To a geologist, California's Sierra Nevada separates the Central Valley from the Great Basin, extending over 400 miles from Fredonyer Pass (CA 36 in Lassen County) in the north all the way to Tehachapi Pass (CA 58) in the south. The range varies from 40 to 70 miles wide, much of which is rolling foothills and thickly forested slopes that lead gradually up the western side of the range to the crest.
But to the climber, the name Sierra conjures up images only of the dramatic eastern escarpment for which the range is justly famous, and in particular the high, rugged peaks found along the 130-mile portion of the crest between Bridgeport in the north and Lone Pine in the south. This comparatively slender stretch of the range is the eastern Sierra -- or as it is more commonly known, the High Sierra. It is a land of dramatic contrasts: pristine wilderness that's located only a few hours drive from the millions of people packed like sardines in California's two major population centers; sagebrush desert transitioning within a matter of miles through forests, lakes, and meadows to barren rock and ice over 10,000 feet above the Owens Valley floor; the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere lying but some eighty miles from the highest point in the continental United States. Almost the entire High Sierra is protected as federal wilderness: Hoover Wilderness, Yosemite Wilderness, Ansel Adams Wilderness, John Muir Wilderness, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon Wilderness.
Given the nature of the Sierra's geography, the long western approaches to reach the High Sierra have little of interest to the majority of climbers, and consequently most approach the region from the more dramatic eastern side. As a result, access is primarily via US395, the major artery through the Owens Valley that runs alongside the High Sierra. Several towns are found along this stretch of 395: (north to south) Bridgeport, Lee Vining, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and Lone Pine. Bishop is the largest of these, offers by far the greatest choices for lodging, food, and supplies amongst all the east side towns, and as it's located at roughly the midway point between Bridgeport and Lone Pine, serves as the epicenter of a visit to the Eastern Sierra.
It is this area, the region covered by the 2-2.5 hour drive between Bridgeport and Lone Pine that surrounds Bishop, that is the focus of this page.
The major towns along US395 can be reached fairly easily by either car or public transit. Reaching the trailheads themselves is more problematic without the former, although you may have luck hitchhiking; there are enough hikers, backpackers, and other outdoorsmen around to make finding a lift easier than in the city. If unsuccessful with this, you can try one of several shuttle services around the east side; see below for details.
Several major airports are found within a several hour drive of the east side: San Jose (SJC), San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX), or Reno (RNO). Driving distances and times from the Bay Area and Southern California to the east side are fairly similar; Los Angeles is shortest for points south of Mammoth Lakes, San Jose/San Francisco is shortest for points north of there:
|Driving Mileages from Major Airports|
|Bridgeport||Lee Vining||Mammoth Lakes||Bishop||Big Pine||Independence||Lone Pine|
|SFO (winter)||284||310||338||374||388||416 ||431 |
Notes: SFO (winter) assumes SR50/SR207 to Minden, and then south on US395. SFO (summer) assumes SR108 to Bridgeport, and SR120 for Lee Vining and points south.
 471mi via Walker Pass.  455mi via Walker Pass.
By car (Southern California)
From Los Angeles, take SR14 north, which eventually merges with US395 just north of Walker Pass (SR178). From San Diego and San Bernardino, take I-15 north until you reach US395.
Winter access remains the same for Southern Californians, as good a reason for living down there as I've ever come across.
By car (Bay Area)
In summer, US395 can be reached easily from the Bay Area via Sonora Pass (SR108) for Bridgeport area destinations, or Tioga Pass (SR120) for Lee Vining and points south. Crossing Tioga Pass requires either a park pass ($20/year for a Yosemite pass, or $50/year for a national parks pass), or that you drive through at night. (The latter option is recommended so as to avoid the tourons in RVs, which you're otherwise guaranteed to encounter during daylight hours). The Yosemite park entrance stations are typically unmanned between 8pm and 7am or so. (A note: The Big Oak Flat entrance station at the west end of Hwy 120 tends to be open later on Sunday evenings in the summer, until about 10pm or so, so plan accordingly if you don't have a park pass).
Bay Area folks face a longer drive to reach the east side once the main Sierra passes close, which typically happens some time in late October or early November, following the first major winter storm. Salvation is found in the form of either Echo Summit/Kingsbury Grade (US50/NV207) or Carson Pass (SR88), both of which are kept open year round, with the exception of occasional closures due to avalanche danger. This route, which reaches the east side via Minden, NV, is the quickest way to the High Sierra north of Independence when Sonora Pass and Tioga Pass are closed. (Keep in mind that "quickest" is a relative term; this variation adds 2-3 hours of driving time vs. the standard summer drive. Carson Pass is slightly shorter, but US50 over Echo Summit is generally a faster drive, even with South Lake Tahoe traffic). Monitor Pass (SR89) generally opens some time in March or April, providing a shortcut in spring when taking the Carson Pass route; at this time of year, the drive to the east side is only 1.5 hours or so longer than in the summer. Sonora Pass typically opens around Memorial Day weekend, and often provides access to the east side well before Tioga Pass opens.
Winter/spring access from the Bay Area to the High Sierra south of Independence is still shortest mileage-wise via the northern passes (Echo Summit or Carson Pass), but is likely quickest via either Walker Pass (SR178) or Tehachapi Pass (SR58)--this is freeway almost the whole way.
Caltrans maintains a list of historical closing and opening dates for the passes, as well as current road conditions for the Northern Sierra and Southern and Eastern Sierra. You can also find additional opening/closing dates from previous years here, and historical data for Tioga Pass (SR120) going back to 1933 here.
Public transportation to the east side: The YARTS shuttle bus runs from the town of Merced in the Central Valley to Yosemite Valley, and thence on to Lee Vining, June Lake, and Mammoth Lakes (and vice versa, of course). Merced is serviced by both Amtrak, (800) USA-RAIL, and Greyhound, (800) 231-2222.
