California’s Eastern Sierra region is a mystery to most people. Hey, I get it–it’s remote, rugged, and not the easiest to get to. It is also often overshadowed by more popular spots like Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Lake Tahoe. But for travelers who take the time to explore deeper, they will be blessed with an outdoor wonderland that can only be understood by visiting for yourself.
California’s Eastern Sierra region is filled with some of the Sierra’s most rugged and breathtakingly beautiful terrain. Expect unforgettable hiking opportunities, clear alpine lakes, expanse mountain views, world-class snowboarding and bouldering, and fall foliage that can’t be seen anywhere else in California.
We recently took a long weekend road trip from the Bay Area through the Eastern Sierra region for the first time in our lives (and we’re California locals)! After discovering wonder upon wonder with too limited of time to see/do it all, we vowed that we’d go back for more camping, hiking, and sightseeing in the near future. If you’re looking for the best things to do in the Eastern Sierra region of California, then you’re in the right place!
After countless hours of researching and preparing for my own road trip, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best things to do in the Eastern Sierra region of California. Don’t miss our food recommendations and important pro tips, speckled throughout this post!
Once you get through this post you’ll find outdoor getaways like June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, Bishop, and Yosemite National Park calling your name. Get ready for an epic off-the-beaten-path adventure on the eastern side of California!
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WHERE IN CALIFORNIA IS THE EASTERN SIERRA REGION?
The Eastern Sierra is the remote region in California comprising the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, which includes Mono and Inyo Counties. If you can picture where Lake Tahoe and Yosemite are, think of the area just east of that.
This area contains two major ski areas, the extremely unique Mono Lake, the world-class resort of Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, various rugged outdoor hot springs, Bodie Ghost Town, Bishop, and much much more.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT THE EASTERN SIERRA AREA?
Summer and Fall are my preferences for visiting the Eastern Sierra area. Getting the chance to swim in refreshingly cold alpine lakes? Yes! Breathing in the cool mountain air and catching the fall colors at their peak? Also yes!
Summer – The most popular time to visit the cool mountain towns of the Eastern Sierras is during the summer. This is when the weather is the warmest, giving you that perfect mountain escape where you can hike, mountain bike, splash in the lakes, and enjoy the outdoors. Since the weather is so perfect, expect more vacationers in the area.
Fall – Fall is an absolutely wonderful time to visit as well. The fall foliage in this area is unlike anywhere else in California. In fact, the Eastern Sierra provides the best display of glowing golden-orange-crimson fall colors in the western United States! For peak autumn views, head to the Eastern Sierra from mid-September to October.
If you’re traveling during this time, make a note to visit Rock Creek, Mammoth Lakes, the June Lake Loop, Yosemite Tioga Pass, Lundy Canyon, or Bridgeport to see the finest fall colors. If you want to plan your trip around the foliage, use this super-helpful fall colors tracking website to track the latest color changes!
Winter and Early Spring – These are also great times to visit if you’re looking for those winter retreat vibes. During the winter season, the area gets blanketed with snow and becomes a winter wonderland for those who want to hit the slopes and sip on hot cocoa by the fireplace.
NOTE: Winter in the mountains lasts a lot longer than it does in other parts of California, and there may very well be snow here well into the spring season. Always check the weather report, road conditions, and snowpack report to determine the latest conditions. You may need to use snow chains (or at least carry them with you) or not even be able to go at all.
HOW TO GET TO CALIFORNIA’S EASTERN SIERRA REGION
Since we’re from the Bay Area, CA (Northern California), not too far from places like Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes, Bishop, or June Lake, we got to the area by simply driving. Driving is one of our favorite ways to get around California these days after recently discovering the sheer amount of fun detours and road trip stops that exist all over California!
Since the Eastern Sierra is a pretty large region, let’s use Mammoth Lakes as a point of reference to discuss distances.
The closest major city to Mammoth Lakes is Reno, Nevada, a 3-hour drive from Mammoth Lakes, CA. If you don’t plan on completely road-tripping to the area, you could fly directly into Reno–Tahoe International Airport (RNO). From there, rent a car and drive the rest of the way to Mammoth Lakes, CA. (And if you really don’t feel like driving, you could entertain the idea of flying directly into Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH), located a short 10 minutes away from Mammoth Lakes–but this route definitely won’t be cheap).
If you do plan on driving your way over to Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area, you could also drive from either the San Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles.
