The Splendor Of Scenic Highway 395

Driving towards Conway Summit on 395

It’s almost as if this road was always meant to be here. Highway 395 is a thing of beauty that sculpts itself almost seamlessly into the curves of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, snaking all the way from Southern California to the Canadian-Washington border. To drive this road is to take a journey in scenic splendor and it’s a trip everyone should make….at least once in their lifetime.

Alex and Ellen bundled up for an early morning shot at Mono Lake

The caravan “pack” (Alex, Ellen, us and our 12 paws) decided we couldn’t miss it either, and despite forecasts of hard chill in the mountains we made the turn to Reno and picked up the 395 trail down south from there. This particular section of 395, the bit that runs through California, is undoubtedly one of the most scenic and I took dibs on the wheel so I could enjoy all it’s curvaceous beauty right from the driver’s seat.

Just another great sunset on 395

And it was just as fabulous as we expected. Not only is 395 a superb road in near-perfect condition (which is really saying something in California), but it’s a super-easy drive with stunning views, fabulous spots to camp, some of California’s most beautiful treasures (Mono Lake, John Muir Wilderness, Mount Whitney), cute little mountain towns (Lee Vinning, Mammoth Lakes), great food (stop at Dick’s Smoke Wagon in Big Pine for some lip-smacking BBQ), no end of sight-seeing and hiking, and a bit of history to boot.

California section of 395
California section of 395

The essence of 395 goes right back to the beginning of the highway system. Around 1895 two guys met with the idea of creating a ~14,000 mile network of state roads in California. The original 1896 map included a route passing through Inyo and Mono counties, the very first concept of 395. Many years later and much expanded 395 eventually developed into the massive 1,490-mile “Three Flags Highway“, a route touching 3 countries from San Diego (at the Mexican border) through 4 US states all the way to Canada. These days 395 ends further north at Hesperia, CA, but it’s still a significant road jam-packed with interest.

Our “pack” travelled the road over the period of about a week and a half from the high plateau of Reno to the peaks of Mammoth Lakes, past movie history in Lone Pine and into the desert. We took it at as it came to us, stopping for camping and hiking along the way, but for those looking for a little extra info you can download a free Hwy 395 Audio Traveling Companion and pick-up the most excellent (also free) Scenic Backroad Motortouring Guide  from any of the local visitors centers.

Paul contemplates the end of a beautiful journey at Lone Pine

And as for the temperature? Despite some night-time chills, day-time temps were near-perfect, the trails and roads were near-empty and fall colors were still gorgeous even a week after I saw the “peak” with my Nepal hiking buddies. In fact I would venture to say that fall seems as near perfect as it gets to make this drive and I’ve got to wonder why more folks don’t do it. Either way we were darn happy we made the turn at Reno. Scenic 395 totally delivered and, like all great experiences, has left us breathless with awe and wanting for more.

A long, beautiful stretch of road
Another hike in paradise…
Hiking in the John Muir Wilderness on a perfect weather day
The stunning Sierra Nevada Mountains by McGee Creek
View into the gorgeous Owens Valley
The wacky Alabama Hills
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  1. Jerry B. says

    We spent a month this year in Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone. Nothing was more beautiful than coming home over 395 and into Yosemite. That Eastern Sierra highway is absolutely the most spectacular anywhere. We especially love the Bridgeport, Lee Vining area and Mono Lake. Thanks for that link to the audio tour, we have the guide book but didn’t know about the audio one.

    • libertatemamo says

      Sounds like you guys had an awesome trip! We’re hoping to head to Idaho and Montana next year and
      will probably take 395 again if we can.

    • libertatemamo says

      I think you’ll be fine on ths one. There are some big(ish) passes, but the road is in really good conditon and easy to drive.

  2. says

    WOW…this road sounds just like what the doctor ordered. We may actually be able to do this next spring/summer. The drive would be so awesome. The scenery looks never ending! I love it. Thanks for all the links. Enjoy the ride.

  3. says

    I am SO GLAD you took this road! It is such a winner, and known to relatively few travelers. Don’t know if you managed a trip to Bodie, one of the great “ghost” towns – but thought I mention it for other travelers in case you won’t be writing about it. And Manzanar? Okay, okay, I have to stop writing now, before I get carried away with the Whoa Nellie Deli, and the great little grocery in Lee Vining, and….! So much to see along the way!

    • libertatemamo says

      You’re so right that there is simply no end of good stuff to do on this road.
      We didn’t make Bodie (on our list for next time), but we DID get a breakfast at Whoa Nellie Deli after our sunrise photo shoot at Mono Lake…what a treat! No doubt we’ve got to come back and explore more.

    • Bill Klein says

      Hi folks, I’m thinking about taking my RV down 395 through Oregon & California next April. Did you encounter snow & ice on your 395 trip?