Public transportation along US395: Inyo Mono Transit operates the CREST shuttle, which runs between Reno and Ridgecrest with stops at all the east side towns. The CREST page contains information on both north and south connections. Reno is serviced by Greyhound; Ridgecrest can be reached via public transportation by taking Greyhound to Mojave, and then taking a Kern regional bus to Ridgecrest from there. Call Kern Regional Transit at (800) 881-5787, (800) 323-2396, or (800) 560-1733 for details about the latter; the schedule is also published online.
Inyo Mono Transit also operates a bus between Bishop and Lone Pine; contact them at (760) 872 1901 for more information.
At one time or another, there have been several shuttle services on the east side, mostly based in Bishop. I've no personal experience with these:
General rules and regulations
Almost the entire eastern side of the High Sierra is managed by the Inyo National Forest, much of it as wilderness, and as a result most of the High Sierra is subject to the usual wilderness red tape. With only a few exceptions detailed below, dayhikers can explore the area unencumbered by bureacracy. However, backpackers must obtain a wilderness permit from the Forest Service. (Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks manage portions of the wilderness on the west side of the crest, but wilderness permits are handed out on a per-trailhead basis rather than on the basis of your eventual destination). Contact the USFS ranger station responsible for your entry trailhead to procure the permit; this contact information can be found below.
Between May 1st and Nov 1st, there is generally a quota on each trail to limit the number of backpackers entering the backcountry each day; 60% of permits are reservable by contacting the Forest Service up to six months in advance, for a $5/person fee. (There is one notable exception to this rule: A $15/person fee applies for Whitney Zone permits, and 100% of permits for that trail are reservable ahead of time). The remaining permits are obtainable free on a first come-first served basis, starting 11am the day before your hike. Further details are found on the Inyo NF Wilderness Permit information page.
If camping in the back country, bear cannisters are required in many places throughout the High Sierra, particularly the popular trails, and campfires are generally prohibited above 10,000ft. Current restrictions can be found in the Inyo NF Wilderness Regulations.
Area-specific red tape
A few areas in the Eastern Sierra have additional red tape as a result of their popularity and/or ecological concerns. These are the region around Reds Meadow and Devils Postpile National Monument, west of Mammoth Lakes, the area around the Sierra Crest between Sawmill Pass and Vacation Pass, and the Mt. Whitney area, west of Lone Pine. During the winter, Little Lakes Valley also has additional permit requirements. From north to south, these details are as follows:
Reds Meadow area/Devils Postpile National Monument. Minaret Road (SR 203) is closed to passenger vehicles beyond Minaret Summit from 7am to 7.30pm each day. Between those times, visitors are required to ride a shuttle bus ($7/person) from the Mammoth Mountain Inn into Devils Postpile National Monument. (See here for details). The gates are unmanned outside these hours, and it is possible to drive in if you need to get an early start. The shuttle bus runs throughout the valley; it's worth noting that the bus can be ridden for free within here, even if you've driven in, allowing for convenient shuttles between trailheads.
If you exit the Reds Meadow area when the gates are manned, you must pay the same per-person fee. Note that despite the fact that the area is managed by the NPS, NPS park passes are not accepted here! If this offends you, as it does me, it's possible to turn left before the gate to reach the Minaret Vista point, and then exit from the vista point on the other side of the gate, avoiding the attendant altogether. Peaks affected by the Reds Meadow Valley closure include the Minarets, Mt. Ritter, Banner Peak, and Mt. Davis.
Little Lakes Valley. There is no red tape for this area during summer. However, during the winter months (typically November through April), Rock Creek Road is closed three miles east of Rock Creek Lake, and a California Sno-Park permit ($5/day, or $30/season) is required to park here at this time. Fines for non-compliance are fairly stiff, $75 per infraction. Peaks affected by this permit requirement include the peaks along the Sierra Crest between Mt. Mills and Bear Creek Spire, as well as the peaks around Pioneer Basin (Mt. Huntington, Mt. Stanford, and Mt. Morgan (N)).
Bighorn Sheep Zoological Area. The area around the Sierra Crest between Sawmill Pass and Baxter Pass, and from Shepherd Pass to Vacation Pass, is closed seasonally/year-round to protect bighorn sheep. (You also can't take your pet goat with you when you visit these areas!) Restrictions are as follows:
These areas are marked on the USFS wilderness map, "A Guide to the John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness." (This map, which is too large to use out on the trail but is excellent for planning purposes, may be ordered online from Sequoia National Forest). The peaks affected by the closures include Dragon Peak, Dragon Tooth, Mt. Mary Austin, Black Mountain, Diamond Peak, Peak 3984m, Mt. Baxter, Acrodectes Peak, Peak 3914m, Peak 3903m, Indian Rock, Mt. Williamson, Mt. Barnard, Trojan Peak, and Mt. Carl Heller.
Mt. Whitney trail/North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. These two trails are the exception to the rule that Sierra dayhikers are exempt from permit requirements. Between May 1 and November 1, all hikers using the Mt. Whitney trail beyond Lone Pine Lake (about two miles in from the trailhead) are required to have a permit, regardless of whether your eventual destination is Mt. Whitney via the tourist route or one of any number of other peaks. All permits for the trail are obtainable by reservation, and the popularity is such that a lottery is held to determine permit recipients. (Any unclaimed permits are available on a walk-in basis as usual). Peaks affected by this permit requirement include Mt. Whitney via the main trail, Mt. Muir, Mt. McAdie, Mt. Irvine, as well as the technical routes on Thor Peak.
As of 2007, visitors who plan on day hiking up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek (e.g. to climb Mt. Russell, Mt. Whitney via the East Face/East Buttress/Mountaineer's Route, etc.) must carry a North Fork of Lone Pine day hike permit. This affects all visitors who will hike beyond Lower Boy Scout Lake. There is no quota set for these permits, so no reservation is needed.
