Well, I guarantee that you’re about to have. An. Epic. Time. The Eastern Sierras are one of the most underrated parts of California, in my opinion!
This guide goes from north, beginning in Bodie, to south, ending in Big Pine. However, you can also go the opposite way of course! You can probably do this in 2 days, although if you include the hike in Big Pine you’ll want to tack on an extra one. I guarantee you’ll want to stay longer, though – I’ve been to the Mammoth area three times and there’s still so much left to explore!
Also know that the Eastern Sierras can get a LOT of snow, so be sure to check road conditions before you go if it’s late fall, winter, or spring. You may need to carry or use snow chains, or not even be able to go at all.
I’d highly recommend early fall as the best time to go. Less people, the Aspens are changing colors, and it’s (hopefully) still warm enough to go for a dip in one of the many lakes!The Eastern Sierras have such vastly different terrain, which is fascinating, too. Both desert scrub and tall pines. I’m partial to the tall pines and lakes, but I like desert scrub, too!
Check out where you should go & why below:
WHERE TO STAY IN THE EASTERN SIERRAS: FREE CAMPINGI love the abundance of BLM land (Bureau of Land Management, aka public lands, aka FREE camping!!) all over the Eastern Sierras. I’ve always had luck finding a spot, and relatively secluded ones at that!
Want more info about exactly how I find FREE CAMPING all over California and the rest of the USA? Check out this post: How I Find Free Camping in California
Please only camp in designated spots (it’s pretty easy to tell – there’s usually a very obvious cleared dirt area, and sometimes a fire ring, although you’re not usually allowed to have fires). It’s especially important in the desert, as you want to be sure and avoid Cryptobiotic Crusts/Soils!!I use freecampsites.net to find the best campsites. I haven’t been steered wrong yet!
- Just off of Highway 108, and found an awesome spot between the towns Pinecrest and Dardanelle.
- Anywhere around Wild Willy’s hot springs – there are a TON of spots in that area.
- Just south of Mono Lake
BODIE IS THE DEFINITION OF A GHOST TOWNBodie State Historic Park place is a mega eerie ghost town. The last residents left about 65 years ago – and you can still see inside plenty of the houses, full of abandoned furniture and belongings. It’s quite fascinating to walk around and wonder what life would have been like back then. We arrived at Bodie around 9:30 (it opens at 9), which I would HIGHLY recommend because it was starting to get busy by 10. We were happy we’d had a little bit of solitude to ourselves!
However, it is pretty spread out, so even if you arrived during peak time you could probably walk up into the hills and get away from the bulk of visitors.It costs $8 for adults to visit. Very worth it, in my opinion! They also do occasional night opening hours – I can’t even imagine how cool it would be to visit under the stars.
MONO LAKE: SALTY WATER, TUFAS, AND A BAJILLION BIRDS**It’s $3 for adults to visit the lake.
And no, by “Mono Lake” I don’t mean a lake where you come back with mononucleosis.
I mean a lake where floating is made easy because of its high salt content; a lake where birds gather in masses; a lake where flies swarm across the shore like black curtains. Sound appealing?
And I can’t forget the Tufas! These large behemoths rising out of the water are made of calcium carbonate and alkaline water, aka limestone.If you plan on swimming (which is actually encouraged!), be prepared with a bathing suit, so you don’t end up stripping down to your underwear while some older kayakers pass by mid-pants drop. You can enter the water from Navy Beach.
If you want to swim, summer and fall are definitely the best times! The lake was by no means warm, and when I went for the second time in the spring the water definitely wasn’t as salty due to the large amount of rainfall we’d received that winter. You didn’t get that floaty feeling like I’d gotten when I went in the fall, as shown in the photo below.
The salt will also make your hair, bathing suit, and life in general extremely crunchy! So maybe don’t swim if you plan to camp for the next couple of nights without showering… (oops…)And if you have any cuts – godspeed, my friend.
If you’re into birdwatching, bring your binoculars, because you can see some cool shit out there! California Gulls nest at the lake, and other birds migrate through – depending on the time of year, you’ll see Phalaropes (so cute), Eared Grebes, Snowy Plovers, Avocets, and White-faced Ibises, just to name a few. We also saw an Osprey nest!
RAINBOW FALLS IS STILL PRETTY SANS RAINBOWBoth Rainbow Falls and Devil’s Postpile are located along the same trail, so you can see them both at the same time! Keep in mind that they’re popular spots, so if you’re visiting on a weekend in the summer GET THERE EARLY.
In the summer months, you have to park at the Mammoth Adventure Center and take a shuttle to the trailhead area. They’re trying to cut down on traffic since it’s becoming such a popular spot. It’s actually kinda nice to not have to worry about driving/parking, since the road down to the trailhead is pretty narrow and windy, although the shuttle does cost money. It’s pretty cheap, though.The hike isn’t bad at all, either – about 5 miles round trip (2.5 each way), although we took a short cut and probably cut a mile out.
You can even hike down to the base of the waterfall if you want! The stairs were unfortunately closed when we went, but they’ve since reopened.
