The Forgotten Road: U.S. Highway 395 by Motorcycle

Getting away from it all in the eastern west. From the December 2005 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. Story & photos by Art Friedman.

Apparently most Americans recall Route 66 fondly, but I'm not one of them. I was a Route 66 baby. With divorced parents living in Chicago and Santa Fe, then Los Angeles, I spent summers doing shuttling along Route 66. To me it was a series of speed traps, tourist traps, fly traps, greasy spoons, and feeling ready-to-heave-nauseous in the back of a series of family wagons crawling across a mostly boring, flat landscape. When the arrival of interstate highways turned Route 66 into a two-day trip (Santa Fe to Chicago) and disconnected the drive from the little towns that did everything they could to divert you to spend money, I viewed the change as a huge leap forward.

The more remote and much lesser-known—but much more scenic—road that intrigued me was U.S. 395, which ran north-south through eastern California, Oregon, and Washington states, dipping into western Nevada near Reno along the way. Unlike Route 66, which ran to the west, Highway 395 ran through the west—and a pretty remote section of it. I was first introduced to Highway 395 in the early 1950s, when my mother spent six weeks in Reno to establish Nevada residency for a quickie divorce. We took overnight trips down to Yosemite and up into Oregon (which, I later realized, meant the divorce was never actually legal, since my mother left Nevada and didn't actually meet the legal requirements for the residency required to get that divorce).

On those trips I discovered a road that was fun to travel, even from the back seat of a smoke-filled Ford wagon. The scenery on the area we traveled was spectacular, with soaring, rugged mountains, roaring rivers, lakes, and fresh-smelling pine forests. Except perhaps for the area around Reno, I don't recall much traffic or tourist attractions.

I ride 395 between Los Angeles and Reno fairly frequently, but I had never followed the road north beyond the Nevada stretch. Looking at a map, which showed the northern section running through remote areas, it seemed like it was time to do that.

Before I hit the road, I did a little research. I remembered 395 running from San Diego up past San Bernadino (east of Los Angeles). These days that southern section has been overrun by interstate 15 after being realigned a few times. (Cameron Kaiser has a website that traces the history and changes of this southern section of the now defunct southern section of 395.) I spent a day exploring the remnants of this former 395. It's a tangled series of streets from its original southern terminus in downtown San Diego, but once out of town, it is sometimes a nice alternative to the interstate, which it criss-crosses, sometimes above, sometimes below, like my dog when we go for a walk in the hills.

These days U.S. 395 starts north from Hesperia, northeast of LA at I-15. It heads off north across the Mojave desert, past various military airfields—George AFB, Edwards AFB, and the China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Center. If you ride this section, watch the skies for some the exotic military aircraft in the area, because this 100 miles or so desert landscape is pretty dull. But also keep your eyes open for traffic on this section of two-lane, which has a bad history of fatal accidents because you often can't see approaching traffic. Don't give up though, the scenery improves quickly north of where 395 intersects California 14 coming up from the southwest. After passing the Hubcap Capital of the World, Pearsonville, you enter the Owens Valley, the deepest valley in North America and one of the most scenic places in the state. To the west the Sierra Nevada range forms a nearly impassable barrier. Your next chance to cross it comes about 150 miles north at Yosemite. There are more ways to cross the Whites, the range that forms the east wall of the Owens Valley, roads that take you to Death Valley and Nevada.

The Owens Valley is one of California's playgrounds. My mother preferred mountains to beaches, so we came up here many weekends after we moved to Los Angeles. Back then, 395 was all two lanes. Now much of the road south of Yosemite is four lanes. The attractions of the Owens Valley are the same as then: fishing in the lakes and creeks, snow sports, hiking, camping, off-roading, or just looking at the scenery. Coming from the south, you can get a sense of the Valley's history as you come upon the huge Owens Dry Lake. Less than a century ago, it was a real lake, but then Los Angeles tapped the Valley as a source of water, and sucked the lake dry. Recently a program to cut down the dust blowing from the dry lake has forced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to use some its precious water to keep the lake bed moist.

The Valley was cut by the Owens River, which is fed by streams running out of the mountains, most from the west. Each creek has a meandering road that follows it up to a trailhead, with campsites, fishing holes, and head-turning along the way. Many of these creeks also gave rise to small towns along 395. If you spend the night in the area, ride up one of these roads after dark, and find a dark place to discover a few hundred thousand more stars than you are probably used to seeing.

The first real town you come to is Lone Pine. In the early to mid 20th century, the area around Lone Pine, particularly the Alabama Hills, which lie between the highway and the Sierra range, was a popular setting for western movies. It's still used occasionally for contemporary, and the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History holds a film festival every fall. West of town you can see Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 feet, is the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states. If you want to spend most of the day, there is a trailhead west of town at Whitney Portal and the trail will take you to the top—if it doesn't literally take your breath away.