As of this writing, according to several rangers it is legal to hike out on the Whitney trail after having ascended the Mountaineer's Route on Mt. Whitney, so you can safely return via this route at any time in good conscience. If you need to use the Whitney trail to access your objective(s), but haven't obtained a permit--perhaps because the notion of doing so is offensive if you're not trudging up Whitney with the crowds, or perhaps because the idea of planning six months ahead strikes you as ludicrous--an early (substantially pre-dawn) start may avoid the rangers out on patrol. Bob Burd notes that his group headed out at 5am on one occasion and encountered a ranger checking permits up at High Camp before 8am.
The primary trailheads of interest to climbers in the Eastern Sierra are as follows, from north to south. Driving directions for most of these trailheads can also be found on climber.org. The starting point for all of the following directions is along Highway 395.
Bridgeport Ranger District (Toiyabe NF) - Bridgeport/Lee Vining area (Hoover Wilderness/Northern Yosemite)
Twin Lakes (7100'). This is the starting point for the Horse Creek Canyon trail (Twin Peaks, Matterhorn Peak, Whorl Mountain, and the Sawtooth Ridge), and the Robinson Creek/Barney Lake trail (Ehrnbeck Peak, Hawksbeak Peak, Tower Peak, and Piute Mountain). Turn south from Bridgeport at the Mini Mo-Mart gas station onto Twin Lakes Road and follow it 13 miles to its end at Mono Village resort. Day use parking is free around the lake; overnight parking requires a $7/stay fee (pay in the campground or at Mono Village).
Green Creek (8000'). This trailhead is used to access the peaks around Virginia Pass, including Stanton Peak, Virginia Peak, and Twin Peaks. Green Creek road is located off US395, about 4 miles south of Bridgeport and about 5 miles north of Conway Summit. Follow the washboarded dirt road for 8 miles to the trailhead. An official USFS campground is found 0.5 miles further along the road, or good rogue camping can be found at the trailhead.
Virginia Lakes (9700'). This trailhead is used to access Dunderberg Peak, Excelsior Mountain, and Black Mountain. Follow the paved Virginia Lakes road west from Conway Summit, a few miles north of Lee Vining. The road is generally plowed to within a short distance of the trailhead some time in April, for the beginning of fishing season.
Saddlebag Lake (10100'). This trailhead is used to access Excelsior Mountain, North Peak, and Mt. Conness. The access road is located off Tioga Road 2 miles east of Tioga Pass, 10 miles west of Hwy 395. Most of the road is improved dirt, suitable for all autos. The day use lot is located at the south end of the lake near the dam. There is a small lot halfway along the access road which can be used for the Gardinsky Lake Trail to Tioga Peak. This trailhead is closed in winter, but is open from the east side in spring sooner than it is from the west.
Glacier Canyon (9700'). The Glacier Canyon "trailhead" (there's no official trail, just an easy cross-country route) is located just past Tioga Lake on the east side of SR120; you'll find ample parking along the road here. It is used primarily to access the Dana Couloir on Mt. Dana.
Tioga Pass (9900'). The pass is located on SR120, 12 miles west of Hwy 395 and 8 miles east of Tuolumne Meadows. This trailhead is used to access Mt. Dana to the south, and Gaylor Peak to the north. The pass marks the boundary with Yosemite National Park. If approaching from the east, you can park just east of the pass outside the park to avoid fees. Ample parking can be found along the roadway. This trailhead is closed in winter, but is open from the east side in spring sooner than it is from the west.
Mono Lake Ranger District (Inyo NF) - June Lake Area (Ansel Adams Wilderness)
Silver Lake (7200'). The main trail of interest to climbers in this area is the Rush Creek trail out of Silver Lake, which can be used to approach Banner Peak, Mt. Davis, Rodgers Peak, Electra Peak, as well as Mt. Lyell and Mt. Maclure. If coming from the south, turn left at the June Lake exit (SR158) and follow the road through the small community of June Lake to the obvious trailhead parking on the left. If coming from the north, drive a 5 miles south of Lee Vining and take the north entrance of June Lake Loop (SR158) for 9 miles past Grant Lake. The trailhead parking is on the right at Silver Lake.
Mammoth Ranger District (Inyo NF) - Mammoth Lakes Area (Ansel Adams Wilderness/Devils Postpile National Monument/John Muir Wilderness)
Agnew Meadows (8300'). This trailhead is subject to considerable red tape, and car access must be timed to avoid road closure during the day; see above for details. From Hwy 395, take SR203 west through Mammoth Lakes, and turn right onto Minaret Summit Road. Drive to the summit, and continue another 2.6 miles to where the paved Minaret Summit Road does a hairpin turn south; turn right here along a dirt road to reach the trailhead, signposted for River Trail/Shadow Lake/PCT. The trail is used to access the Minarets, Banner Peak, Mt. Ritter, and Mt. Davis.
Devils Postpile (7500'). Like Agnews Meadow, this trailhead is subject to considerable red tape. From Agnews Meadow, continue another 4 miles south along SR203 to the end of the road at Devils Postpile. Day use parking is near the ranger cabin, overnight parking is a quarter mile north along the road. The trail is used to access the Minarets, Iron Mtn, and the Silver Divide. Nearby is the Reds Meadow Pack Station.
Convict Canyon (7600'). A few miles south of the Mammoth Lakes turnoff is a signed turn for Convict Lake; turn west here, and follow the paved road for 2 miles to the Convict Canyon trailhead parking. Overnight parking is found here; day use parking is also available at the end of the paved road, on the southeast side of the lake. (A use trail leads around the south side of the lake to reach the regular Convict Canyon trail). This trailhead can be used to access Laurel Mountain, Bloody Mountain, Mt. Morrison, Mt. Baldwin, as well as Red Slate Mountain. The lake is a popular fishing and boating spot, and there is a small store and restaurant here.
