Speeding down US 395 along the backside of the Sierra Nevada, it’s hard to apprehend scale. On one side, towering saw-toothed peaks—the highest in the continental US—hang like curtains from heaven. On the other side, the Great Basin‘s vast sagebrush-studded deserts extend clear to Utah, to the western front of the Rockies. Distances are great, towns few.
Tioga Pass Road drops out of Yosemite into tiny Lee Vining, home to the culinary pitstop, Whoa Nellie Deli, a gas-station diner serving unexpectedly great eats and good wine at picnic tables outside. Just south lie the eerie shores of Mono Lake. Migratory birds flock here by the thousands. I’ve never made time for the South Tufa bird-watching walk, nor for a kayaking trip, but they’re on my must-do-before-I-die list. The place to stay: Tioga Lodge, a simple, but surprisingly well-decorated assemblage of attached cottages by the lake’s shore. (NB: The lodge fronts on the highway, but traffic dies at night.)
This is volcano country, and hot springs dot the land between Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes. I took this shot while sitting in the hot pool at Wild Willy’s—bathing suits not required—but I won’t give you directions. Locals will already be furious I’ve told you the name. Don’t tell ’em I sent you.
When you spot the turn-off for the June Lake Loop (SR 158), take it. Here’s your chance to drive directly beneath the Sierra’s eastern escarpment , which rises straight up from a series of icy-blue lakes. The place to stay: Double Eagle Resort & Spa, a compound of detached housekeeping cottages built around a surprisingly great full-service spa. And oh! what scenery. Alas, the food could be better, but Mammoth is a short drive away.
Trout-fishing is huge in the eastern Sierra, especially at Convict Lake, where you can stay in a bare-bones cabin like this one at Convict Lake Resort—ideal for budgeteers. By contrast, the Restaurant at Convict Lake merits a special trip for a hold-hands-by-candlelight dinner: think beef Wellington and luscious premier-cru wines.
The Minarets—saw-toothed remnants of an ancient volcano—bite the sky just north of Mammoth Mountain, a dormant volcano and California’s top ski resort. In summer the gondola whisks mountain-bikers and sightseers to the 11,054ft-high summit for top-of-the-world vistas from the new Top of the Sierra Interpretive Center. If you come, stay in the woods at Tamarack Lodge, a vintage-1920s log-cabin resort fronting on a little lake. The top-three restaurants for dinner: Petra’s Bistro for earthy California cooking; Skadi for Euro-Cal with Scandinavian overtones; and Lakefront for provincial French. Alternatively, drive ten minutes to Convict Lake (above). Alas, LuLu, like its San Francisco counterpart, is inconsistent.
The little town of Lone Pine straddles US 395 and sits in the shadow of Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Just west of town lie the Alabama Hills, where scores of old westerns were filmed. Take the loop drive along Movie Rd. to see the locations. If you stay overnight, book a motel room at the Dow Villa Motel. The best food is at Seasons, which makes a kick-ass steak.