Having left Furnace Creek before sun-up, it is early when I reach the junction with California Scenic Highway 395. I am relishing in the cool air coming through my open windows, the sight of the snow-capped Sierra Mountains on my left, and wildflowers blooming alongside the road. I have Joni Mitchell’s “California” blaring over the speakers:
California I’m coming home
Oh will you take me as I am
Strung out on another man
California I’m coming home…
The scenery is green and gorgeous, and I am enjoying the comfort of a level four lane highway for a change. There are many attractions along this stretch of road that I have read about over the past two years of religious blog-following, but I just can’t seem to make myself stop.
I reach Lone Pine, where I had originally planned to camp in the Alabama Hills for a few days. But the closest I get is the Alabama Hills Café, where I stop just long enough for breakfast. By now I am absolutely starving. It is the first food I have eaten in 24 hours, and I am certain the waitress thinks it has been even longer, as I plow through a hearty breakfast, then ask for a slice of their homemade Peach Crumble to go.
Back in the Winnie, I keep driving and driving…..past the Ancient Bristlecone Forest, another place I had intended to stop. It was as if I were a little traumatized from the last two days, and had fallen under the spell of the four-lane.
Finally, I snap out of it as I see the highway sign for the Mammoth Lakes exit. I am stunned out of my highway hypnosis for two reasons. First, how had this stop snuck up on me? In looking at a map, I had completely missed the fact that I would be passing by Mammoth Lakes. And as an avid skier in my younger years, I had always heard of the Mammoth Lakes Ski Area, so I was amazed to learn it was only 3 miles off the highway. Where was all the snow?
I pulled over at the Visitor’s Center, and walked in with that “Where the fugawi?” wide-eyed stare on my face. “Hi. I need some help, please. I just climbed out of Death Valley, and I am feeling a little lost.” The efficient, effusive man behind the counter just took over. He said “If you are coming from Death Valley, you just bypassed about a months’ worth of attractions. If you don’t stop now, right here, you are going to bypass another months worth!” He started pulling out maps and brochures left and right, and with two colors of highlighter, within a matter of minutes, I had a “recommended itinerary” for the next 48 hours. I wish I had asked his name — simply the most helpful person I have ever encountered in a Visitor Center!
My first excursion would be through the little town of Mammoth Lakes, making the loop trail around Lake Mary. This sweet little road hugs the shore of the mostly frozen lake, winding through tall pine forests blanketed with a carpet of soothing, sound-muffling snow.
Just up the road a few miles is the exit for June Lake Loop Road, my second diversion. This nine mile loop runs alongside the eastern Sierras on my left, and the crystal clear June Lake on my right. The little hamlets along the loop really have a vacation atmosphere to them, with cabins for rent down alongside the water on up the mountainside, stores catering to trout fishing, and aspen groves lining the highway. This short stretch of road actually passes four lakes: June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and Grants Lake. Of these four, June was the most scenic. Unfortunately, there were very few places to pull out along the road, so my only photos are of the passenger side door frame. I was eager to get on the the first come, first serve campground.
For my overnight, he recommended I camp in the Lower Lee Vinings Forest Service Campground, which would put me just a few miles down Hwy 395 from Mono Lake (worthy of it’s own post.)
As I settled into my parking space in the little Lower Lee Vinings campground, I reflected back on how I had run the gamut this day. I left Death Valley at daybreak in shorts, flip flops and my thinnest tee-shirt, and ended the day watching the sunset against a snow-capped peak, wearing fleece pants, long sleeve turtle neck, and a fleece jacket. I went from the hottest day of my life, to throwing snowballs. From steep hills, valleys, salt pans and sand dunes, snow capped mountains and frozen lakes, wildflowers, pine trees, palm trees, aspens and Joshua trees, all in one day. My GOD, what a GLORIOUS DAY it was!!!
California, I’m comin’ home
Oh it gets so lonely
When you’re walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
More about the war
And the bloody changes
Oh will you take me as I am?
Will you take me as I am?
~ “California” by Joni Mitchell