The mountain range of the Sierra Nevada it is a region as extensive as it is full of noteworthy natural attractions. Certainly among the main places of interest there are some typical stops on the most common South West on the road itineraries, such as the national parks of Yosemite, Sequoia and, a little less traveled, Kings Canyon. But amidst the majestic mountain peaks and dense forests of the Sierra Nevada much more awaits you.
In the area east of the area (Eastern Sierra) there are some of the most breathtaking scenic roads in the United States, crystal clear lakes nestled in the mountains, unusual natural beauties shaped by volcanic activity and imposing mountains between 3000 and 4000 meters await you in a scenario that is difficult to forget. Here is an itinerary designed precisely to cross the ridge of the Sierra Nevada along its splendid snow-capped peaks and remaining with wide open eyes;
- Eastern Sierra: when and why?
- From Yosemite to Death Valley: itinerary among the mountain wonders
- Lee Vining
- Bridgeport (northward detour)
- Mammoth Lakes
- Big pine
- Lone Pine
Eastern Sierra: when and why?
The itinerary we are talking about today runs along the U.S. 395 and is functional to West Coast tours that include Yosemite National Park and Death Valley (for example this 20 day tour). Usually, after crossing the Yosemite park via the Tioga Road, we begin, after an overnight stay, the descent along the Eastern Sierra to reach the Valley of Death; the more indomitable then continue to Las Vegas, while the majority decide to stay overnight in the park or in the nearby cities (find all the info about it in our guide on how to find a hotel in the Death Valley area).
The journey is long and for this reason the Eastern Sierra area is often crossed in a hurry, without allowing time for the many attractions that are encamped along the way. This article aims to make you aware of the region you are passing through, it is then up to you to decide what to give more importance to and if you wish to dedicate an extra day to exploring the area. Clearly, for the reasons stated above, it is very likely that you will find yourself passing through this area during the summertime, when you find the road that connects Yosemite to the Eastern Sierra open, for more information on the route and opening times of the road, take a look at our article on Tioga Road.Do you want to reach the Eastern Sierra in the winter?
Other crossings north of Tioga Road are also closed, however the California Department of Transportation tries to keep the following open all year round:
- Donner Summit (Interstate 80, I-80)
- Echo Summit (U.S. Route 50, US 50)
- Carson Pass (State Route 88, SR 88)
Probably the most convenient route to take is US 50 which runs from Sacramento to Lake Taohe via Echo Summit.
And for the U.S. 395? Also in this case it should be open, in any case you can check the opening conditions directly on this site.
From Yosemite to Death Valley: itinerary among the mountain wonders
The itinerary runs from North to South (with a detour in the second leg) coming from Yosemite National Park, but it can also be done in the opposite direction.
As soon as you exit the East Gate of Yosemite Park (Tioga Pass Entrance), the sublime vision of the monkey lake, the main attraction in the small town of Lee Vining. The lake is striking for its particular conformations of tuff that come out of the water, you will begin to notice it by descending by car from the mountain pass, you will find various points along the way to stop and take pictures, but my advice is to get to the lake to visit it up close (and why not, even take a canoe excursion). Find all the details to visit the lake in our article on Mono Lake. The town offers some other elements of interest, although not comparable to the beauty of Mono Lake:
- Lundy Canyon Trail: if you love hiking in the mountains, this path that starts from Lake Lundy to get to the waterfalls of the same name is to be taken into consideration given the splendid landscapes of the canyon; reaching Lundy Falls the trail is not particularly difficult and can be extended to more challenging levels reaching Saddlebag Lake. The trail start is at the end of Lundy Lake Road.
- Upside Down House: Those who love bizarre attractions can drop by this upside down house (interior included); there are several of this type around the world, if you are a fan of the genre you will find another in our guide to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The house is located downtown at 129 Mattly Avenue.
Lee Vining accommodation available
Bridgeport (northward detour)
Once you reach Lee Vining, the most natural direction of this itinerary would be to go down south towards Mammoth Lakes, but in doing so we will miss a real gem, one of those stops that it is really a shame to give up. We then turn north towards Bridgeport, a mountain town with a Western-flavored Main Street, however, we do not follow 395 to the city center; we turn right on 270 to venture into a perfectly preserved authentic western town: Bodie State Historic Park.
If you want to continue towards Bridgeport there is another interesting attraction about a 5 minute drive from the city center. It is about Travertine Hot Spring, a thermal spring immersed in the mountains where you can experience the thrill of swimming at high altitude. There are several such hot springs in the Eastern Sierra region and the most impressive is probably the Hilltop Hot Springs in nearby Mammoth Lakes. Proceeding further north is one of the main attractions of the northern region, Lake Tahoe, but the detour would lead us too far off the road… it will be for another time.
Accommodation available in Bridgeport
Here we are at the flagship of the Eastern Sierra: a renowned ski resort with many accommodation facilities, Mammoth Lakes it is a real treasure trove of natural wonders to be explored by car or with regenerating walks. Crystalline lakes, waterfalls, calderas and volcanic craters, ancient geological sites, majestic peaks and thermal springs combine to create an amazing landscape.
Lovers of out-of-the-ordinary natural beauties can indulge themselves by visiting Crowley Lake Columns e Devils Postpile National Monument, those in search of lake landscapes should not miss the June Lake Loop, while Minaret Vista it's the best way to get a quick glimpse of all the major peaks in the area. The signs left by the action of the volcanic eruption are also typical of this area: the chasm of Earthquake Fault, the bubbling and multicolored waters of Hot Creek Geological Site, the craters of Inyo (Your Craters) and the volcanic dome of Obsidian Dome. Also not to be overlooked is the suggestive area of the thermal springs, whose flagship is the aforementioned Hilltop Hot Springs. In short, there are so many things to see in this area that we have decided to collect them in a dedicated article: ours guida a Mammoth Lakes.