Here is a quick breakdown of the distances between Mammoth Lakes and other parts of California/Nevada.
- Reno, NV (RNO) to Mammoth Lakes, CA: 3-hour drive
- San Francisco, CA (SFO) to Mammoth Lakes, CA: 5-hour drive
- Oakland, CA (OAK) to Mammoth Lakes, CA: 4-hour 50 min drive
- San Jose, CA (SJC) to Mammoth Lakes, CA: 5-hour 50 min drive
- Los Angeles, CA (LAX) to Mammoth Lakes, CA: 4-hour 50 min drive
- Las Vegas, NV (LAS) to Mammoth Lakes, CA: 5-hour 15 min drive
The drive times above are assuming you make no stops at all. But since there are so many fun stops along the way (which we’ll get into in just a little bit), do allocate a lot more time to make the full drive. The amount of time you’ll need to factor in will depend on how many stops you end up making. Trust us, there are a lot of them!
RENTING A CAR FOR YOUR EASTERN SIERRA ROAD TRIP
If you don’t have a car or don’t have a reliable car you trust to get you out of your starting city and back in one piece, I suggest you pick up a rental car for your road trip.
We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive. Book your rental car with them here.
If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees. Since we’re always looking to save where we can, we almost always start our rental car search with Priceline.
Regardless of which rental car company you decide to go with, make sure you have the appropriate car rental coverage. Our credit card benefits typically cover car rental insurance, so we usually stick with that as our primary insurance.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN THE EASTERN SIERRA: YOSEMITE, MAMMOTH LAKES, JUNE LAKE, BISHOP, AND MORE
TAKE A MULTI-DAY ROAD TRIP
Half the fun of getting to the Eastern Sierra region is the road trip to get there, especially during the late spring, summer, and fall seasons! Depending on where you’ll be coming from, you’ll be passing through a lot of landmarks and parks worthy of some stops.
From Northern California/San Francisco, you’ll get the opportunity to visit Sacramento, Reno, Lake Tahoe, the rest of Calaveras County/Gold Country, Yosemite National Park, Mono Lake, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, Devils Postpile National Monument, Bishop, and more.
From Southern California/Los Angeles, you’ll be passing by Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Death Valley National Park, Mount Whitney, and Alabama Hills.
Wow, that was a lot. With all those national parks within arms’ reach, how could you pass up the opportunity to stop?
PRO TIP: For most of the National Parks, you’ll need to pay a $25-35 entrance fee to stop and explore, or even to drive through them. This pass lasts for 7 days, so if you don’t have the time to explore the park on your way to your destination, you can still take advantage of the pass you paid for on your way back. However, if you plan on visiting a few National Parks or National Monuments, We highly recommend getting the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, which costs $80 and will get you into any of the 2,000 National Parks, National Monuments, or National Forests for an entire year. You can buy a pass online at REIor in-person at the entrance gates of any National Park.
EXPLORE YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
You’ve probably heard of Yosemite, known for its majestic rushing waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, and granite cliffs more massive than one could imagine. California is so lucky to be the home of this iconic National Park. On average, about four to five million people visit Yosemite each year, and most of them spend the majority of their time in Yosemite Valley.
It’s a no-brainer why this is. Yosemite holds many natural wonders such as Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall, Half Dome, and El Capitan. Here, you can take a hike among ancient sequoia trees, ride bikes with incredible rock formations as your backdrop, soak in the Merced River, and even catch glimpses of baby bear cubs.
I’ve been to Yosemite seven times now and I keep going back, so I know you’re going to have a wonderful time here! No matter what season it is, Yosemite makes for a great weekend destination. However, if you have only one day to spend in the park, make the stops mentioned in this Yosemite 1-day itinerary your priority!
This was such a beautiful drive, filled with sweeping granite views and endless fir and pine trees reminding me of the winter holidays! We had never been on the eastern end of Yosemite, so we got to enjoy views of Tuolumne Meadows, Olmsted Point and more.
Because Tioga Pass is actually a part of Yosemite NP, we had to pay an entrance fee to drive through. Luckily, we had our America The Beautiful Pass so we didn’t actually have to cough up any money at all.
IMPORTANT NOTE: During the winter, Tioga Pass in Yosemite is closed so you won’t be able to take this route to drive through the park. The South Entrance is still open and accessible to visitors, though.
