Up The Road: Eastern Sierra Tour: Overview

Sep 23, 2020

First sun on Mt. Tom, eastern Sierra Nevada.
Credit 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.

For most of us, the scenery is the thing. The sheer beauty of the stark side of the Sierra Nevada, the interplay of snowy peaks, dark stone and shadows, and all that light. All those glacial lakes, though you’ll have to hike to see them. Breathtaking vistas even from the highway, out across the Great Basin. Tufts of fall color quaking in the wind next to clear streams and narrow mountain roads that climb as high as highways can get—then beg you to get off your bike, or climb out of the car, and take a hike.

Appreciate the beyond-human scale of the Sierra Nevada and its steep eastern descent by heading straight down the mountain from Yosemite’s Tioga Pass, at almost 10,000 feet, to Mono Lake and vicinity—a drop of 3,000 feet in minutes. South of Tioga, no road crosses the High Sierra for another 150 miles.

Which makes for excellent high-country hikes and backpacks, though the famous trails—Pacific Crest, John Muir, Mt. Whitney—are packed in summer, permits only. Consider shorter hikes on lesser known trails.

In the mountains and elsewhere, there’s also good fishing. And excellent hot springs; ask around to find the secret spots.

What strange world is this? Tufa Towers at Mono Lake, on the eastern side of Sierra Nevada.
Credit Andrew Kearns / Flickr Creative Commons

Despite the beauty of these mountains, this side of the range has had its ugliness, certainly since settlement. Truly ugly: the story of LA’s Department of Water and Power, which dishonestly grabbed up water rights here, in the early 1900s. Shades of the movie Chinatown, which the Owens Valley saga inspired.

As LA’s water czar William Mulholland famously said in 1907, arguing for an aqueduct: “If we don’t get the water, we won’t need it.” Later cowboy comedian Will Rogers—definitely not joking—said, as family farms turned to dust: “Los Angeles had to have more water for its Chamber of Commerce to drink more toasts to its growth.”

For all its beauty, the eastern Sierra Nevada also makes you question typical notions of beauty. Some beauty is hard to see—like the gnarled nakedness of bristlecone pines, the oldest trees on earth. And monotone Mono Lake, at the heart of more recent water wars: Mark Twain called Mono a “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert,” not seeing its biological beauty. There’s beauty in decaying mining towns too.

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:


Photo Credit #1

Photo Credit #2