Are you looking for an immersive fall experience to a beautiful, quiet, and unique destination? I recommend taking a road trip through the breathtakingly rugged and remote Highway 395! Scenic desert and mountain landscapes will greet your eyes from Death Valley in the south up through the backbone of California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range in the north, all the way up to the California/Nevada border. Highway 395 has been designated as the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway and certain areas along this highway have long been favorite fall color destinations for many; such as the June Lake Loop, in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. This region is considered one of the West’s best fall foliage destinations, and one of its best kept secrets in general, with many different blogs recommending it as a top fall destination in California for families.
Many native Californians aren’t aware of the distinctions between the two sides of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains are located in the high desert of Mono County and are part of the Great Basin. This steeply elevated majestic backdrop of California is drier, with less rainfall than the Western side, and is surrounded by remnants of ancient volcanic activity which has left behind incredible sights to behold. Autumn in this remote region is longer than in other areas of California. Fall foliage includes an abundance of deciduous brush, native aspen, cottonwood, and willow trees as well as blooming fall grasses and wildflowers. The magnificence of gold, orange, yellow and red foliage is only matched by its wondrous reflections in the serene lakes and streams found throughout the region.
Most people are more familiar with Yosemite National Park, one of our nation’s true treasures, which is located on the Western side of the Sierra Nevadas. This area is truly wondrous all year long, but it does have a shorter fall season than the Eastern Sierras since most of Yosemite is in a higher elevation which experiences its fall bloom earlier, and many of its trees are evergreens. Highway 395 is the gateway to the Eastern Sierras (and can be accessed through Yosemite Park, to make a truly memorable trip!). As you drive through the different elevations of Highway 395, you will notice the fall scenery unfold in different colors, as fall bloom occurs first in higher elevations and spreads through the lower elevations as the season goes on. From deserts to mountains, from towering mountain peaks to low lying boulders, there is much beauty to behold along this historic scenic road.
The gem in the crown of Highway 395’s autumnal glory is the June Lake Loop - a 16-mile loop of road in the northern area of the highway, adorned with pristine lakes. June Lake Loop connects with Highway 395 at two different junctions along the road.
Whenever I read a blog about a recommendation for a destination I want to know how the author discovered it and why they are so passionate about it? What’s the story there - what’s the story here? Well, I’m originally from Southern California, and I have strong roots there. My family is not a group of experienced travelers or adventurers, and we come from modest means. But we have had a longstanding tradition since the 1940s, started by my great grandfather and my grandparents, of camping every summer at one of several lakes (June, Gull, Silver, or Grant) along the June Lake Loop. In the summer these lakes are sparklingly blue and picturesque, surrounded by lush green trees that always seem to have a calming breeze blowing through them. There is plenty of hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and relaxing to be had here. The tiny mountain town of June Lake is idyllic and charming, the Silver Lake Resort (my favorite place of all!) is an inviting retreat, and the public campgrounds all along the loop are accessible, clean, and comfortable for a week’s long stay. Since the explosion of the internet, the treasure of the June Lake Loop has been made known to people across the world and continues to receive rave reviews. It is a popular and often crowded summer destination, but not as many people realize that fall is just as magical a time to visit.
It wasn’t until I was an adult, driving up Highway 395 in mid-October on an unexpected trip to visit family in Reno, Nevada, that I discovered the beauty of the June Lake Loop in fall. The intoxicating fall colors! The majesty of the mountains against the dramatic background of golden hues and colors, in varying intensities. The serenity of the waterscapes, void of fishing boats and people, reflected all of Autumn’s beauty. It was as if the land was demanding I attend to its beauty; there was no escaping it. And let’s be honest --it’s supremely wonderful to have something demanding our attention that rewards us with endless, calming beauty and peace. Who can’t use a little bit of this beauty and peace in their lives?
Although I now live too far away to make this trip possible, I am thankful to have discovered it and to have ventured across Highway 395 through several key phases of my life and across all the seasons. I plan to return, as travel and life permits. And I recommend anyone within a 4-hour distance, give this road a chance to show you what it’s got - especially during the vibrancy of Autumn. You won’t be sorry you took a chance on this lesser-known gem of California.
Other Nearby Sites along Highway 395
While I have listed just one spot along this amazing road to focus on, there are awe-inspiring landscapes and interesting places to stop all along Highway 395!! Here are several more places I recommend you consider exploring, time permitting.
