US 395 runs north-south along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. One of the bigger towns along this famously scenic route is Bishop. Known as a destination for rock climbers and hikers, it’s also home to a nice mix of historic bakeries and restaurants, some interesting shops, and Mule Days.
“WTH is Mule Days?!” you ask? Good. We didn’t know either.
In fact, my initial plan had been to spend 3 full weeks in Bishop, with weeks 1 and 2 at the county fairgrounds and week 3 at a private campground up the street. However, when I tried to make the fairgrounds reservation online, the entire second week was unavailable. Since I was booking our reservation months ahead of our stay, I figured there must be a mistake, so I called and the lady was like, “Oh, Mule Days starts two weeks later.”
…as if I had any idea what the hell she was talking about.
I booked the one week and then called the private campground up the street to see if we could stay with them for weeks 2 and 3. The employee there was able to squeeze us into a spot for week 2, but said there was no way she would have a spot for week 3. Mule Days, you know.
To which I said: “What. The. Hell. Is. Mule. Days????????”
Come to find out, Mule Days is THE event of the year in this region. For one week surrounding Memorial Day, life in this tiny town of 3,700 stops as some 30,000 visitors descend on the fairgrounds to celebrate the all important mule.
Why all the mule mania? Because mules were crucial for mining Borax in eastern California during the 19th century. In fact, if you visit Death Valley National Park, which is just 150 miles southeast of Bishop, you can learn all about the Borax mining that was done inside the park. And all that Borax was going a whole lot of nowhere absent some sort of animal transport – there were no railroads or highways yet, so the only way to get all that valuable soon-to-be laundry detergent to industry and market was to enlist the assistance of a bunch of trusty mules. And to answer your question, a mule is the product of a female horse and a male donkey. They are known for being sure footed, tough, and resilient – perfect for moving heavy objects in brutal conditions.
So, Mule Days is a celebration of Mules and their impact on these tiny towns in eastern California.
As for the event itself, it’s basically a rodeo, but focused on mules. There are all kinds of mule events. There’s a mule parade – the largest mule parade in the world! – mule shows, workshops about mules, and competitions between mules. There are mule packing, driving, roping, racing and riding events. Finally, there’s my personal favorite, an event called the “pack scramble” in which various mule packing teams – which are made up of 5 mules and 3 horses – are all set free in a ring where they all intermix with other teams. The owners then have to put their team together again, get them all tied up and loaded down with their packs and then take them on a 1/4 mile track without dropping anything or coming untied. Whichever team finishes first, wins.
Sadly, we didn’t actually get to see any of this because we were at a campground 60 miles south because… Mule Days. But I had to look it up because I was curious. And if you’re curious too, here’s a youtube video all about it.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Trees
One of the things we love about California is its incredible biodiversity. In just one state, we’ve seen the tallest trees in the world (the coast Redwoods), the largest trees in the world (the Sequoias), and, in the White Mountains that run along 395, we observed the oldest trees in the world – the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Trees.
While Bristlecone Pines can be found in several high altitude locations (9800 to 11,000 feet) between California and Utah, the world’s largest concentration of them is located just east of 395 in a forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Many of the trees found in this area are more than 4,000 years old.
These gnarled, twisted, colorful trees often look like they’re barely clinging to life, but it is their ability to send nutrients just where they need to go, in the most extreme environments imaginable, that make them so special. The trees have a very short growing season and the air and soil conditions make them grow very slowly over time. As one part of the tree dies, other parts continue to grow. While they don’t get particularly tall, they do grow wider, and as they face the unrelenting assault from the wind and snow, they continue to twist as they cling to the sides of the mountain.
We walked the four mile Methuselah Trail which treks through a forest of these unique trees while also providing beautiful views of salt flats and mountains near Death Valley.
The Little Lakes Trail
The Sierra Nevada Mountains are an embarrassment of riches when it comes to scenic trails. There are simply too many good ones to choose from. Luckily, my friend, Laurel, made the decision easy when she described the Little Lakes Trail as “the quintessential Sierra Nevada Hike” and the trail to tackle if you only have time for one. Given her ringing endorsement, I put away the trail guides and we headed up into the mountains for this 8 mile trek. Given its starting altitude of 10,000 feet, we took our time and paused occasionally to catch our breaths, but the stunning scenery more than made up for all the wheezing.
Thor had a field day. He swam in every lake, explored every creek, exuberantly powered up the snow covered trails, and never missed an opportunity for some joyful zoomies.
It was an epic day to be a dog.
The Alabama Hills are a range of hills and rock formations that are located on the eastern slope of the Sierras near the town of of Lone Pine. This region is particularly famous because it’s been used as the setting for hundreds of movies. Numerous classic westerns were filmed here – so many that there’s a museum dedicated to them – and you can find maps showing specific filming locations:
Hollywood still uses the area today to approximate all kinds of environments. For example, when you need to create the deserts of war torn Afghanistan but don’t want to send your high priced actors into the middle of an actual war zone:
(I’m pretty sure they didn’t blow up the Alabama Hills, though.)
