Rides & Destinations: 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.

| September/October 2016

  • US 395 leading into the Manzanar National Historic Site.
    Photo by Joe Berk
  • Inside the restored barracks at Manzanar, as they existed at the start of the internment.
    Photo by Joe Berk

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.
Avoid:
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.
More Info

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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

RickC
9/27/2018 2:21:37 AM

In the late '80s and early '90s, I tried to spend as much time fishing and camping in the Eastern Sierra each summer as practical, which meant several trips up and down Hwy 395. Usually the idea was to get from here to there as quickly as possible. Sightseeing was something to do once I got "there" instead of along the way. However, a friend told me how she and her late husband had traveled that same highway more than a few times, and he'd made it a point to stop at every historical marker along the way. That sounded like a challenge, so I slowed down a little, and got all of the markers on the northbound side one summer, then started on the southbound sites. Manzanar was my last stop that summer. It was actually early Fall, about a week or so before trout season closed near the end of October. The weather was still nice and warm, Indian summer style. I pulled off at Manzanar after the sun had sunk below the mountains to the west, but there was still an hour of good light left. At the time, there was no museum yet, and the stone guard shacks were the only buildings left where I was. Further south, Inyo County had a big Quonset hut for housing their equipment. According to one of the locals I talked to some time later, that hut was the original gymnasium at the camp. There was a light breeze blowing, and I was the only one anywhere around. I read quite a few of the inscriptions former internees had written on the walls in visits over the years, and got a strange uneasy feeling I've never felt anywhere else. Perhaps that was because I've known a handful of people who actually were interred in a couple of the camps and here I was standing exactly where many 1000s had suffered the same fate. Most were pretty small kids at the time. Or maybe it was because a couple of friends who weren't born until after the war, had parents or relatives who'd been interred, and both of their Dads served in the famed all Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most highly decorated units in WWII. One was from Hawaii, the other from the mainland. The one from Hawaii was with the 100th Infantry Battalion, the guys who rescued the "Lost Battalion" of Texans who'd been surrounded by the Germans and pinned down for a number of days. Their story is told in the 1951 movie, "Go For Broke" which took its name from the 442nd's unit motto. it's worth finding if you can. That breeze was still blowing as I walked back out of one of the shacks, maybe a tiny bit stronger than a half hour earlier. I've heard people talking about voices on the wind throughout my life, and always thought they were telling an apocryphal story. But that evening, I truly believe I did hear those voices on the wind! It was a very introspective trip the rest of the way home. And that stop was certainly one I'll never forget. Rick C


RickC
9/27/2018 2:21:35 AM

In the late '80s and early '90s, I tried to spend as much time fishing and camping in the Eastern Sierra each summer as practical, which meant several trips up and down Hwy 395. Usually the idea was to get from here to there as quickly as possible. Sightseeing was something to do once I got "there" instead of along the way. However, a friend told me how she and her late husband had traveled that same highway more than a few times, and he'd made it a point to stop at every historical marker along the way. That sounded like a challenge, so I slowed down a little, and got all of the markers on the northbound side one summer, then started on the southbound sites. Manzanar was my last stop that summer. It was actually early Fall, about a week or so before trout season closed near the end of October. The weather was still nice and warm, Indian summer style. I pulled off at Manzanar after the sun had sunk below the mountains to the west, but there was still an hour of good light left. At the time, there was no museum yet, and the stone guard shacks were the only buildings left where I was. Further south, Inyo County had a big Quonset hut for housing their equipment. According to one of the locals I talked to some time later, that hut was the original gymnasium at the camp. There was a light breeze blowing, and I was the only one anywhere around. I read quite a few of the inscriptions former internees had written on the walls in visits over the years, and got a strange uneasy feeling I've never felt anywhere else. Perhaps that was because I've known a handful of people who actually were interred in a couple of the camps and here I was standing exactly where many 1000s had suffered the same fate. Most were pretty small kids at the time. Or maybe it was because a couple of friends who weren't born until after the war, had parents or relatives who'd been interred, and both of their Dads served in the famed all Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most highly decorated units in WWII. One was from Hawaii, the other from the mainland. The one from Hawaii was with the 100th Infantry Battalion, the guys who rescued the "Lost Battalion" of Texans who'd been surrounded by the Germans and pinned down for a number of days. Their story is told in the 1951 movie, "Go For Broke" which took its name from the 442nd's unit motto. it's worth finding if you can. That breeze was still blowing as I walked back out of one of the shacks, maybe a tiny bit stronger than a half hour earlier. I've heard people talking about voices on the wind throughout my life, and always thought they were telling an apocryphal story. But that evening, I truly believe I did hear those voices on the wind! It was a very introspective trip the rest of the way home. And that stop was certainly one I'll never forget. Rick C




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