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US 395, Part 7: Mono County (Mammoth to Mono Lake, CA 203)

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In this section, we will also take a slight detour through Mammoth Lakes, Mono county's largest city at 7,093 [2000], along CA 203. Mercifully, it wasn't ski season, or this would have been quite a boondoggle. This part and the next show off even more, I think, some of the splendour of US 395's modern day routing and surroundings.

As part of the detour, we will also cover CA 203's complete modern routing in brief. This route, first signed in 1964, connects US 395 with the ski resorts and Devils Postpile National Monument. In a few "short" miles, it ascends to an elevation of over 9,000 feet to terminate as National Park road.


Sherwin Creek Rd (Sherwin Creek being another feeder tributary, this one named for James Sherwin [see Part 6]). This portion was also bypassed ca. 1969-70.

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Fork 1: Sherwin Creek Rd (Old US 395)

Unfortunately, this is going to be a short detour for reasons I will literally run into presently, but we'll do our best. Turning right onto Sherwin Creek Rd from modern US 395, we (as before with Crowley Lake Rd) see easily how the old and new alignments merged facing SB.

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The maps and signs disagree somewhat. In the field, the signs call this Substation Rd, but some maps call it part of Sherwin Creek Rd and NAVTEQ helpfully labels it as "Old Hwy" (see Google Maps).

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This road is considerably poorer maintained than Crowley Lake Dr was, and much less used.

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Overlooking the valley and the Long Valley Caldera. This is a rather geologically active area and eruptions occurred in the region possibly as recently as 250 years ago. It is also an area with a large amount of earthquake activity, and is regularly monitored by the US Geological Survey.

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Aaaaaand ... we run into the reason I talked about before. Old Hwy, er, Substation Rd, er, whatever is private property past this point and closed to road traffic. Too bad. But not all is lost, since if we hang around left, we'll get to make another detour!

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Beforehand, though, here is the modern expressway alignment showing realigned miles (though, oddly, only on the bridge postmile). There is also a turnoff nearby for beautiful Convict Lake, named for a 1871 shootout between a band of convicts who had broken out of a Carson City jail to the north in Nevada, and a local posse. Three of the posse died in the exchange of gunfire and the prisoners escaped south; angered, the vengeful remainder caught up with the convicts outside Bishop and lynched them all.

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Detour: CA 203 and Mammoth Lakes

Now the detour. Either one of two ways to get there; here, from the single freeway interchange on US 395, or by following Substation Rd around as we did in Fork 1 (which will become CA 203).

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Looking back to the end of Fork 1 and END CA 203.

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Entering the city of Mammoth Lakes. CA 203 between the city and US 395 is on realigned mileage; there is an old highway alignment parallel to it which is still used for local traffic.

Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain both derive their name from the Mammoth Mining Co., established as a collection of gold mining claims in 1878 by Gen. George Dodge, a Civil War veteran. Dodge chose the name on purpose (not, as some have claimed, due to any fossil remains) to communicate the image of a huge "golden opportunity" just waiting to be dug out of the ground and plenty for everyone. Unfortunately, Dodge turned out to be a better marketer than a miner; while prospectors were tripping over themselves initially to get into Dodge's Mammoth City, it can be diplomatically said that the yield was underwhelming, and most of them left as quickly as they came. However, a small number of non-miners had also settled in the region and after the prospectors had jumped ship, turned the town into what is now Old Mammoth around the dawn of the 20th century. When US 395 was completed through the region in 1937, its reputation as a mountain retreat soared, both due to its beauty (shown here) in the summer and its superb ski slopes, first established by entrepreneur Dave McCoy who first set up a lift system in 1941 on McGee Mountain. After McCoy was the only one to voice interest in continuing its upkeep and development after the region was taken over by the US Forest Service, he was awarded the concessionaire's permit by default. Expanding in 1986 to nearby June Mountain, McCoy is still working on his resort empire with the help of corporate backers.

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The town itself in the present-day. Even if you're just passing through, it's still a good spot to stop for gas and food, just as it was decades ago.

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A beautiful mountain overlook, facing south "EB" on CA 203. CA 203 actually continues to the east as Main St, the road we were just on. Originally as signed in 1964, CA 203 ended more or less here, in the middle of Mammoth Lakes; it was extended to Devils Postpile and the Madera county line in 1967. We "turn around" to continue.

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Through a series of ugly and motion sickness-inducing switchbacks, this strip of CA 203 rises a sudden 2,000 feet in no time at all as it passes the ski lodges and lifts (I have not put my photographs of them here since they're pretty dull in the summer; visit the official Mammoth Mountain resort website instead for the slick brochures).

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Unusual L "overlapping" postmile on EB CA 203, just before (after?) its termination. This is part of the shuffling around of the route's western terminus by the National Park boundary.

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National Park boundary and Madera county line (unmarked). Devils Postpile National Monument (note: no apostrophe) was established in 1911 and is maintained by the National Park Service. Its namesake, the Devils Postpile, is a 900,000-plus year old relic typical of the significant volcanic and geologic activity in this area; it consists of roughly hexagonal columns of basalt, some 60' feet high, with startling and unusually compelling symmetry. It also houses the beautiful 101' Rainbow Falls of the San Joaquin River. However, we're getting too afield for this and must press on; nevertheless, do visit it -- it's beautiful. This is the western terminus of CA 203; the road continues as National Forest highway into the park.

