Manzanar National Historic Site

The area around the Manzanar National Historic Site makes for great motorcycle riding, but it also serves as a reminder of what misguided politicians can do.

Manzanar National Historic Site

US 395 leading into the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Photo by Joe Berk

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What: Manzanar National Historic Site, 5001 Highway 395, Independence, CA, 93526, (760) 878-2194. The only National Historic Site dedicated to preserving the heritage of the 10 World War II U.S. War Relocation Centers. Entry is free.
How to Get There:
Take SR 14 from Los Angeles, California, until it runs into US 395 and continue north. From points north, grab US 395 south.
Best Kept Secret:
Don’t miss the Cottonwood charcoal kilns just a few miles south of Manzanar (watch for the signs on US 395), and Amigos Mexican Restaurant in Bishop (you can’t go wrong with anything on their comprehensive menu). There’s a lot of unusual metal artwork out in the Mojave Desert; keep an eye open on the western side of US 395 south of Manzanar.
Not visiting Manzanar; it adds a sense of perspective as to what well-intentioned but misguided politicians can visit upon us. Check the weather before visiting; Manzanar occasionally sees snow. Bring plenty of water and stay hydrated; it was 104 F the day I visited.
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The Manzanar National Historic Site is situated on US 395 between Lone Pine and Independence, California, on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Roughly 230 miles north of Los Angeles, it’s a scenic eastern Sierra ride in a stunning setting, but the word I find most appropriate in describing Manzanar is “disturbing.” Oh, the area is beautiful, the weather is usually very nice, and the place itself (as well as the surrounding regions) makes for a great  motorcycle ride. The fact that such a place as Manzanar came to be in our country, though, is nearly unfathomable.

Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, fear swept the U.S. The result was Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Effectively brushing aside the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it led to the creation of a series of 10 concentration camps that imprisoned U.S. citizens of Japanese descent from California, Oregon and Washington. Manzanar was the first of these camps. All of the camps were shut down and eliminated when the war ended, but Manzanar (the most controversial) rose again as the Manzanar National Historic site.

Manzanar was exactly 1 mile square and it held over 10,000 people. Initial conditions were primitive, but the Japanese-American internees added gardens, waterfalls and other touches designed to make an unjust imprisonment slightly less intolerable. The current National Historic Site includes two barracks, one configured as they existed at the start of the internment, and another showing how the residents improved their conditions. There’s a self-guided auto tour that goes all the way to the Manzanar cemetery on the site’s western edge. The road through the camp is hard pack dirt and it is easily negotiated on a motorcycle. There’s also a new museum with impressive exhibits and a free 22-minute movie describing the Manzanar War Relocation Center (the term the U.S. government used for the place during World War II).

Manzanar should be on your short list of places to visit for several reasons. The historical aspects are one reason; the other is that the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains along US 395 offer dazzling scenery. Think snow-capped mountains, vivid blue skies, and dramatic desert vistas. You could make the round trip from LA to Manzanar in a single long day, but my advice is to make a weekend of it. There’s much to see and do in this region. There’s the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine (well worth a stop). The Cottonwood charcoal kilns are tucked away south of Manzanar about a mile east of US 395. The dirt road leading to the kilns is soft sand, but it’s doable on a motorcycle and the photo ops are amazing. Bishop is another 48 miles north on US 395: The Galen Rowell Mountain Light Gallery is a “must see” stop and there are amazing restaurants in Bishop. — Joe Berk