Geothermal oddities abound.
You’d be forgiven if your narrative of California takes place along its western shores. The coastline tends to receive the lion’s share of rhapsodizing, with an exception usually made for Yosemite and its photogenic valley. Dazzling though it may be, Yosemite is but a small part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, four hundred miles of serrated granite peaks carved by ancient glaciers. From miners to conservationists to photographers, the Eastern Sierra have beckoned the curious to stake a claim in its discovery. The reward is immense: the secrets of the Sierra reveal themselves in geothermal oddities and jaw-dropping scenery. Not to mention, there’s gold in them hills.
natural arches, superlative peaks and grinning lizards
At their southernmost point, the Eastern Sierra converge with the El Paso Mountains at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Hang out here for a bit; explore the vividly-hued canyon walls, or stay the night at nearby Ricardo Campground. SR-14 will eventually converge with U.S. 395 as it parallels the gradually increasing peaks of the Eastern Sierra toward Lake Tahoe. Slow down, enjoy the scenery; This drive takes time. And it should. There are plenty of campgrounds and cabins along the way, and more intrepid explorers may consider backpacking to the perfect home base. The reward? The potential of having an alpine lake all to yourself.
Fall is a great time to take in the scenery along U.S. 395. Beginning in mid-September through the end of October, the cottonwood trees begin their gradual descent into the bare winter months, and their shimmering swan song is worth planning your entire trip around.
Whatever the time of year, your first stop should be in Lone Pine. Take Whitney Portal Road west of U.S. 395 toward Movie Flat Road and hike one of several trails to see a perfect view of the Lower 48's tallest peak framed through the natural slope of the Alabama Hills' Mobius Arch. Congratulate yourself for your proximity to Mount Whitney, briefly consider conquering its 14,505-foot summit, and snap a photo instead. Another trip, maybe. Time to hit the road.
from ancient trees to tufa towers
Living history is one thing to read about and entirely another to see with your own eyes. The Great Basin bristlecone pine grows only in the western United States in elevations between 9,800 and 11,000 feet. One of two oldest known living trees, Methuselah, is 4,847 years old. These facts are worth noting, but leave them in the car. Get on a trail. See these gnarled remnants of the Bronze Age in person. Your breath may catch in your throat because you're in thin air at 10,000 feet, but you may also find yourself feeling a sense of reverence for these venerable ancients.
Before heading to the pines, consider grabbing a snack for the road in Lone Pine, because the 6,000-foot climb on Hwy 168 east of Big Pine will set you back at least an hour. But the payoff when you take in the view from 10,000 feet is worth the trek. Start at Schulman Grove with a short 1-mile hike or set out for a longer 4.5-mile loop on the Methuselah Grove trail.
For all committed carnivores out there, a stop by Bishop's Mahogany Smoked Meats will be well worth your time (and money). Consider ending your day in Mammoth and get some sleep before starting the following morning with a sunrise visit to Mono Lake. There are several alpine lakes in this area worth a detour, from Convict Lake glittering below Mount Morrison's granite peak, to the chalky towers on the shore of Lake Crowley. The six-mile June Lake Loop offers a bang-for-your-buck quartet of lakes, with plenty of places to stop along the way.
None of these is more eye-catching than Mono Lake. 700,000 years old and highly saline, the lake's most dazzling features are its tufa towers, eerie underwater monuments formed when freshwater springs reacted with the lake's mineral content. These calcium carbonate spires have emerged over time as water levels have decreased, and the effect is like wandering around an abandoned King Triton's castle. Both spooky and fascinating.
Refuel at The Mono Inn Restaurant and spend the afternoon exploring Devils Postpile. Towering six-sided basalt columns (the postpile) precede an easy 2-mile hike to Rainbow Falls, where the San Joaquin River plunges 101 feet and--if you're lucky--is elegantly festooned with a misty rainbow.
ghost towns and hot springs
G'head. Ditch your inhibitions, your bathing suit, and whatever ails you. The Eastern Sierra are replete with hot springs, whose healing promises range from Fountain of Youth! to Namaste, y'all. Visit Travertine late in the day for an unobstructed view of the sun as it sets behind the Sierra. The Inn at Benton Hot Springs offers ten camping sites each with tubs fed by natural springs, for a private soak under the cottonwoods. There are plenty of resources for finding the springs, so feel free to opt for whichever suits your needs, whether you ditch the bathing suit or not.
While its sprawling parking lot may indicate weekends spent lousy with tourists, Bodie State Historic Park offers a striking look at a town whose inevitable entropy has been permanently put on pause. Suspend disbelief and enjoy wandering the dusty pathways of a town built (and eventually destroyed) by dreams of gold.