White Mountain Ranger District (Inyo NF) - Toms Place/Bishop/Big Pine Area (John Muir Wilderness/Kings Canyon National Park)
Toms Place area:
McGee Creek (North) (8100'). A few miles south of the Convict Lake turnoff is another road on the west, well marked for McGee Creek. Follow this road (paved at first, good gravel at the end) past a pack station to the large parking lot at its end. This road and trail offer access to Mt. Morgan, Mt. Stanford, Red and White Mountain, Red Slate Mountain, as well as technical routes of dubious quality on Mt. Baldwin.
Little Lakes Valley (10200'), Hilton Creek (9800'), and Tamarack Lakes (9700'). A few miles east of Lake Crowley, you reach Toms Place, a tiny settlement with a bar, a payphone, possibly some drunken locals, and little else. Rock Creek Road is found here, and is well signed; follow it to its end at Mosquito Flat (paved the whole way) to access the plethora of peaks around Little Lakes Valley, including Mt. Starr, Ruby Peak, Mt. Mills, Mt. Abbot, Mt. Dade, Mt. Gabb, and Bear Creek Spire. On the drive up, a short way past Rock Creek Lake, just before the road becomes a 1-lane road with turnouts, you'll see parking on the right hand side; this is the Hilton Creek trailhead, used to access Mt. Morgan (N), Mt. Stanford, and Mt. Huntington. To reach the Tamarack Lakes trailhead, used to climb Wheeler Peak, Broken Finger Peak, and Mt. Morgan (S), take a left at the paved road junction immediately prior to Rock Creek Lake. The trailhead is well-signed and is located part way between the Lake Outlet campground and the Lake Inlet campground.
Pine Creek (7400'). Approximately 10 miles north of Bishop is an exit for the small mining community of Rovana. Take this exit (Pine Creek Road), drive through the town, and follow the paved road up to the trailhead. This is used to approach the Granite Park area, including Mt. Julius Caesar, Merriam Peak, Royce Peak, and Feather Peak, as well as the northwest side of Mt. Tom.
Horton Lakes (8100') and McGee Creek (South) (7900'-8600'). Follow SR168 (West Line Street) west out of Bishop for about 7.5 miles, and turn right onto unpaved Buttermilk Road. Follow the road past several forks, keeping to the most traveled right fork when in doubt. This is washboarded dirt, but passable to all passenger cars.
To access the Horton Lakes trailhead, turn right at a signed intersection for the trailhead, and follow the road for another 1.5 miles to a locked gate. The road is rough, with some large boulders, but should be passable to most cars with some care. (The last half mile is probably the worst; there is a good camping spot amongst some trees at this point). This trailhead is used to access Basin Mountain, Mt. Tom, and Four Gables.
To reach the McGee Creek trailhead, used to climb Checkered Demon, Mt. Humphreys, and Mt. Emerson from the north and east, continue on the main Buttermilk Road instead of turning right at the aforementioned Horton Lakes trail junction. There is a significant ford of McGee Creek at 7900' that may be an obstacle in the spring; abundant parking and good camping is found here. (If you start hiking here, several log crossings are found a short way upstream to avoid getting your feet wet). 4WDs may be able to continue to the trailhead at 8600'.
North Lake (9300'). Follow SR168 (West Line Street) west out of Bishop through Aspendell. A little over a mile past this small village (limited supplies available there--food, sunscreen, etc.), there is a signed road on the right for North Lake. Follow this narrow, winding road (a mixture of good dirt and pavement) to the large trailhead parking area on the righthand side, at the corral. The Lamarck Col and Piute Pass trailhead is located about 1/2 mile west of here; hike along the remainder of the road and through the North Lake campground to reach this. This trailhead is used to climb the Evolution peaks (Mt. Darwin, Mt. Mendel, etc.), as well as Mt. Emerson, Mt. Humphreys, and Mt. Goethe. In spring, the road may be gated shut at SR168; this adds about 1.5miles and 300' gain on to your hike.
Lake Sabrina (9100'). Follow SR168 (West Line Street) west out of Bishop about 18.5 miles to the trailhead parking, on the left side of the road just before it ends at the dam. This parking is limited to dayhikers; overnight parking is found 3/4 mile further back down the road at the North Lake turnoff. The road is generally plowed some time in April ready for fishing season. Lake Sabrina can be used to approach peaks on the crest between Mt. Darwin and Mt. Thompson, or to cross Echo Col, Wallace Col, or Haeckel-Wallace saddle to reach Evolution Basin and the Ionian Basin.
South Lake (9800') and Parchers Resort (9300'). Follow SR168 (West Line Street) west out of Bishop to the signed South Lake turnoff on the left; follow this road (South Lake road) to the trailhead parking at road's end. The Bishop Pass and Treasure Lakes trails are reached out of here; they are used to climb Mt. Gilbert, Mt. Johnson, Mt. Goode, Mt. Agassiz, and to approach the more remote peaks around Dusy Basin and Palisade Basin.
The Parchers Resort trailhead is located about 1.25 miles from the end of the road, a short way past the Tyee Lakes trailhead and Willow campground. The road to this point is generally opened earlier in the spring than the other South Lake area trailheads, and as a result this is a viable starting point for a number of the preceding peaks if you head up here before the rest of the road is plowed. In summer, this trailhead is used to climb Cloudripper from the north; park in the resort and follow the trail alongside the South Fork of Bishop Creek.
Big Pine area:
Big Pine Creek/Glacier Lodge (7800'). From Big Pine, take Crocker Road (Glacier Lodge Road) west for about 13 miles to road's end, where you'll find day use parking. (Overnight parking is half a mile back along the road, on the north side). Two trails are accessed from this trailhead: North Fork Big Pine Creek (Temple Crag, Mt. Agassiz, Mt. Winchell, North Palisade, and Mt. Sill), and South Fork Big Pine Creek (Palisade Crest, Norman Clyde Peak, Middle Palisade, and Disappointment Peak).
