Sunday 10 January 2010

Travel Bite #1: A winter drive through the Eastern Sierra, USA

Welcome to the first of my "travel bites" - short travelogues focussing on a particular place I've been.
In mid-December Mrs. Alex and I took a road trip through a large chunk of southwestern USA. For me the highlight was the spectacular scenery we encountered as we drove down US 395 through the Eastern Sierra, from Lake Tahoe past Mono Lake and onwards south into the Owens Valley and then east towards Death Valley.

Lake Tahoe
We arrived in Lake Tahoe just before sunset, having taken route 50 east from Sacramento.

We found a waterfront park, closed for the season but accessible on foot. We trudged across the snow covered sand to the water's edge and watched the sun go down.

Carson City & Lake Topaz
After dark we drove to Carson City, a sort of Blackpool version of Las Vegas, where we spent the night in a motel that seemed to have been left unchanged since the 80s. The next morning we set out early and headed south, dipping in and out of fog-filled valleys. Snow capped peaks were all around us as we descended below the cloud layer at Lake Topaz.

The lake was half covered in thick ice with ice crystals sparkling in the bright morning sun.

The ice was so thick we even ventured out onto the lake, and felt like we could have walked further still!

Mono Lake & Lee Vining
We continued south, stopping regularly for photos as each corner revealed ever more impressive snow-covered landscapes. The roads were clear and empty despite guidebook warnings of impassable roads. Soon we approached an even vaster misty valley, that of Mono Lake.

Here the overnight fog had allowed ice crystals to gather on every tree branch and flora, creating an incredible winter wonderland.

We wandered around the cemetery, and imagined ourselves in Narnia.

After a brunch stop at the excellent Nicely's diner in Lee Vining, we drove round to the south side of the lake to see the Tufa. The road down to the water's edge was inaccessible, but we got close enough to see the tufa (salty stalagmite-like deposits rising from the lake), and even heard two coyotes howling in the distance. We could just make them out.

Inyo Forest, Mammoth and Owens Valley
Continuing through the Inyo Forest region we neared the Mammoth ski area. This side road and a couple of other scenic loops were inaccessible without snow chains.

But we didn't care as we were seeing plenty of amazing scenery.

We passed through the town of Bishop and were amazed by the view as the landscape opened out into the vast Owens Valley. This was one of those views impressive in its vastness to which a camera just cannot do justice. We had started to lose altitude now, and it was warm enough in the sunshine to build a mini-snowman and have a little snowball fight.

We drove further on as the snows began to disappear and be replaced by grasslands and then desert as we headed east on the 190 towards Death Valley... but that's a story for another travel bite!

All in all we spent probably 5 to 6 hours driving, plus lots of stops, and it was a drive I would recommend to anyone, particularly in this quiet winter period.

Photos, Links, and Map
As well as the photos above, you can view more images with high resolution versions on Flickr:
You can see our route on this map (you'll need to zoom out a bit):

I plan to make these travel bites a regular feature, so let me know what you think!

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