Manzanar: A Historic Landmark Along Highway 395

Located against the Sierra Nevada mountains, Manzanar is a reminder of an unjust chapter in American history that must not be forgotten. Located near Lone Pine, California, just off Highway 395, Manzanar was one of ten concentration camps where over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly incarcerated during World War II. When my two brothers and I visited this site, it was an emotional one as we witnessed the living conditions faced during this historic time. Keep reading for travel tips as well as footage from our visit.

Watch my virtual tour of Manzanar below:

Manzanar History

Photo by my brother Steven Buena

After the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Manzanar, which opened in 1942, held more than 10,000 people at its peak, making it one of the largest camps.

Life within the confines of Manzanar was marked by hardship and injustice, yet amidst adversity, the community persevered. Residents established schools, cultivated gardens, and created art, defiantly asserting their humanity in the face of discrimination.

In the years following the war, Manzanar became a symbol of resilience and a site for remembrance and education. In 1992, it was designated a National Historic Site, ensuring that the stories of those who endured its confines would not be forgotten.

Today, visitors to Manzanar can explore its grounds, visit the onsite museum, and reflect upon a dark period in American history. As we honor the past, may we also strive to learn from it, ensuring that such injustices are never repeated.

A model outlining the bunkers of Manzanar

Travel Tips 

- Plan your visit ahead of time: Check the operating hours and any special events or closures before heading to Manzanar. We actually stopped by the Bishop, CA Visitor's Center, and Anna at the front desk told us Manzanar was free of renovations and it was open for us to check out. 

- Visit the visitor center: Start your visit at the visitor center to pick up maps, brochures, and additional information about Manzanar. There's a museum inside and you can walk around and get a feel for what to expect before visiting the various bunkers. My brother Sean ended up buying a T-shirt. Like every National Park Viaitor Center, this one had merchandise including books, hats, tea pots, shirts, and more.

- Dress appropriately: Wear comfortable shoes and clothing suitable for walking outdoors, as much of the site is open air. When we visited, it was extremely windy during the last week of March and snow covered the mountains in the background. Make sure to wear layers. (I wore a long-sleeved shirt, two hoodies, and a windbreaker).

- Bring water and snacks: There are limited facilities on-site, so it's advisable to bring your own refreshments. Note, a lot of the restaurants in the area close around 5:30pm, so keep that in mind. We ended up going back to Bishop, CA and found a restaurant that closed later in the day. 

- Take your time: Allocate sufficient time to explore the grounds, visit the museum, and reflect on the exhibits. My brothers and I spent about an hour exploring the location and it ended up getting too late to visit Alabama Hills. We also did the auto-tour and visited the pond, the orchards, and the cemetery. 

- Respect the site: Manzanar is a place of historical significance and remembrance, so be mindful of your behavior and surroundings. 

- Engage with the exhibits: Take advantage of informational signage and audio guides to gain a deeper understanding of the site's history.

- Capture memories responsibly: Photography is permitted, but be respectful of the solemnity of the location and refrain from inappropriate poses or behavior.

- Attend ranger-led programs: Check the schedule for guided tours or talks led by park rangers, which offer valuable insights into the site's history.

- Reflect and pay homage: Take a moment to honor the resilience of the Japanese American community and reflect on the injustices they faced during their internment.

Sign Transcribed: "Visiting the Site"

"Congress established Manzanar National Historic Site on March 3, 1992. This one square mile of land is layered with several distinct eras of human history. It is a tangible place to explore intangible concepts such as power and subjugation, love and hate, loyalty and disloyalty, justice and injustice.

We invite you to explore Manzanar. Walk the historic road grid, see concrete slabs and rock alignments, visit the orchards and Japanese gardens, and spend a quiet moment at the cemetery monument."

A self-guiding 3.2-mile loop road is open from sunrise to sunset daily.

You are welcome to park at the side of the tour road to explore the site on foot.

Highlights include: 
  • Fire station 
  • Block 14 buildings & exhibits 
  • Baseball field 
  • Shepherd Ranch site 
  • Merritt Park, Arai pond, and other Japanese gardens 
  • Hospital site 
  • Cemetery and monument 
  • Administration area 
  • Senty posts 

Thank you for helping to preserve and protect Manzanar. 
  • Drive only on the tour road
  • No hunting or camping 
  • Dogs must be on a leash 
  • Do not collect or disturb anything

Sign transcribed:

"Throughout human history, water drew people to this arid land in the shadow of Mt. Williamson. 

It's complex history - from the 1860s battles between Paiutes and the US Army to the unconstitutional incarceration of 11,070 Japanese Americans here during WWII. Yet it is also testimony to human determination to survive and make the best of hard times. 

It is relevant history. Paiutes and descendants of homesteaders, ranchers, and farmers still live in this valley. Some Japanese Americans lead a pilgrimage here every year on the last Saturday of April. 

This cultural landscape chronicles the history of the settlement and displacement of three distinct populations by more powerful groups. 

The Town of Manzanar

In 1905, John Shepherd sold his ranch to Charles Chaffey. In 1910, Charles and his brother George formed the Owens Valley Improvement Company. They subdivided the land and built a concrete pipe system to gravity-flow water from Shepherd Creek to irrigate new fruit orchards. By 1921, more than 20,000 apple and pear trees filled this vista. some of these historic trees remain.

Locals named the town "Manzanar"-Spanish for apple orchard. A store, gas station, and school once stood just north of here. to serve the town's 200 residents. The orchard business did not deliver on the marketing promise of "Fortunes in Apples." In the 1920s, the City of Los Angeles began purchasing land and water rights at Manzanar. Some farmers sold willingly. others under pressure. Since 1913. the city has been sending plentiful snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada down the Los Angeles aqueduct to the burgeoning metropolis.

The last resident. a poultry farmer. moved away in 1935. On October 6, 1941, at the request of the City of Los Angeles, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors declared the town abandoned."

It was interesting to learn that Japanese Americans were taken from their businesses, farms, and homes and then forced to live in one-room shacks. 

The racist sign reflects the sentiments of the time.

Women's area with no privacy whatsoever

Manzanar Mess Hall

Manzanar cemetery

Here are more photos my brother took: 

Photo by Steven Buena

Photo by Steven Buena

Photo by Steven Buena

Overall, we would recommend this location as it's a living time capsule. Again, be respectful when visiting. 

For more information, visit the official site. 

Location address: Manzanar National Historic Site, 5001 US-395 S, Lone Pine, CA 

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