Kim Weir

Host, Up the Road

Kim Weir, a former NSPR news reporter, is editor and founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project dedicated to sustaining the Northern California story. She is also an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers. North State Public Radio’s Up the Road program is jointly produced by Up the Road.

Sharon Mollerus

The Great California Road Trip heads west this week, to the edge of the continent.

California’s isolated, sometimes isolationist human history has been shaped by the land itself. That even early European explorers imagined the territory as an island is a fitting irony, because in many ways— geographically, yes, but also in the evolution of plants and animals—California was, and still is, an island in both space and time. With small islands within the larger one, such as the North Coast. The redwood coast.

Henrique Pinto / Flickr Creative Commons

Consider last week’s thumbnail sketch of Death Valley a preview of California’s deserts. As it happens, fall, winter, and spring are ideal times to explore them.

Which is the first point: California has multiple deserts. The 25 million acres typically considered desert extend east from Los Angeles and its edge cities into Nevada and Arizona, south into Mexico, and north to the eastern Sierra Nevada.

BFS Man / Flickr

We visit Death Valley this week, the lowest point in North America. Death Valley’s depths are all the more impressive when you consider that the highest point in the continental U.S., Mount Whitney, is just 100 miles away, in the southern Sierra Nevada near Lone Pine.

To stargazers, Death Valley is the closest thing to heaven in light-blinded Southern California. To rockhounds, it’s a timeless monument to very grounded geologic grandeur. To botanists and bird-watchers, it’s a study in successful adaptation. Its vast spaces sprinkled with petroglyphs, ghost towns, mine ruins, and other enduring marks of human aspiration, to hikers and history buffs it’s one endless discovery trail. 

Don Graham / Flickr Creative Commons

The Eastern Sierra Tour rolls on this week to Manzanar, a World War II internment camp. "Relocation center” was the preferred official term.

Manzanar faces Hwy. 395 six miles south of Independence, California—an irony only in historical hindsight. Because the Japanese-Americans citizens rounded up and relocated here had no independence.

Thomas Potter / U.S. Department of Interior

This week we continue enjoying the Sierra Nevada’s dramatic east side, with a special side trip from Big Pine to the White Mountains and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. At least in California, a destination rarely feels more distant than this—socially and otherwise.

These grizzled old-timers, Great Basin Bristlecone Pines, are the oldest known individual trees in the world. Methuselah, named after the oldest human in the Bible, at last report was still the oldest known bristlecone pine here, at least 4,852 years old.

Ron Reiring

Just south of Bodie is Mono Lake. You could mistake this pale gray inland sea and its ghostly tufa towers for an eerie alien swimming pool on some other planet.


Back in the day, Mark Twain had much to say about Mono Lake—then known as the Dead Sea of California. “One of the strangest freaks of nature found in any land,” was one of his kinder comments.


“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert,” he wrote. “This solemn, silent, sailless sea—this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth—is little graced with the picturesque.

Good Hike / Flickr Creative Commons

One of the best reasons anywhere to pull off the highway is just south of Bridgeport and north of Mono Lake—Bodie, a gold-mining ghost town well worth the wander.

To get to Bodie State Historic Park from the highway you’ll bump down a dirt road for five miles, which helps, once you get there, with social distancing—a breeze here anyway, certainly during the off-season. Dogs on leashes are welcome too, good news if Fido’s bouncing along with you.

Because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, buildings typically open to explore are now closed, the park’s popular public tours canceled. To support the town’s preservation, support the nonprofit Bodie Foundation, which sometimes offers private tours.

Jay Huang

The Great California Road Trip has rolled straight down from High Sierra summits to the edge of the Great Basin—a surprising transition, ecologically and otherwise. A particular surprise: the abundant natural hot springs, from Bridgeport to Mammoth Lakes to Bishop, many on public land.

Given the general stress load these days, you’ll want to add at least one good hot-springs soak to your Eastern Sierra itinerary. Pick up a regional hot springs guide, or chat up locals, to ferret out suitable spots. Some are quite popular and draw crowds—for most of us, not the best idea in the time of coronavirus. But others are less well known, and more remote. Sometimes you can also camp nearby.

Matthew Rhodes / Flickr Creative Commons

The Great California Road Trip rolls on, this week heading toward the Sierra Nevada’s spectacular east side.

But first—weather permitting, and assuming your vehicle can survive adventure—we’ll explore the few High Sierra spots where people managed to make trails, then roads, to cross these mountains. Elsewhere, the forbidding granite said: “Nope.”

Don Graham / Flickr Creative Commons

The Great California Road Trip continues this week, rolling over to the Sierra Nevada’s east side. Wherever you’re ultimately heading, on the eastern side of the Sierras the main road is US Route 395, which slices through Nevada on its way south to San Diego, or, north to Oregon and Washington.

Woven together last century from scenic ribbons of state and local roadways, today’s US 395 was once known as The Three Flags Highway, because it ran from near Mexico up through the West Coast states and on into British Columbia. What a trip it is, still. If you’d be smitten by the mile-by-mile history, various road geeks have researched the route and posted detailed maps, timelines, and histories, so start your trip there.