WHERE TO STAY: We have a whole post to guide you on Yosemite lodging! Check it out here: Where To Stay At Yosemite National Park: 7 Affordable Lodging Options
VISIT SOME GOLD RUSH TOWNS
On the way to Yosemite, you’ll be really close to some iconic gold rush towns like Columbia, Murphys, Jamestown, and Sonora, CA. Along historic Highway 49 in Northern California, you’ll be delighted to find a chain of quaint towns that continue to maintain the 1800’s vibe to this day.
Many of these towns are still living, breathing towns that have evolved to serve local communities and tourists alike. Who doesn’t like gold panning activities, horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned ice cream and candy shops, and historical buildings brimming with history?
Sonora, CA is the largest and liveliest of the California gold-rush town trio on California State Route 49 (Sonora, Columbia, Jamestown). Its main street is lively and entertaining, lined with gift shops, saloons, and many restaurants.
Jamestown, CA features a few blocks of historic buildings strung along their main street, which is now home to various shops, restaurants, and attractions. While you’re here, try your hand at gold panning at California Gold Company and Jamestown Gold Panning. And by far the best attraction here is Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, which is the perfect place to spend a part of your day if you love trains and locomotives.
During the Gold Rush in the 1850s, Columbia, CA grew to become the second-largest city in California behind San Francisco. Lucky for us, unlike most mining towns that flourished in the era and then evolved into ghost towns, this one is still a fully functional town. Columbia State Historic Park is the main landmark to visit here.
Murphys, CA is another really cool California Gold Rush town located between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. Definitely worth checking out, sipping on some wine, and visiting the Mercer Caverns!
VISIT MONO LAKE
You might have heard about Mono Lake in passing, but what’s the deal with Mono Lake, and why is it so salty? Mono Lake began to form around 750,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest lakes in North America. Runoff water from the surrounding mountains became trapped in the basin, and with no outflow (and limited inflow during the summer and fall), dissolved salts and calcium accumulated here.
With a salinity level over three times that of the ocean, Mono Lake has become a very unique environment, supporting a diverse collection of wildlife. And guess what? You can even boat and swim in the lake! A swim in Mono Lake provides an oddly buoyant swim, which means you’ll effortlessly be able to float!
The best place to see the Mono Lake tufas is undoubtedly at the Mono Lake South Tufa Area. One of the best times to visit is during an evening sunset, where you can meander along the boardwalks as the sun lights up the tufa formations (those spite things sticking right out of the lake). Mono Lake Navy Beach viewpoint is a good option for photography. The Visitor Center also has a bookstore, restrooms, and shaded picnic area. There is also a short interpretive trail behind the building, winding over to the lake’s shoreline.
PRO TIP: Cell service is spotty here, so be sure to mark the viewpoints you want to stop at. Check out our map above for specific Mono Lake viewpoints.
BODIE STATE HISTORIC PARK
Bodie State Historic Park is the largest ghost town in the West and is located just 45-minutes northeast of Lee Vining and the eastern end of Yosemite National Park. For some background, back from 1877 to 1882, Bodie was a bustling town with more than 10,000 residents and produced more than $35 million in gold and silver.
Visiting Bodie is one of the most authentic ways to experience the setting of the California gold rush. Why? Because it has not been restored with tourist shops and modern businesses, like many of the other gold rush towns have. At Bodie, you’ll find almost 200 abandoned wooden buildings in a state of “arrested decay” to explore. Today it looks much the same as it did over 50 years ago when the last residents left. The inside of the shops and homes remain as they were, with goods still there from the time they were left.
It costs only $8 for adults ($5 for children) to enter and explore the deserted streets of Bodie. To preserve the ghost town atmosphere, there are no commercial facilities at Bodie, such as food or gas. There is a bookstore inside the museum where you can learn more about the daily tours. Before leaving the area, swing by Bodie Mercantile in Bridgeport, CA to browse and shop for unique gifts and souvenirs!
Bodie SHP is open year-round, but the roads to the park will close with snow. Be sure to visit the park’s website to check for the latest SR 270 road conditions.
DRIVE THE SCENIC JUNE LAKE LOOP
Take a detour right before you hit Mammoth Lakes, CA to see a series of sparkling lakes and gorgeous flora! The highlight here? Gorgeous mountain views, blue alpine lakes, plenty of world-class fishing, and colorful fall foliage.
For roughly 16 miles on the June Lake Loop, the road winds past a series of glacial lakes, all backdropped by scraggly peaks that reach up towards the skies. It’s a drive you’re definitely going to want to have your camera ready for.
