The following appears in the June issue of California Sportsman:
By Mike Stevens
There is an arguably-overused saying along the lines of, “the journey is part of the destination,” and that holds a lot of water when it comes to fishing. For Southern Californians especially, it holds true for making the pilgrimage up U.S. 395 to reach the Eastern Sierra.
For Sierra anglers heading up from SoCal, Highway 395 is not a long, boring highway that needs to be endured before receiving the gold at the end of the rainbow, but rather a portal to a meaningful place that gradually takes on appearance of the destination, and less like the rat race in the rearview mirror.
While blasting northward on the holy highway toward conifers, peaks and trout, 395 itself has a lot to offer. Most travelers have been making the trek for years, if not decades, and have their own favorite places to stop, eat, explore, stretch their legs, maybe even fish before getting back on the road. Mine and yours may have a lot in common, or none at all. The point is, enjoying Highway 395 in your own way adds some cool elements to your trip and makes the drive seem shorter, even though, technically, it takes more time.
PLOTTING THE COURSE
The way my longer Sierra trips work, it’s to my parents’ secure lodging at the Seasons 4 condos in Mammoth Lakes for a solid week, Saturday to Saturday. That meant that first Saturday was a travel day that had us (my brother and whoever else was riding with me, while my dad and stepmom head up out of L.A.) arriving in Mammoth between 2 and 3 p.m. – give or take based on whether or not we stopped at Bass Pro Shops in Rancho Cucamonga – tired from the ride and gassed from hauling gear upstairs at altitude.
We might head out for a light afternoon fishing the Upper Owens or the evening in the Lakes Basin, but it’s basically a travel day, with no “real” fishing until morning.
After about 10 years of that, I decided to do something about it, and I created “Day Zero.” Day Zero became the Friday before the trip, where rather than burn day 1 driving up, I’d make the drive on Friday, but not all the way to Mammoth.
On each Day Zero, I would pick a different town on the highway, and a different motel, even those of the “blinking arrow” variety. I would take my time heading up, stop where I wanted to stop, and get there when I got there.
This accomplished several things above and beyond making Saturday a full fishing day: It shortened the drive up since I was only driving to Bishop, Big Pine, Lone Pine or Independence. It allowed me a chance to wander around and check out each of those towns, “people watch” over beers in a saloon, fish some low-maintenance local spots and otherwise soak up whatever is going on in the immediate area. All for the price of an extra day off work, and a cheap motel room split three ways.
DESERT PIT STOP
From San Diego, the beginning of the line is where I-15 connects with 395 in the High Desert near Hesperia. Until a few years ago, when I downgraded to a more gas-sipping vehicle, I would stop at the Pilot gas station right there where 395 begins, grab an Arnold Palmer in the store and check out all the cool stuff they sell for truckers before topping off the gas tank.
These days, with the ability to make it all the way to Bishop on a single tank, I shoot past it.
The first little town is Adelanto, which reminds me of pre-Starbucks Temecula, and there are some decent drive-through food options if it’s snack time. From there, there is a bit of a featureless jog across the Mojave Desert before running into Kramer Junction, home of Astro Burger, which looks straight out of a campy 1980s movie and worth a quick photo, and it used to be a good place to eat. Now, that’s a roll of the dice as it swaps ownership often. An antique outfit next door is covered in Route 66-esque road signs and old ad signs that motorheads dream about having all over their garage.
GHOSTS OF KERN COUNTY
The next stretch shoots straight across a lot more dirt before snaking its way into the El Paso Mountains and into Kern County. As we pass through living ghost towns with names like Red Mountain and Johannesburg, my passengers and I like to play a game of, “find a living human being” – travelers don’t count, only residents – since, while parked cars in driveways indicate human existence, seeing one is rare.
Coming out of the mountains, Ridgecrest will be the last bigger city with most comforts of home until Bishop, several hours north, but 20 minutes further brings you to the confluence of Highway 395 and Route 14, where the L.A. Sierra pilgrims join the party. It is also the location of my first every-trip stop: Brady’s Mini Mart, or as we like to call it, “Scary Gas Station.”
Scary Gas Station is a Mobil Station, so it’s a worthy top-off-the-tank pit stop, but the sensory overload that either leaves you speechless for the next 25 miles, or unable to shut up about it, lies within the store itself.
If you’ve been terrified by it at a carnival or had a weird uncle, you know the flavor of the merchandise found here: Various figurines depicting Jesus under a rainbow of blinking LED lights; Made in China knives and weaponry right out of Game of Thrones; peace pipes; books on cassette; various items featuring wolf or eagle imagery; Confederate memorabilia and enough marijuana-branded bric-a-brac to make Willie Nelson jealous. I can’t speak for the ladies’ room, but the men’s room is equipped with a chalkboard on which I like to leave messages like “help” or “save yourself!” It should also be noted, that Scary Gas Station is in a constant state of “For Sale,” so think about it.
MOUNTAINS AND MILKSHAKES
As you zip by tempting but unfishable Little Lake toward the oasis-like town of Olancha, you find yourself cruising parallel to the Sierra Nevada and can see it evolving from the hilly southern end to more of an imposing, rocky-peak situation. Soon you’ll close in on Lone Pine, which serves as the gateway to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48 (14,505 feet, depending on who’s counting). Lone Pine also is home to the only Highway 395 business that I stop at every time – coming and going without hesitation – Lee’s Frontier Liquor and Chevron Station.