During cooler months, RVers flock here and camp for free. There are plenty of trails winding through the boulders with impressive views of the mountains.
Since it was pretty toasty during our visit, we just headed over one afternoon to walk the .6 mile Mobius Arch Loop Trail which winds through the rock formations and provides access to a couple natural arches.
It’s a super easy trail with plenty of markers – except for where someone walked off with a couple of them and we suddenly found ourselves unsure if we were still on the trail. I hadn’t bothered to download a map because it’s a half mile trail. I mean, come on. We also hadn’t bothered to bring any water and I was wearing flip flops. So for a split second, I thought, “Great. The blogger who relentlessly mocks people for hiking while unprepared is gonna die of dehydration in the desert a half mile from her car while wearing flip flops. Perfect.”
Fortunately, we found the trail again and my demise will not forever be a punchline, but seriously folks: flip flops and hiking do not mix.
Anyway, here’s the namesake Mobius Arch:
Looking through it, you can see Mount Whitney, which is the tallest mountain in the lower 48.
And, interestingly enough, just a hundred miles southeast of this spot is Badwater Basin at Death Valley National Park – the lowest point in North America. Neat!
Manzanar National Historic Site
For decades before World War II, Anti-Asian sentiment had been on the rise in the western U.S. Soon after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR signed an executive order allowing for the removal of “any or all persons” from the west coast. The U.S. Army applied that order to every person of Japanese ancestry – a number which ended up being 120,000 Japanese, 70,000 of whom were full U.S. citizens.
Americans of Japanese ancestry were rounded up from cities and towns, forcing them to abandon their homes, their businesses, and their communities, and sent to one of 10 military style camps across the country. About 10,000 of them were sent to the camp at Manzanar, located just up the road from the Alabama Hills.
The camp was made up of 36 blocks of residential barracks. Each building was 20 x 100 feet, segmented inside into 20 x 25 foot apartments, each of which was inhabited by families up to 8 people. While there were vertical partitions between the apartments, there were no individual ceilings, so there was no privacy. Bathrooms were communal with no partitions for toilets or showers. Each residential block had a communal mess hall, a laundry, and a recreation hall.
There were hundreds of these barracks laid out in neat rows:
The camp also had a school, an auditorium, a cemetery, a post office, churches, a hospital, an orphanage, and various staff and administrative buildings. Shops, barbers, salons, shoe repair shops, and the like were operated by the internees. Several residents also designed community gardens to make life more palatable.
The entire facility was surrounded by barbed wire fencing and 8 watchtowers manned by armed guards:
Remember that thing in the Fifth Amendment about “Due process”? You know – “No person…shall be denied life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Yeah, that didn’t happen. And when 23 year old Fred Korematsu sued and said “Hey – they’re trying to toss me in jail for no reason and they didn’t even do the thing with the due process!”, the U.S. Supreme Court shrugged and said: “Meh, it’s fine.”
(Narrator: “It was not fine.”)
The Korematsu decision commonly vies with several other boneheaded rulings for the title of “Most Asinine Supreme Court Decision of All Time,” and has been roundly rejected by subsequent courts and the larger federal government. In fact, as recently as 2018, Chief Justice Roberts noted in an opinion that the Korematsu decision was dumb as shit and a complete embarrassment.
OK, he didn’t actually say that.
What he said was:
“The forcible relocation of U. S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of Presidential authority… Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—“has no place in law under the Constitution.”
In other words, dumb as shit and a complete embarrassment.
All of which would be cold comfort for the thousands of American citizens who lost years of their lives, their homes, possessions, and businesses to this shameful, racist policy.
Even more horrifying, 135 of them died while incarcerated at the camp.
(And don’t forget, Manzanar was one of ten camps nationwide. Approximately 1,800 Japanese Americans died in these facilities.)
After the war, the government tore down the camps. Various groups worked to ensure the events would not be forgotten and, eventually, Manzanar was protected by the federal government as a National Historic Site.
There is an auto tour, where visitors can drive around and see the remnants of the buildings (mostly just foundations) as well as a couple re-creations, and read panels about the facilities and life in the camp.
There’s also a visitor’s center that supposedly has a lot of interesting information.
Frustratingly, during our May visit, the visitor’s center was closed. While we understood that Covid was causing many complications for NPS, we had just visited Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and noted their gift shops were open and operating normally. There were plenty of other visitors at Manzanar when we were there and I am sure many of them would have liked to check out the visitor’s center just like we did, but alas, it was not to be. So, we shook our heads, grumbled about ‘misplaced priorities,’ and headed out.
The region surrounding 395 offers a huge array of appealing activities. From trails to film locations to ghost towns to historic sites, you could easily spend months exploring this area and never get bored. We enjoyed checking out some of the restaurants, breweries, and parks in Bishop…
but even a simple drive up the road offered more than enough eye candy to keep us happy.
Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin…
Where we stayed:
Eastern Sierra Tri-County Fairgrounds, Bishop, California
Highlands RV Park, Bishop, California
Boulder Creek RV Resort, Lone Pine, California