The Eastern Sierra provides a lifetime of places to hike. The terrain ranges from very challenging to a mellow walk in the woods and extends for nearly 250 miles along the great eastern escarpment of the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains. The only limits are the blue sky above and your time and energy.
Our journey starts in the southern end of the Pacific Crest at Horseshoe Meadow and continues north to Mammoth and June Lake. The hiking trails go from moderate to difficult, short to long, and ones that are easily accessible, through an astounding array of flora, fauna, geology and eco-zones. Permits are required for overnight camping on all these trails, and many have quotas. It is best to start early in the morning to beat the heat and find a place to park.
1. Horseshoe Meadow: It’s about 25 miles/40 minute drive from Lone Pine off the road that goes to Mt. Whitney. This is the first entrance into the southern High Sierra on a paved road that goes up to 10,000 feet on the border of the Golden Trout Wilderness. First-time visitors often find the road a little intimidating, but the views out to the Panamint and Death Valley ranges are incredible. Horseshoe Meadow is home to the beautiful and cartoon-like Golden Trout. The Cottonwood Lakes are their spawning grounds and closely watched by Fish and Game. An old ranger said there are monster Goldens in Wallace Lake more than 20 inches long. The first two miles on any trail out of the parking areas are flat and nice for the casual walker. After that everything climbs up to the passes and over the hill to the vast Kern River plateau. This area is very sandy with nice Foxtail, Lodgepole and Limber Pine forests. The smart Whitney hikers camp here to acclimate for their climb the following day. Horseshoe Meadow has small walk-in campgrounds and a 10-unit equestrian camp.
2. Onion Valley: Accessed by a steep road 15 miles from the quaint little town of Independence, this is one of those places where you hope you don’t lose your brakes. Like a lot of the roads that go into the Eastern Sierra, this one was built for mining the Kearsarge claim, and gives the pass its name. Onion Valley trailhead is a superb little area with a meadow, stream and small campground at the base of the mountains. The trails that leave out of there are moderate to difficult and gain elevation rapidly. Excellent views are afforded of the Inyo Mountains across the valley to the east. Kearsarge Pass is up at 12,000 feet and leads into the southern end of Kings Canyon National Park. One of the downfalls of hiking with dogs up to the crest is that wherever the boundary enters a national park, no dogs are allowed.
3. Taboose Pass: This is a different type of hike that is difficult and harder to access off of a rocky, dirt road. The trailhead is about 5 miles from Hwy 395 and not high off the Owens Valley floor. In summer it gets very hot, and it is unwise to start hiking after 10 a.m. It takes a full two miles of walking out on the open slope in soft sand before reaching the first creek crossing to cool off. From there the trail really begins to climb and is a little more hospitable. Still, it is eight long miles to the Pass and a strenuous hike. Some people like that though, because it weeds out the faint at heart and makes for more of a wilderness-type experience. On top of Taboose Pass are the remains of thousands of pieces of obsidian, brought there by native hunters over thousands of years, as they traversed the mountains and trade routes. This trail leads into the eastern side of Kings Canyon National Park and is very remote. It’s the kind of place you can go for three days without seeing anyone.
4. Big Pine Canyon: The road from Big Pine makes a long, straight, 12-mile climb up through desert scrub into gentle Jeffrey Pines past some small campgrounds to the trailhead. Moderate to strenuous trails go from there to places like the Palisade Glacier-Norman Clyde country. Another trail goes up the north fork of Big Pine Creek past the Lon Cheney cabin. There are no trails going over the crest from this canyon. The famous actor, Lon Cheney, loved the mountains so much that he built a comfortable cabin along the creek. It is still there in perfect condition. Norman Clyde was an early day mountaineer and climber. He was the guy who carried a 90 pound pack with books, extra boots, steel frying pan and who knows what else. I met one of his hiking buddies at the Big Pine post office in 1997, who was 92 at the time. He said to me, “Do you know sonny how I lived so long and stayed in good shape?” “No sir,” I replied. He said, “It’s because I hiked these here mountains all my life, drank the pure water and ate the nutritious little trout.”
5. North Lake: Approximately 14 miles from Bishop via a section of narrow, steep dirt road is the charming North Lake. This area is popular for fishing and hiking, and it has an old style campground with no pavement and small, spring-fed steams running through it. Several trails take off from the parking area to Lamarck Lakes and Paiute Pass that goes to a sweet spot called Grassy Lake. Like most other meadow areas in the Eastern Sierra, Grassy Lake was once heavily grazed by sheep, and the damage is still evident 120 years later. The old trails that the stockmen used are still there. Many people love to take their kids up to Grassy and go fishing. Laughter is often heard across the lake, as families have the time of their lives. It just doesn’t get much better on a pleasant summer’s day than this place.