Accommodation available in Mammoth Lakes
Located an hour and 20 minutes from the Tioga Pass and 2 hours and 40 from Death Valley, Bishop is one of the main towns of the Eastern Sierra and, boasting a fair number of accommodations, is often considered as a stopover for overnight stays . The main attraction is definitely the Laws Railroad Museum (10 minutes from downtown), an open-air recreation of the western town of Laws, which was once a major transportation hub in the Owens Valley area. In addition to the many restored buildings, you will find a large number of historic locomotives on the spot; recommended for rail and old west enthusiasts!
If, on the other hand, you are looking for strange and bizarre things, the American territory as you know always has something to offer in this regard and Bishop is no exception. You can exit the city west on 168, take Red Hill Road, turn right onto Ed Powers Road and then left onto Tungsten City Road. After just over 1 km you will have to take a dirt road on the right which will lead you to Pet Cemetery, an animal cemetery that will make Stephen King lovers feel nostalgic. Finding the exact point on the navigator is not easy, try to enter these coordinates: N 37 ° 21.861 W 118 ° 29.519.
If the bizarre is what attracts you, the places of interest don't end there. On East Bishop Creek Road, just off Route 168, approximately 7 miles west of Bishop is a Gravity Hill, one of those mysterious sites where gravity seems to work in a very particular way… an optical illusion makes one perceive a descent as if it were an ascent until it gives the sensation that the machine is moving by itself. Don't believe it? Take a look at the video below, shot with the car in neutral ...
Accommodations available in Bishop
The small town of Big Pine is the ideal base for 2 beautiful natural attractions in the surrounding area, although there are not many accommodations available in the city.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
About 3/4 of an hour from the center of Big Pine and 1 hour from Bishop is one of the most interesting attractions of the Eastern Sierra in my opinion: in this forest in the White Mountains in Inyo County there are in fact the oldest trees in the world, much older than the giant sequoias present on the west side of the Sierra Nevada (for example Yosemite and Sequoia National Park), just think that the oldest, the Methuselah Tree (the tree of Methuselah) is over 4700 years old. What makes these trees particularly interesting, in addition to their venerable age, is certainly the intricate shape of the branches, such as to make them unique specimens in the world.
In John Muir Wilderness the granite peaks of Palisades (over 4000 meters) rise above the largest glacier throughout the Sierra Nevada. The view is extraordinary but the walk is as rewarding as it is demanding: 30 km round trip with an altitude difference of about 1550 meters to be done in 2 days. Fortunately, it is possible to do only one part of it by stopping at Second Lake (the recommended point to camp by breaking the walk), while still enjoying a splendid panorama. In this case you can get by (so to speak) with 600 meters of elevation gain and 20 km of walk (round trip). The path is one of the most popular in the area, so you need to request a permit and well in advance. The start of the trail is at Glacier Lodge, a 30 minute drive from Big Pine.
Accommodation available in Big Pine
We are exactly halfway between the East entrance of the Yosemite park and Death Valley, the town of Independence is a small settlement nestled in a plain framed by majestic mountains, often used only to spend the night, but in its surroundings there are 2 attractions notable:
Manzanar National Historic Site
A 15-minute drive from Independence is the most significant historical place of interest in the entire Sierra Nevada. Here and in other concentration camps, during the Second World War, the United States interned thousands of Japanese following the Pearl Harbor attack. On the site you can visit a number of buildings (some reconstructed, others in their original form) including shipping containers, detention rooms, the mess hall and the camp cemetery. Over 10000 people were locked up here and the interesting exhibits at the site highlight how, in this harsh circumstance, the prisoners managed to create a strong sense of community among them. The site is located 12km south of Independence, to find it continue on 395 and follow the signs.
Kearsage Pass – Onion Valley
About 30 minutes from the city center, heading west (taking the Onion Valley Road), is one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the entire Sierra. To reach it, however, you will have to work a lot, since the path is 8 miles long there and back with an altitude difference of 800 meters. To get to the top you will need to camp one night (Flower Lake is the ideal spot) and apply for a permit.
Accommodation available in Independence
The small town of Lone Pine is set in a splendid natural setting, not surprisingly used by Hollywood to shoot many western films. The city is the reference point for those who want to admire the Monte Whitney, the tallest of all the contiguous United States (4421 meters); climbing it is an undertaking reserved for a few experts but to enjoy it in all its majesty, just exit 395 and turn west on Whitney Portal Road. A splendid contrast will appear in front of you, the one that the rocky hills of Alabama Hills form with the vertiginous summit of Mount Whitney in the background (see the cover image of this article).
The whole area deserves a good exploration on the road and various excursions. The Alabama Hills are an area rich in rocky conformations with strange shapes (and sometimes made even more bizarre by the work of man, as in the case of Nightmare Rock), wrapped rock arches (the Mobius Arch for example) and film sets (there is a path to follow, called Movie Road, if you are a fan of western movies you can't miss it). Celebrating Lone Pine's Hollywood past is also the Museum of Film History, where you will find numerous memorabilia relating to the films shot in this area.
Continuing in the direction to visit Death Valley, you can make a small detour to Cerro Gordo Ghost Town, what remains of an Old West mining town; before arriving you can stop at Owens Dry Lake, a largely dried-up lake where some unusual colors of the ground occur (in some areas there is an unlikely bright red). On the eastern side of the lake, where Highway 136 continues towards Death Valley, you can stop at Owens Lake Plaza, explore the surroundings and read the explanatory signs that inform you about the origins and transformations of the lake. Whether you stop by or not, one of the best panoramic views of Owens Lake is right from the western town of Cerro Gordo. Just before arriving, turn around and take a picture like this:
Accommodation available in Lone Pine