California’s Highway 395-Plan the Perfect Road Trip

A road trip along California's Highway 395, from Southern California to Reno, Nevada, is a mix of gorgeous scenery, eclectic small towns, good eating, and Instagrammable photo spots. It's an alternative to more heavily traveled interstates, and its proximity to so many places to explore could be a weeklong itinerary.

Road Trip: California's Highway 395

Sign for historic Hwy 395 in California.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

I have taken the Highway 395 road trip several times, so I have my repeat sights and stops, but I've also hit something new each time. The journey takes ten-and-a-half hours from San Diego, which I break up with an overnight stay. The official start of a Highway 395 road trip is in Victorville (seven and a half hours total), where the magic begins about an hour into the ride.

Randsburg Living Ghost Town

About 68 miles into the Northbound drive—at an elevation of 3,500 feet–lies the former mining town Randsburg. Along with nearby Johannesburg and Red Mountain, they comprise the Rand area, formerly home to 3,000 miners and their families. The main attractions are the Mining Museum, the General Store, and Soda Shop. There is a small rest area, bathroom, and numerous photo opportunities if you make the one-mile trek into the main town area.

A Lemon House and Jerky in Olancha

Fresh jerky is found in Olancha, California along highway 395.
Image Credit: Bill Morson / Shutterstock.

Next, you can't miss the sight of the bright yellow Lemon House Inn in the small town of Olancha, just outside of Lone Pine. It's a landmark that makes a great roadside photo opportunity. I have never stayed at the property and only stopped here once for a photo. Olancha is also home to Gus' Fresh Jerky, a roadside attraction made famous by its many billboards along the drive.

Bishop, Calif.- Gateway to The Mountains

Bishop is one of my favorite towns and the one I stay in most often. It's about the halfway point of the drive and one of the larger “small” towns along the route. It's home to Dutch-operated Erick Schat's Bakery, where you can find the Famous Sheepherder bread and made-to-order sandwiches. The smells alone will draw you in, and I always stop there to pick up a tasty treat or souvenir for the road. There's also a lovely park with a stream across the street with terrific mountain views.

I added a two-hour detour to the Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Village on one occasion. It is a few miles north of Main Street. The donation-based museum features 11 acres of exhibits in homage to Laws, a former railroad station from the 1800s, and its nearby village. There are 44 buildings and trains to explore, including a gold mining exhibit, with much to learn about the area's history. It's not to be missed if you have the time to spare.

Whoa Nellie Deli- Lee Vining

Signs point the way to a Highway 395 road trip along California's famous roadway.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

As the trip winds up into the mountains with the intersection of Highway 160 (the road to Yosemite), you will see an unassuming Mobil gas station. It is much more than that. Inside the station is a must-do stop. The Whoa Nellie Deli serves tasty food with a fantastic view of Mono Lake.

Among the menu items at this family-owned and operated deli are “world-famous” fish tacos, burgers, salads, and breakfast burritos. On my second visit, I finally got to try the fish tacos; on my first visit, they only served breakfast.

The restaurant is open seasonally from late spring to early fall. The on-site convenience store also features souvenirs and maps from the nearby area and anything a traveler heading up to Yosemite or elsewhere in the Sierra Nevadas might need. The one thing I would only purchase here, if necessary, is gas, as the prices are significantly higher than in the Valley.

Independence, Bridgeport, and Ice Cream

For a quick set of photo opportunities, the Courthouses in Independence and Bridgeport are historical landmarks worthy of your next stop. The Inyo County Courthouse in Independence was built in the 1920s, while the Mono County Courthouse in Bridgeport was built in 1880, and both are still active today.

Independence is also home to Eastern Sierra Ice Cream Company, located in a charming historic house on the 395—locally made and some of the best ice cream I've ever tasted. They are only open on weekends seasonally from April to October, so I regret that I have been unable to make this a repeat stop as often as I would like.

Where To Stay on The Road Trip

family camping with a tent
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Along the route, many lodging options exist—from camping to RV parks to motels. I've stayed in Bishop on all of my journeys to date, and one of my favorite places to stay is the RV and tent-friendly Browns Town Campground for its proximity to town and amenities. A café, store, laundry, and even an Old West museum are on site.

Additionally, I have easily found a motel room through the Priceline app when arriving too late or too tired to set up a tent. On subsequent trips, I look forward to expanding my stays to other towns such as Big Pine, Lone Pine, and Mammoth Lakes

Rest Stops, Vista Points, and Gas

Man pumping gas at nearby gas stations.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

I utilize rest stops often to stretch my legs, take in the scenery, and use the restroom. Three main rest stops along the route include features such as picnic areas and vending machines. Sleeping in your vehicle for eight hours is permitted at rest areas. Additionally, there are several vista points where I always stop to photograph the changing landscape from above.

With all the towns along the route, there is little worry about long stretches without a gas station. However, apps like Gas Buddy and GPS can help determine pricing and distances while on the go.

Weather Advice

Weather can change quickly on a highway 395 road trip.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Highway 395 is not passable year-round, even to four-wheeled vehicles, so checking California road conditions before undertaking the trip is essential. I've done this drive in various seasons, each with a different experience. The changes in altitude can cause rapid temperature changes—it can be 80 degrees in Bishop but turn to the 40s at higher elevations.

I encountered a rainstorm during a late spring journey that turned to snow within a few minutes. I watched my car's temperature gauge increase and decrease by 50 degrees, and I watched the road go from wet to dry, all within 30 minutes.

Road-tripping between Southern California and the Sierra Nevada region along U.S. Highway 395 has become one of my favorite drives. I have yet to scratch the surface of all there is to see, eat and do, but as a drive I make often, I look forward to discoveries each time. I prefer the open road versus the freeways, even if it means getting stuck behind a slower vehicle on the one-lane portions of the highway. For me, it's not about the destination but the journey.

Sarah Gilliland is a travel journalist and travel editor for Wealth of Geeks with over ten years of experience writing, editing, and producing content related to family travel. She freelances for several online outlets, including Yahoo, Insider, Conde Nast Traveler, and Attractions Magazine. Sarah's beats include theme parks, family travel, cruises, and road trips. When she isn't traveling or writing freelance columns, Sarah can be found on her website, On the Road with Sarah, or binging the latest geeky thing on Netflix or Disney+.