The land to the northwest is flat and huge, a desert in full, a place to flush Las Vegas from the mind. The billboards disappear, the sirens, the stoplights. Half an hour past Beatty on U.S. 95, you reach the Lida Junction. It is marked only by a small sign and a lone white building. Turn left onto Route 266 and the traffic disappears altogether. Now grip the wheel a bit tighter, because this road points straight to the heart of nowhere. The radio starts to kick out static. The Range Rover’s speedometer inches past 80.
As the 266 slides past Palmetto Mountain, the landscape turns greener and becomes flecked with snow. You pass over 7,400-foot Lida Summit and glimpse the white-tipped Sierra Nevadas in the distance, nearly translucent in the clean afternoon light. Where are you? Who cares? There is nothing but the road and the view. Just past the summit, you’ll pass the ruins of an old mining colony called Palmetto. There’s not much left except several stone foundations that rise in tiers on an embankment, fortress-like, and the stone ruins of a single house, nestled in thick brush a few hundred feet off the road. The house’s two end walls come together to form a vaulted ceiling, but there is no roof. It’s breathtakingly quiet. There’s the earthy smell of juniper and pine. There is all the space for your mind to wander in, all the air in the world to breathe. When a stray car comes by, you hear it for a mile, a low gentle rumbling like a plane.
The 266 undulates through the mountains and, at the border with California, rolls down into a long crease in the landscape called Fish Lake Valley. It’s a ghost valley marked by irrigated green fields, a small house guarded by a grove of trees, and not much else. Veer left onto California state Route 168, which will take you up a series of hairpin switchbacks. It’s the first real workout for the Range Rover, which bites into the sharp curves without losing control. Still, watch yourself through here, as there are a few falloffs that you don’t want to find yourself at the bottom of.
The road tops a pass, then corkscrews down into Deep Springs Valley, the most arresting view on the whole trip. The bowl-shaped basin is a beguiling place, a mysterious and almost primordial space surrounded by mountains. At the far end of the valley is a mostly dry lake, which shines in the afternoon light. There’s also, improbably, Deep Springs College, an all-male school located on an alfalfa farm and cattle ranch. But damned if I can find it. From the single road knifing through the valley, there’s little to see but a lone house; beyond it, copper-colored cattle dot the arid land.
The sun pushes toward the horizon, and as you come out of the valley, the road squeezes through a tight canyon of dark, jagged rocks. Then the canyon opens up into a spirited winding road through the Inyo National Forest. It is the most satisfying passage to drive, a seamless blend of medium-length curves and short straightaways, the kind of road that you want to just own. It’s a stretch made for the Range Rover.
The route has one more surprise: the two-lane road squeezes down to a single lane as it threads through a tiny canyon, a stretch you enter blind. Even though you haven’t seen a car for 20 minutes, you better take it slow through the tight pass, which might allow two cars at once. Maybe.
Come out the other side and it’s a long, brisk charge to the Westgard Pass, and then the final, triumphal descent to U.S. Highway 395. The SUV gallops through the dips in the road like a stallion. If you’re lucky, you’ll reach the floor of the Owens Valley at sunset, when the High Sierras have turned a hushed purple.
From here, push on for a fast 20 minutes to get to Bishop or keep going 20 minutes more to the classy, low-key ski resort at Mammoth Lake. In Bishop, the locals like the ride. “Hey, I want your Range Rover,” shouts a teenage girl. (Yeah, me too.) The clerk at the motel also compliments the wheels.
I try to return the favor the next morning, telling a bookstore employee how much I like Bishop, this small town surrounded by the green fields of the Owens Valley, nestled between the White Mountains and the Sierras.
“It’s a little isolated,” she says with a shrug.
The Place: Owens Valley, Calif., home of Bishop and Mammoth Lakes.
The Way: 95 north past Beatty to Lida Junction. Take Route 266 west to Route 168, then head west to U.S. 395. North on 395.
The Wheels: 2008 Range Rover HSE with Luxury Package, $51,000, courtesy of Land Rover Las Vegas. It’s the prince of SUVs, with its upright bearing, that handsome sans-serif lettering on the lip of the hood, the ruthlessly stern rectangular side vents.
The Sound: Radio reception was spotty, and a classic rock station was the best bet. But it was appropriate to hear a little Hendrix “Castles Made of Sand.” The Eats: If you make it to Bishop, stop in for a hearty breakfast at Jack’s Restaurant and Bakery (437 N. Main St.). The décor inside alludes to the town’s rich fishing heritage—and gives the place its character. Have a cup of joe and buy a book at Spellbinder Books & Coffee (124 S. Main St.).
The Lodging: In Bishop, the Comfort Inn is reasonably priced and has free Wi-Fi. (805 N. Main St., 760-873-4284). In Mammoth, try the Best Western Plus (3228 Main St., 760-924-1234), which has an indoor pool and free breakfast.
While You’re at It: If you stay in scenic Mammoth Lakes, you can hop a bus from the base of the ski resort to nearby Devils Postpile National Monument, a 60-foot high cliff of columnar basalt—arrayed like a giant vertical stack of pencils. A few miles away is the 101-foot Rainbow Falls. Or, near the end of 168, you’ll pass through the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, part of Inyo National Forest. A short detour will bring you to the Methuselah Tree, which is more than 4,600 years old.