Visit the ancient, eerie Mono Lake, which has twice as much salt as the ocean! The North Visitor Center is currently open, but the South Tufa area is closed due to fire recovery. Please check the website for the most up-to-date information.
Visit Mammoth Lakes, one of the largest towns north of Bishop and an area full of so many amazing lakes and activities. The Earthquake Fault & Hot Creek top the list for easy, free & interesting spots to drive by easily, but be advised both have dangers (one is a real fault that is deep and kids could fall into if they don’t stay behind the handrail and the other has hot water that could scald skin if you aren’t careful about where you touch it--not all areas of the creek are accessible). Mammoth has lots of great hiking, but please check with their trails website about current covid policies, recent fire restrictions, and other closures before heading out. Devil’s Postpile National Monument is currently closed, due to the Creek Fire, but definitely worth visiting (I could write an entire blog post about this incredible basalt column!). Hopefully, it will reopen next spring (it’s best to visit in spring or fall when you can drive your car in, summer visits are restricted to bus rides in)
If you have older kids and you’re in the southern region of Highway 395 a visit to the Manzanar National Historic Site is a must-stop. My kids have learned so much from visiting this site that no textbook could explain to them. The Visitor Center is currently closed, but the auto tour of the grounds is open to the public.
Visit the Eastern California Museum in the town of Independence, in Inyo County, to view collections of the history of the region, including documentation of Native Americans who lived in the region in the early 1900s.
Visit a genuine gold-mining ghost town preserved and managed by the California Department of Parks & Recreation. Bodie State Historic Park is 13 miles off of Highway 395, near the town of Bridgeport. 3 of the 10 miles are unpaved, so make sure your car is up for it before you begin the trek. Worth the trek!
Getting There & More Info
From Southern California take US 395North. From the Bay Area, or Sacramento area, head towards Lake Tahoe (Highway 50 East) to the US 395South. From Central California, head East towards Yosemite National Park, take the Tioga Pass/SR 120 East to US 395. If you are planning to enter US 395 through Yosemite Park, be sure and verify all park roads are open before departing (and if traveling thru Yosemite before 11/1/2020 secure the required day use permits to drive-thru). Please be sure and obtain important information about closures of areas along the Eastern Sierras due to COVID-19 before planning your trip.
Helpful Information & Travel Tips
Visit Mono County’s page dedicated to their fall foliage.
Download their fall foliage map for more information.
The crowd-sourced Fall Colors Map of Highway 395 is a great guide for the state of autumn’s bloom all along the highway up to the California/Nevada border and going west towards Highway 50.
Road Trip USA has a great town-by-town guide to driving this road from Los Angeles to the California/Nevada border.
Visit California’s Highway 395 Road Trip has a great itinerary for traveling this road.
Visit the Virtual Transportation Museum of the Eastern California Museum.
Check out the family travel blog Trekaroo’s special section Road School: History on California’s Scenic Route 395
The California Indian History Curriculum Coalition has free lesson plans and videos for various ages and grades. The YouTube playlist of Yurok cultural videos is a great resource to use while you’re on the road.
The Sierra Club’s John Muir Exhibit: Educational Resources page has K-12 science lesson plans and various writing activities and prompts based on the writings of John Muir. John Muir’s environmental activist writings in the late 1800s directly influenced Congress to preserve the Yosemite and Sequoia areas from development and domestic livestock by establishing them as National Parks.
An educator from Cerritos College in Southern California has a robust set of lesson plans published on the internet that are designed around exploring geological sites in Southern California. Several of the destinations are within an hour’s drive of the Los Angeles region’s access to Highway 395, but others are not. These lesson plans could be adapted somewhat to similar geological regions along Highway 395.
I hope you’ve found some inspiration within these paragraphs, photos, and links. No matter what your fall season brings, I encourage you to find ways to enjoy your homeschooling life, with all of its adventures - indoors and outdoors!
This guest post was written by veteran homeschooling parent, Paige McKinney.
Paige McKinney is a mom of 2 grown unschoolers, and 1 nearly grown unschooler who attends a self-directed democratic school. She has over 19 years of experience homeschooling and unschooling in Orange County, California, including working with homeschool groups, educational non-profit organizations, and independent study charter schools. More recently, Paige decided to follow her heart and move her family to Pennsylvania, where she is exploring alternative education, gardening, and painting on the East Coast.