Home & Garden Columns
Last September, on a spectacularly scenic car trip to Las Vegas, I spent a night by Mono Lake, another by June Lake, and another in Death Valley. We drove through the Tioga Pass in Yosemite, which is open only a few months each year—usually May through September (it is closed in winter due to heavy snowfall).
At the beginning of this great all-American road trip, we flew along on Highway 580 at the tail end of the morning rush hour. After passing Highway 5, where L.A. traffic siphons off, we were on the wide-open 205, which, alas, quickly became the great all-American traffic jam from hell.
So we were more than ready for a relaxing lunch when we finally reached the woodsy mountain town of Groveland. (Note that it is smart to gas up along Highway 120 before turning onto Highway 108. Buying fresh local produce at one of the stands early on is also a good idea.)
Built in 1853 and claiming to be the oldest saloon in the state, the Iron Door Saloon was the perfect refuge. In our private wooden booth in the dark, cool interior with 16-foot high ceilings and a long, long bar—not to mention walls hung with atmospheric stuffed buffalo and moose heads—a simple hamburger hit the spot.
From here we continued on, turning off at Crane Flat (where there is a gas station, but unfortunately for us this was the one day each year that it closes down for cleaning) for the scenic journey through the legendary Tioga Pass. We climbed to 9,000 feet, where the air is clear, clean, and cool, stopping at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center to view a lovely and informative collection of wildflower identifications cards.
At the crest, we then recognized yellow rabbit brush as well as lavender pussypaws and scarlet penstemons, all displayed stunningly against granite. Minimal food service is available along this route, but picnic spots are plentiful and spectacular; be prepared.
Our gas held out until we reached Lee Vining, down at 6,500 feet. We filled the tank at the Tioga Gas Mart, and then ourselves with one of the world-famous fresh fish tacos at its Whoa Nelli Deli—dubbed “the best restaurant in a convenience store in America.”
Then it was time to check in to our vintage cabin at the Tioga Lodge Resort, located across the street from Mono Lake. Though the original lodge was destroyed by a flood in 1956, this well-maintained re-creation includes both motel rooms and cabins tucked amid sheltering mature trees. A footbridge led over a rushing stream to our cabin, which had a clawfoot tub and also a porch with a lake view filtered through shore-side shrubs.
We unpacked, then drove out to the South Tufa Area to hike beside the mysterious salt-water lake and view its famous pinnacles and spires up close in the late afternoon light—the best time for a comfortable temperature and to capture good photos.
Dinner was just a stroll away from our cabin. In the resort’s small, casual restaurant, the well-priced food was down-home delicious—especially the Mexican specialties.
Next day, we got off to an easy start with a good old bacon-and-eggs breakfast in the then sunny and serene resort restaurant. As we departed for Bodie—a 45-minute drive—people were gathering to take the resort’s popular boat tour of the lake.
To reach the isolated ghost town of Bodie, we exited Highway 395 onto 270 and drove for 13 windy miles through Old West-style scenery. The last three miles were over a dirt road. We were grateful to find water faucets and bathrooms when we arrived.
In 1879, when 10,000 people lived here, there were 2 churches, 4 newspapers, and 65 saloons. It was reputed to be quite rowdy. A little girl who moved here in its heyday wrote in her diary, “Good, by God! We’re going to Bodie.” This passage has also been interpreted as “Good-bye God! We’re going to Bodie.” Due to fires in 1892 and 1932, only about 5 percent of the town structures remain. On our ranger-led walk, we learned much, much more.
From here it was a short drive back to our next stop. Exiting Highway 395, we took the June Lake Loop (Highway 158)—a scenic 15-mile excursion that winds past four mountain lakes set in glacial canyons with aspens and pines.
Our destination was the full-service Double Eagle Resort & Spa. Located in a fragrant valley forest surrounded by granite peaks and several waterfalls, this small luxury resort has spacious guest rooms with contemporary rustique whole-log and bent-twig furnishings. Each has a deck overlooking a tranquil catch-and-release trout pond that becomes an ice-skating rink in winter. Two-bedroom cabins with full kitchens are also available.
Adjacent to the small spa, an indoor pool and hot tub look out through a wall of windows at a view of jagged peaks reminiscent of Switzerland’s finest. The included breakfast was served in the restaurant’s dramatic dining room featuring knotty pine walls, a tall open-beam ceiling, and mountain views from every seat.
But the resort is still wild enough for our room to be named “Cinnamon Black Bear,” after the bears that sometimes are seen on site foraging for garbage. Hiking trails, fly-fishing ponds, and horseback riding are nearby.
From here we departed for Death Valley, stopping in Bishop for a cheap and delicious lunch on the patio of Erick Schat’s Bakkery. Sheepherder bread has been baked here continuously since 1907. Sandwiches are big, and a cookie is included with every order.
Bishop is also home to the spectacular Mountain Light Gallery. Formerly owned by the late Galen Rowell, a celebrated nature photographer, it displays and sells his photographs as well as some by other accomplished photographers. Related events and workshops are often scheduled.
Not far away, in tiny Independence, we made our last sightseeing stop at Manzanar National Historic Site. Following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1942, 10,000 Japanese Americans were detained in this internment camp.
The Visitor Center, which opened in 2004, was built by internees in 1944 as a high school auditorium. Now it is home to state-of-the-art exhibits that are thoughtful and enlightening as well as disturbing.
When the Manzanar War Relocation Center closed after World War II in 1945, most of the buildings were either moved elsewhere or dismantled and sold as scrap. A self-guided auto tour weaves through the dusty remains—mostly foundations—providing plenty of food for thought. It has become a peaceful, beautiful site, with sagebrush and trees and the Sierra peaks in the distance.
We continued on through the unexpectedly gorgeous Panamint Mountains, with their striking red earth and green vegetation, and into Death Valley and a night at the historic Furnace Creek Inn. Enjoying a refreshing dip under the stars in the hot spring-fed pool on a warm desert night proved to be a trip highlight.
Next day, after visiting only a few Death Valley sights (it is the largest national park in the lower 48 states, so it is ideal to allow several days here), we were on the road again and arrived mid-afternoon in Las Vegas.
Tioga Pass road conditions: (209) 372-0200
Lee Vining Chamber of Commerce (7600 647-6629; leevining.com
Mono Lake (760) 647-3000; www.monolake.org
June Lake Chamber of Commerce (760) 648-7584; www.junelakechamber.org
Bishop Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau (760) 873-8405; www.bishopvisitor.com.
Death Valley National Park (760) 786-3200; www.nps.gov/deva
Tioga Lodge Resort (888) 647-6423, 760-647-6423; www.tiogalodge.com
Double Eagle Resort & Spa (760) 648-7004; www.doubleeagleresort.com
Furnace Creek Inn (888) 297-2757, (760) 786-2345; www.furnacecreekresort.com
Carole Terwilliger Meyers is the author of Weekend Adventures in San Francisco & Northern California (www.carousel-press.com) and is the editor of Dream Sleeps: Castle & Palace Hotels of Europe.
Photograph by Carole Terwilliger Meyers.
The isolated ghost town of Bodie.