Although the area seems relatively flat, the snow and trees give a clue. Just a few miles after leaving Mammoth, highway 395 hits the altimeter at 8,036 feet at Deadman Summit.
An exit leads to June Lake Loop, a back country of lakes, campgrounds, and the June Lake ski area, also owned and operated by the same folks back in Mammoth. We’ve yet to try it out but I’m told if you don’t like the crowds at Mammoth, June Lake makes a great alternative.
Coming down the other side of the summit a very large lake looms in the distance. This is Mono Lake, a brackish, fragile eco-system full of alien looking towers called tufa.
As L.A. took all the water in this area, they also diverted the streams feeding the lake which has no outlet. Mono Lake shrunk to the point where islands that supported nesting birds became peninsulas giving predators a bridge to the tasty birds.
Many court battles later, the streams are no longer being diverted and Mono Lake is making its comeback.
The tiny town of Lee Vining sits to the west of the lake, a nice rest stop along the highway. Closer to the lake, fans of Clint Eastwood movies might recognize the area of the town he had painted red in High Plains Drifter.
At the south end of town, highway 120 begins its westward trek toward Yosemite National Park. Better known as Tioga Pass, this road is blocked by snow and rubble for much of the year. It’s only in the warmer summer season and into fall that you can actually drive that route.
Just north of town, you can pull off to see the crazy tufa formations at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve.
The next big town we come into is Bridgeport, a very pretty little high country town in a valley alongside the Bridgeport reservoir. I’d been coming here for years…all in the winter…before I realized there was a lake here. Mostly, I’ve seen the town under a deep blanket of snow where the gas prices will take your breath away.
It gets so cold up here that the Marines maintains their cold weather and mountain training facility to the west of town. This is not the California of beaches and palm trees you see on the post cards.
Past Bridgeport, we become partners with the Walker River adjacent to the road. The canyon narrows as we get closer to the state border, a lonely spot with the requisite small casino, Topaz Lake. The Best Western here actually looks like it’d be a great place for a get-away-from-it-all weekend.
After crossing into Nevada, we stop in Gardnerville to have dinner at the Overland Hotel. It’s a creaky old place with a bar and a dining room serving Basque fare.
Being seated, we are given a small carafe of wine, salad, soup, beans, and spaghetti before we’re even asked what we want for an entrée. We get our steak and fish next, along with some great fries before having a little ice cream for dessert. All very good and filling.
Well fed, we head out back to our car where we join a short Frisbee toss with the kids living behind the hotel. It’s a short drive to our next overnight stop, Carson City, the capitol of the state where we’ll spend the night with owls, deer, and bullfrogs on an alfalfa farm.
Copyright 2012 – Darryl Musick
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