The June Lake Loop takes you through the quaint mountain town of June Lake which you should definitely stop at and explore. More on that below!
You can certainly cover the entire scenic drive in 1-2 hours, but if you have more time to explore, there are plenty of spots to hike, bike, SUP, kayak, fish, and snap pictures. Check out Silver Lake, Grant Lake, and Gull Lake, which offer swimming, boating, sailing, stand-up paddleboarding, waterskiing, and jet-skiing. A variety of watercraft, from kayaks to stand-up paddleboards to powerboats can be rented on-site.
If you’re into fishing, the four lakes here (June, Gull, Silver, and Grant) are renowned for fishing and are stocked with trophy-size Alpers trout.
HANG OUT AT JUNE LAKE
If you’re looking for a great place to take a dip, have a lakeside picnic, or get out on the water on a watercraft, head to Oh Ridge. What you’ll find as soon as you get in the water is cold but shallow water and fine, soft sand, perfect for the whole family to play in. The view of the lake from Oh Ridge is probably one of the most picturesque so definitely be sure to take a few photos with the lake/mountain views.
In addition to world-class trout fishing, swimming, and beaching, June Lake (and the loop’s other three lakes) offers a variety of other water sports. During the summer/fall seasons, I highly recommend getting out on the water one way or another! The water might be a little chilly, but it’s so refreshing to take a dip in.
Aside from the lake, June Lake is home to a rustic little mountain town. If you’re looking for a spot to eat after your lake adventure, we loved Epic Cafe, serving up hearty soups, filling salads, and warm paninis. You absolutely cannot miss their Epic Carrot Cake, or any of their pastries and scones for that matter!
You can also check out June Lake Brewing or the Ohanas395 food truck if you’re looking for lunch bites/brews! You can even pick up a few additional drinks or snacks to pair with your meal from the big general store in town.
WHERE TO STAY: For the budget-friendly traveler who doesn’t mind roughing it, I’d recommend trying to snag a campsite at June Lake or Silver Lake. If camping is not your thing, Double Eagle Resort & Spa is a luxurious day spa and resort with a fitness center and indoor swimming pool. What better way to combat those tired legs from hiking with a well-deserved massage here!
KAYAK AT SILVER LAKE RESORT
Even if you’re not a kayaking enthusiast, we highly recommend kayaking on Silver Lake. From the lake, you should kayak right into one of the little waterways through trees and marshland. Let me tell you, the views are absolutely gorgeous in these narrow streams! Bring a camera, and don’t forget to stow it in a trusty drybag.
If you’re up for a longer kayaking trip, the waterways will eventually diverge, each opening up into several other lakes.
Wondering exactly which path you should take? Ask the attendees at Silver Lake Resort when you go to rent your kayak! Boat rentals and kayak rentals can be made right on the shore of the lake from Silver Lake Resort; prices are located here.
After your kayaking adventure, head to Silver Lake Cafe for some of the best breakfast options in the area! Located to the General Store, they are best known for their famous giant three-egg omelets to help start any adventurous day. With their giant plates of food, you’ll definitely be refueled and ready to take on the rest of the day.
SOAK IN A HOT SPRING
If you’ve never soaked in a natural hot spring before, you’re missing out on some real adventure-life experiences. Now is your opportunity to soak in warm (okay, sometimes very hot) mineral waters while gazing up at some fantastic mountain views! Some of the best hot springs in Mono County are a short drive away from June Lake and Mammoth Lakes. These are the easiest ones to get to without a 4WD or AWD car:
- Travertine Hot Spring – boasting some of the best views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This is located in Bridgeport, CA (north of Lee Vining, by Bodie SHP).
- Wild Willy’s Hot Spring – also known as Crowley Hot Springs, this one is one of the most popular hot springs in the area located just outside of Mammoth Lakes.
- Benton Hot Springs – a campground that’s well off the beaten path, about 45 minutes from Bishop or Mammoth Lakes in California. Each campsite offers a private hot tub to soak in with views of the White Mountains. There are just 11 campsites, and each is fairly private. The views of the White Mountains are spectacular at sunset and sunrise.
- For the non-camper, guest rooms are available at the Inn at Benton Hot Springs, a bed-and-breakfast style inn.