Birch Lake (7000'). From Big Pine, take Crocker Road (which becomes West Crocker Road, and then Glacier Lodge Road) for 2.6 miles west to McMurry Meadows Road. Turn left on this signed dirt road, and then immediately turn left (southwest) again. (The right fork parallels McMurry Meadows road, but is impassable). Follow the McMurry Meadows road south for about 5.6 miles, turning to the right onto signed FS service road 9S03A (before you reach Birch Creek or McMurry Meadow). Take this rough road (high clearance required) for about 0.5 mile to another intersection, where you turn left for a few hundred feet to a barbed wire gate. Park here. The Birch Lake trailhead is used to access Birch Mountain and the Thumb.
Red Lake/Tinemaha Creek (6600'). From Big Pine, take Crocker Road (which becomes West Crocker Road, and then Glacier Lodge Road) west to McMurry Meadows Road. Follow the directions on the Split Mtn. page to reach the trailhead. (The USFS Bishop office also has excellent printed directions to reach both this trailhead and the Birch Lake trail, which are sufficient). To access Tinemaha Creek (a cross-country route that can be used to climb Mt. Prater, Mt. Bolton Brown, and Mt. Tinemaha), take McMurry Meadows Road to the last fork below the start of the Red Lake trail. The Red Lake trail is used to climb Split Mtn., Mt. Prater, and Mt. Tinemaha.
Mt. Whitney Ranger District (Inyo NF) - Big Pine/Independence/Lone Pine Area (John Muir Wilderness/Sequoia National Park)
Big Pine area:
Taboose Pass (5400'). The Taboose Pass trail leads to Taboose Pass (11400') and Cardinal Mtn., Goodale Mtn., and the Kings Canyon backcountry, including Arrow Peak, Upper Basin, and the Pinchot Pass area. To get there, drive south from Big Pine to the signed turnoff on the right for Taboose Creek Road. The road begins as rough pavement, but soon turns to gravel and good dirt. Follow it to the first major unsigned intersection, and turn right, initially away from the creek. This fork curves back towards the creek, reaches another intersection with the Goodale Creek road; stay right again. Follow the road to where it dead-ends at the trailhead. The 5400' starting elevation is not a typo; an early start is recommended. You can expect to encounter a good deal of sand in the lower portions of the trail, and large rocks in the upper portions.
Sawmill Pass (4600') and Armstrong Canyon (5600'-8300'). Eighteen miles south of Big Pine, and eight miles north of Independence, is a 4-way intersection on 395 with Black Rock Springs Road. Turn west on this road, and follow it 0.8 miles to a T-intersection with Tinemaha Road. Turn right (north) here, and then left (west) in another 1.2 miles at Division Creek Road, following the signs to the Sawmill Pass trailhead. This trail is used to access Colosseum Mtn., Mt. Cedric Wright, Mt. Perkins, and Mt. Baxter. The 4600' starting elevation is unfortunately not a typo; start even earlier than you would for Taboose Pass!
To reach Armstrong Canyon, used to climb Mt. Pinchot, Mt. Perkins, and Colosseum Mtn., continue on the road past the Sawmill Pass trailhead, keeping right at the first fork encountered at 5500' (5.5 miles from the Hwy 395/Black Rock Spring Road junction). A reasonable parking/camping area is found in another 0.7 miles at the 5600' elevation where the road turns south; from here, an old mining road (passable to most cars) continues up to the 8300' elevation in the canyon. Keep right at the fork encountered at the 8000' elevation. As of July 2005, rockfall blocked the road shortly past this fork, and it is advisable to park here. Campsites are found in the trees at the end of the road. A decent use trail starts up the south side of the canyon in the lefthand gully.
Baxter Pass (6000'). Two miles north of Independence you'll find Fish Hatchery Road. Turn west on this road, take the righthand fork at the first intersection, and follow it about 4.5 miles in all to its end, passing through Oak Creek Campground en route. Trailhead parking is found here. This trail is used to access Mt. Baxter, Diamond Peak, Black Mtn., and Mt. Mary Austin.
Onion Valley (9200'). This trailhead is used to access the Kearsarge Pass trail (University Peak, East Vidette, Deerhorn Mountain, and Mt. Clarence King), the Golden Trout Lakes trail (Mt. Gould, Dragon Peak, and Kearsarge Peak), and the Robinson Lakes trail (Independence Peak and University Peak). From Independence, turn west at the only traffic light, and follow paved Market Street for about 14 miles to the large parking area at the end of the road. The former two trails are well signposted (follow the Kearsarge Pass trail a short way to reach the Golden Trout Lakes turnoff); the latter is more obscure, and is found by walking through the Onion Valley campground to its eastern end, where you'll find a sign that simply says "trail." The trail begins in campsite #8.
Shepherd Pass (6400'). From Independence, drive west on Market Street for 4.2 miles, before turning left on Foothill Road (gravel). The road forks after 1.3 miles; take the right fork, and continue on this main road, ignoring side roads. Continue about 1.5 miles further to a corral and a sign saying "Symmes Creek"; turn left here.
After another 0.5 miles, you'll reach a signed junction for the Shepherd Pass trail; turn right here, and follow the road to the trailhead, keeping right at both forks. The road is passable, with some care, to most passenger cars. This trail is used to access Mt. Tyndall, Mt. Williamson, Junction Peak, as well as peaks in the Sequoia NP backcountry around the upper reaches of the Kern River (Milestone Mtn., Midway Mtn., etc.). Although this trail has a reputation for being a hard hike, it is well-graded, and is generally one of the more pleasant of the high passes.
