Riding the California high desert
Highway 120
Mono Lake to Benton, CA

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I was asked the other day what I thought of Highway 120, the portion from Hwy 395 to Benton. My fellow motorcyclist was obviously quite enthused about the ride and already knew the answer to their own question. Possibly they sought validation for what they felt to be a very enjoyable ride. I replied with a knowing smile. Just dreamy.

So why call attention to just this 46 mile portion of a main highway that stretches nearly across the entire state of California. Well first off, this section of Hwy 120 is nothing like its National Park neighbor to the west. Really sharing only the name in common, completely different terrain, completely different road.

Staring down the 9142 ft Mono Craters

This eastern portion of Hwy 120's run across the state starts off from Hwy 395 and begins a slow ascent to the 8139 ft. Sagehen Summit. (Also worth mentioning is the nearby June Lake Loop - Hwy 158 which is well worth taking the time to ride.)

What most defines Hwy 120 is the high desert in this mountainous region of California. Held frozen in time under the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains- first you'll have to take the term 'desert' and modify it a bit. This is high desert. You'll find yourself riding through sagebrush and wide open expanses- sightlines measured in miles. The high desert isn't so much about endless curves, you can get that elsewhere nearby, rather Hwy 120 is that idea of the open road your cruiser buddy is always raving about.

Making east from Hwy 395, before you sits Mono Craters. To be honest, I didn't notice any big craters, meteor strikes, or smoking volcanos. Yet the term refers to this 9000 ft tall mountian pictured above which borders the southern edge of the ride and dominates the scene overlooking Mono Lake. Despite my lack of attentiveness, the satellite photos clearly show enough craters to make any geology major salivate. To ensure you don't leave without gaining a bit of book knowledge, a sign beside the road about Mono Craters reads:

The Mono Craters are a chain of volcanic mountains. The highest stands 2700 feet above the valley floor. When they began to form late in the Ice Age, this basin was covered by ancient Lake Russell. Mono Lake is a remnant of that lake. Initially in their formation, a series of explosions created high, bowl-shaped cones of pumice (volcanic froth). Later, great domes of obsidian (volcanic glass) arose in the cones. The obsidian usually overflowed the pumice rims and advanced onto the plains as steep-sided jumbles of boulders. These obsidian domes and flows are dominant features of the craters. Pumice, blasted out and carried by the winds, covers many square miles of ancient lake sediments and glacial debries to a depth of several feet.

Hwy 120 also borders along Mono Lake for the first several miles with broad sweeping views of the lake. Access to the shore is found after 5 miles of relaxed wide open road. The turnoff north, Test Station Road, is well-marked although it's gravel to the south shore of the lake. Motorcyclists may need to take it easy as the general composition of the area soil is a sandy one. Heavily rippled from the auto traffic, be sure to go at a slow speed you're comfortable with. A plaque halfway to the lake marks the water level in 1941 when the lake was much higher at the 6417 ft. elevation.

There's also a large E. Clampus Vitus plaque here focusing on the military operations based here at Navy Beach during the early phases of the Cold War. Click to see a 360 Panorama of Navy Beach.

"During the Cold War, Mono County was home to one of many remote facilities used by the US Military to test new weapons and weapons systems. A "secret military installation" operated by the US Navy was located along the south shoreline of Mono Lake. During the 1950s and 1960s several branches of the US Armed Forces ultilized this test facility to conduct various research. Numerous top secret exercises were actually performed here during what was called "Seismic Testing." However with the expansion of other navy bases, growing public safety and environmental concerns this facility soon outgrew its usefulness. In May 1962 all operations ceased and soon thereafter the facility was abandoned. Although many scientists, technicians, soldiers and sailors worked at this installation for many years, all that remains today of their activities are a few remnants and the name "Navy Beach."

Much has been written about Mono Lake, but just in case, here's the basics and why you hear so much about it. Well, even before that, if you are a Clint Eastwood fan, the shores of Mono Lake were used as the set of High Plains Drifter released in 1973. Which may explain why I often felt as though Clint is going to come out of the sagebrush on his high horse at any time. Just thought you might want to know that.

