer. Unlike Lee Vining or Bridgeport, you will find chain restaurants, cafes, banks and big hotels there. While the atmosphere may not be as Old West as Bridgeport, the competition between chain motels, supermarkets and gas stations keep the costs down.
Of the three towns, however, the most convenient choice may well be Lee Vining because of its location right next to Mono Lake, the Tioga Pass gateway to Yosemite and Bodie just a few miles north. All this makes Lee Vining more central to the sights than the other two towns.
WHEN YOU GO. No matter where you camp along Route 395, there’s always something special you will get to see every morning, whether it’s a sunrise on the sheer cliffs or the sky-scraping peaks of the rugged and scenic eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.
Bridgeport lies 140 miles southeast of Sacramento and 110 miles south of Reno along U.S. 395. The area can also be reached via the Tioga Pass, gateway to Yosemite National Park, when weather permits from June through October.
Information on Bridgeport and Twin Lakes accommodations, campgrounds, restaurants, fishing and other attractions are at: 760/932-7500; bridgeportcalifornia.com.
A wide selection of accommodations is available in the town of Lee Vining next to Mono Lake. There are also many campgrounds in the area. Information for all of Mono County, including Bodie, Bridgeport and Mono Lake, can be found at: 530/495-9666; monocounty.org.
Information on California State Parks, including Mono Lake and Bodie State Historic Park: parks.ca.gov.
More information for Mono Lake can be found at: 760/647-6595; monolake.org. For the Mammoth Lakes area, including Hot Creek, check out: 888/466-2666; visitmammoth.com. And for details on U.S. Route 395, go to: 395.com.