The Sierra Mountains is home to thousands of gems. Its jagged landscape, alpine lakes, trails, and peaks have inspired many to continue to come back and explore deeper. The National Parks of Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite are located here, as well as a 390 mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.
“The Father of National Parks”, John Muir, helped preserve large areas of the Sierra’s, and his work developed him to be one of the most important and influential naturalists and nature writer in America. His most popular work “My First Summer in the Sierra’s” is quoted often among nature enthusiasts for its undeniable ability to evoke the inspiring feeling of being outdoors.
“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
Driving to the Eastern Sierra
When you have the option to make your route a loop, why not do it? From the Bay Area, we took I-5 South through Bakersfield, eventually moving west through HW-14 and 395 towards Lone Pine.
Moving east through the southernmost tip of the Sierras, you can see where the PCT intersects the highway near Tehachapi and moves into the epic Sierra portion of the through-hike towards Lake Isabella.
After an incredibly long drive, Lone Pine is a good place to stop. It is a few hours north of the turnoff towards Death Valley National Park and has plenty of accommodations for motel-stayers or someone looking to explore their inner dirt-bag. Moving north, you’ll pass through Bishop, a minimal outdoor town at its finest. Staying on the 395 you will also pass the well-known resort/ski town of Mammoth Lakes. Once passed, we had to take Sonora Pass (HW-108) over the mountains and back down to the Bay Area, but if open, I recommend taking Tioga Pass (HW 108). This pass tends to open a bit later in the season due to snow but goes through the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite National Park and has some epic hikes and views if you have the time to stop.
Throughout Sonora Pass, there are more than a few campgrounds and picnic areas to choose from. You’ll have a steep climb to the top of the pass but if you stop for a few moments and the hills to your left are still snow-covered, you may notice some hikers carrying backcountry skis/snowboards about to come down the mountain faces. There is also a restroom a short walk away from this rest stop and you’ll be able to see where the PCT crosses yet again, which from the cross section near Tehachapi could take you around 35 days on the trail. Once crossed, and if you were anywhere near as exhausted as we were, you will likely pass out as soon as you get back to the place you call home.
Places to Camp in the Eastern Sierra
The best way to experience this wild place is definitely camping. There are several options when it comes to finding a place to pitch a tent or a van here: dispersed camping, designated camping, or backcountry camping.
One of our preferred methods for this trip was the dispersed camping. If you have never disperse camped before, you are truly missing out. There are some must-see locations over here that are known for the awesome BLM sites with 365-degree views, and there is something for just about anyone. It is very important to make sure that you leave no traces in these spots. Sleep in areas that were previously designated and camped in, dig a cat hole if you need rest stop (at least 200 feet from water sources or campsites), get a campfire permit, and PACK- IT- OUT (everything, even your toilet paper). Some of the best known areas for dispersed camping are:
- Alabama Hills Recreation Area (Changes coming in 2023**)
- A great option for a stop that is closer to the southern portion near Lone Pine. Alabama Hills is famous for its beautiful Whitney Portal backdrop. An incredible view that reminded me of the backdrop of the Grand Tetons National Park view from the valley below. This area is also the location of the infamous Movie Road, a popular filming location, home of more than 400 movies. If you visit the Chamber of Commerce and Film History Museum in Lone Pine, you can grab a booklet of these locations and see the backdrops from films such as Iron Man (2008) , Django Unchained, Gladiator (2000), Man of Steel (2013), and many more.
**New In 2023: This dispersed camping area has had many changes in the past few years and is expected to move towards a reservation system sometime in the next year. Many spots that were previously allowing camping are now marked with “No Camping” signs and are regularly monitored by the BLM.
- Buttermilk Boulders
- Great for climbers of all levels. Buttermilk country is known for its proximity world-class bouldering just minutes, or even steps, away from your site.
- Wild Willy’s Hot Spring
- A popular choice among many who seek to soak in its waters, Wild Willy’s is a pit stop at the least! Though not the largest dispersed camping area, Wild Willy’s certainly has its perks! Arrive relatively early if you’re able to find a good spot to set up.
- Coyote Flat
- If you have a 4X4 and know how to use it, this location will take you over 11,000 feet and is the highest place to drive off-road in the Sierra Nevada’s. Its anywhere between 20-40 miles and will be chilly the more you climb. Be prepared for some tire-changes, and some incredible camping.
