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  • Writer's pictureVeronica & Brett

Bishop, Mammoth, and Bodie: The ultimate photography road trip on Highway 395 (Part 4)

This is the final of four blog posts about our photography-based road trip on California's scenic Highway 395 in November 2023. To read about our full adventure, make sure you check out our previous posts on our time in exploring Death Valley, Alabama Hills, and Big Pine Lakes.

Day 8 // Rest day in Bishop

After a week of non-stop adventures (and photography), we were in need of a break. For the first time since setting off from San Diego, we didn't set an alarm. We still woke up with the sun, but instead of rushing out to photograph sunrise, we lounged in the tent, cosy under our many layers.

Although it was meant to be a lazy morning, I couldn't resist grabbing my camera from the car.

YAMA Mountain Gear 2-person bug net

We had arrived at the Pleasant Valley Pit Campground after dark, so as the sun rose, we were able to see our surroundings for the first time. We were surrounded by mountains, the Sierras on one side and the White Mountains on the other. At first, the rising sun cast a pink glow on the peaks of the Sierras. Within a few minutes, however, puffy snow clouds emerged, obscuring the mountain tops from sight.

Emerging from our tent, I was surprised to see that ice crystals had formed in my water bottle overnight! Of the many nights we've camped together, this was definitely the coldest night-time temperatures we've ever experienced. But despite the below-freezing temperatures, we had both slept through the night, warm amongst our many layers of sleeping bags and duvets. At the beginning of our road trip, I hadn't enjoyed sleeping with any material over my face. By this point, I was completely used to falling asleep with my sleeping bag pulled all the way over my face, my forehead and eyes covered with my hat. As the sun emerged from behind the White Mountains, we warmed up with hot tea and a pot of porridge.

We had no real plans for the day, so decided to try driving up into the Sierras to visit North Lake. Brett knew this was where the default desktop image for Mac OSX High Sierra was shot, so we wanted to see if there were any fall colours remaining. As we gained elevation, we could see fresh snow on the mountains. We agreed that we would turn around as soon as it started snowing. I didn't fancy getting stuck in a snowstorm somewhere up a mountain!

Highway 168 to Lake Sabrina

As the conditions continued to worsen, we opted to stick to the paved road that dead-ends at Lake Sabrina instead of going down the dirt road to North Lake. The lake looked different than when we'd visited in summer 2021 to start our backpacking trip. It was freezing out, so we didn't stay for long.

Lake Sabrina on a foggy day

On the way back down the mountain, we stopped to shoot the fall colours off the side of the road.

Back in Bishop, we visited the famous Erick Schat's Bakery. As someone who grew up in the Netherlands, I found the Dutch trinkets and decorations (including a portrait of the King and Queen) a little bit odd. We got a loaf of their famous Sheepherder Bread, which we used for sandwiches at our picnic lunch in the park (yes, we managed to eat a whole jar of pickles in one meal – as Brett can confirm, I am completely obsessed with American dill pickles).

After lunch, we visited the local library where we worked for a few hours. Brett caught up on emails while I read my book. After days of rushing between photo locations, it felt nice to just sit and relax. Later, we wandered around the Bishop City Park, admiring the fall colours and catching the falling leaves (it turns out that Brett is a much better leaf-catcher than I am). Of all the magical moments on our road trip, the time we spent running back and forth on the sidewalk catching leaves stands out. It's fun to be children. My cheeks hurt from smiling.

The afternoon had turned cold and rainy, so we retreated again to the public library. When it closed at 18:00, we debated finding somewhere else to camp for the night, but ended up deciding to go back to the Pleasant Valley Pit Campground – it was a known entity and, more importantly, it was very cheap. By the time we had finished putting up the tarp, it had started drizzling, so we sat in the car as we ate our rehydrated camping meals. It was our last night camping, and although I was looking forward to a hot shower and a real bed, I knew I would miss falling asleep next to Brett under the stars.

Day 9 // Bishop to Mammoth Lakes

Despite the forecast, it didn't end up raining too much overnight and everything was mostly dry by the time we packed our campsite away in the morning. We enjoyed our last camping breakfast (porridge, again, I'm sure you're shocked), watching the clouds as they danced across the mountains.

Before leaving Bishop, we stopped at an O'Reilly's to buy chains for the car. Although it looked like the snow storm we'd been warned about hadn't materialised, we didn't want to risk having to buy chains in Mammoth, where they'd likely be even more expensive. Luckily we didn't end up needing to use them, but as the road continued to gain elevation, we felt safer knowing we had them in the trunk of the car.

Wild Willy's Hot Springs

On the way to Mammoth, we turned off Highway 395 to find some hot springs. Having read a few blog posts online, we were keen to try and avoid the crowds, so we drove to the Rock Hot Tub, which took us awhile to find. After our flat tire on the first day of our road trip, driving on the dirt roads made me feel a little nervous, but luckily the car handled it all okay. Eventually we found the Rock Hot Tub, a charming man-made pool with water pumped in from a nearby hot spring. Although it was a beautiful spot, the water was cold to the touch. Not exactly tempting in the freezing weather!

We continued onwards to Wild Willy's, what seems to be the most popular hot springs in the area. In the distance, the White Mountains appeared momentarily in a gap in the clouds, living up to their name thanks to a fresh dusting of snow overnight.

Mountains emerging from behind the clouds

We followed the wooden walkway towards the springs. Brett was worried the pools would just attract a bunch of creepy old men, but that wasn't our experience. When we arrived, there were only a handful of people relaxing in the springs. To our right, was a chain of small pools, in which a handful of people were relaxing. Another group was leaving as we arrived, and they recommended the larger pool on the left side of the walkway.