Do note, since these are natural hot springs out in the wild, there are no locker rooms, changing facilities, showers, or convenient trash cans. Be sure to leave no trace and pack out everything you brought in.
MAMMOTH LAKES, CA
The year-round adventure haven of Mammoth Lakes, CA is not to be missed. If you visit the Eastern Sierra region and skip Mammoth, did you really even visit? (Kidding.) Many people know of “Mammoth” for its world-class skiing and snowboarding during the wintertime. Mammoth Mountain is a huge draw for the area, and people come from all over the world to hit the slopes here.
Meanwhile, in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding region, there is plenty of nature to be explored by hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and other outdoors enthusiasts.
From gondola rides to hiking, mountain biking to snowboarding/skiing, ziplining to beer tasting, Shakespeare plays to outdoor movie nights, there’s something for every adventurer here! We definitely recommend spending a night or two in or around Mammoth Lakes in order to enjoy a few of the activities Mammoth has to offer.
On our most recent trip to the Eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes was our jumping-off point for a few of the activities on this list before moving on to camp in the Big Pine area. We loved how many amenities there were in this town, as well as how central it was to so many cool sites like Devil’s Postpile, Rainbow Falls, Minaret Vista, Hot Creek Geological Site, Earthquake Fault, and Wild Willy’s Hot Spring.
Two awesome places to grab coffee really early in the morning before you head out on your adventures are Black Velvet Coffee (get the liege waffle to pair with your coffee) and Stellar Brew & Natural Cafe (you can even pick up fresh smoothies here). We recommend grabbing breakfast at The Stove Restaurant.
WHERE TO STAY IN MAMMOTH LAKES, CA
- The Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth – this is where we stayed on our most recent trip. The rooms are spacious and come with a living space, fireplace, and fully equipped kitchen. Of course in true Westin style, there are wonderfully soft bedsheets and bathrobes provided. There is an awesome heated swimming pool and huge hot tub pool.
- The Village Lodge – this is our second choice in the Mammoth Lakes area. Featuring direct access to a gondola and ski elevator at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the Village Lodge condos are surrounded by mountain views. The property features a heated outdoor pool, 5 hot tubs, and 3 gyms, as well as free WiFi. Rooms include a dining area and a fireplace, and a balcony with a view of mountains or the courtyard. Some come with a kitchenette as well.
VISIT DEVILS POSTPILE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Devils Postpile is truly one of a kind and one of nature’s craziest formations! The formation is said to be a rare sight in the geologic world and ranks as one of the world’s finest examples of columnar basalt. These 60-foot tall basalt columns were formed less than 100,000 years ago when a cooling lava flow cracked the basalt into stable, hexagonal columns.
Devils Postpile was actually once a part of Yosemite National Park until the mining industry separated it from the rest of the region. It lost its protective status in 1905, when miners planned to dynamite the postpile to make a rock dam on the river. Luckily, this did not happen and it was then established as a National Monument in 1911.
View the postpile from the many different angles offered at the monument. Once you explore all corners of the postpile from below, head to the top of Devils Postpile to check out the view of what looks like hexagon floor tiles. The whole monument is just super cool!
NOTE: The national monument is usually open mid-June to mid-October and closed in the winter. In order to get here, most visitors need to take a mandatory shuttle down to Devils Postpile and Reds Meadow. Buy tickets and board the bus at Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center.
PRO TIP: If you want to avoid the hassle of taking the mandatory shuttle, you will need to arrive at the Devil’s Postpile parking lot at or before 7am. After 7am, they stop letting cars through and you’ll be forced to take the shuttle to and from the monument, setting you back $15 per person.
HIKE TO RAINBOW FALLS
Part of Devil’s Postpile National Monument, Rainbow Falls is a 101-foot high waterfall that is named for the constant rainbows that can be seen forming through the fall’s mist. Even during summer during drought years, you will see an impressive flow of water plunging down from the San Joaquin River. The best part? You can easily hike here from Devil’s Postpile!
From the same trailhead as the national monument, just keep going past Devil’s Postpile once you reach it and follow signs for Rainbow Falls. Since we did this easy hike just shortly after sunrise, we got to enjoy the wonderful sights of the trees basking in the early morning rays and the sounds of little birds waking up.
The terrain is sandy and dusty, so be sure to wear long pants and/or long socks if you don’t want pesky rocks flying into your shoes!
What’s really cool is that during this hike, you’ll be actually walking on a small portion of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)!