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Fork 2: US 395 Freeway

Back to our second fork after a Kentucky Fried lunch. To be honest, there's not much of a fork left to demonstrate now, having already shown you the realigned portion and the single interchange, but here's the northern end of the Old Hwy rejoining US 395 (facing SB).

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The incongruous Smokey Bear Flats with its weatherworn signature wooden bear as we downgrade to expressway.

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The Mammoth Lakes Scenic Loop, part of the valley's auto trail and scenic routes. The region is still "recently" active, with the nearby Inyo Craters formed by a presumed eruption somewhere around the 15th century AD. The Loop connects with CA 203 near the ski lodges. Mind the snowmobiles.

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Distance signage continuing NB on US 395.

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Crossing around up the next grade, US 395 continues on a partially divided, partially undivided expressway alignment. Most of the original routing is either buried or discontinuous.

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Curving around the ascent.

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Up to the summit into the Mono Basin.

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Deadman Summit (8,041'). Eeek.

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During the winter the avalanche danger is to such an extent that Caltrans posts these warning signs. But I swear, Officer, I did not stop to take this picture.

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[June Lake turnoff, 1960s?, 108K.] Southern junction with CA 158. CA 158 is a loop route and feeds the June Lake Recreation Area, composed of five lakes. Four -- June Lake itself, Gem Lake, Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake -- were formed during the Pleistocene epoch by the Rush Creek glacier. The fifth, Grant Lake, is the youngest by far as it was actually a consequence of damming by the LADWP during the 1930s (part of the same project that also created Crowley Lake in Part 6). Today, the area offers fishing (from the Hot Creek Hatchery) in the summer and snow sports in the winter, another McCoy concession.

The original turnoff (complete with old black signage) is shown in the picture at right and likely dates from the 1960s (click for a larger 108K view).

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Facing down CA 158. The long, horseshoe-like gorge that the glacier's slow advance carved from the Sierras was (un)originally named Horseshoe Canyon, but was renamed for the June Lake Loop road built through the area by the US Forest Service in 1924, along where the modern highway runs more or less now. Although this long-lived route was adopted as state road as early as 1933 as LRN 111, it was not officially signed (as CA 158) until 1964.

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Facing the end sign.

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Continuing NB US 395.

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Despite the snowfall possible in winter and even early spring when this image was taken, US 395 is rarely closed as it is the only major arterial through the region.

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Continuing the descent into the Mono Basin.

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The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area. We'll talk more about this in Part 8.

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Descending into the basin.

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Junction CA 120. CA 120 is a major arterial through east-central California, running from Modesto and Manteca in the Central Valley through Yosemite Nat'l Park to Benton and Benton Hot Springs at US 6. This turn-off will be explored a little in the next Part. For now, we continue NB as NB US 395/WB CA 120.

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Overlooking the Mono Basin from the west portal.

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Cosignage. This is legislatively US 395 on the postmiles, however.

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The northern junction with CA 158. There is no END sign here as of this writing.

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End scenic route just outside of Lee Vining.

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Right here, CA 120 will turn west. This leads to the famous Tioga Pass, although it is signed on the closure flashers as we saw previously as "CA 120 to Yosemite" due to the large amount of non-local travel. Tioga means "where it forks" in Mohawk (strange choice, as no Mohawk Indian ever lived in the western United States natively -- it seems to have been acquired from the Tioga Consolidated Mine in Bodie [see Part 9]); it is the highest of the trans-Sierra crossings at 9,941' and most certainly the busiest, as it is the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park, one of the country's most famous and established in 1890.

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The original road has been since upgraded dramatically for the traffic volumes it supports, but still approximates the old trail which was used in antiquity by the local Mono and Miwok tribes and later by explorer Joseph Walker in 1833 (in Part 9). This original pass, the Mono Pass, is about five miles south of the Tioga Pass and was regarded bitterly by those who had to cross it. Miners slowly developed the Tioga Pass as an alternative route for transport, and it was further worked up in 1863 by famous surveyors Wm. H. Brewer and Charles Hoffman as part of the California surveys of the 1860s and 1870s. Nevertheless, it did not gain much use even then, not even in 1915 when philanthropist and borax industrialist Stephen Mather acquired the right-of-way and immediately donated it to the National Park Service, of which he was the first director, to improve access to Yosemite. It was not paved until 1937, and was completely closed during the Second World War; even when paved, it was still regarded with well-deserved terror for its sharp grades and was eventually rebuilt more or less along the modern alignment in 1961 by the Park Service (hazardous work that reportedly required workers to train in rock climbing for some of the engineering tasks). As for Mono Pass, it has faded into obscurity and is now no longer functionally useable. This is a story of the Mono Pass and Tioga's history. Although the Tioga is the only present-day crossing for literally over a hundred miles along the Sierras, don't even think about trying to cross it in winter.

Continue to Part 8

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