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US 395, Part 6: Inyo and Mono Counties (Bishop to Mammoth)

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[US 395 in 1937, from California Highways and Public Works magazine.] Shortly after leaving Bishop, we will come to the Mono county line. Mono (pronounced MOH-no, not MAH-no) county, itself a sparsely populated 13,250 [2000], was named for its famous lake, Mono Lake, in turn named for the local Kutzadika'a Indians (christened the "monachie," or fly people, by the neighbouring Yokut tribe for their dependence on the pupae of the alkali fly as a food staple and trading item -- more on that in Part 8). In those days, the "Monachie" -- shortened to Mono -- were known to inhabit the eastern Sierras from north of the famous Mono Lake down to Owens Lake, along with the Paiute. Nowadays, Mono county features the world-famous Mammoth ski area, as well as the beautiful and bizarre Mono Lake, all of which we will see in the next few Parts. Mono itself was formed from Calaveras county in 1861; its original county seat was Aurora, but in the wake of a territorial spat with Nevada (see Part 16) it was later demoted. Bridgeport, its present county seat, was not declared until 1870.

Mono county is probably my most favourite part of US 395, even along its entire route today. It runs through beautiful valleys and gorges, along scenic vistas and charming towns, and despite its upgrades and alignments still has the flavour of a country throughway even in its modern expressway form -- note that as we leave Bishop, how little of the terrain and general lie of the road has changed (similarly to Inyo, most of US 395 in Mono county has been rebuilt to divided highway/expressway standard with the bulk of this work apparently done in the late 1980s). In this part and the next couple, we will look at some of the most notable bypassed alignments separately, including one that is still postmiled.

From north of Lee Vining to the state line, it will revert to mostly one-lane-per-direction along or close to its earliest alignments.

Another vet shop for Dad's benefit.

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One last US 6 photograph as we drive by; note how inauspicious the US 6 advance signage is on the southbound side. Past the US 6 turnoff, US 395 itself becomes the Sierra Hwy, which is old US 6 (and now CA 14)'s name south of the US 395 merge. Sierra Hwy still runs near the Newhall Pass (I-5/CA 14 interchange) through Lancaster parallel to the modern CA 14 freeway. This little stream is the north fork of the Bishop creek.

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Leaving the city limits.

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Yes, I know they're Paiute names, but they're still whimsical-sounding.

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This one is just outside of the casino.

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Bishop has not been immune to the casino trade in any sense, especially due to the nearby Paiute reservations.

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Another closure flasher entering Round Valley on the north end of Inyo county.

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And another set of paired temporary/realigned postmiles. There has been a fair amount of straightening along this grade along with the upgrade to expressway.

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NB US 395 shield passing through Round Valley.

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Approaching Pine Creek Rd and the grade to Sherwin Summit is this turnoff and the first of our forks. We'll start with ...

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Fork 1: Old Sherwin Grade (Old US 395)

Sherwin Grade and Sherwin Summit, at the top (obviously), were both named for settler James Sherwin, who in fact engineered the original route of this pass during the 1870s. However, the turnoff itself only talks about Lower Rock Creek.

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Fortunately for us historians, the street sign gives it away. We turn right ...

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and start heading north up the grade, leaving Round Valley.

James L. C. Sherwin, like many others, came west to look for gold, first in Virginia City in Nevada, then Benton (where US 6 and CA 120 meet today), and finally settling in Round Valley in 1866. In 1874, Sherwin got out of the gold business and into the infinitely more profitable wood business, constructing a mill near what is now Swall Meadows, and later in Mammoth to the north. Originally Sherwin built his road to service his northern sawmill, but then figured it could be his own personal gold strike when gold was discovered in Mammoth as well. Building an extension to the mines up and over the grade, Sherwin established the old Sherwin Toll Road and operated it for several years more until he sold out to Mono county in 1892, for the princely sum of $125.

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NB Lower Rock Creek Rd.

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Shortly afterwards, we hit the Mono county line.

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Entering Paradise (yes, that's the name), not signed from the southbound side. This road is extremely lightly traveled today, with few cars going either direction except hiker traffic and residents.

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Some of the turns get rather sharp, including this tight one over one of the branches of Rock Creek.

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Bet the fishing's good.

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In an unrelated story, Mono county seems to be afflicted with mad cow disease. Beware of mad cow hitchhikers.

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Leaving Paradise.

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BLM signage north of town.

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Looking back at the community signage, probably dating from when US 395 still ran on this alignment.

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[CHandPW, 1937, 113K.] Believe it or not, these curves are considerably reduced over the extremely hairy course old US 395 (and its ancestor CA 7) took originally, some twists of which can be seen in the clip from California Highways and Public Works 8/1937 on the right (click for a larger 113K view). Nevertheless, it would have been extremely difficult to expand into expressway due to limited right of way and the adjoining properties, hence its being relinquished later. This original curvy section dates back to 1915 when the California highway commission formally started work on the grade to make it automobile quality. The job was difficult and was greatly hampered by a fearsome winter of 1916, and while the result was a tremendous improvement over Sherwin's original work, the road was still best described as fairly treacherous. It was formally opened as a state highway on 4 September 1916. In 1937, it was realigned and curve-reduced to this persisting alignment.

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Inyo national forest border, which for some reason we don't hit until we're not in Inyo county.

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As we continue the ascent, we start living up to the forest billing.

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Beside us, it's a long way down to the bottom of the gorge.

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Veering around with the course of Lower Rock Creek along the side of the mountain.

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There are a number of small campsites and picnicking areas along this stretch.

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Many of them are right on the creek itself.

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If the snowplow poles didn't give it away, maybe the sign will.

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Final twists and turns up to US 395.

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Rejoining the modern alignment just prior to Sherwin Summit.