Once you begin to hear the slight faint of water, you will eventually get to a few viewpoints from atop the falls. If you’re trying to catch rainbow views, the rainbow is best viewed around noon (when the sun is at its highest and rainbows are the clearest).
If you want to view the falls from below, keep going on the path until you reach a set of steep stairs. Carefully descend to snap a few up-close and personal pictures with the falls!
Oh yeah, if you’re daring enough, you can even hop in and swim in the falls! Since we drove in early morning and reached the falls at 9am while the air was still cool and crisp, we found that it was too cold to swim. However, if it was later in the day, we most definitely would have!
Don’t feel like hiking? Shuttles from Mammoth Adventure Center will also take visitors to the falls. Get off at the Rainbow Falls Trailhead bus stop or Reds Meadow Resort bus stop.
CATCH A SUNRISE AT CONVICT LAKE
Situated just barely south of Mammoth Lakes and a couple of miles from Highway 395, Convict Lake is so easily accessible and so beautiful, especially during the sunrise hour! This lake is one of the deepest lakes in the Sierra Nevada and is best known for its trout fishing as well as the dramatic mountains that surround the lake. The mountain you see backdropping the lake is the 12,241’ Mount Morrison.
Its unique (yet slightly ominous) name comes from an incident back in 1871 when a group of escaped convicts from Carson City, Nevada took refuge near the lake. A shootout ensued and two locals, Robert Morrison and Mono Jim, were killed. Most of the inmates were eventually caught, the large peaks above the lake were renamed after the fallen men, and the lake was renamed to Convict.
If you’re willing to wake up before the sun, your efforts will be rewarded. After you enjoy the sunrise, enjoy a quick and leisurely 2.5-mile hike around the lake.
Nestled between the Sierra Nevada to the west and the White Mountains to the east, Bishop is the largest town in the Owens Valley. Some popular activities around Bishop include bouldering, hiking, mountain biking, and off-roading.
If you’re a climber or boulderer, then you’ll already know about the popularity of the Buttermilk Boulders. Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada just a few miles outside of Bishop, this scenic climbing area is popular, drawing in climbers from all over the world. And even if you don’t climb, it’s still fun to drive out there with a picnic in hand, stare at the massive boulders in amazement, and watch the boulderers in action.
Bishop Creek Canyon is another awesome outdoor wonderland, perfect for outdoor enthusiasts who want to explore, fish, and camp. Expect a whole variety of mountains, lakes, streams, forests, and waterfalls once you reach the canyon area. There are four lakes in the Bishop Creek Canyon, each offering a variety of recreational activities. If you are limited on time and need to pick just one, opt for South Lake or Lake Sabrina (with boat rentals, a cafe, and a store).
Within the town of Bishop itself, there’s a lot to see and do, given its thriving arts and culture scene! Start by driving down North Main Street and soaking in Bishop’s quirky charm. What you’ll immediately find is that there are a lot of antique, secondhand shopping opportunities! One of our favorite finds was Mammoth Gear Exchange where we found new and gently-used outdoor gear at steeply discounted prices!
PRO TIP: Bishop, CA is a really great place to get affordable gas, way more affordable than Mammoth Lakes or any of the nearby towns. It’s also a good place to grab a meal and hit the grocery store for any last-minute camping needs. Our favorite food joints here were Burger Barn and Mercado Mexico!
WHERE TO STAY: Creekside Inn – One of the best options in Bishop, hands-down! This hotel features a year-round outdoor hot tub and a seasonal outdoor swimming pool. It also offers guests a creek-side patio with stellar views of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Guests can enjoy a daily hot breakfast too.
ERICK SCHAT’S BAKKERY
While you’re in Bishop or Mammoth Lakes, you need to stop by Erick Schat’s Bakkery to carbo-load, an activity you need NOT to be shameful of. This Dutch bakery is filled with bread, the scent of bread, people trying to buy bread, and pure bread mayhem.
Be sure to pick up a loaf of their Original Sheepherder’s Bread as well as a loaf of cheese bread, and maybe a pull-away bread or a pack of cinnamon rolls for something sweeter. I mean, you’re going to be in the car for a while right? Might as well load up on fresh-baked snacks!
PRO TIP: There’s a large section of day-old breads in the back left corner, so be sure to check that section out for discounted eats! The bakery gets crowded, but the lines move pretty fast.
