El Greco or Claude Monet? Do you prefer the drama of California’s northern coast along portions of California State Route 1 or the natural palette of colors of California’s Eastern Sierras along U.S. Highway 395?
I think the two most beautiful regions of California are its northern coastline and the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. If you like the thought of snow capped mountains rising vertically from a desert floor, lush green meadows, ghost towns in “arrested decay,” more or less dormant volcanic craters, thermal hot springs, stunning waterfalls, tufa towers and lots of friendly people, and you have a week or more of local vacation time this summer, consider visiting the Eastern Sierras.
Located about 300 miles northeast from Los Angeles the first half of the drive is slightly less boring than the drive to San Francisco along U.S. 5. But, the last half of the drive to the Eastern Sierras along U.S. 395 offers not only spectacular scenery but also a treasure trove of discovery opportunities. I’ll write about what to see en route in the second part of this blog, later this month or early July. For now I will mention some of the places that make the Eastern Sierras so appealing to me.
From south to north, here are some of my favorite places.
About 30 miles north of the town of Bishop, just past 12,418 feet (3785 meters) high Sherwin Summit, Lake Crowley is in a gorgeous location. As beautiful as it is, it may also be the least attractive lake you will see during your sojourn in the Eastern Sierras. If you’re an angler, that matters little. Constructed in 1941 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as storage for the Los Angeles Aqueduct this reservoir is home to some of the largest trout in the Sierras.
Convict Lake’s deep, blue waters mirror the snow speckled granite mountains that hug it. Convict Lake Resort, located about a mile away, offers cabins and one of the best restaurants in the Eastern Sierras. This is where many people who live in Mammoth Lakes come to celebrate a special occasion.
Underground volcanic activity (I’m sure geologists have a more exact description) generates dozens of thermal hot springs around the Mammoth Lakes area. Hot Creek is perhaps the most popular. No longer legally accessible for swimming there are many other hot springs in the nearby areas which, with care, can be accessed for viewing or soaking.
Too populous for my taste, the town of Mammoth Lakes does have a few redeeming qualities. In addition to frequent arts festivals, Mammoth has many restaurants, lodging facilities and a large Vons Market with the area’s best supply of foods. The town is also a gateway to the lakes that are the reason for half of Mammoth’s name.
Outside of the developed area of Mammoth Lakes but within the municipal boundaries, Lakes Mary, Mamie and George along with Horseshoe Lake and Twin Lakes, even when crowded with campers and anglers, offer readily accessible wilderness scenery, campgrounds and fishing opportunities.
Formed in the mid-14th century through volcanic activity, the three craters known as the Inyo Craters are outside the town of Mammoth Lakes, a short walking distance through the forest, off the back entrance to town. Each has a small, inaccessible lake at the bottom that is readily viewable from the top.
One of the world’s premier ski area’s, during the summer a gondola ride to the 11,059ft top of the lava dome known as Mammoth Mountain offers an exhilarating, panoramic view. There is a mountain bike trail and a hiking path from the top back to the base.
I have been here on a July 4 weekend and watched slalom ski racing and mountain bike racing contests being waged simultaneously. I have read that this year (2017) the ski area anticipates being open at least through the Fourth of July weekend.
The San Joaquin River is California’s longest. Except for very limited times each day access to the valley through which the middle fork of the San Joaquin River cascades is by shuttle bus, starting near the base of Mammoth Mountain. Red’s Meadow, more or less the “home base” for the valley, has been home to a campground, general store and pack station since, it seems, time immemorial. Literally dozens of backcountry trails have their starting point here.
The 60-feet high Devils Postpile is considered one of the world’s finest examples of columnar basalt. Think of them as giant, symmetric columns shoved up from the bowels of the earth.
An easy four-mile round-trip walk from Devils Postpile, the trail follows the San Joaquin River to a 101-foot drop of the river – Rainbow Falls. For the adventuresome, it’s possible to get quite close to the base of the falls – worth the effort even if you get a little wet.