Anyway, water is the topic here. Los Angeles tapped into rivers that fed Mono Lake in the 1940's. In turn, lack of yearly runoff from the Sierra Nevada snowpack caused the lake levels to drop exposing tufa towers which the lake is probably most famous for- especially to photographers. Salinety doubled over the next 40 years and reached three times that of the ocean. No fish survive within its waters yet it's home to 4-6 trillion brine shimp. An ecosystem unto itself, Mono Lake's particular type of brine shrimp (known by the catchy name- Mono Lake Brine Shimp) are about the size of a fingernail and are found nowhere else on the earth. Laws have been put in place to protect this ecosystem. In turn, the lake levels are now rising, albeit slowly and the salinity levels have stabilized. If you notice a lot of birds, there's about 2 million that call Mono Lake home. (see pics below)

It's worth the short detour to ride down to the parking area along the south shore of the lake. For a small fee to the park service, you can walk down to the waters edge and get up close to the tufa towers. Mono Lake is also a favorite with the kayaking set.

Leaving Mono Lake behind, the elevation begins to climb up from the 6400 ft elevation to over 8000 feet. You'd never know it though, even the forests of pine trees the road delves into might come as a surprise. A pine forest in the middle of a desert? Sure enough, although the terrain is so sandy at this elevation, it looked as though they had just recently plowed the drifting sand off the road.

The ghost town of Mono Mills is found here a short distance to the east of the turnoff for Test Station Rd. In 1881 a saw mill was built on the edge of a 12,000 acre tract of jeffery pine along the north and east side of the Mono Craters range to the south of present day Hwy 120. Demand for lumber was so high during the boom days of Bodie (beginning in 1879), a 32 mile long narrow gauge railway was built along the western shore of Mono Lake connecting Bodie with the Mono Saw Mills.

Railroad shops, lumber mills and lodging for the workers was built to enable harvesting the jeffery pines along the hillsides of the Mono Craters range. The railway was extended 4 miles south of Mono Mills, and by December 1881, the saw mill was in full operation capable of processing 80,000 feet of lumber every 10 hours. Old growth pines 6 foot in diameter or more were not uncommon.

Mono Mills was active for 36 years till 1917 when the decline of gold production in Bodie diminished the need for lumber. No other railroad spurs were ever added from the mill although one had been planned to Benton. Work even began with laying the railroad bed for 9 miles to the east, but work ceased and never resumed. Finally, in the Summer of 1918, all the railroad tracks were taken up between Bodie and Mono Mills. The entire railway was then sold for scrap and transported to Benton via trucks over much the same route Hwy 120 covers today. From here they were loaded on rail cars, shipped to San Francsico and transported to Hawaii, the Phillipines and the Orient. Today, not much remains of the saw mill. You can walk the mill site, but little is recognizable. One remaining piece of a bygone era is the railroad bed which can still been seen along the eastern shores of Mono Lake.

Riding at 7000 feet across Big San Flat approaching the Sagehen Summit.

Past the ghost town of Mono Mills, to the north is a wide expansive sandbox, flat and sloping with an sparse stand of pines eeking out a living, appropriately called Big Sand Flat. A few undulating rises appear, although nothing to get airborne on. It's a hint of what's to come but nevertheless great fun. The welcome forest of pines doesn't last and they retreat up the hillsides behind you to the south. Even though the elevation continues to climb, by the time you reach the 8139 ft. Sagehen Summit, it's wide open country as the mountains begin to fade to the west.

One thing that should be mentioned about elevation if you are new to riding this region of California is it equals its own weather pattern. Snow in the middle of summer? Possible. Road closures in winter? Probably. 100 Degree temps? Easy. It is a desert after all. My ride on this fall day was cool 50 degree temps, full gear, and electric vest keeping all the parts working and alert. And not a soul in sight. Just the way I like it.

Sagehen Summit at 8139 ft as you've gathered from the pic is by no means one of jagged mountain peaks and sudden drops in elevation (like the nearby Sonora Pass). Rather, it bears a resemblence to many other mountain passes in this high desert region that are common to the state of Nevada. Stark and barren, with few people, although there is a sign warning of cattle on the road ahead. Highway 50 - The Loneliest Road in America to the north has a very similar feel. There is an actual Sagehen Peak- that resides just to the south of the summit 4 miles away to an elevation just over 9100 ft.

I stopped at the 'summit' and stretched awhile watching the world go by. It was quiet, barren rolling terrain of sagebrush and little more. Without the sign, I'd have probably ridden right on by moseying on down the road. No reason to be out here I thought.

