A storm rolled through one morning, prompting us to vacate the mountain. As we meandered to the car, down the hill and back into town, I wondered why I hadn’t written about this magical side of California: The Eastern Sierras. A journey through California’s varying landscapes, the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway parallels the mountain range, which brings you through deserts, forests, meadows, high alpine lakes and hot springs. Spring, summer and fall provide prime weather for this trip, whereas winter, although beautiful, may bring you to many a closed road leading to several hour detours.
With a round-trip estimate of about 10 hours not including stops, I highly suggest attempting this escapade with ample time off. With only a weekend or long weekend, choose one or two of these destinations to maintain sanity—vacations should be composed of happy faces with only manageable stress here and there. If you find yourself with a week or more off, I urge you to indulge.
Lover’s Leap, 17510 U.S.-50, Kyburz, CA
Beginning from Sacramento, an hour-and-a-half jaunt up the hill brings you just past Kyburz (population 167), to a large granite face, dubbed Lover’s Leap. Although a popular stop for climbers, this area is also great for a quick hike at the base of the cliff, a picnic looking up to the towering wall, or a stop at the locally owned gear shop across the street.
Travertine Hot Springs, Bridgeport, CA
If you decide to take on Monitor Pass, be sure you have a trusty steed to get you over the 8,300-foot mountain pass between the east fork of the Carson River and Markleeville. Hop onto Highway 395 and begin heading south to Bridgeport. Once arriving in Bridgeport, the springs will be on your left; sunrise and sunset make for the best soaks with the least amount of people.
Mono Lake, Lee Vining, CA
Heading south from Bridgeport on Highway 395 leads to the small town of Lee Vining, home of the saline soda lake: Mono Lake. Lee Vining hosts a dynamic group of climbers, through-hikers and international tourists stopping in for a bite to eat or a night’s stay. Overlooking the salty lake sit cafés, mountain shops and the Mobil gas station, also known as the Whoa Nellie Deli, which hosts live music on Thursday and Sunday nights with their famous fish tacos and mango margaritas. The south entrance to Mono Lake is the place to go for superb visuals of the tufas ejecting themselves from the water. Once a week, Yosemite National Park rangers host a star gazing session at night, with sleeping pads scattered along the shore as the ranger discusses the constellations looming above.
Wild Willy’s Hot Springs
Here’s a hot spring that seems to be getting more popular, but is nonetheless a fantastic nightcap. Heading toward Bishop, turn left onto Benton Road and continue to the third cow grate. Take a right on the dirt road and follow to a wooden plank. ‘Walk the plank’ for about 15 minutes to two springs. Please pack out what you pack in, pick up other people’s trash and try to keep the springs wild.
It’s a climbers paradise, but Bishop is by no means a bad stop to say you’ve been there. It’s scorching hot in the summertime, so hop in the river or stop by the new(ish) brewery: Mountain Rambler Brewery. If dried, tough meat is in your palete, stop at Mahogany Meats and take home some elk or buffalo to soothe those cravings. Erick Schat’s Bakery is bound to be packed, but a stop at the famous Dutch bakery is a must if you’re in the area.
Yosemite National Park
Heading back to Sacramento, take Highway 120 up Tioga Pass to Yosemite National Park. The park gate will land you first in Tuolumne Meadows and following the highway will eventually bring you to the valley. You will find adventure here by parking anywhere and taking a walk. Wildlife, flora, hiking, climbing, basking in the sun, listening to the nature. Soak it in, people.
Copperopolis Gas Station
(don’t knock it till ya try it)
The final stop comes after a long trek heading home when you just want a pack of Haribo gummy bears and a coconut water. The large gas station at Copperopolis is the place to stop for snacks and gas.
This loop has so many fantastic stopping points, the list could continue and perhaps I will make a second edition “down the road.” Check the weather, pull over when tired, keep extra oil in the trunk and adventure on!
**This piece first appeared in print on page 9 of issue #270 (July 18 – Aug. 1, 2018)**