About twenty miles north of Mammoth Lakes the town of June Lake provides a less populated version of Mammoth Lakes. The town offers sane lodging alternatives to Mammoth Lakes – although still a bit too modernized for my taste.
The June Lake Loop lopes U.S. 395 in horseshoe fashion, hugging four principal lakes, all of which are connected by Rush Creek. For those with stamina (or who have insistent friends with stamina) a number of day hike trails that lead straight up from the valley floor with elevation gains of several thousand feet provide memories along with potentially aching muscles. During the fall the loop road, with its many deciduous trees, offers the California version of a New England autumn color fest.
Beginning at the intersection of U.S. 395 in Lee Vining the road to 10,000 feet (3000 meters) Tioga Pass leads to Yosemite National Park’s eastern entrance. The road is unrecognizable from the hair-raising, one-lane dirt road used for two-way traffic as little as fifty years ago. However the road still offers the same picture postcard views of snow capped mountains, lakes, rivers and wildlife. Depending on the snow pack, Tioga Road, leading to the pass, opens in late June or early July.
The town of Lee Vining is the guardian of Mono Lake. You can, and should, walk the length of the town and be enticed by some of its restaurants (in the mountains, all food tastes better), its trading posts and one of its two gas stations (look at the gas price differential to know which one I recommend).
Even if you stop nowhere else in town, do stop at the Mono Lake Committee Information Center and Bookstore, located in the middle of town. The most knowledgeable people about Mono Lake and the surrounding area either work or hang out here. You can find out about bird walks, kayaking tours of Mono Lake and anything else that may interest you in the region. The store also has almost all available literature that pertains to this area of the Sierras.
More than 1 million years old, Mono Lake is one of North America’s oldest lakes. It has no outlet. Mark Twain was caught in a sudden, violent storm here and almost drowned. In addition to its occasional, sudden storms, Mono Lake is famous for its “tufa towers” – calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed when freshwater springs bubbling up from the lake’s floor interact with the alkaline lake water. Think of stalactites and stalagmites found in underground caverns except the tufa towers grow in the lake. Because the lake’s water level has receded over the years large quantities of tufa towers are out of the water and readily visible.
The Mono Basin Visitors’ Center overlooks the lake and is a place to watch sunsets that even National Geographic’s photographers would consider spectacular.
Located about 13 miles east of U.S. 395, the last three on an unimproved dirt road, Bodie had numerous gold mines and a population to match. Renowned as a wild, open boomtown the phrase “Badman from Bodie” was known throughout the Old West. The town is now a state park, maintained in a state of “arrested decay.” Bodie’s structures are kept the way they were when the last person left. Tours of the principal mine and of the town are available. I highly recommend each.
Virginia Lakes Resort is a mountain hideaway. It can be termed a “resort” only in the best Eastern Sierra sense. A café and general store compliment small, comfortable cabins, some facing Little Virginia Lake, the rest with their backside next to the stream that runs out of the lake. Virginia Lakes is where I have spent one to two weeks each summer for the past ten or so years. (I much prefer the cabins facing the lake.)
Ten lakes are within walking distance of the resort. Four of the lakes are so close that it would be embarrassing to say you “hiked” to them. Granted, a few of the more distant lakes entail a 1000 feet or so elevation gain before you reach them but there is plenty of time to catch your breath along the way.
There is usually no telephone or Internet access at the resort. The most consistent reception area is five or so miles away toward U.S. 395 at a forest service helicopter-landing site. The best Internet access is 16 – 17 miles away at the Bridgeport library.
When you arrive in Bridgeport California’s second oldest courthouse is the first building that will catch your eye. There are also a number of Victorian era homes, hotels and restaurants. Bridgeport’s Fourth of July celebration is pure, old-fashioned Americana that begins with a community parade down a closed U.S. 395.
The parade is followed by a community picnic that includes, in addition to a traditional barbeque, greased pig catching contests, a greased flagpole climb and marines from the nearby Mountain Warfare Training Center rappelling from the old courthouse roof.
Observing and listening to the locals offers a glimpse into some of the best of American character along with some of its most infuriating aspects.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.