6. Pine Creek: From the turnoff to Rovana, it’s less than 10 miles to the semi-primitive trailhead. All that is there is a pack station owned and operated by Brain and Danika Berner. Twenty-five years ago, it was a nauseating experience to hike up from Pine Creek, because of the toxic, sulphur-like fumes that emanated from the Union Carbide mine and mill. They were mining Tungsten, a steel hardener that helped to win the war in WWII. Those mining days are over, and now it is just the sweet smell of the pines, cottonwoods and aspens that fill the rarefied air. This area and its trails, like the one that goes to Gable Lakes, are some of the most rugged, steep and intensely beautiful as any in the entire Sierra. This is not a place where you can take off cross country and expect to survive. Main trails go over Pine Creek Pass and Italy Pass into some righteous forest service backcountry in the John Muir Wilderness. Granite Park has crystal streams with white sandy bottoms, and manicured meadows loaded with multi-colored flowers.
7. Rock Creek: If you want to experience what it was like to be in the Old West, this is it. From the old cowboy trails to the groves of Basque sheepherder tree carvings, Rock Creek has it all. Within 10 miles from Hwy 395 are numerous huge campgrounds along the creek, picnic areas, trails, two lodges, lakes and everything a visitor could desire, while still retaining its rustic character. What most first-time visitors to the area do not know is that the side canyons and basins are just as nice, if not better. One of the best places to have a true wilderness experience is up on the Tamarack Bench, where the trail starts at Lower Corral or Rock Creek Lake. Up on the Bench it’s like being at a nice, white, granitic sandy beach with Lodgepole trees. There are several lakes, many ponds and spring fed streams to choose from in this one side canyon that extends for five miles, until it boxes out.
The most popular area that the mule packers go to is the Hilton-Davis Lake area. One can easily see why upon entering that basin, because it is unique indeed. Within the thickly forested paradise are small meadows and springs where the sheepherders first came to the Eastern Sierra in the 1880s. Everyone is headed for the lakes, but the real adventure starts off the trail.
8. Sherwin-Valentine Trail: This trail begins off the Sherwin Creek Road near the town of Mammoth Lakes and is about four miles from Hwy 395. A lot of Locals use these trails, especially the Sherwin Lake trail, because it is close to town. Sherwin Lake is a good climb up many switchbacks and takes about an hour. The trail continues another few miles to Valentine Lake, passing through a fabulous flat sandy area with huge ancient Juniper trees. There is a spring off the trail that is powder blue in color with the most pure water bubbling up out of it. Lots of families go up to Sherwin Lake.
9. Red’s Meadow: No trip to the Eastern Sierra would be complete without a visit to Red’s Meadow near Mammoth Lakes. Hwy 203 goes through the town of Mammoth and up to the ski area, eight miles away. From there shuttle buses run over Minaret Vista down into the valley of Red’s Meadow. Many choice hikes are found along the route from Agnew Meadow and Shadow Lake to Minaret Lake and Devil’s Postpile/Red’s Meadow. A very mellow trail goes from Red’s Meadow down about a mile in the soft, blinding white pumice to Rainbow Falls. This is a beautiful jaunt along the San Joaquin River in the thick of the Red Fir forest. Rainbow Falls is a wonder, and photographers love to get a photo with a rainbow in it, hence the name. Most people don’t venture beyond this spot, but the Locals go down another half mile to a favorite swimming hole at Lower Falls that has high dives off the basalt cliffs. Take a swim mask to see some awesome trout.
10. Gem Lake: A very interesting trail takes off from Silver Lake in the June Lake Loop called the Gem Lake Trail and goes up to some reservoirs made by the power company many years ago. The historic tram that ran up the steep slope to service the facilities at Agnew and Gem Lake is still in use. It passes through a granite cliff area called Angel’s Flight. This country is radical and dangerous off the trail and has a stark look to it, with mostly slate and shale rock. Back in the 1930s, all the top movie stars such as Clark Gable, would pack up to Gem Lake to go hunting and fishing. They had cabins on the lake at a place called Little Hollywood, complete with a Chinese cook, who liked to cuss a lot.
The Eastern Sierra is filled with many first rate hikes, including all the other trails not mentioned. Inyo means the dwelling place of the Great Spirit, and I think a little bit of that feeling rubs off on all those who visit here to hike these mountains and deserts. So long partners and come again to the wonderful Eastern Sierra along Hwy 395.