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Eastern Sierra: Where Fire And Ice Create Heaven On Earth
Convict Lake off of Highway 395 south of Mammoth Lakes is among a number of “drive up” lakes dotting the Eastern Sierra. DENNIS WYATT/209 Living

California, many say, is a nation state.

The truth be told, California is seven distinct states of mind as defined by geology.

There’s the Great Central Valley with its fertile and endless orchards and fields. There’s the north state, a land of endless outdoors. The vast Mojave Desert with its stark beauty and endless skies. The sandy sun kissed beaches as well as the star studded coastal basins of Southern California. The rugged Central Coast offers the natural charm of Big Sur and the manmade whimsical Hearst Castle. And then there is the tech savvy Bay Area with its golden gate and its towering redwoods.

That brings us to the “Seventh California” — the Eastern Sierra.

It is the least populated of the “Seven Californias” and it can be reached in about three hours heading east out of the 209 on Highway 120 via Tioga Pass or Highway 108 via Sonora Pass but only typically between May and November when snow doesn’t grip the Sierra.

The Eastern Sierra is the least populated of the Seven Californias with 17,987 residents in Inyo County and 14,250 residents in Mono County. In comparison Ripon has 15,986 residents.

As part of the western edge of the Great Basin you’ll find towns, farms, and ranches at lofty yet flat heights. They range from Bishop at 4,152 feet, June Lake at 7,054 feet, and Bridgeport at 6,640 feet.


Inyo County is a

place of extremes

Inyo County — the southern portion of the Eastern Sierra — is a place of extremes.

You can hike the highest point in the contiguous 48 states — Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet.

You can walk the lowest point in Northern America — the salt flats of Death Valley’s Badwater at 282 feet below sea level.

You can take in the world’s oldest living thing — the Medusa bristlecone pine at 5,063 years.

You can work your way across the largest glacier in the Sierra — the Palisades at 14,000 feet.

You can experience the place of the consistently hottest air temperature in the world — Furnace Creek in Death Valley that also recorded the world record of 134 degrees.

In between there are remote dunes, alpine meadows, glacier fed lakes, desert canyons, imposing mountain summits and some of the best hiking, fishing, back road excursions, and hunting that California has to offer.

With 10,227 square miles Inyo County has one of the lowest population densities for counties in California at one person per 1.8 square miles. If you like wide open spaces and not coming across a lot of people while you are out wandering, then this is the place for you.

Outdoorsmen sing the praises of Inyo whether it is for fishing, hunting or exploring back roads in high clearance of 4-wheel drive vehicles. My love affair with Inyo started 36 years ago on a racing bicycle. I loved being able to pedal long distances often without a power pole or car in sight along state highways that lead into the White Mountains and the ranges in and around Death Valley.

Last year I completed my 26th visit to Inyo County. And while it was borderline nuts in the opinion of some — it included hiking Telescope Peak “The Roof of Death Valley” at 11,043 feet, hiking Wildrose Peak at 9,064 feet, hiking Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet, making my way up to below the Palisades Glacier just below 14,000 feet, night hiking to the remote Panamint Sand Dunes over a four-mile stretch of desert floor and hiking among the bristlecone pines in six days — you don’t have to get as carried away.

Death Valley, for starters, isn’t a great place to go this time of year for obvious reasons. You are limited to what you can do in the heat. When it is 120 degrees, the valley floor temperature can often top 180 degrees. My trip concentrated on hiking the peaks in the Panamint Range that snow prevented me from doing during a November trip. I also tossed in the night hike making sure I was through by mid-morning as the thermometer hit 100 degrees.

If you do opt to try the mountain hikes, it is a good time to do so. The temperature is three to five degrees lower with every thousand feet of gain meaning it never gets above 95 degrees on hikes to the top of Telescope or Wildrose. The views of Death Valley, the Great Basin, the Sierra, and Mt. Whitney are incredible.

I rough it at Stovepipe Wells Resort where a double bed room will set you back $145 a night.


Big Pine offers

central location

If you have three days and want to see a variation in scenery with only one “big” day of hiking, then you might want to book a room in Big Pine.

From there it is less than 50 minutes to the Whitney Portal. If you’re not used to long day hikes with a significant gain of elevation it is still do-able but takes between 12 and 16 hours. You will need a permit. Most were awarded during a lottery in the early spring but there are always a few left especially on Mondays through Thursdays. Go on to the forest service website for Mt. Whitney for details.

Sometimes the altitude will kick some people. My last trip was a month earlier than the other three I have taken on Whitney. I’ve hit snow before but this time the issue was 45 mph gusts just above 12,000 feet as a weak storm front hit the Sierra. It was chilly.