- Inyo National Forest
- A big area, with a lot of space to play!
If you need a bit more accommodations during your stay, there are also plenty of options of private campgrounds or first come-first serve BLM campgrounds
- Crowley Lake Campground
- Located near Mammoth Airport. An awesome low, alpine lake that is a short walk away from the campground sites. Campground is $8.00/night per site, has an RV Dump Station, vault toilets, and picnic spaces.
- Independence Creek Campground
- Located south of Bishop. An Inyo County park for 10/night per site with vault toilets, grills, potable water and a nearby stream.
- Browns Campgrounds
- 5 private campgrounds: Browns Town, Owens River, Millpond, Glacier View, and Keoughs. Sites have plenty of space and nearby attractions, hot showers, laundry and electric hookups. The resort option of campgrounds in the area! Reservations can be made online here
Backpacking in the Eastern Sierra
If you have the time, or means to plan a backcountry camping trip- this the place to do it. Sites like The Outbound and AllTrails have numerous backpacking trips for any hiking level. All backcountry camping in the Inyo region will need a wilderness permit along with trail information and campfire permits. While there are numerous hikes and trips to choose from a few trails that I have saved are:
⇢ Mount Whitney Trail (22.5mi) out and back in the Inyo National Forest Region. The tallest mountain in the lower 48 States. For the hardy adventure with rough terrain and strenuous stretches. Trail is used for hiking, ice climbing and backpacking and is best used from April until October and will require a in-demand permit to climb. More information can be found on Mt Whitney here.
⇢ Big Pine Lakes Trail (13mi) loop in the John Muir Wilderness. The backpacking trip that we decided on, an epic alpine lake trail.
⇢ Little Lakes Valley to Gem Lakes (7.2mi) out and back in the John Muir Wilderness south of Bishop near Independence.
⇢ Kearsarge Pass Trail to Kearsarge Lakes (11mi) out and back near Independence in the John Muir Wilderness.
There are also numerous day hikes you can do in this area and the area has something for just about anyone. Rainbow Falls in Devils Postpile National Monument (6mi), Crystal Lake Trail (3.1mi), and Rancheria Falls (4.1) being some of the most popular.
Check out my Backpacking page to search for more great backcountry options in the Sierra.
Best Things to do in the Eastern Sierra
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest: Home to the oldest trees in the world, the Bristlecone Pines. One heck of a drive out of the way from the main drag of the 395, but a very cool stop if you have down time to fill!
Mammoth/Bishop Hot Springs: There are so many hot springs in this area, you can find something for just about anyone. Some hot springs are different temperatures and vary in size. I really enjoy WhimseySoul’s blog post and illustration about the hot springs and where to find them.
Rock Climbing at Happy/Sad Boulders or Buttermilk Boulders: A classic rock climbing spot with spectacular views. Bring your crash pad and you’ll have an entire days worth of boulders
Movie Road: Perfect for the family, a short drive, or taking photos!
June Lake Brewing: We recommended the Brew-nicorn.
Erik Schat’s Bakery: World famous, and even more locally famous, bakeshop with a plethora of goodies
Mammoth Gear Exchange (Bishop): A great place for outdoor enthusiasts who want good, used recreation gear! They’ve got just about anything and if you search hard, you may find an awesome deal.
Black Sheep Coffee Roasters (Bishop): A coffee stop where dirt bag meets hipster (in a really good way)
Black Velvet Coffee (Mammoth Lakes): A great coffee shop with their own roasts and great vibes
[su_row][su_column size=”1/2″ center=”no” class=””]
① June Lake & June Lake Brewing
② Crowley Lake
③ Hot Springs Area
④ Inyo National Forest
⑤ Little Lakes Valley to Gem Lakes Trailhead
⑥ Buttermilk Bouldering & Dispersed Camping
⑦ Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
[/su_column] [su_column size=”1/2″ center=”no” class=””]
⑧ Town of Bishop
⑨ Coyote Flats
⑩ Big Pine Lakes Trailhead
⑪ Kearsarge Pass Trailhead
⑫ Alabama Hills Recreation Area & Movie Road
⑬ Whitney Portal Road & Trailhead
[su_column size=”1/2″ center=”no” class=””]