      • libertatemamo says

        The roads have always been completely clear when we’ve done the drive, although we’ve had a “dusting” of snow at higher elevations depending on the weather. Just check the forecast for the high passes before you go. Worst case you should be able to wait a few days to cross the higher elevations (around Mammoth Lakes).

  4. Jennie O says

    Thinking of heading North to Reno from the desert in mid April. Any closures or winter treachery to be wary of?

  5. Bob says

    I rode US-395 from it’s intersection with US-97 all the way south years ago on my touring motorcycle years ago. A great ride!

    • libertatemamo says

      We just love that highway. Have driven the Sierra section 4 times now and it never gets old. This is the first time we’ve taken it north of Susanville.

  6. dan says

    We are looking forward to driving 395 on our trip to Napa Valley from Texas, this June. Would you suggest picking it up off of 58 near Barstow in the summer? I like the idea of avoiding Hwy 5 this time.


    • libertatemamo says

      Sure, why not. It’ll be hot in Barstow that time of year, but the drive is nice the whole way. By the time you hit Lone Pine you’ll be up in elevation and should start to see some relief. You probably won’t see real comfy temps until around Mammoth Lakes, but it’s all gorgeous driving. I’ll do anything to avoid the 5 too.


  7. Kent & Sydney says

    How hard are the passes? We have a 31 foot gas class A. Just coming from Tucson on I-8 we were down to 35 mph.

    • libertatemamo says

      There are a few good-sized passes along 395, but nothing greater than 6%. There are two longer passes -> One by Conway Summit (just before Mono Lake going south) which is 6% for 4 miles and the other coming into Bishop (going south) which is 6% for 8 miles. We found all the passes easy (nice, wide shoulders, good road), but it just depends how your engine handles it. I honestly don’t remember any big passes coming into Tuscon on the I-8, so the 395 may be bigger than you’ve done to date.


  8. Sylvia says

    Gone as far as Mammoth and fell in love with 395. This weekend planning road trip from LA to Reno/Tahoe with 90-year old adventuress…Mom. She loves getting out on the open road and Scenic 395 offers that and much more.

    • libertatemamo says

      What a wonderful trip with you mother…and at 90 too! I’m impressed with her adventurous spirit and hope to be exactly the same way at that age. Enjoy the 395. We’re going back AGAIN this year.


  9. Geli says

    End of December this year, we – my husband, 3 kids, and me – are driving from Lake Tahoe to Las Vegas in two days. Looking at the map, Big Pine seems to be halfway between and we’re stopping for a night there. We continue on to Death Valley and just drive through some sites there, and then move on to Las Vegas. For planning purposes, we’re using google maps, which points us to use Highway 395 for the first day, then 190 for the most part on day 2, then 160 on the final leg to Las Vegas. We’re tourists and used to tropical climate back in our country and although I have driven in many parts of the United States before, this is my first time to drive in winter and this part of the U.S. I’ve been given a lot of opinions from well meaning people but who have not even driven the road that 395 is dangerous in winter. I’d rather hear a recommendation from someone who has driven it in winter conditions. I’m hoping you can be that (those) person(s)? Thank you.

    • libertatemamo says

      We’ve never actually driven Hwy 395 in December so can’t speak too much on that. We’ve driven it in November and been perfectly fine. It’s a major thoroughfare so I know the state keeps it open (as much as possible), but I just don’t know what Dec is like. When it’s clear it’s an easy drive.


  10. Gerald Zieg says

    Love your blog. Read it word for word every post & miss it days there isn’t one. We’ve been full timing for a year & a half. We have a home in Missoula, MT we use as a summer base & a RV lot in Palm Springs to use as a base in the winter but are trying to stay on the road as much as possible. I’ve been in very few RV parks that I’ve cared for & would much rather be dry camping & enjoying the fact we’ve made our home so we can be totally free of services and to be able to find a great spot in the outdoors, pull in, & we’re set for several weeks if we like it. It’s been a fun challenge to set the coach up to give it that ability. Have one more major project (solar) I need to get done but the need for a new alternator & a few other items on the Cummins last week took half of those funds, so will continue to research & get more knowledge on that subject for a little while. (Wow, some long sentences in this note) I’ve never posted to a blog before & seem to have gotten a little carried away. The reason for this is your posts for the last week or so have a sort of a drop down with all the states listed that I can’t close. It makes the first 2 or 3 paragraphs unreadable. Maybe it’s something I’m doing but I think it’s in the post. I wouldn’t say anything about it if I didn’t enjoy reading it so much. We’re In Ward Mountain Forest Service Campground right now. (Only ones here). It is a great spot about six mile south of Ely, NV. Supposed to be $8 but the ranger said to free this time of year. Yeah. Any suggestions for Tonopa area? I Sure hope we run into you somewhere. Would love to meet you guys. Gerald


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