We carefully navigated through the soft mud to the rocks by the larger pool. The cold air left our skin tingling as we stripped off our clothes, draping them on the rocks to keep them dry, before we stepped gently into the shallow water. The warm water was a luxurious contrast to the frigid air temperature, although it was slight too hot to stay in for too long. The water was only knee deep, so when it got too hot, we'd just stand up and let our bodies cool down before returning to sit again on the rocks along the edge of the pool.

As we delighted in the magic of Mother Nature, the only other group there left, calling out from the walkway to behave ourselves. Once again, we found ourselves alone in a remarkable location. It seemed our timing was perfect as we'd missed any of the keen beans up for sunrise. What a perfect place to celebrate our four-year anniversary!

Walking back to the car was arguably less enjoyable, as the cold air felt even more bitter after having been warmed by the natural springs.

Mammoth Lakes

Back on Highway 395, we continued north to Mammoth Lakes, one of the larger towns in the area and a popular skiing destination. Driving into the town, we were happy to see just a light layer of snow on the ground – no epic snowstorm as we had been warned about earlier in the week! We stopped in at the Visitor Centre to ask for advice on what to do in Mammoth that afternoon. Turns out there isn't much to do in Mammoth if you're not going skiing. Everything they suggested we do was (conveniently) located not in Mammoth! Useful! Instead, we opted for a picnic lunch by the shores of Twin Lakes and then made our way to our hotel.

We had booked a night at the Tamarack Lodge to celebrate our anniversary. As we pulled into the parking lot, I felt incredibly relieved we had made it, after having debated turning around earlier in the week when the threat of a snowstorm was hanging over us. As we checked in at the reception, we were provided with complimentary hot (non-alcoholic) cider, what luxury! We had arrived a few hours before we could go to our room, so we wrapped up warm and went for a short hike around the lake near the hotel. It was fun walking in the snow to explore the waterfall we saw on the other side of the lake.

When we returned to the hotel, we were shown to our room, which had views of the lake out both windows. It was incredibly cosy and we felt immediately at home. Although we didn't have much time to enjoy the hotel this time round, we've agreed that we would love to come back one day to try out some cross-country skiing!

That evening, we drove back down the mountain into "The Village At Mammoth," their overly curated attempt at a Swiss-style pedestrianised downtown. We were there before ski season had officially started, so the whole area was sleepy. Being a tourist town, the restaurant prices were outrageous. It was our anniversary, however, so we eventually decided to split a starter, a pizza, and a dessert at Vulcania, a new Italian restaurant. The deconstructed tiramisu we had for dessert was Brett's favourite food of our whole trip!

Back in our room at the lodge, we warmed up with hot chocolate and Baileys (the employee at the front desk even gave us a cup of whipped cream to add), while we discussed our highs and lows for the year. Luckily, despite some challenges throughout the year, our highs massively outweighed our lows.

Day 10 // Last day on the road

The following morning, we reluctantly left the lodge and set off on the last day of our Highway 395 road trip. Although the road was (thankfully) snow-free, we did end up driving through some thick fog, which is always a little disconcerting.

Bodie Ghost Town

Multiple people we'd met along our journey had recommended we visit Bodie State Historic Park, a gold-mining ghost town abandoned in the early 1940s. With nothing on our itinerary for the day other than getting to the Bay Area, we agreed we had enough time to stop off at Bodie on our way north. We spent an hour wandering around the abandoned buildings. Peering into the windows felt like we were looking back in time – crockery lay on dining room tables and books lay on desks in the schoolhouse. As someone who loves urbex (the exploration of abandoned buildings), I was in my element. Once again, we seemingly had the place to ourselves and only saw a handful of other people while we were there. Travelling in the off-season really is the way to go!

The mine on the hill was closed. Understandably, for health and safety reasons, you can only visit on a guided tour, which we hadn't booked in advance.

While the sky was a monotonous grey when we arrived, the sun peeked out later and made for some dramatic lighting. Brett took a large format shot of one of the cabins and we shot a self-portrait there, which ended up being one of my favourites of the trip.

As we drove away, we stopped so Brett could get this photo of the town, glowing golden in the winter sun.

Bodie Ghost Town in the sun

And so, our adventure on Highway 395 was almost over. All that was left to do was drive to San Francisco. As most of the mountain passes were already closed for the season, we followed 395 north, crossing the border into Nevada. We passed Topaz Lake, with stunning autumn colours reflected in the water.

Fall colours at Topaz Lake

From there, we took Highway 88 across the Sierras. The mountain pass wound through forests and past lakes. We were shocked at how fast some cars were willing to speed along the windy roads! We stopped multiple times to admire the views and to let impatient drivers overtake us.

The last few hours of the drive into the Bay Area were not enjoyable. As the sun set, it began to pour. Rain isn't as frequent in California as it is in the UK, so drivers aren't as used to driving in it. We saw multiple cars broken down on the highway – including one stopped in the middle lane! Eek! Brett, as always, was very calm, and got us safely to where we'd be staying with his friends.

What an adventure! It was our second time exploring the Eastern Sierras together, and what a different experience we'd had to our summer backpacking there in 2021! I feel so lucky to have had this extended time together with Brett and to be with someone who is as excited by photography as I am. It's always a joy to shoot together and to support each other in our own shoots. We learnt a lot on this trip, including:

  • travelling off season is great if you're willing to put up with cold temperatures

  • cars are hella expensive

  • Mammoth is hella expensive

  • make sure your spare tire is fully inflated before you set off and make sure you know how to put it on!

I look forward to our next big adventure together, wherever that may be.


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