SOAK IN A HOT SPRINGS POOL AT KEOUGH’S HOT SPRINGS
We talked about rugged, out-in-nature hot springs earlier. But if you’re looking for something with a bit more amenities, check out Keough’s Hot Springs, just 7.5 miles south of the town of Bishop, CA. Keough’s Hot Springs was established in 1919 and is still used today by locals and visitors alike.
There are two hot springs pools at Keough’s with varying temperatures. The larger one is used for exercising and swimming (there are Water Aerobics classes and lap lanes), and is kept at 86 – 89 degrees in the summer and 90 – 92 degrees in the winter. The smaller one, kept at a comforting 104 degrees year-round, is meant for lounging and relaxing your muscles.
Both pools are free-flowing, meaning they have a constant supply of fresh mineral springs water throughout the day. Dressing rooms, showers, restroom facilities, and free WiFi are available. The entrance fee is $12 per adult.
HIKE THE BIG PINE LAKES TRAIL
The hike to Big Pine Lakes is easily one of the best day hikes in all of California. If the views of Temple Crag and the surrounding mountain ranges don’t take your breath away, the color of the bright, turquoise lakes will. Hands-down, this epic hike to Big Pine Lakes was the #1 highlight of my Eastern Sierra road trip!
The Big Pine Lakes trail is a loop trail, beginning at Big Pine Creek Campground and working its way back into the Sierra Nevadas, covering 15-16 miles of distance in the form of a loop trail. There are a few different ways to experience Big Pine Lakes, either as a day hike or as an overnight camping trip.
In terms of the hike itself, it is no walk in the park. The hike begins with an unshaded, uphill climb. This climb will continue for a few miles. I highly, highly recommend starting the hike at 6 am or earlier to avoid getting beat down by the sun. It may sound early, but you’ll be so much more comfortable struggling with the uphill battle without sun exposure.
Once you get through the unrelenting elevation gain at the beginning of the hike, you’ll gain access to a world of seven unbelievably blue alpine lakes! I mean, look at those views! To this day, I still can’t believe this is located right here in California.
NOTE: You do not need a permit for a day hike. If you plan to go backpacking, you will need a permit that should be reserved far in advance (they are really hard to get, but you should definitely try if you want to wake up with the turquoise lakes). Allowance is 25 overnight hikers per day.
ALABAMA HILLS, CA
If you are coming from Southern California or end up making it this far south from Northern California, then you’re in luck! You get the chance to tour the famous Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, CA, the iconic location for numerous western movies. That’s right, if Alabama Hills looks familiar to you, then I’d guess you’re probably a big fan of Western films. In fact, there were over 400 movies shot on location here (including various Randolph Scott Western films, Django Unchained, and even some Star Wars scenes)!
If it’s not ringing any bells, get caught up to speed by visiting the Museum of Western Movies in Lone Pine, CA first. On your way to Alabama Hills from Highway 395, it’s really not apparent at all that the area just behind is one of the most gorgeous and scenic spots in the state!
Drive the scenic Movie Road, tour the natural arches in the area, and take in all the beautiful rugged views. Don’t miss the Alabama Hills Natural Arch, also known as Mobius Arch, located off Movie Road. You can also pick from several hiking trails in the area and imagine yourself as a cowboy exploring the Old West.
SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are two parks that are separate and adjacent but administered as one by the National Parks Service. At these parks, you can easily spend your days taking photos, enjoying waterfalls, hiking mountains, taking scenic drives, and picnicking in one of the many wildflower meadows.
At Sequoia National Park, aptly named for its giant sequoia trees, some of the best things to do include gazing at the General Sherman Tree, hiking on trails including Big Trees Trail and Tokopah Falls Trail, and taking in spectacular views atop Moro Rock.
Kings Canyon National Park, named for the deepest canyon in North America, features terrain similar to Yosemite Valley and is home to the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees in the world (Redwood Canyon). At Kings Canyon, explore the sequoias at Grant Grove, feel the mist of powerful waterfalls on your skin including Roaring River Falls, Mist Falls, and Grizzly Falls and hike on the Big Stump Trail.
Expect to spend a total of 2-3 days in total exploring these parks, if you have the time to spare.
COMPLETE MAP OF OUR EASTERN SIERRA ROAD TRIP
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST: EASTERN SIERRA ROAD TRIP
Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without for your Eastern Sierra road trip:
- America the Beautiful National Parks Pass | Entrance to Yosemite NP cost $35 for a 7-day pass. However, the National Parks annual pass is a great way to save on entrance fees. If you intend to visit three or more National Parks or National sites in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will more than pay for itself. This pass can be purchased at the park entrances or online here.