George Creek (6300'). George Creek is best approached with a 7.5' map in hand. (Actually, it's probably best not approached at all, but if you must head out here...) George Creek Road begins 5.3 miles south of Independence; head west on the dirt road, and follow it as it turns south past Manzanar Cemetery to a fork 2.5 miles from the highway. Turn right here, and continue on the main road for another 5.0 miles to a junction. The right fork leads to Bairs Creek; continue straight ahead for George Creek. The trailhead is another 1.3 miles from this junction, but the road rapidly degrades past the next 0.5 miles, and many cars park here; the last 0.5 miles require high clearance 4WD and a good set of nerves. George Creek itself has a reputation for being a brutal bushwhack, but this is overstated; there's a good use trail for much of the way, and the upper reaches are quite scenic. This approach can be used to climb Mt. Williamson, Trojan Peak, Mt. Barnard, and Mt. Carl Heller.
Lone Pine area:
Whitney Portal (8300'). From Lone Pine, take the Whitney Portal Road west to its end. The Whitney Trail leaves here (abundant red tape required, see above), and is used to access Mt. Carillon, Mt. Russell, and the technical routes on Mt. Whitney via the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, or Mt. Whitney, Mt. Muir, Mt. McAdie, or the technical routes on Thor Peak via the main trail.
Meysan Lakes (7800'). The Meysan Lakes trail begins about a mile down the hill from the Mt. Whitney trail, along the main road; a small parking area and trailhead sign is found here on the south side of the road. Follow the signs and your intuition through the campground and summer cabins to the start of the trail proper. The Meysan Lakes trail can be used to access Mt. Irvine, Mt. Mallory, Mt. LeConte, Mt. Corcoran, and Lone Pine Peak.
Horseshoe Meadows (9700'-9900'). From Lone Pine, drive three miles west on Whitney Portal Road to a signed junction with the Horseshoe Meadows road. Turn left here, and follow it up many winding miles (22 in all from Lone Pine) to Horseshoe Meadow. The New Army Pass trail (9700', access to Mt. Langley and Cirque Peak) is located at a signed turn-off about a mile before the end of the road; the Cottonwood Pass trail (9900', used to climb Joe Devel, Mt. Pickering, and Mt. Newcomb) begins at the end of the road.
Because of the area's proximity to Highway 395, access to much of the Eastern Sierra is possible year round. Needless to say, most of the peaks are substantially more demanding in winter and spring. Travel at this time of the year involves generally longer approaches due to seasonal road closures, the possibility of snow/mixed climbing on normally moderate rock, and avalanche danger. For all these reasons, May through October is the typical climbing season for most High Sierra peaks, with late June through early September attracting the majority of visitors.
As you might expect given the outstanding recreational opportunities in the area, there are abundant camping and lodging options along the east side.
Inyo National Forest manages several dozen campgrounds between Lee Vining and the Lone Pine area, most which are fee sites. There are also several Inyo County Campgrounds throughout the east side, all of which are also fee sites. (My experience with these has been that you don't get a lot for your money, unless you enjoy paying for the privilege of sleeping in the dirt amongst ants and flies attracted to the sites by others' food and squalor. On the bright side, at least it's easy to leave before fee collection in the morning).
There are also a number of cheaper options. The BLM Bishop District manages several campgrounds along the east side. As of last year (2004), these were free, with an optional donation at each; it appears that now (spring 2005), the BLM is also getting into the money making racket, and at least the Lone Pine campground is now $5/night. They have no water or garbage collection, and are open from March or April through October. From north to south, they are as follows:
For those who prefer more solitude, dispersed (i.e. free) camping can be found throughout the National Forest Land on the east side. Around Lee Vining, good spots can be found in the forest several miles east of 395, along Hwy 120 (east); just pick one of any number of dirt roads heading into the forest and you'll camp for free in complete peace and quiet. Further south around Mammoth Lakes, free camping is found around the Glass Creek campground and in the forest further west. In the Bishop area, quiet spots are found around the Buttermilks, with some particularly nice sites along the Horton Lakes road. Take SR168 west to the Buttermilk Road, turn right, and drive until you find something appealing.
You can shower for a small fee at the Big Pine Bristlecone Motel (see below), or in Bishop at the Wash Tub laundry, off Main Street next to the library ($5/person).
Lodging can be found in each of the east side towns. In general, it is most expensive at either end of the High Sierra (Bridgeport, Lee Vining, and Lone Pine), becoming cheapest around Bishop and Big Pine. In my experience, weekend rates around Bridgeport and Lee Vining tend to be $65+/night for a single, $40-45/night around Bishop and Big Pine, $50/night around Independence, and $55-60/night around Lone Pine. (Needless to say, since most places along the east side are no more than an hour's drive from Bishop, I tend to stay around there).
A list of Bishop motels can be found here and here. In Bishop, the cheapest rates I've found have generally been at the Starlite Motel, located at 192 Short Street, (877) 873-4912 or (760) 873-4912; with a coupon, this is roughly $40-45/night for a single on a summer weekend night. (You can find the same coupon in the printed "Travel Coupon Guide," a yellow booklet that can be picked up in a number of Bishop fast food joints, including the Taco Bell and Burger King along Main Street). Rooms include a small fridge and microwave. Rates for a double (2 people/2 beds) in the town are also fairly reasonable, typically around $60/night at both the Starlite Motel and the Trees Motel (796 West Line Street, (760) 873-6391). A caveat worth noting about the Starlite: Inexplicably, there are no phones in the rooms!
In Big Pine, both the Bristlecone Motel (101 North Main Street, (760) 938-2067) and Big Pine Motel (360 South Main Street, (760) 938-2282) have good rates, typically around $45/night during a summer weekend for a single. Again, both motels have a fridge and microwave in each room. The Bristlecone Motel also has wireless Internet access (channel 6, SSID: linksys).
Options are more limited in Independence and Lone Pine; Ray's Den, (760) 878-2122, and the Courthouse Motel, (800) 801-0703 or (760) 878-2732, are generally the best bets in Independence (about $50/night, AAA rate). Most of the more reasonable places in Lone Pine tend to be fully booked during the summer, so either get there early or plan on making reservations ahead of time.
