U.S. 395, the California Highway Least Traveled—and Its Most Epic


California is a really long state. In the north-south direction, drivers traditionally traverse the state on either U.S. 101 or Interstate 5. Highway 101 is more picturesque, going through seaside towns and redwood forests and boasting gorgeous coastal scenery and mild weather. It’s also slower. Travelers wanting to make haste take I-5, but south past Redding the penalty is long, boring stretches of flat valleys, farmland and orchards that go on forever.

My wife and I have made the drive from Seattle to Los Angeles (and back) several times to visit family, and each time we’ve taken one of these two routes. Early this month, we drove to L.A. on I-5 in three days over 1,200 miles, not a pace we particularly like. For the trip home, we decided to change things around and take our time on the overlooked easternmost route astride the Sierra Nevada Mountains on U.S. 395. We’d view it as a road trip instead of a way home. Maybe drivers avoid this highway because it crosses desert environments with very few towns along the way. Never before have we taken this way home, previously only having gone as far north as Mammoth Mountain to ski when we lived in L.A. many years ago.

This post is about the drive home, an eye-opener for me that made me rethink future road trips to and from Southern California. There are no big California cities on 395. Reno in Nevada comes closest. It’s an epic drive that the Sierra Nevadas dominate, but also skirts the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater Basin) points in the continental U.S. We drove nearly the entire length of Highway 395 through California, from Victorville in Riverside County in the south to Susanville close to the Oregon state line, including the brief portion into Nevada, a drive of 500 miles.

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