That said the cool thing about Mt. Whitney is that no matter where you stop to catch your breath, the scenery is incredible. The drawback is the people. There’s way too many with about 300 allowed on any given day.

While it isn’t quite Yosemite, it is still a lot of people.

Glacier Lodge Road goes out of Big Pine. And while a hike to the namesake glaciers at 14,000 feet might be a bit too much, hikes to the seven glacier-fed lakes are do-able for most people. And if that isn’t your forte, a pack service offers horseback rides into areas near the glacier lakes.

The Bristlecone Pine Forest is also out of Big Pine but to the east. There is a visitors’ center and a short 20 minute loop for those who don’t want to go too far to see the world’s oldest single living things or a two to four hour route that will take you past Medusa — the oldest of them all.

You can take a dirt road to another marked trail that will lead you past the biggest bristlecone pine in the forest.

It is also the route to the trail head to the hiking trail that goes up White Mountain Peak — one of California’s “14s” as in mountains with summits 14,000 feet or higher.

By chance, 12 of the 16 “14s” are in Inyo County with three of the others in neighboring Fresno County. The 16th is Mt. Shasta.

I booked a room at the Bristlecone Manor Motel. Starting at $89 a night it was more than reasonable as all rooms come with a kitchenette. It is also part of a general store and gas station.

The only drawback to Big Pine is if you want to dine out and don’t want BBQ you’ve got to drive some 20 minutes to Bishop.

Also if hiking all the time isn’t your thing, there is the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp historic site nine miles north of Lone Pine. There is also a cowboy movie museum in Lone Pine that also hosts a popular western movie festival every year. Dozens upon dozens of classic westerns were filmed in the Alabama Hills west of Lone Pine off the Mt. Whitney Portal Road.

Inyo County is six to seven hours from the 209.


June Lake and Mono

County within four hours

June Lake is a place some call America’s Switzerland thanks to abrupt rises of 2,000 plus feet from what is more a “horseshoe” shaped flatland than a valley formed by a splitting glacier.

Thanks to that geography carved by glaciers and volcanoes June Lake — or more specifically the June Lake Loop —is the ideal eastern Sierra destination for those who are called to rugged wilderness destinations as well as a more serene and almost flat alpine playground.

And it is found away from the hustle and bustle of Mammoth Lakes to the south or wide spots on Highway 395 such as Lee Vining and Bridgeport. Instead you can enjoy an easy-to-access true resort destination minus the commercialism and crowds.

The best part is it is less than a four-hour drive from Manteca via Highway 120 through Yosemite National Park or via Sonora Pass on Highway 108 making it just as pleasant for a weekend or midweek outing as it is for a weeklong stay.

Just like Mammoth, June Lake is a year-round destination. It is a haven for winter sports and even has its own ski resort — June Mountain. Spring through fall is idea for hiking, fishing, bicycling, and other outdoor pursuits while the fall colors are among the most spell binding in California.

Arguably the biggest charm of June Lake Loop for most visitors is the four lakes just off low-key Highway 158 that forms the loop to Highway 395. The largest is Grant Lake brought to you by Los Angeles Water and Power. Besides being the most sun drenched by far it is relatively devoid of trees. While it attracts fishermen, Grant Lake is the lake where you will see personal watercraft. Further upstream on Rush Creek to the south is my favorite — Silver Lake. It is surrounded by aspens and lush wetlands. There is an RV resort along with cabins. The trail that takes you into the high country on foot or via pack train is also located here. The lake, thanks to its location in the glacier carved loop, is almost always in partial shade. Fishing is rampant. My favorite scene either coming at the end of a hike from the high country or driving by slowly on Highway 158 are families fishing on the edge of the water seated in grass beneath aspens just feet off the highway. Gull Lake is the smallest of the four lakes and has the Donner Lake disease of being surrounded for the most part by housing. June Lake is not just a fishing mecca but on its eastern shore is sandy beach that rivals the best Lake Tahoe can offer minus the crowds.


Varied lodging options

There are a number of housing options from camp sites and RV parks to rentals, motels and resorts such as Double Eagle Resort & Spa that has amenities that have earned it world-class status. There are a smattering of restaurants and a handful of specialty stores catering to the sportsmen and art lovers. There is also a general store.

The reason I like staying at the June Lake Motel — a misnomer since most of the rooms have kitchenettes on the verge of being a kitchen as well as ample space — partially has to do with the fact it is next to the general store and two doors down from a Mexican restaurant where they know my order by heart.

