El Camino Sierra takes you past ancient bristlecone pines and glacial lakes where the weather turns in an instant
All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey/ I’d be safe and warm if I was in LA/ California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day…
So go the lyrics of California Dreamin’, that super song by The Mamas and The Papas recognised instantly by every generation from Baby Boomers to Gen Z. John Phillips wrote it on a chilly New York day in 1962 for his wife Michelle, who was struggling with the cold, and pining for sunny California. I too found myself struggling with the cold as snow came down in blankets and the sky was grey. The difference was that I was in California and I had been safe and warm just 90 minutes earlier.
We were on a road trip on the US395, nicknamed El Camino Sierra. The highway connects Los Angeles with Lake Tahoe along the eastern edge of California. Compared to California Highway 1—that pretty and poised road of most tourist road trips—El Camino Sierra is the wild child. A ribbon of black wrapped along the creased topography of the Sierra Nevada mountains, it makes its way through rugged landscapes where ice-sculpted granite masiffs loom high, and runs past ancient geological pockmarks that are now glacial lakes.
Along this highway, especially through the counties of Inyo and Mono, are playgrounds for the adventure seeker. There are miles of scenic trails to explore on foot, horseback or bicycle. The glassy clear-blue lakes are ideal for kayaking, fishing or SUP (stand-up paddle) boarding.
We were driving north through the town of Bishop on a sunny afternoon when a fingerling of a road indicated by a faint line in my map book caught my eye. It indicated 4WD vehicles and experienced drivers only. With the very capable Land Rover Defender 5 litre V8 I was driving, this was like waving a redolent rag in the face of a hunting hound. I shot up that trail at once. It was the Silver Canyon Road leading over a mountain pass to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
They maybe weather-beaten and gnarled, but bristlecone pines are so resilient that they are the oldest living non-clonal organisms on our planet. The oldest tree here is 5,000 years old. To get to the forest we had to climb a high mountain pass, the road to which was a barely motorable trail crisscrossed with fast-running streams. As we drove, negotiating tight hairpins and gaining altitude, heavy rain clouds rolled in.
Higher still the precipitation turned into snowfall and the temperature dropped below freezing as the landscape went white. By the time we got to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, visibility was almost zero and the road slippery as glass. We drove till we descended below the snow line and got back on the US395 at Big Pine. The next morning the sky was an unblemished blue as we headed north towards Mammoth Lakes.
Sitting pretty in Mono County, Mammoth Lakes is a playground for outdoor adventurers. The town centre wears a functional village vibe because everyone who comes here just uses it as a base to sleep and eat. Volcanoes were active here far back and today, the region shaped by lava is a land of pines, pastel desert and sparkling glacial lakes.
On our first day we headed out to Lake Mary, where kayaks called out to us. It was a lovely day for a four-hour paddle to the far shore. That afternoon we drove to McGee Creek, which is black bear habitat, and did a horseback ride. The rugged trail, softened by the random bloom of wild flowers, the occasional clip-clop of shod hooves combined with the equestrian scent of leather and horses transported us back into the era of the Wild West.
We filled our two remaining days in the town centre with walks and bicycle rides around the lakes. From here we continued further north on the Sierra Highway to South Lake Tahoe.
We arrived in the late afternoon and boarded the Spirit of Tahoe for a sunset cruise. The highlight was when we sailed past Vikingsholm in Emerald Bay. Built as a summer home by philanthropist Lora Josephine Knight in 1929, this 38-room mansion has been hailed as one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in North America. Knight was the principal promoter of Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis in May 1927.
Lake Tahoe sits like a blue robin’s egg, neatly divided by the state line of California and Nevada. South Lake Tahoe in California is a bustling city full of great places to stay, shop, eat and drink. We made this our base for three days and explored the lake often taking out SUPboards, kayaks and canoes.
From South Lake Tahoe, we drove west across the Sierra Nevada through Sacramento, and arrived in San Francisco. Over a week we had driven from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but on a back route that brought to fore a refreshing aspect of California. We had driven lovely tarmac roads, had cautiously crawled over slippery ice, and flipped a kayak and felt the shocking cold of glacial melt water. I have been to California many times, but this particular road trip on the US395 had the freshness of a first visit.
Rishad Saam Mehta is a Mumbai-based author, travel writer and budding travel video maker.