Mention the Sierra, and Yosemite or Lake Tahoe usually comes to mind. But there’s another side of the Sierra that rewards the curious traveler with equally dramatic scenery, fewer people, and less traffic. The Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway, as Highway 395 is called, is one of the best road trips in America. For photographers, birders, anglers, day-hikers, and backpackers, the Eastern Sierra provides myriad opportunities to explore without the crowds and congestion of better-known destinations.
We first heard about the Eastern Sierra some years ago when friends suggested we’d enjoy the high country hiking easily accessible there. On their recommendation, we headed over the Sonora Pass and down Highway 395 to Rock Creek, between Mammoth and Bishop, and we’ve been returning regularly ever since.
13 miles south of Bridgeport on Highway 395 at Conway Summit, you’ll get your first breathtaking view of Mono Lake and its otherworldly tufa formations. To learn more about the history, geology, and ecology of the Mono Lake Basin, stop in at either the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center, run by the Forest Service, or at the Mono Lake Committee Info Center and Bookstore in Lee Vining. Scheduled naturalist-led walks in the South Tufa portion of Mono Lake are an enjoyable way to learn about this area, as well. One word of warning: South Tufa is a particularly popular spot, especially for photographers, at sunrise and even more so at sunset. You may encounter crowds here, although it’s about the only place in the Eastern Sierra where that’s likely.
Less than 5 miles from the South Tufa area is the northern junction of Highway 395 with California Route 158, the June Lake Loop. This scenic drive takes you past four lovely alpine lakes, with plenty of pull-outs for stops to admire the scenery or explore paths leading down to creeks nestled in aspen groves and hidden picnic areas. In the fall, the hillsides are ablaze with the colors of the aspens. Popular in all seasons, June Lake offers skiing, snowboarding, and other winter activities as well as hiking, fishing, and boating in summer.
A marked spur road off of 158 goes to the trailhead for Parker Lake and a 4-mile roundtrip hike that easily rates 5 stars. The trail ascends only 400 feet over an intact terminal moraine that has the distinction of looking exactly as it did thousands of years ago. It then leads into aspen thickets and stands of Jeffrey and lodge pole pines, and runs along a lovely creek offering welcome shade and rest opportunities.
Heading down to the dark green waters of Parker Lake, you confront a classic High Sierra landscape. The pristine lake is bounded by lateral moraines with impressive 12,000-foot peaks and the long waterfall from Koip Peak at its head. Plan to spend some quality time here just enjoying the scenery and the solitude. On a still day, the reflections alone make the hike worthwhile. As icing on the cake, you’re treated to stunning views of Mono Lake as you near the parking area on your return.
About 20 miles south on 395, picturesque Convict Lake, a favorite with anglers and boaters, is worth a stop. Take the well-marked turnoff and continue on to the furthest day-use parking area. This is another pristine alpine lake surrounded by dramatic, colorful peaks; at the height of the season, the fall colors here can be spectacular. Some small sandy beaches provide picnic and play areas. An easy 2-miles hike around the lake provides other perspectives, or you can rent a canoe, kayak, or pontoon boat for an entirely different point of view.
Continuing 12 miles down 395, the turnoff at Tom’s Place takes you up Rock Creek Canyon, where the road ends at the Mosquito Flat trailhead. At 10,255 feet, this is the highest trailhead in the entire Sierra Nevada range, offering an abundance of hiking and backpacking opportunities. Follow the Little Lakes Valley trail for as long or short a hike as you please. You’ll be rewarded with awesome views of granite spires and a series of lovely alpine lakes. I could hike this trail every day and never tire of it. For a more challenging adventure, continue out this trail and over Morgan Pass, or take the spur trail for the steep, exposed ascent to 12,045-foot Mono Pass. All of these hikes can be extended into multi-day backpacking trips into the back country or arranged as pack trips.
If you want to continue further south down 395, there are many other destinations worth considering, and a few I would especially recommend. Easily accessed from the town of Bishop, the Ancient Bristle Cone Pine Forest, on the eastern side of 395 in the White Mountains, is home to the world’s oldest living trees, some of which are over 4,000 years old.
Between Bishop and Lone Pine is the Manzanar National Historic Site, the partially-restored concentration camp where 10,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants were interned during World War II. A civics lesson most relevant to our times, this site, situated below the towering Sierra Crest, is well worth several hours.
Finally, Lone Pine is the access to Whitney Portal with its iconic views of Mt. Whitney and the whimsical shapes of the eroded granite of the Alabama Hills. You’ll recognize the landscape from the many Westerns filmed here.
Next time the mountains beckon, consider heading for Highway 395 and the Eastern Sierra. You won’t be sorry.