One of the pleasant conveniences of a visit to the Eastern Sierra is the easy access to food and supplies. Comprehensive information about food, lodging, and services can be found on the Eastern Sierra webpage. Places of most interest to SPers are likely as follows:
Groceries and general supplies
Mammoth Lakes and Bishop both have a good-sized Vons supermarket, each featuring a Starbucks cafe to keep addicts happy. Locations are 481 Old Mammoth Road, Mammoth Lakes (hours 6am-1am), and 1190 North Main Street, Bishop (hours 5am-1am). The remaining east side towns all have smaller independent markets/convenience stores with more limited hours--with the exception of the small market at the Lone Pine Chevron station, these are often not open before 6am or after 9pm.
Although technically outside the scope of this page, the cheapest petrol in the Owens Valley for those approaching Lone Pine from the south is found at the Texaco Station in Olancha (possibly limited hours). Along the stretch of 395 between Sonora Junction and Lone Pine, the cheapest petrol is found in Bishop, and in particular the Paiute Palace Casino on the north outskirts of town, followed by the Giggle Springs station on Main Street. Petrol is more expensive, at times substantially so, in most of the other east-side towns; filling up in Bridgeport or Lee Vining in particular is recommended only on the most desperate of occasions.
Hiking and climbing gear
Last-minute hiking and climbing equipment can be purchased/rented in Mammoth Lakes and Bishop:
Places to eat
Choices for good eating on the east side are somewhat limited, but the best places are outstanding and well worth the repeat visits you'll find yourself making. If you're more concerned about eating cheaply than well, you'll find fast food choices in a subset of towns along 395: Mammoth Lakes has a Carl's Jr., McDonalds, and Subway, Lone Pine has a Carl's Jr. and McDonalds, and Independence has a Subway. Bishop has just about every fast food chain you can imagine, as well as a Denny's (open 24 hours), all located along the main drag (Hwy 395, aka Main Street).
Bridgeport: Bridgeport dining options are somewhat limited; I've eaten at Pop's Galley a couple of times (fish 'n' chips, chicken, etc.), and it's not bad, with some decent fruit-flavoured milkshakes. Located on the south side of the road, at 241 Main Street, Bridgeport. (760) 932 1172. JEFFMOORE adds: "Don't forget the Jolly Kone in Bridgeport under eateries, it's a gem!" I tried this per Jeff's suggestion, and I agree with his assessment--they have a great selection of burgers, Mexican food, ice cream, and other (very) high-calorie food. You've gotta love a place that has an item on its menu called the "Bucket o' meat." Located at 178 Main Street, Bridgeport, just across the street from Pop's Galley; phone (760) 932 7555.
Lee Vining: With its proximity to Yosemite and Mono Lake, Lee Vining is more of a tourist center, and as a result has more dining options. Most of these are really unnecessary, because there's only one place where you'll find yourself eating again and again during the summer: The Mobil Station found at the Hwy 120/US395 intersection, aka the Whoa Nellie Deli (deli hours 7am-8.45pm). This is not to be missed! The Whoa Nellie opens for fishing season (mid-April), and closes in the late fall with Tioga Pass' closure. It's fairly pricey, but the food is excellent, the mango margaritas even better, and the ambience outstanding. The surrounding store is open longer with the usual selection of prepackaged junk food (summer hours 6.30am-9pm), but be warned that there's a $5 minimum for credit card purchases.
If you must eat elsewhere in town, perhaps because you got back too late for the Whoa Nellie, Bodie Mike's Barbecue is decent and open until 10pm on the weekends, although I found portions to be small for the prices, especially after a day or two in the mountains. Mono Cone is also recommended, especially their Frosties. Nicely's has been consistently panned by everyone with whom I've spoken, although it's one of the few options if you visit in winter; its principal advantage is that it opens earlier than any other place in town (summer hours 6am-9pm). I found breakfast there to be passable, but nothing special and not really worth it if you're on a budget; $7 for fairly forgettable eggs/bacon/pancakes.
Bishop: In Bishop, Jack's is the classic eatery, and one will find both locals and climbers frequenting the establishment. It's open from 6am through 9pm daily; highly recommended as a way of replenishing those lost calories. Menu selections include a bewildering array of burgers, as well as a few other dishes (chicken, spaghetti, etc.)--typical diner fare, roughly $8-10/head. The food here is so good that I've eaten at very few of the other local diners in town. The only other such establishment I've tried is Amigos, located on the west side of Main Street just a block or two north of West Line Street (SR168). This is a great Mexican place; the marinated chicken plate in particular was superb. The only drawback is a lack of a liquor licence, so you won't find margaritas here. :-( Prices are typically ~$8-10/plate, plus drinks.
Big Pine: Your best bets are to drive fifteen minutes up to Bishop, or bring your own food and cook yourself. Options in town are limited to Rossi's Steak and Spaghetti Restaurant (relatively expensive at about $20/head, and pretty forgettable food), a pizza place I've never tried, or Country Kitchen Restaurant. The latter is the best option in town with a typical diner menu, reasonable (if unexceptional) food, and decent portions for ~$10/head--but my main memories of the place are that every time we've been in there over the past several years, there's been the same, odd person sitting in the corner, whom we've yet to identify as either male or female.
Independence: Aside from the Subway or food from the small markets, this small town boasts the Still Life Cafe--it features high prices, amazingly poor service, and is generally worth missing.
Lone Pine: Many climbers eat at the Pizza Factory along the main drag (395). Another good option is the High Sierra Cafe; food and prices are reasonable, but the main selling point might be the hours--it's open all night. But the pride of the town is undoubtedly the Whitney Portal Store, which receives consistently good reviews. Flipping through Peter Croft's The Good, The Great, and The Awesome, you'll find numerous entreaties to climb quickly in this area, in order to make it back to the portal for burger and fries... the man knows what he's talking about. Try them once, and you'll understand what he means: $7 for a cheeseburger and fries that are amazingly good for such a simple meal. The store also boasts some truly huge pancakes that have become something of a legend when it comes to breakfast in the area. (You really have to see them to believe them). Hours vary throughout the year (see the store's website for current details), but are typically 9am-5pm in May and October, 8am-7pm in June and September, and 7am-8pm during July through August.
