Eastern Sierra; Bodie, Mono Lake, Mammoth Lakes and Devil’s Postpiles, all along Hwy 395

Old mining winch stands in front of the Standard Mine and Mill on Bodie Bluff.

Mono Lake Tufa towers on shore, and off-shore, strike an eerie presence.

Lake Mary, at 8966 feet in the Sierra, just four miles above town of Mammoth Lakes.

Devil's Postpiles National Monument features basalt columns, the result of ancient lava flows.

John Muir, speaking of the strange and scenic land just east of Yosemite National Park,  described it in 1864: “a country of wonderful contrasts, hot deserts bordered by snow laden mountains, cinders and ashes scattered on the glacier-polished pavement, frost and fire working in the making of beauty”.

I had long thought of this area as dry, gritty and a place to travel through.  But a recent trip through Yosemite Park, over Tioga Pass and down into the Mono Basin changed all that.  We found this section of the Eastern Sierra green, with rivers flowing, dotted with scenic lakes and full of other-worldly destinations!

From Lee Vining at the intersection of Hwy. 120 and 395, we trekked north to tour Bodie State Historic Park.  Bodie, high in the volcanic mountains north of Mono Lake, was founded in 1859 when Waterman Body discovered gold.  The population, 20 years later, had grown to 10,000, famous for its lawlessness, robbers, and some of the worst climate in the west.

Today, the town is maintained in a state of “arrested decay” by the State Historic Park. Only 5 percent of the original buildings remain – but it’s an impressive remainder! Among its evocative old structures are the Methodist Church, erected 1882 and the old sawmill, used for cutting firewood for winters when snow reached 20 feet deep, winds up to 100 MPH and temperatures down to 40 below zero!

Above the town stands the old Standard Mine and Mill, on the west slope of Bodie Bluff. Though the old mill buildings are unsafe and closed to the public, the mill extracted more than $15 million in gold over its 25 year run and remains an imposing presence over the town.

Along Bodie’s Main Street you’ll find the old post office, the IOOF Hall, Miner’s Hall with adjacent morgue, Boone Store and Warehouse, the old firehouse and Wheaton and Hollis Hotel (the hotel lobby, complete with bar and pool table, looks like gold prospectors just left minutes earlier)!

Stroll down Green Street to the red-brick hydroelectric building. In 1882 a hydroelectric plant was built on Green Creek above Bridgeport, developing 3500 volts and 130 hp. Electricity was run 13 miles over power poles set in a straight-line – the concern being that electricity could not be made to turn a corner! This engineering breakthrough spread throughout the world, and soon similar power plants became a worldwide standard.

Just south, Mono Lake is one of the oldest in North America, 760,000 years old. It has no outlet and is fed by six major streams that keep it from evaporating. With minerals flowing into the lake for eons, it’s 2.5 times saltier than the ocean and extremely buoyant. Though no fish can live in the alkaline waters, it’s flush with life – millions of brine shrimp and alkali flies feed thousands of migratory birds. And touring the shoreline tufa tower gardens is an experience like no other.

Tufa tower formations are the result of springs rising up from the lake floor and depositing minerals as they grow upwards. Once 30, 40 or 50 feet under the lake’s surface, they have been revealed in stark, alien contrast over the past 90 years, as LA water interests siphoned off tributary streamflow, causing the lake surface to drop by 60+ feet. A 1994 court decision has required the streams to be left unchecked, and the lake level is starting to slowly rebound.

To reach the South Tufa Reserve, take Hwy. 120, 5 miles east of Hwy. 395; a one mile easy hike takes you through some of the most intriguing topography – tufa towers rising 30 feet, appearing like ghost ships at lake’s edge!

From the Bodie Hills to the north, a variety of volcanic craters circle the lake. Most distinctive is Panum Crater which erupted 640 years ago and is easily reached off Hwy. 120, 3 miles east of Highway 395.

From the Mono Basin area, we headed south on Highway 395 and circled the June Lakes Loop. Here a string of beautiful lakes offer scenery and fishing options set against the rugged Sierra. The quaint town of June Lake offers gas, lodging and food along the loop.

We continued south on 395, turning off on Hwy. 203 to the town of Mammoth Lakes. It’s home to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, one of the largest in the west, and in summer a huge mecca for mountain bikers. We climbed higher into the mountains west of town to Lake Mary Campground. At 8966 feet, with thin air and gorgeous scenery, it’s one of six lakes in the Lake Mary Loop, all with scenic campgrounds and interconnected by paved biking and hiking trails.

Mammoth Lakes is a town that caters to tourists year-round, with lodging, restaurants, retail and sports shops, all aimed at youthful, outdoorsy visitors. The Mammoth Brewing Company, combined with the adjoining Eatery, is a must stop; fine craft beers and some of the best brew pub food we have had in a long while!

The next day, we followed Hwy. 203 north to Devils Postpiles National Monument. A short 1/2 mile hike takes one past a pristine stretch of the Upper Middle Fork San Joaquin River, then to the postpiles. Here, about 80,000 years ago, basalt lava flowed from an unknown source. As it cooled and contracted it split into the symmetrical vertical, hexagonal columns that constitute the postpiles. Hiking further down the San Joaquin is Rainbow Falls, which drops 101 feet over a cliff of volcanic rock.

Fishing in any of the strings of lakes in this area is good to outstanding! Touring, hiking and biking options are abundant, up and down the Eastern Sierra, and each turn yields wondrous new views!

How to get there: From Stockton, take I-5 or Hwy. 99 south, then go east on Hwy. 120, into and through Yosemite Park, to connect to Hwy. 395.  Lee Vining is about 170 miles and 4 hours from Stockton. 

For more information: Bodie State Historic Park, PO Box 515, Bridgeport, CA, 93517, phone 760.647.6445; WWW parks.ca.gov/Bodie; Mono Basin Visitor Center, PO Box 429, Lee Vining, California, 93541; phone 760.873.2408; www.fs.fed.us/r5/Inyo; Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce: 760.934.6717; www.mammothlakeschamber.org; Devils Postpile National Monument, PO Box 3999, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546; phone 760.934.2289; www.nps.gov/depo.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; to contact me, tviall@msn.com. 

Happy travels in the West!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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