At the summit is Sagehen Meadows Rd, a dirt 4WD road (one of many) making south back into the pine trees to Sagehen Meadows 2.25 miles away. Continuing south, Sage Hen Meadows Rd reaches the peak just 4 miles from Hwy 120. If your motorcycle is dirt-capable- be advised as to the sandy conditions of the soil which can easily be 6 inches deep on the road itself. As aways, conditions will vary by season and bring detailed maps of the region if you venture off-road.

I mounted up and starting off again easterly towards the Nevada state line. The further I went, the more mountain peaks began to define the horizon. The White Mountains are a range that runs along the very border of California and Nevada. White Mountain Peak reaches over 14,246 feet, (the 4th highest in California). One of the highest mountains in the Lower 48 sits right in front of you. You can actually ride on pavement to over 10,000 ft to get close to it via White Mountain Rd- I would do that ride a few hours later. (The Inyo Mountains continue the range southward from Hwy 168 - Westgard Pass.)

Just east of the summit are some rock formations that look like something out of a Star Trek movie. Jean Luc Picard could be having a phaser battle with Malcom Smith at any moment.

Or possibly if you were indeed the geology major in college, you might have to stop and sit a spell. Personally, I took geology in college to avoid chemisty. Didn't work though, several years later, I withered through 2 years of Chemistry and Organic Chemistry. All that book knowledge again.

Similar rock fields are found along the nearby Benton Crossing Road on the southern portion.

Descending off the Sagehen Summit making eastward

Just east of the summit is also the hairpin you can see in the satellite photos below. It's a stretch of ten miles as Hwy 120 begins to descend slow and easy towards the Adobe Valley losing over 1500 feet in the process. The 8800 ft Granite Peak is the most dominant mountain just to the north.

Ten miles east of the summit is a very short-lived canyon as the road finally pushes through and out the other side. That passed by in a flash and back into the flat plains with an occasional curve.

Much of this ride has very little to do with outright strings of curves thrown together. I'd figured that out by now, getting used to the rhythm of the road, the pace, the smoothness of this deserted stretch of pavement. As the road rose and fell across the rolling plains, the sagebrush blurred as I began to hit the halfway point getting closer to Benton.

Ten miles past the summit, Hwy 120 throws out a curve and into the Adobe Valley you go. This long flat (and featureless mind you) valley does actually give you a hint as to what's in store ahead. 'Dips Next 5 Miles' says the sign (pic right). Put dips and desert together and you've got a recipe for some frivolity. The arrow straightness lasts for 10 miles with only a slight bend in the middle.

I won't lie. It's great fun and you may even turn around and ride it back the other way. Same road, completely different ride the opposite direction. There are also a few ranch roads headed across these sagebrush strewn flat valleys. While nary a cow in sight on this particular ride, that may change on your next pass through.

After the dips, a slight bend in the road and then quickly across the remaining 6 mile long straight to the distant ridgeline (satellite pic below). A small lake, Black Lake, resides along the northern edge of the road overlooked by stands of pine trees that cover the hillsides stretching up to the 7785 ft Trafton Peak.

Benton Crossing Rd arrives right before you ride up and over the ridgeline into Benton. This ride is worth taking, with many similarities to this stretch of Hwy 120. Here you can circle around back to Hwy 395. Studying the maps below, it's quickly apparent this can be a great loop, as Benton Crossing Rd will return you right to where you started.

Benton Hot Springs is just 3 miles away to the east of this intersection and the name alone should tell the story. The intersection with Highway 6 is just 3 more miles. Formerly known as Benton Station, this was the final stop on the railroad to reach the saw mill at Mono Mills and other mining towns of the eastern Sierra such as Bodie. Today, there's a small store with gas pumps.

North on Hwy 6 will take you into Nevada. The intersection with Nevada Hwy 360 and the town of Basalt is 18 miles to the north. South on Hwy 6 will take you into the Owens Valley and Bishop. Remember that Bishop (largest town in the region) is another 32 miles to the south, so anytime you venture out into the desert, plan your gas stops accordingly.

Overall this section of Hwy 120 is remote, it's desolate, it's barren, it's simply fantastic. The key to it all was my thought at the summit. You have no reason to be out here. And that alone will be the motivation to ride it.