If you want another opportunity to feel insignificant, ride east out of Big Pine on route 168 to the crest of the Whites and visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. There you'll meet the oldest living things on the planet, gnarled little prehistoric pines, some almost 50 centuries old. Even if you don't want to ponder your own impermanence, the winding, plunging road is a sure way to feel very alive.

Bishop is the unofficial capital of the Owens Valley, the biggest town on Highway 395 south of Reno (with the only motorcycle shops). At about 4000 feet altitude, Bishop is accessible from the south by motorcycle almost all year, with just a few days when snow sticks during the winter. But 20 minutes west of town, you can be at 9000 feet, to escape from the high desert's summer heat. Erick Schat's Bakkery is a favorite snacking or lunch spot here. For dinner, Whiskey Creek is a favorite for elegant fare.

For many Southern Californians, Bishop is just a wide, slow place in the road that goes to Mammoth Lakes. Mammoth is a ski and outdoor-sports town about 45 miles north of and over 3000 feet above Bishop. If you have been sweltering in the desert heat, as I was in August, the climb will deliver you to cooler air. You should probably gas up before leaving Bishop, unless you plan on taking the short side trip to Mammoth, since the next gas actually on 395 is over 55 miles away. In fact, between here and Washington, you'll frequently encounter long stretches with no gas, and if you have a bike with less than 150 miles range, you might want to carry a jug of gas.

If you prefer roads that wind, consider taking the back way up the hill to Mammoth. Hang a left at the Rovana sign just before you start up the long hill, then make an immediate right on to the old, winding road through Paradise and along Rock Creek. It returns to 395 before you reach Crowley Lake, former home of some record-size trout, which lies just east of the highway. Shortly after that you may want to take a brief detour left to take a gander at jewel-like Convict Lake, though the lakes of Mammoth Lakes, a couple of miles further up 395, offer some spectacles of their own. Like Bishop, Mammoth has distraction that can occupy you for a day or two if you want to stay. If you have a dual=purpose bike, you could fill an entire week riding in the Owens Valley.

A bit north of Mammoth you'll come to the turnoff for the June Lake Loop, which will add about 10 minutes and a lot of awe to your ride. I strongly recommend this side trip, which offers spectacular vistas and brings you back to 395 just in time to catch your first glimpse of Mono Lake, another natural wonder. ("Mono" means "beautiful" in Piute.) As you reach the lake's south shore at Lee Vining, you also come to Route 120, the turn-off for Yosemite National Park, a great ride even if you don't go into the park. If you do, allow at least a day.

My ride wasn't really about stopping to smell the roses, though. I just wanted to keep moving through the stunning scenery and great scents. And, after the Yosemite turnoff, traffic thinned out further.

Continuing on up 395, around Mono Lake, you climb to another 8100-foot ridge, which offers a great view back to the Mono basin before starting back down past the turn-off for Bodie, a well preserved, photogenic ghost town that's worth a visit if you don't mind a few miles on a gravel road. The last real town before your reach Nevada is Bridgeport, the Mono county seat. I'm told that it was once the seat of a different county—in Nevada—before the original surveying was checked. It is not the only example of confusion caused by surveying along 395. There are chances to turn both east and west around Bridgeport, and after Route 108 (leading to Sonora Pass, another fun road) sucks some more traffic away, the road is nearly deserted as it meanders along the Walker River toward Nevada. You cross into Nevada about 50 miles after Bridgeport. Aptly named Topaz Lake covers the state line next to the highway as you cross.

The scenery doesn't abate until you are past Gardnerville and into the expanding urban sprawl of the Carson City and Reno area. Back in the 1950s, Reno, with its proximity to the mountains and Lake Tahoe and less toasty climate looked more likely to become a gambling Mecca than Las Vegas, but I guess that didn't account for the tenacity of gangsters. Reno is a better destination for motorcyclists most of the year. When I rode through however, it was hosting Hot August Nights, a gathering of cars from the 1950s and `60s. Cruising through the area became a sort of ride-through car show, one which continued as I left Reno and passed dozens of cars headed into the city. I was tempted to stay a day or two, ride the local roads during the day and car-gaze at night (the shows are free).

A few miles north of Reno, 395 returns to California. It is a bit more arid here, though still scenic. As you approach Susanville, you might want to hang a right on Route A3 and cut off about 10 miles of the worst road surface I encountered on my ride—if you have enough fuel for the 100-mile run to Alturas. After that you are really away from everything. There is little traffic, the road is good, with an occasional curve and eye-pleasing surroundings. It was an idyllic hour and half.

People tend to divide California into north and south, but in my view, the real division in California is between west and east—between urban and agricultural, coastal and mountains/desert, Disneyland and Death Valley, and maybe sportbikes and cruisers. The differences in the two sides are both in geography and sensibilities. Most of the bikes you see out here are cruisers, with tourers and adventure bikes showing up as well. That's as it should be, because 395 is best sampled at cruise speeds.