As you tour the east side, you'll probably accumulate a bunch of empty milk, juice, and beer bottles as you rehydrate. You can recycle them in front of the Lee Vining Mobil station (i.e. the Whoa Nellie), at Mammoth Disposal, Inc. at 59 Commerce Drive, Mammoth Lakes, or at Manor Market along West Line Street (SR168, at the Shell station) in Bishop. Further details can be found here.
In addition to the usual USGS 7.5' topographic maps covering the region, a number of other area maps can be useful:
National Forest maps: Toiyabe National Forest (Bridgeport Ranger District) and Inyo National Forest both publish maps showing forest trails, roads, and land ownership within their areas of jurisdiction. These two maps are not suitable for hiking or climbing purposes, but they are very useful for locating obscure Forest Service roads and area campgrounds.
Topographic maps: In addition to the National Forest maps described above, the Forest Service also publishes topographic maps (1:62500 scale) covering the Hoover Wilderness, Ansel Adams Wilderness, and John Muir/Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness. The latter is huge, and not suitable for hiking, but is excellent for planning purposes. It includes annotations showing the Bighorn Sheep Zone (see red tape above).
Tom Harrison Maps publishes a series of waterproof topographic maps (1:63,360, 80-foot contours) that covers the entire Eastern Sierra: Hoover Wilderness Region, Yosemite High Country, Mammoth High Country, Mono Divide High Country, and Kings Canyon High Country. They also publish a 1:125000 scale map (200-foot contours) covering Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park in its entirety. These maps are particularly useful for planning as they include trail mileages.
USFS publications (the National Forest maps and USFS Wilderness maps) can be ordered online or over the phone from the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association Bookstore, or purchased in person at any Eastern Sierra Ranger Station or your local outdoors store. Tom Harrison Maps can be ordered online from the company's website (see link above), or found in most outdoors stores.
For last minute purchases on the east side, besides the local ranger stations, you'll find that several convenience stores along 395 also carry useful selections: The Shell station along 395 at the north end of Bishop sells the Tom Harrison maps covering the Eastern Sierra, and the Giggle Springs/Pace station along Main Street in downtown Bishop carries the USGS 1:100,000 series covering Bishop and the Mammoth Lakes/Benton Range areas.
Weather conditions: The NWS forecast is the most accurate for the region: Mammoth Lakes area - Bishop area.
Webcams: Tioga Pass - Lee Vining - Mono Lake - Mammoth Lakes - Bishop
USFS/local conditions reports: Mono Basin Update - Inyo NF northern area (Mono/Mammoth Ranger Districts) - Inyo NF southern area (White Mtn./Mt. Whitney Ranger Districts) - PCT conditions report (Mt. Whitney through Tuolumne Meadows).
Online messageboard links: SummitPost - Rock Creek Lake - Mt. Whitney/Eastern Sierra - Whitney Portal Store.
Caltrans highway status: Eastern/Southern Sierra, or call 1-800-427-ROAD.
Winter/spring conditions: Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center - Eastern Sierra Avalanche Bulletin - Eastern Sierra ice report - Snowpack conditions.
Miscellaneous notes: You might also try contacting Wilson's Eastside Sports for current information (contact information above).
If you're relying on previous reports to gauge current snow conditions, a helpful rule of thumb is that, on average, the snowline recedes approximately 500 feet in elevation/week in May, and 1000 feet/week in elevation in June.
The Hoover Wilderness north of SR120 is managed by Toiyabe National Forest; the Eastern Sierra south of there is managed by Inyo National Forest. Ranger stations are as follows, from north to south:
Bridgeport Ranger District (Toiyabe National Forest)
HCR 1 Box 1000
Bridgeport, CA 93517
Located just south of Bridgeport on the east side of US395.
Mono Basin Scenic Area Ranger Station & Visitor Center
P.O. Box 429
Lee Vining, CA 93541
Hours: 9am - 4.30pm (closed in winter).
Located 1/2 mile north of Lee Vining on the east side of US395.
Mammoth Ranger Station and Visitor Center
P.O. Box 148
Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546
Hours: 8am - 5pm (open all year, 7 days/week).
Located just east of Mammoth Lakes, on the north side of SR203.
White Mountain Ranger Station
798 North Main Street
Bishop, CA 93514
Hours: 8.30 am - 4.30pm (open all year, Monday-Friday in winter).
Located on the east side of US395 in downtown Bishop.
InterAgency Visitor Center
P.O. Box R
Lone Pine, CA 93545
Hours: 8am - 4.50pm (open all year, 7 days a week).
Located at the junction of Hwy 395 and Hwy 136 at the south end of Lone Pine.
Mt. Whitney Ranger Station
640 S. Main Street
P.O. Box 8
Lone Pine, CA 93545
Closed in winter (open May 1 through November 1; during winter months, visit the Interagency Visitor Center listed above).
Contact the ranger station responsible for your trailhead of interest to obtain a wilderness permit and/or current conditions, if necessary. Inyo National Forest's wilderness information line is (760) 873-2485; reservations are obtained by calling (760) 873-2483 between 8am and 4.30pm (Mon-Fri only from mid-October through mid-May, or 7 days a week the rest of the year), or by faxing (760) 873-2484.
Current contact information can be found on the Inyo NF contact page and Toiyabe NF contact page.
Besides playing in the mountains, the Eastern Sierra has a number of other activities to enjoy on that day off. From north to south, some ideas are as follows:
More information about food, lodging, and services can be found on the Eastern Sierra webpage, and at the Bishop Visitor's page. You can find further information on the Mammoth Lakes region (conditions, services, and contact information) on the Mammoth Lakes Information page.
If you have information about this area that doesn't pertain to any of the other sections, please add it here.