Ten Best Places to Visit in the Eastern Sierra

If there is any one truism about the Eastern Sierra and the Sierra Nevada Mountains is that it is all good.  It matters not where you go as long as you penetrate as far as you care to venture.  And if you stay long enough, you just might experience what it is like to be in heaven on earth.

The Eastern Sierra and its HWY 395 corridor are protected from the onslaught of development by mountains and deserts.  The City of Los Angeles owns all the land with water on it and the rest is public land.  It is still possible to get as far away from civilization and other people as anyone could ever desire.

This journey through time follows a route on HWY 395 from the dry Owens Lake through the deepest valley and onto the volcanic plateaus in Mammoth and beyond. It is the same journey that Paiute people took thousands of years ago.  It is the route used by pioneer stockmen and the huge, twenty mule freight teams of yesteryear.

When visitors come to the Eastern Sierra from foreign countries, they have a circuit they go on that begins in Death Valley, followed by Mt. Whitney Portal (Little Yosemite), Mammoth Lakes, Mono Lake and Yosemite. That only covers half of the places to visit, and the other places featured in this article will be everything interesting in between.

So here we go and let’s start down in good old Death Valley. I liked that old desert rat, Death Valley Scotty, so much that I named my dog Windy in honor of his beloved dog buried at the castle.

1.  Death Valley:   It gets unbelievably hot and windy in the valley creating all sorts of unique habitats for animals, plants and people.  The native people knew every water source and grew gourds in some of the cooler canyons.  When the pioneers going through the valley discovered and removed them to eat, it created hostilities with the Indians who relied on the gourds to survive.

It is not uncommon for Death Valley to get up to 140 degrees on the pavement in summer, and the hottest temperature recorded to date was 134 degrees on 9-14-2012.  In winter things can get brutal in the other extreme with snow blowing sideways and a bitter wind chill that could cause a person to perish quickly without cover.

It is a nice, colorful drive through the valley no matter which way you enter.  When the wind isn’t blowing it is great fun to walk on the sand dunes. Sometimes there are astounding wildflower displays after wet winters, although rare.

2.  Panamint Valley:  Since we are so close to Death Valley, let’s head over to Panamint.  The northern end of Panamint Valley lies in Death Valley National Park and is 65 miles long by 10 miles wide.  It is a classic endorheic basin with a salt flat and a huge ephemeral lake. These are basins from which no water has flowed out since the Pleistocene.

Panamint is another good study in desert culture.  Archaeologists have determined that in such difficult desert environments as Panamint, there was only one person for every 30 square miles.  That begins to describe what life was like for people trying to survive off hunting and gathering in a place where animals struggle to live.

The other lure of Panamint is its famous ghost towns like Ballarat and Panamint City. The old teamster, Remi Nadeau, hauled just about everything to those mines with his 20 mule teams.

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3. Mt. Whitney:  After the hot desert regions it is time to cruise over to HWY 395 and head north past the dry Owens Lake to Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney, or Little Yosemite, as the locals call it.

It seems that all the foreign visitors who go to Whitney Portal end up in Yosemite Valley.

This highest mountain in the Lower 48 is splendid indeed.  It has become so popular that reservations to climb overnight must be made way in advance.  It is also a “pack out your poop” zone.

The huge granite faces, waterfalls and majesty of the place give that feeling of  being in a magical setting.

Talk to the folks at the store to hear all the latest tales of bear scares and mountain adventure.

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  1.  Big Pine:  From Whitney Portal our route continues at the base of the Sierra Crest past the Inyo County seat at Independence to the little town of Big Pine.

Big Pine is a gateway town.  A road climbs high up into the Sierra past sleepy campgrounds to where Glacier Lodge used to be.  Trails take off in all directions including to the actor, Lon Cheney’s, cabin.

The main attraction is across the valley to the east where the Bristlecone Pine Forest is.  It is a truly incredible experience to stand beside trees that are up to 4,500 years old.  There are dead trees lying on the ground at higher elevations that lived much older.

A great scenic road winds its way up to the Visitor Center at Schulman Grove past picnic areas and Grandview Campground.

The road continues along the ridge of the White Mountains 20 miles to Barcroft High Altitude Research Station.  This is the last stop to climb White Mountain Peak at 14,252 feet.

 

  1. Bishop:  This is the central town in the OwensValley where ranchers and farmers have been coming to from distant outlying areas since the 1860s.

Bishop has a history right out of the old west, and in fact, many Hollywood scripts for westerns were influenced by what happened in the valley.