The ride from Reno up into Oregon is about as far from a western California state of mind as you can get in the U.S. The road encourages a relaxed pace, and many of the trappings of modern travel just aren't there. Besides the scarcity of fuel pumps, there were no fast-food chain restaurants, no chain hotels, no big-box stores. The only billboard I recall was the hand-painted, quite faded sign that touted the shortcut before Susanville. Alturas almost seemed like a trip back 40 years with none of the temples of modern plastic roadside culture, but my burger certainly didn't leave me wanting.

About 40 miles north of Alturas, 395 reaches Oregon and the mixed-up little town of New Pine Creek, which consists of a bit more than a couple of stores and 250 residents. My California map says it's in California. My Oregon map says it straddles the state line, which at least in practice, it does. However, the actual location of the state line is a bit confused, the result of haphazard surveying circa 1870. About 20 years ago, California officials reviewed the line and concluded that the line should actually be a bit farther north. But locals still don't seem certain about where it is. Nonetheless local California residents have Oregon mailing addresses (that's where the post office is), which confuses all sorts of bureaucrats, from cops to tax officials and the uncertainty about location prompts all sort of subterfuge to reduce taxes and other fees. It used to be that Oregonians had to sneak their kids into the local school, which is (probably) in California. The Oregon welcome sign is on the north end of the tiny town, but the California sign is right in the middle of town on State Line road, though that probably isn't where the line actually is.

Unless your bike has lots of range, you had better gas up in Lakeview, because unless the little two-nozzle gas pump 84 miles north in Wagontire is available (it wasn't when I went through), you have over 110 miles to Riley, where 395 briefly joins U.S. 20. Although you initially follow the banks of some large, shallow (and sometimes stinky) lakes, the terrain here is sort of high desert, cresting a couple of passes in the 5000-foot range. The land is open and, though not barren, treeless and deserted...like the road. I had been riding with no other cars in sight and realized that I hadn't seen a southbound car for some time. It was 16 miles before a car came along. If you want to leave the world behind, 395 in Oregon is a great place to do it. However, with such a well maintained, non-challenging highway with no traffic, the 55-mph speed limit seems an unnecessary annoyance.

After a brief jog east where 395 briefly joins 20, the road separates and turns north again at Burns (where you can get your fix of familiar fast food or sleep in a national-chain hotel). Now it climbs into pine forests and through the Blue Mountains of the Malheur and Umatilla National Forests. The road was almost as deserted as before, but here it offers beautiful scenery and turns to entice. This lovely section, which goes on for over 200 miles, was worth the trip all by itself. Next time, I think I'll bring fishing and camping gear and stay a while.

When Highway 395 reaches civilization again in Pendleton, Oregon, just south of the Washington state line, its character changes significantly. The terrain suddenly gets dull, and the road gets even duller. It joins I-82 for a while while crossing the Columbia River, but even after it breaks away from interstate superslab around Richland, it remains a heavily traveled limited-access highway with lots of traffic and dull scenery as it runs northeast for about 150 miles to Spokane, Washington, where it at last climbs into greener country again near the Idaho state line. At Spokane, the highwayt turns north again before reaching that state and heads for Canada.

The 120-mile ride from Spokane to the border is another scenic beauty through the forests of northeast Washington. The traffic gets thinner the farther north you get. About three-quarters of the way up, 395 crosses Franklin Roosevelt Lake and then runs along the bank of one of its tributaries the rest of the way to Canada. The end of the highway is sort of an anti-climax, with a quiet pair of border-crossing stations (the Canadian one is closed from midnight to 8:00 a.m.). Looking beyond, the beauty of British Columbia beckoned, and Route 3 westbound on the Canadian side looked tempting, but I was due back in the office, so I reluctantly turned back south.

You could do the good portions of U.S. 395 in three or four days and have a great ride, or you could take three or four weeks with side trips and time to take in some of what I rode past. Either way, it is a ride away from mainstream and far from the crowd.

RESOURCES

US 395:

Bristlecone Pines:

California Road Conditions:

Eastern Sierra/Owens Valley:

Nevada Road Conditions:

Oregon:

Oregon Road Conditions:

Reno, Nevada:

Spokane, Washington:

Washington:

Washington Road Conditions:

RELATED ARTICLES

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Heading south on 395 not far from the Canadian border. This section of the road was all new to the author.
The original 395 started here, just south of University of California San Diego.
Though it's no longer officially U.S. 395, the route is remembered in signage north of San Diego.
Owens Lake was full in 1920.
Steamboats ran across it.
Now it needs dust control.
The Alabama Hills were a favorite setting for western movies. More recently that have been used as different planets.
Approaching Yosemite from the south.
Mono Lake, with its distinctive tufa limestone formations, has been a battleground over how much water the city of Los Angeles could draw from it.
Now the seat of California's Mono county, Bridgeport was once thought to be in Nevada.
In New Pine Creek, at the intersection of 395, California and Oregon, there's Just Stuff.