The routine at Lee’s Frontier is fill up the tank, have Efrain in the deli whip me up a sandwich and milkshake while I wander the store taking in the awesomeness of the mountain man essentials available for purchase: beer, bait, bullets, area maps, pork ‘n’ beans, local olives and chileno peppers. Then I park my rig near a mini-farm (no joke) complete with chickens, goats and horses, and slam that sandwich while staring down Mount Whitney from the best highway-level viewpoint in the state.
As a testament to the importance of this place to my soul, the business card for the joint is the best on Earth, and it never leaves my wallet. It shows a cartoon version of Lee himself, one hand clutching a gas pump, the other around Mount Whitney.
The Whitney Portal Hostel and Motel (I spring for the motel part) is a lodging locale in the regular Day Zero rotation. It’s also the first opportunity to catch some trout in easy-to-get-to drive-up spots like Lone Pine Creek and Tuttle Creek coming out of the mountains, and the Owens River that now for the most part runs parallel to 395 to the east of the highway. While the Owens always has fish, a quick check to the CDFW stock schedule for the region dictates which creeks we target, because while you are taking your time going up, trying all of them isn’t realistic.
ARRIVING IN THE HIGH COUNTRY
At this point, I feel I have reached the Eastern Sierra. Signs in businesses saying “Welcome Anglers” are peppered all over the place for the rest of the way. Neon trout point out the tackle shops, and those signs with the fish and hook marking turn offs leading to fish show up with increasing frequency.
Heading north, just past Lone Pine rests Manzanar National Historic Site, which was a Japanese relocation center utilized during World War II. Probably the most historically significant point on the highway, I finally checked it out up close and it was a powerful experience. Not the proudest moment in U.S. history, but an important one nonetheless.
Independence is the next town and it’s one step above the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it level. Independence Creek, Shepherd Creek and Georges Creek are all worthy targets for hit-and-run casting, and like in Lone Pine and any other of these Inyo County Creeks, having a printout or checking the stocking schedule on your phone is the way to go.
Heading up the roads along these creeks can now involve serious elevation gain and air temps way cooler than down on the highway. The mighty Owens still lies due east of the highway, and down here, you can catch anything from planted rainbows to big browns to bass and carp.
On the main drag through Independence, one cool landmark is the Inyo County Courthouse that looks straight out of the Deep South, with its well-kept front lawn and four white pillars that dominate its entrance. (If you’re into true-crime history, Charles Manson was formally charged here with the infamous mass murders he masterminded in 1969 and was arrested with his “family” at nearby Barker Ranch.) It’s not necessarily stop-and-get-out-worthy, but it’s worth slowing down for a good look.
Next up is Big Pine, which, according to statistics on Yelp.com, holds the highest-rated restaurant in the United States – that’s right, in the entire country. Copper Top BBQ is an unassuming little place with a tiny footprint, and it doesn’t even have a dining room unless you count the seasonal walled tent that’s sometimes up or the picnic tables on the front lawn. Its namesake barbecue is strategically placed right next to the highway, so if you don’t stop this time, you will smell it and hit it on the way back. That’s the owner on the grill with the white cowboy hat on waving to the constant honking travelers zipping by that are familiar with the joint. While we always stop at Lee’s Frontier in Lone Pine, we won’t eat there if we are hungry enough for Copper Top.
Bristlecone Motel in Big Pine is huge on the bang-for-your-buck scale with clean, comfy rooms with vaulted ceilings and a “Beer Cave” in the attached full-service market (and hardware store) that comes in quite handy after five-plus hours of driving. This is another motel receiving the Day Zero stamp of approval, and it is well within a quick drive to ply Taboose Creek, Goodale Creek, or Baker Creek for easy-access trout.
CITY SIGHTS AND BIG BROWNS
While it’s a bigger city and only a half-hour from my final destination, some Day Zero drives have made it all the way to Bishop. If we are staying in town, every level of hotel is in town and a stroll up either side of Main Street (which is just 395 as it runs through the middle of town) can land you in several tackle shops, a couple very cool book stores, the Mountain Light Gallery and Rusty’s Saloon, Bishop’s premier people-watching watering hole. There is also a new brewery in town, and a little-known secret is some of the best food in Bishop is served at the bowling alley. If I am not staying a night in Bishop, I can’t skip Schat’s Bakery or Mahogany Smoked Meats to pick up some fancy provisions for the week that follows.
Fishing opportunities are best via various access points to the Owens River, including a fly-fishing-only stretch below Pleasant Valley Reservoir, and PVR itself is a solid fishery in itself for stocked rainbows and the occasional wall-hanger brown trout.
After that, for me and mine, it’s time to roll into Mammoth, fill up the growlers at Mammoth Brewing and start hitting the water for real. However, a lot of people still have a way to go, and they too need some road trip diversions. Let me rattle off some in quick fashion.
If for some reason you are that far north and it’s breakfast time, The Stove in Mammoth is the place to go. The June Lake Loop has the Double Eagle Resort; a friend of mine who is a frequent guest says nonguests can use the spa, pool and gym facilities for a moderate fee. June Lake also has a new brewery worth a stop, and if you aren’t looking to get out of the car but want to mix it up, jumping into the Loop off 395 and reacquiring the highway further north is a nice, short, scenic side trip.
Another can’t-miss place to get grub is the Whoa Nelli Deli in the store connected to the Mobil Station in Lee Vining. I hit it on the way back from every trip up Tioga Pass to Saddlebag Lake, but hungry travelers continuing on to Bridgeport need to stop and eat what has to be the best “gas station food” on the planet.
That’s a long list. Much of it is my list. You owe it to yourself to make your own list consisting of proven winners and a couple wild cards just so it constantly evolves, and you are always exposing yourself to new features of Highway 395 with each trip north. CS