Pashnit Maps of
Highway 120
- Mono Lake to Benton, CA
Street Map - 3-D Imaging - 3-D Satellite - USGS Map

Getting There: The most eastern portion of Highway 120 fits nicely into its own little box. It's nothing like the nearby Tioga Pass, and is found along the far eastern edge of California. Reach the western end by getting yourself to Mono Lake, and then a few miles south. The eastern end is found in the former silver rush town of Benton along Hwy 6. Benton is 32 miles north of Bishop. The distance between Hwy 395 to Hwy 6 is 46 miles and can easily be ridden in under an hour. Note you could also approach from the south via Benton Crossing Rd.

 

 

3-D Imaging of eastern 46 mile portion of Highway 120

USGS Shaded Relief - Large Format


USGS View - Large Format


Overhead View - Large Format

Put these 12 maps altogether and what do you have. Well, a lot of book knowledge if you will without the gratification of actually riding it.

If anything, the USGS Shaded Relief map gives you an idea of the rippled terrain that make up the high desert regions of eastern California. Note just to the south of this portion of Hwy 120 is Death Valley over 8000 feet below this road. Amazing.

The 3-D computer generated maps give you a clue to this ride up and over this range of mountains known as the Mono Craters which climb to 9172 ft. Mono Lake is dominant for the first portion, through the pines, than into the long straights to Benton. Spring or Fall? This is your road!

Also note that Hwy 120 can make an excellent loop. Especially since it can be approached from all four directions and combined with Benton Crossing Rd (or other outlying highways) to return oneself to their starting point at either end.


Northwest View - Large Format

Easterly View - Large Format

Pashnit Interactive Map
Click Map to explore more California Motorcycle Roads! - Full Screen

3-D Satellite Mapping of Highway 120
Mono Lake to Benton, CA

Southeast View:

The view at right is looking southeasterly across the Adobe Valley. This long straight pictured at center is approximately 6 miles long for scale (of 46). Right before it curves left over the range- Benton Crossing Rd veers south (right).

The White Mountains are clearly visible (picture top) in the background with the White Mountain Peak (top center) rising to 14,246 in the 3-D satellite shot. At very top right is the Owens Valley & Hwy 395.

You can ride to over 10,000 feet along the spine of this range via Highway 168 to see the Whitebark Pines via White Mountain Rd. Worth the detour.

Northeast View:

This satellite photo is looking northeasterly at the highest portion of the ride (looking towards Nevada and pulled back a bit).

The 8136 ft Sagehen Summit is at the center of the photo and smooth hairpin at center is clearly visible in the maps above. At top right is the Adobe Valley and the long straight pictured above. The view is absolutely incredible!

Note Sage Hen Meadow Rd (dirt) is clearly visible heading south towards Sagehen Meadow and the actual Sage Hen Peak.

Lodging

The Old House at Benton Hot Springs Resort - 760-933-2507 - Virtual Panorama

Photography

Click to see a 360 Panorama of Navy Beach

Books on the history of this region

Mining Camp Days, by Emil Billeb (Search Amazon)

Nearby Motorcycle Roads - Where to next?!!

Northbound: Ride Hwy 6 into Nevada, or Hwy 395 towards Bridgeport and don't miss Bodie SHP. Just north of Bridgport- Hwy 108, Monitor Pass & Hwy 4.
Southbound: Lower Rock Creek Rd (western side) or Benton Crossing Rd (eastern side)
Eastbound: Got a hankering for Nevada? Try the Extraterrestrial Hwy into Rachel, Nevada and Area 51. Zion National Park really isn't all that far away.
Westbound: June Lake Loop is practically across Hwy 395. Can also continue west on Hwy 120 Tioga Pass into Yosemite NP or any of the Sierra Nevada Passes for that matter.

 


Link to see more of Google Earth Interactive Maps

 

Additional Photography of Hwy 120 from Pashnites.

 

 

 

 

Additional Photography by Michael Maloney
To see more, visit Mike's website...

Tuffa Towers along south shore of Mono Lake. These are easily accessible via Test Station Rd (well-marked) from Hwy 120. Ride to a parking area on the south shore of the lake, then a short walking path to the lake will allow you to get up close.

 

Mono Lake is home to the second largest California Gull rookery in North America (Great Salt Lake is the largest). This California gull was comical to watch, running along the shoreline with beak open catching as many alkali flies as it could.

 

Viewpoint on Hwy 395 looking south at Mono Lake. Hwy 120 runs along the south side of the lake.
The Mono Craters range is visible at top left. Lee Vining is seen on the west side (right) of Mono Lake.

 

 


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