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Fork 2: Modern US 395 Expressway

Distance signage past the turnoff, up the modern Sherwin Grade to Mono county. The plan to bypass the old Sherwin Grade dates back to the 1950s and the modern route was adopted in 1954, but the current expressway alignment was constructed between 1969 and 1975 with most of the modern Sherwin Grade not done until the latter half.

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The grade is rather a brisk ascent, but the realignment has made it a much straighter shot. In the summer, the advice is well-taken, as this area can be quite hot.

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Mono county line and back on the scenic route.

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Last Inyo postmile and first Mono postmile. Most of the Mono postmiles say MNO, but a few seem to say MONO. Note the odd font.

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Inyo National Forest again (but the expressway gets a bigger sign).

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PM 5.5 (realigned, natch).

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End divided highway nearing the summit.

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After that harsh ascent of nearly 3,000 feet, we reach present day Sherwin Summit and rejoin Fork 1.

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Lower Rock Creek Rd rejoins us, merging our forks just briefly.

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Resume divided highway and (waaaay) advance signage for a single exit four miles off past the summit. If you think we're about to explore another old alignment, you're right -- let's start with our next set.

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Fork 1: Crowley Lake Drive (Old US 395)

Just after resuming divided highway, we reach the turn-off for Tom's Place (use of apostrophe somewhat inconsistent). This is the first of the two old alignments we will travel; this one is well-documented and even has postmiles to prove its lineage.

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Old US 395 is signed as Crowley Lake Dr (formerly Rd). It seems that there were plans to bypass this portion far before 1964, but as it carries postmiles, it's definite that it did not occur until afterwards. Based on the road age and the bridge log, the modern bypass seems to have been constructed 1969-70.

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Turning left for a minute, we can see how Crowley Lake Dr merges well with the divided highway alignment to go down the pass. Also note that the control city on the distance signage is Los Angeles. Most of the southbound signs at this point are this way except for one later on.

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No Sno To-Day.

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[Toms Place 1947 postcard, 92K.] Tom's Place. It is gratifying that the US 395 bypass didn't kill this like Little Lake in Part 3, although really the loss of the railroad and the later fire were the coup d'grace for that little community. It was established in 1917 by German immigrant Hans Lof, who established a gas station on the highway (what was then LRN 23) and a small restaurant and store. It was bought out in 1923 by Thomas Jefferson Yerby (the "Tom" in Tom's Place), who built the original lodge (as of this date, Yerby's grandson Parker still lives in the area). Tom died in 1940, and his wife ran the resort until 1945 when she sold it as well to the Ted Berner family. The lodge here was rebuilt after it burned down in 1947; the earlier lodge is likely the one appearing in the Burton Frasher 1947 postcard at right (click the thumbnail for a 92K complete view). After a series of swaps and additional sales, it is now undergoing renovation and improvements, but with the intent to maintain its hometown atmosphere. As you can see, it remains a very popular hangout.

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NB old US 395 (Crowley Lake Dr).

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Postmile along the old alignment, proving its ancestry. I love this area. I really, really do.

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Looking over Long Valley towards the new alignment in the distance.

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Coming down the grade into Long Valley.

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A partial view of Long Valley, and Crowley Lake in the distance. Crowley Lake was part of the LADWP's 1930s redirection of several of the Mono basin's tributaries for additional flow into the Los Angeles Aqueduct (the same action that the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery in Part 5 attempted to compensate for). Four streams were tapped, and Crowley Lake and Grant Lake (north in Part 7) were created as part of this project; Crowley Lake was created when the Long Valley Dam was built and remains the largest reservoir in the Los Angeles water system. It was named for Fr. John Crowley, a Roman Catholic priest who was an important local booster during his ministry in the 1920s and 1930s, and died tragically in an auto accident in 1940 along US 6 (now CA 14) where a weathered white-and-rust cross now stands. This is a fascinating short biography of Father Crowley.

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Another postmile on the ascent facing SB.

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Turnoff into the Crowley Lake community. It seems like a wonderful place to live.

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NB Crowley Lake Dr.

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McGee Creek. This is one of the feeder tributaries to Crowley Lake that LADWP diverted and is now a rustic fisherman's delight. The creek is named for Alney Lee McGee (nicknamed "Allie"), an early ranch foreman and one of the McGee brothers who founded Lone Pine in Part 3, who emigrated south when the Aurora gold boom to the north dwindled. McGee was one of the settlers defended by Charley Tyler and commemorated by Charley's Butte in Part 5. The McGee Creek Lodge, built 1929-31, offers a brief biography.

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Pedestrian bridge not unlike the one we saw on Old Pomerado Road along old US 395 in San Diego.

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NB Crowley Lake Dr past the small community around the lodge.

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Back to mainline US 395.

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Fork 2: US 395 Freeway

Now for the modern freeway alignment, which as we mentioned, was built ca. 1969-70.

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Here is PM R11.0. Compare with old PM 11.0 on Crowley Lake Dr.

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The cuts Caltrans took through the small hills are actually quite striking and make for a majestic feel.

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Overlooking one of the small inlets of Crowley Lake.

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Looking back, we can see old US 395 clinging to the hills in the distance.

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The freeway's single interchange, photographed from here because the exit itself is not signed. We passed this cross street as we descended down the hill on the previous fork.

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Looking back at the houses. Really, I can't stop gushing about this. If they have DSL, I'm packing my bags tomorrow. I'm not kidding.

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A view of Long Valley in winter.

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End freeway/downgrade to expressway as we pick up the other end of Crowley Lake Dr.

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And, as proof, we resume original miles as we ascend towards Mammoth.

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Out of Long Valley towards Mammoth Mountain.

Continue to Part 7

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