Getting out: The eastern Sierra Nevada
Aug 20, 2009
By Ron Erskine
There are countless places to take in breathtaking views when visiting the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range. Photo by: Ron Erskine
If you travel the world in search of grand mountain scenery - the Alps, the Andes, the Himalayas - you will see nothing more spectacular than the views available from your car window in the eastern Sierra Nevada.
This is not chamber of commerce hyperbole. Between Bridgeport in the north and Lone Pine in the south, U.S. Highway 395 traces the eastern escarpment of the Sierra. The mountain range has risen abruptly along faults in the east resulting in a profile that tilts gently to the west and drops dramatically to the east. So, as you drive Highway 395, peaks rising 10,000 feet above you appear nearly within reach.
The first time I drove this road, it was a revelation. Until that time, my adventures in the Sierra had been on the gentle western slope. When I finally saw such monumental topography in the mountain range I thought I knew, I was astounded. How could I have lived nearly my entire life in this state and not know this was here?
There is a catch however - it's a bit of a drive. Tioga Pass through Yosemite and the next pass north, Sonora Pass, are beautiful roads, but twisting and slow, and they are closed in winter. So, as you face the six-hour drive to the Lee Vining and Mono Lake, remember what's in store, then go to your "happy place" knowing that several RV's will be modulating your pace along the way.
There are many guidebooks and natural history books about the east side, but the one essential item you need is AAA's "Guide to the Eastern Sierra." In its folds are four large maps detailing sections of Highway 395 and the various spur roads that turn off the highway to Sierra trailheads. It also lists campgrounds, fishing information, and points of information. There are countless places to visit and a lifetime of exploring to do, so let's get started.
After five hours, you will finally reach Tioga Pass and the 9,941-foot Sierra crest. Here will be your introduction to the steep eastern escarpment. In the next 10 minutes and six miles, you will descend very steeply to the town of Lee Vining, losing much of the elevation it has taken so long to gain.
In Lee Vining, visit the Mono Lake Committee bookstore and information center, and a couple miles north of town, the Mono Lake Visitor Center. The Mono Lake Committee led the fight to save Mono Lake, and from its great selection of books, you can find the right one to guide your explorations. The Mono Lake Visitor Center commands a wonderful view of the lake and also has a great selection of local guidebooks.
Each spur road off of Highway 395 into the mountains is a doorway to true wonders, but one stands above all for easy access to stunning scenery. Fifteen miles south of Mammoth Lakes is Tom's Place. Leave Highway 395 here and drive 11 miles up lovely Rock Creek to the 10,255-foot Mosquito Flat trailhead at the end of the road. This is the entrance to Little Lakes Valley and one of the most spectacularly scenic areas anywhere. After walking up a short rise, breathtaking views appear up the valley to Bear Creek Spire and Mount Abbot (both are roughly 13,700 -feet tall).
Take the easy walk along this chain of lakes as far as your stamina permits. Looking up at the magnificent peaks or down at the changing lakes and the cascades that link them, every step is truly magical.
Your exploration of the east side has begun. There's a lot left to do, and that's good news.
Ron Erskine writes an outdoors column every Friday for the Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.