The main reason is the view. You can look off the back and see across the street a tree studded mountainside soaring nearly 3,000 feet skyward. There is no need for air conditioning even after a 90 degree day thanks to the cool mountain night air at 7,200 feet and the light breezes. My favorite room is above the office. Although it does not have a full kitchen the way windows are orientated is true decadence as it brings in soothing, slightly chilly breezes after midnight requiring a retreat under blankets.

Great sleeping and mellow days is why the biggest attraction of June Lake is the ability to relax.

It is why a number of guests return every year to the June Lake Motel for week-long stays. They take advantage of available barbecues to prepare family meals they enjoy on the balcony on front of their motel rooms at the end of the day. It also helps that there is minimum traffic on Highway 158 and that the atmosphere is low key. I used to think that was the case when I stayed in Lee Vining, Bridgeport, Long Pine, or Big Pine. But all of those motels were just off busy Highway 395 with 24-hour truck traffic and more.

Because June Lake is slightly off the beaten path and isn’t a major resort like Mammoth Lakes you can rent rooms and cabins for less while arguably getting better accommodations, a lot more relaxation, and more of a true Eastern Sierra experience.


Hiking & bicycling

If you’re a bicyclist — especially a roadie — the 15-mile June Lake Loop is a nice moderate way to enjoy bicycling while taking in the eastern Sierra. If you don’t mind pedaling eight miles on the shoulder of Highway 395 you can make it a true 23-mile loop as opposed to the 15-mile “horseshoe loop” that the highway creates.

Hiking is world class. Once you climb 1,300 feet over a 2.2 mile trail segment that lifts you from June Lake to the cusp of the high country the options are numerous. You can day hike to 10 substantial lakes with Thousand Islands Lake being the farthest requiring a 14 or 17 mile round trip depending upon the route you take. The lake is also the highest at 9,833 feet with the added bonus of being the headwaters of the San Joaquin River. There are also well over a dozen smaller lakes along the way as well.

The hikes are in the Ansel Adams Wilderness and you can even enter the John Muir Wilderness on a longer day hike. Because of how the mountains unfolded and the elevation that often cajoles afternoon summer rain from clouds you’ll be hard pressed to match the combination of relatively abundant wildflowers and dramatic backdrops. It explains why on the course of hikes I came across three rare sightings — hikers carrying traditional camera equipment on the hunt for breathtaking photos.

If passes are your thing, there are two right around 10,000 feet that you can conquer during a day hike.

June Lake is where what I’d rate as the best short lake hike at a high country destination can be found in the eastern Sierra. The trail head is near Fern Creek. It is a 1.7-mile hike one way that takes you up 1,600 plus feet to Fern Lake at 8,920 feet. The last segment of the hike is almost magical with the dense vegetation. But it is nothing compared to the splendor of Fern Lake.

There is a segment of the trail that is steep and a bit challenging but that is part of the fun.


Drives of 45

minutes of less

There are numerous drives of 45 minutes or less you can do by basing in June Lake.

You can walk among onshore Tufa towers — created when calcium from underwater springs combines with carbonate in the water —they are eerie moon-like pillars on the landscape surrounding Mono Lake.

You can take a guided kayak tour when they resume after the pandemic eases on the ancient Mono Lake that traces its roots back to the initial massive volcanic explosion that created the Long Valley Caldera 767,000 years ago. The lake is one of the largest stops for birds on the Pacific Flyway.

You can beat the crowds to Yosemite National Park’s High country gem — Tuolumne Meadows.

There are a number of canyons you can drive into to either fish or hike toward the Sierra Crest.

Mammoth Lakes with all of its natural attractions as well as amenities is a short drive.

There are lots of canyons to hike and fish to catch up nearby canyons including the Eastern Sierra classic hike up Lundy Canyon.

Spend a little more time on the road and you can visit Bodie State Park — the West’s largest ghost town left in an arrested state of deterioration.

And you can even squeeze in a hike to unique destinations such as the Palisade Glacier out of Big Pine requiring an 18-mile round trip hike within a reasonable two hour drive.

For me, it also helps that my favorite bookstore is less than 20 minutes away from June Lake in Lee Vining at the Mono Lake Committee that doubles as a visitors’ information center. It has arguably the most complete collection of books on water politics — with a heavy emphasis on California — and water in general. I rarely escape without spending $100 to $150. Fortunately it’s only a once-a-year indulgence. And if you haven’t figured it out, my favorite books center around water politics and water issues.

For the best source of information on the June Lake area and accommodations go to

A Sierra stream makes its way down to South Lake east of Bishop. DENNIS WYATT/209 Living