- [Example: 3 National Parks x $30 parking each = $90. Savings with the annual pass = $10. Any more parks you go to thereafter = FREE! ]
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Jumper Cables | Jumper cables are one of those things on your road trip list you hope to never use, but are so crucial to have just in case. If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road trip, but especially on summer road trips. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- Roll-up Picnic Mat | Probably one of the best inventions since sliced bread, and one of my best investments for the summertime! Not only are these picnic mats super-portable because they roll up into themselves, but their water-resistance factor is a game-changer. No need to worry about wet-grass-butt anymore!
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Hiking poles | Very helpful for more intense hikes like Big Pine Lakes. Here is a budget-friendly option, or a lighter, higher-quality, more ergonomic option
- Lots of water and snacks | maybe even a packable lunch.
- Stinger Waffles are one of my favorite sources of quick and delicious energy.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Nights here in the mountains can get cold, and you never know when rain may come. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the fall or wintertime, you’re going to need layers in the mountains, especially at night. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Camelbak Water Reservoir | I love water reservoirs for a few reasons. For longer hikes, it’s always best to bring a water reservoir of 2-3 liters of water with you. And even if you don’t plan on hiking, a water reservoir means you can bring water with you in your backpack while you explore without dealing with clunky bottles.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any summer destination. It’s especially important when you’re at higher elevations! Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Sunscreen | Sunscreen is absolutely necessary for mountain destinations. Even if it’s overcast or cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply whenever you’re outdoors. No matter where we go, we like a coral reef-safe brand, as traditional sunscreens contain chemicals that damage our environment. For the face, we are absolutely obsessed with Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen.
- Mini survival kit | Get one that’s pre-made like this one, or make your own. Be sure to carry this with you in your hiking backpack.
- Waterproof bag / dry sack | We have this trusty one. Always good to have, especially if you’re bringing a nice camera for photography or anything else you don’t want to potentially get wet.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from water shoes to regular shoes or simply need to dry your feet off. This one here is a great option.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike (or even after a walk outside on a scorching hot day) but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | This is a must if you’re going to be camping. Being able to find your way through the wilderness in darkness is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the funky roadside stops and eateries… the last thing you want is to be driving along with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Travel Adapter | If you’re traveling from abroad, a universal travel adapter is a necessity. This 5-in-1 travel adapter is perfect for travel use with cell phones, laptops & other devices anywhere in the world.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Emergen-C packets or Liquid I.V. Hydration Packets | These are a great way to support your immune system and overall health on a road trip. They are light, take up no space, and are easy to pack.
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads; painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.
- Camping Gear | Only required if camping.
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR THE EASTERN SIERRAS
- During your drive, there will likely be lots of elevation. Make sure you have a car that can handle hilly drives! We rented a car from Priceline for our Eastern Sierra road trip because we were wary that our old cars could make it out there with all the ups and downs!
- Many of these towns and landmarks sit at an elevation well above sea level, which means for a lot of us, we’ll need to remember to acclimate to the altitude. Take this seriously, because I’m talking 7,500 – 9,500 ft above sea level! You will probably feel the elevation while you’re doing things like walking uphill, hiking, and even sleeping. Be sure to pace yourself, drink lots of water (more than you’re used to drinking), and avoid alcohol for the first 24 hours if you can help it.
- If you’re traveling in the summer, be sure to check for forest fires before embarking on your trip. We like to use Cal Fire’s Incidents Overview Map to check if there are any fires along our route. If there happens to be a fire nearby, check out the Air Quality Index before going, especially if you plan on being outside a lot.
- Winter in the mountains lasts a lot longer than it does in other parts of California, and there may very well be snow here well into the spring season. Always check the weather report, road conditions, and snowpack report to determine the latest conditions. You may need to use snow chains for your car (or at least carry them with you).
- During the winter, Tioga Pass in Yosemite is closed so you won’t be able to drive through the park to cut through to the east. To access the park, the South Entrance is open and accessible to cars.
- Consider bringing a cooler with you on your road trip, especially during the summer time. It’s the perfect way to stow refreshing cold drinks and to bring sandwiches along for the ride.
- If you’re an avid mountain biker, Mammoth is a mountain biking paradise in the summertime.