DEVILS POSTPILE IS ACTUALLY A WORK OF GODI can’t find why in the world it’s called Devils Postpile, and don’t 100% understand how it became what it is today. But basically, some crazy earth shit went down and this was the result. Geology nerds, feel free to explain away in the comments!
I wish we had hiked to the top of the Postpile (a super short hike) because the tops of the columns look like really cool honeycomb-shaped tiles!
I’ve heard that it’s awesome to stop and eat at the Mulehouse Cafe in Reds Meadow (a popular spot for PCT hikers in the Eastern Sierras), but didn’t get to try it this time.
GET NAKED AND GET IN A HOT SPRINGAnd lol no, you definitely don’t have to get naked (but I mean, you can if you want to)!
We went to Wild Willy’s Hot Springs, famous for it’s heart-shaped pool, and it was pretty crowded. Granted, we went on a Friday night, but you still may want to check out the other hot springs along the highway that are less popular. Wild Willy’s also tends to live up to its name and get a little ‘wild’ with partiers, so if you want to go but aren’t into that scene you may want to go before nightfall.
There are three pools in total at Wild Willy’s, the heart shaped one, a bigger one, and another medium one. So, you do have options!Keep in mind there are no real toilets, only a portapotty at the beginning of the trail (it’s about a 5ish minute walk), so plan accordingly. There may or may not be toilet paper, and there’s definitely no hand sanitizer!
Be sure to see the geothermal hot springs right near Wild Willy’s – but don’t get in unless you want to lose some limbs.
BISHOP IS A COOL CLIMBING TOWN
Before hitting Lake Sabrina, you’ll most likely drive through Bishop. It’s a cool small town that climbers flock to, since there are lots of great spots around the Mammoth area.
LAKE SABRINA IS PROBABLY A GREEN SCREENLake Sabrina is SO pretty! We admittedly mainly went because my friend, Sabrina, wanted to visit her namesake. But we were pretty happy with our choice!
We decided to kayak, which cost an hour for $15. Pretty damn good deal, if ya ask me! You can also swim in the lake, but most other people were fishing, and renting motorized rowboats. They only have 2 kayaks available for rent, so I imagine fishing is the main draw.Later, we got THE BEST ICE CREAM IN THE WORLD EVER at Dessert’D, an organic bake shop. I swear. I even got the vegan flavors, and you wouldn’t have been able to tell! So, if you’re in Mammoth (or anywhere in the Eastern Sierras honestly), you should 10000000% do this, especially after a day outside. Beware that it is a little pricey, though, but so worth it!
HIKE TO THE BIG PINE LAKESIf you have an extra day, definitely plan to spend it hiking the Big Pine Lakes Trail! At 13 miles, it’s definitely doable in a day. However, we found the hike to be semi-grueling, especially if you’re backpacking (every backpacker we passed on our way back down had the same look of pain in their eyes). The beginning section is pretty much ALL uphill, but so worth it once you hit the lakes! There are seven lakes, and one extra called Black Lake, on the loop, all named by their order – ie First Lake, Second Lake, etc.
We only made it to the first three, which are supposedly the most beautiful (although I’ll never know because we didn’t make it to the other ones…). Second Lake is the crowd favorite, though, with Temple Crag looming above it!
IT WOULDN’T BE A ROAD TRIP WITHOUT GETTING YOUR CAR STUCK…Here’s a fun little story about how things don’t always go according to plan on the road…
My friend Sabrina and I drove to Lake Sabrina, and for some reason Google Maps took us on an alternate route as it claimed that the main road was closed (which we later found out wasn’t!!). Of course, the alternate route was along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. A similar situation happened during our road trip in Oregon. You would think we’d have learned our lesson, but nope! The dirt road got worse and worse until it became pretty much undriveable, and then – my car got stuck.
I’d been driving (mistake #1) and tried to go up a hill filled with rocks and grooves. My car got stuck in one of the dips, so I backed up, but panicked and did so in a very crooked fashion – off the road and into a bunch of desert plants.Typical.
I forced Sabrina to take the wheel while I tried to breathe, and she confirmed: we were stuck.
My car was leaning way to the left (like halfway to tipping over on its side), the back wheels were stuck in plants, and the front right wheel was digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole.
Two backpackers passed us, saw our predicament, and just said “good luck” before continuing on. Like, they must’ve clearly heard Sabrina say, “we’re stuck” – and didn’t do anything. What would you have done? I think I at least would’ve asked if I could do anything, and then hung out for moral support if needed, even though I suck at driving (clearly, from this incident).They also had a tiny little car with very low clearance with them, and had gotten almost as far as us before giving up. I have NO IDEA how, we went over some pretty big rocks! I was nervous for my CR-V, and it has pretty high clearance!
Anyways. Luckily we had service, and I was about to call AAA, because my car was digging itself deeper and deeper into a hole. BUT THEN! Sabrina decided to try and back up over the desert scrub (so sorry, plants!!), and she was a G and got my car out!This whole ordeal lasted about 15-20 minutes. I really wish I’d gotten a video (and Sabrina says she wishes the same, but was too afraid I’d yell at her LOL which I probably would have). If you wanted to extend your California road trip, I’d also highly recommend visiting Yosemite!
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