My wife will quickly confirm that I cannot walk past a soapbox without stepping onto it. Heaven forbid if people pass by with change in their pocket, because if they put a nickel in my slot, I’ll start ranting about what you “gotta” do and where you “gotta” go. And here goes.
The eastern Sierra is a scenic wonder because of the way the range has lifted up. For five million years, the Sierra Nevada has risen (and continues to rise) abruptly along a series of east side faults, creating a mountain profile that tilts gently to the west. This gentle western slope is the pine-covered playground we usually visit. But on the east side, matters are quite different. While it takes hours to reach the Sierra crest from the Central Valley, the drop to the east side takes only a very hairy 20 minutes. Along Highway 395, from Lone Pine to Bridgeport, this escarpment (from 5,000 to 10,000 feet) is just outside your car window, nearly close enough to touch.
This summer, you “gotta” go. Quit probing Expedia and Travelocity, gas up, and go to a place more amazing than what waits at the other end of that plane flight. If you leave after an early breakfast, you will enjoy a tasty lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli overlooking Mono Lake. Here are a few highlights for a first-visit itinerary.
Highway 120 through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass connects with Highway 395 on the edge of Lee Vining. Just north of town visit the Mono Lake Visitor Center dramatically perched on a bluff overlooking the lake. The view across the lake and over the immense landscape will stir any soul.
Turn around and head back south toward Mammoth Lakes. As you pass back through Lee Vining, take a moment to visit the Mono Lake Committee Information Center & Bookstore. This group saved Mono Lake in an historic court battle against Los Angeles Department of Power and Water. In addition to selling great books and gifts, they track the court-mandated recovery of the lake level.
A few miles below Lee Vining, turn onto Highway 158, the June Lake Loop, for a beautiful side trip past several lakes strung together by Rush Creek. If you prefer to roll out your sleeping bag under the stars rather than spring for a motel in Mammoth, you can take one of the many side roads that turn off Highway 395 between June Lakes and Mammoth. These Jeffery pine groves are on U.S. Forest Service land, and camping (no fires) is allowed.
Mammoth Lakes is a little bit of Los Angeles in the mountains, and people’s interest in the place will vary, but don’t miss this recipe for a perfect morning: Stop by Schat’s Bakery for a foo-foo coffee and a pastry, then drive up Minaret Road to Minaret Vista. While you sip and munch, gaze toward Mount Ritter and the Minarets and try to remember ever seeing such a view.
Every side road into the mountains along 395 reveals wonders, but don’t miss these two. A couple miles south of Mammoth, Convict Lake Road climbs up and over a glacial moraine to a lovely lake underneath impressive Mount Morrison. But the coup de grâce is another 10 miles south at the end of Rock Creek Road. Five minutes along the trail into Little Lakes Valley, you will enter a wonderland of peaks and lakes like no other.
This itinerary is no more than a long weekend. It’s easy. When you return, you will understand why I said that you “gotta” go. You just “gotta.”