The cavalry fought the Paiute Indians up and down the OwensValley and had a battle on Bishop Creek in 1862.  For two years the white settlers and ranchers had to vacate the OwensValley during the height of hostilities.

Once a land of vast fields of green, now only stumps and old Tuff rock foundations reveal a past where water for Los Angeles became more important than farming in the valley.

Bishop is a recreational and sportsman’s paradise.  The mountains are huge and hide incredible, lush meadows, streams and lakes. The Volcanic Tableland, ten miles north of Bishop, has unique archaeological sites along the Owens River beneath the Chalk Bluffs.

Bishop is also the home to Mule Days and is a Mecca for rock climbers.

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  1. Rock Creek:  After Bishop we head up the Sherwin Grade toward Crowley Lake and Mammoth.  At the top of the grade is Toms Place, a historic stop since 1917 and the entrance to a fabulous area called Rock Creek Canyon.

This region is the apex of everything good that the Eastern Sierra has to offer.  Not only are there excellent side canyons with their own streams and lakes, but the main canyon ends in an area of multiple ponds in Little Lakes Valley.  The old road up to the Tungsten Mines went along where the trail now runs to get to the back side of  Mt. Morgan.

The beautiful, sandy, decomposed granite flats are superb, accented by lush meadows, wildflowers, abundant wildlife and immense peaks.

Above all the splendor, what the area is really renowned for are the arborglyphs (tree carvings) left by Basque sheepherders in the 1890s. These splendid examples are a national treasure that will not last long.

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7.  Mammoth Lakes:  Twenty minutes up the road past McGee Canyon and Convict Lake is the entrance to Mammoth Lakes, home of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.  Lakes Basin and Reds Meadow/Devil’s Postpile.  Mammoth is the main destination for most visitors to the Eastern Sierra.  It has all the amenities any vacationer could ever want.

When downhill skiing was being introduced to the Sierra, Dave McCoy, the creator of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, realized from his job as a snow surveyor that Mammoth always got more snow than the surrounding mountains. When an opportunity arose to get a permit from the Forest Service, Dave seized the moment and the rest is history.

Because of Mammoth’s close proximity to the desert, it can have ideal warm weather for skiing in between large storms that often dump huge amounts of snow.

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The list of recreational opportunities to do in the Mammoth area is endless.  Since Mammoth is an area of volcanic activity, there are geologic wonders like Earthquake Fault and Hot Creek. Earthquake Fault runs right underneath the road to the ski area.  Hot Creek is down by the airport and has hot springs that come out of the middle of the stream.  There is also excellent fly fishing along that section of creek.

  1.  Highway 120:  Heading north past June Lake is the junction for Old Benton and HWY 6.  This beautiful stretch of road goes along the south end of mysterious Mono Lake, which is a remnant of the ancient inland lakes.  Glaring white pumice sand, beautiful Jeffrey trees, volcanic craters and vast flats make this drive something special.  Along the route is Mono Mills, where a rail line was once constructed to deliver lumber and firewood to the ghost town of Bodie.

 

Before HWY 6 is the old living ghost town named Benton Hot Springs.  Still well preserved, this town offers campsites, each with its own hot spring tub.  With a view of Boundary Peak, the highest in Nevada, this town is as close to the old west as one can get.

  1. Yosemite:  Next is everyone’s ultimate destination-Yosemite. The climb up the canyon from Lee Vining  is steep and almost scary.  Saddlebag Lake and campgrounds are at the top before the park entrance.  Then, it is down toward the valley past Tuolumne Meadows.  So much has been said about Yosemite from John Muir to Ansel Adams that it is hard to describe anything new.  Yosemite is like the Grand Canyon, it is a place all Americans should make a pilgrimage to once in their life.

10.  Bodie:  The last and perhaps best stop on our journey along HWY 395 is the ghost town of Bodie.  This is one of the best places where one can get totally immersed into the Old West.  There is no commercial enterprise, no modern structures and everything has been left it its authentic “state of arrested decay.”

As a child I have fond memories of exploring Bodie by myself before it became a State Park. I never lost that feeling of excitement and wonder that the Eastern Sierra affords to all those who are fortunate enough to venture through there.

2 Responses to “Ten Best Places to Visit in the Eastern Sierra”

  1. john g Says:

    I enjoyed your article very much as we are looking for an interesting trip to the eastern sierra’s, thank you

  2. Alex S Says:

    Great list! We absolutely agree Death Valley should be #1 on this list. From alien looking plants to Scotty’s Castle Death Valley is INSANELY interesting and on my top 10 places I’ve visited across North America up there with Banff and Alaska.

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