In my opinion, highway 395 is a place of wonder and a never ending open treasure box to the next inspiring adventure with family and friends. If you only have just a few days to travel and are looking for an inspiring stretch of highway, look no further. I've ranked my favorite locations to visit and photograph on the 395 below. If you're not afraid to do a little camping, you'll save time and money on what can be accomplished in just three short days.
Found at the base of the Sierra Mountains, Alabama Hills is a popular place for hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing and camping. The landscape is dotted with iconic arches, some of the most famous being the Mobius Arch, Lathe Arch, Whitney Portal Arch and even Heart Arch where a near perfect heart has been carved out of the rock.
The arches are created by eons of erosion. Percolating water shapes the rocks into their unique shapes and also creates the surrounding rounded boulders ranging from small to enormous.
Because of Alabama Hills' uniquely alien landscape, it has become the setting for countless movies and TV shows. Iron Man, Star Trek Generations, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and numerous westerns all feature scenes filmed around Alabama Hills.
While Alabama Hills is not a national park, it is protected and maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Named so because it resembles the mathematical phenomenon, the Mobius strip, the Mobius Arch is the most renown of Alabama Hills’ arches. It can be reached by the aptly named and recently constructed Mobius Arch Trail which leads from the parking area to the arch itself. The trail is marked by signs and stones along either side of the trail, which is especially helpful when trying to find your way at night.
The arch itself is like a natural picture frame, and depending on when photos are taken, can lead to some stunning images. Sunrises, sunsets, the moon, the Milky Way and Mount Whitney can all be seen through the arch’s frame. This is part of what keeps drawing me back to shoot here again and again. There is always a new image to capture!
Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the continental United States. Measured most recently in 1988, the summit’s estimated height is 14,505 feet above sea level. Few plants grow at the summit and even fewer animals live there. The ones that do tend to be migratory such as the gray-crowned rosy finch which prefers the mountain’s alpine climate in the summer, and moves down to the plains in the winter.
The mountain received its name in 1864 when the California Geological Survey named it after state geologist Josiah Whitney. Hiking on the mountain is so popular that permits are required year round and the opportunity to even buy a one is decided by lottery. The 22 mile hike along Mount Whitney Trail usually takes two days and is considered incredibly strenuous due to extreme weather and altitude sickness.
The internet doesn’t provide a lot of information concerning when this house was built or why it was abandoned, but Googling “abandoned house of 395” will result in a flood of images of this iconic house, famous among local photographers.
Located just south of the city of Lee Vining, the house can be seen from the highway. Since the area is so dark, it is possible to capture brilliant images of both the old house and the Milky Way. I like experimenting with putting different light sources in the house to give the illusion that there is still life behind all those broke windows.
Mono Lake rises out of the desert seemingly out of nowhere. It is what is known as a terminal lake, meaning there is no outlet so anything that flows into the lake, stays in the lake, and what flows into the lake is salt, and lots of it.
Salt and other minerals are washed into the naturally formed basin during seasonal rains where they remain. It is currently estimated that 280 million tons of dissolved salts are in Mono Lake’s waters. The salinity and alkaline levels change depending on how much water is currently in the lake, but despite the inhospitable environment, the lake has a thriving ecosystem consisting of algae, brine shrimp and migratory birds.
The lake has been the setting for music videos, westerns, and even a bigfoot sighting. The tufas that rise out of the lake make it a striking landscape and a beautiful foreground for astrophotography.
While only three miles long by one mile wide, Eureka Dunes feels vast and rugged, and is unlike any other place in California. Located in Eureka Valley, the sand-filled basin is surrounded by rugged cliffs that rise 4000 feet above the valley floor. The dunes themselves are 680 feet high, the tallest in the United States.
Accessible only by a gravel road through Eureka Valley, the dunes are out of the way but well worth the trip. They have a bizarre quality that few sand dunes in the world have. Known as “booming” or “singing” dunes, visitors have described the sand itself making noise reminiscent of a low bass note or propeller plane. When loose sand gives way and cascades down the steep dunes, the dry, rounded grains rubbing against each other actually produce sound that is audible to the human ear.
Despite the inhospitable environment, several plant species grow here that exist nowhere else in the world. Eureka dune grass and the Eureka Dunes evening primrose both have evolved to thrive in the harsh climate.
Bristolcone Pine Forest
Located in the White Mountains, the Bristolcone Pine forest contains the oldest trees in the world. The Great Basin bristol pine tree grows in the mountains of California, Nevada and Utah at around 9,800 to 11,000 feet above sea level.
The oldest tree to date is thought to be 5,067 years old! Another tree in the same grove named “Methuselah” is dated 4,849 years old. These trees are not marked within the forest to prevent vandalism by visitors.
The secret for these trees’ long lives is in their wood. It is extremely dense and high in resin, making the tree impervious to rot, insects and fungus that plague other species of pine. Bristolcone pines are also extremely drought tolerant and unlike other trees, retain a high percentage of dead wood. This dead outer wood acts like armor and protects the tree while preventing water loss. Trees that have died can stay standing for centuries, their wood eroding away like stone since they are immune to decay even after death.
The forest is usually open to visitors May through November. There are two groves to visit; the Schulman which has a visitor’s center, and the Patriarch which is another twelve miles down the trail.
I hope you enjoyed the photos and story behind my favorite locations to photograph along highway 395. If you have just a few day to explore this magical stretch of highway I highly recommend you check these spots out, starting first with Alabama Hills and ending with Bristolecone Pine forest. Bare in mind this is just scratching the surface of what the 395 has to offer.
If it's your very first visit, I can promise you it'll be the perfect introduction and path to follow to one of my favorite travel destinations in the world! If you have any questions or comments please leave them below or visit my workshop page to find out more information on group guided tours and photo workshops. Prints from my many travels are also available here.
Till next week everyone. Happy holidays!