After reading all the threads about how to get from San Francisco to Las Vegas via US 395, I get the feeling many are in such a rush that they miss some of the wonders that lie along either side of the Owens Valley.
Last week I took my family and some friends up US 395 as far as Bishop. We discovered that the Dow Villa Motel in Lone Pine wasn't the only decent place to stay-- the Mt. Williamson Motel in Independence was nice, too.
We also took some scenic detours to see Onion Valley, the bristlecone pines, and Cerro Gordo.
Onion Valley is a campground and a trailhead near the Kearsarge Pass, about 10 miles west of Independence (9,200 feet elevation). If you are passing through Independence in the summer and want to camp in a more hopsitable environment, the Onion Valley campground is about 20 degrees cooler than down in town. The fee for camping is $16 per night, and there are a number of first-come-first-served sites, as well as those that can be reserved on line. It's far too cold in the winter, so the campground is probably open from June through September or so. The remains of the first Kearsarge ghost town (buried in an avalanche back in the late 1850s to 1860s) are visible on the road up to Onion Valley.
The bristlecone pine forest can be reached by heading east on CA 168 from Big Pine. The drive takes about an hour from Big Pine and leads you up to some high elevation in the White Mountains, also. The bristlecone pines are the world's oldest living creatures, and the oldest is said to be about 4,700 years old. The view of the Sierra Nevada range and Owens Valley is breathtaking, so I thought it was definitely worth the side trip.
Cerro Gordo is one of the best non-touristy ghost towns left in California. There is a caretaker there to look after things, and the owner gets groups of volunteers together every so often to keep it maintained. It is a 21 miles drive up a narrow dirt road outside of Keeler (the east side of Owens Lake on CA 136). The town was part of a silver bonanza that helped grow Los Angeles into a city back in the late 1860s to 1880s. Millions of dollars worth of silver-lead bullion was shipped through Los Angeles, and in return the miners bought lots of crops and supplies from LA merchants and farmers. Recently the Cerro Gordo Road and the Alabama Hills (to the west of Owens Lake) were used in the Iron Man movie to represent Afghanistan.
I'll post photos later.