The Weekender: The Eastern Sierra

The towns are small and the wilderness is vast in Northern California’s underappreciated Owens Valley

Photograph courtesy Flickr/Hike395

The arterial vein of the Eastern Sierra, Highway 395 threads between glacier-scoured heights and alkali flats that together form some of the steepest, swiftest descents on earth. Between Lone Pine and Bishop, the towns at either end of the Owens Valley, the highway travels through Indian country and former ranch land that went dry after Los Angeles began diverting water from the region early in the 20th century. Speeding through the valley, as many drivers do on their way to Mammoth Mountain and beyond, you bypass a remarkable landscape of wilderness canyons, hidden lakes, and delicate streams. The best way to explore the area? Go on a hike. There are plenty of easy ones to be had, and if you time your trip right, you may even catch some fall color.

From mid- to late September, aspens light up patches of the Eastern Sierra in fiery hues. One of the more spectacular places to get a close-up is in Big Pine Canyon. From the tiny town of Big Pine, settled in the 1880s by ranchers, head west 11 miles along Crocker Street/Glacier Lodge Road to the day-use parking lot. For the first two miles, the South Fork Trail ascends past groves of mountain alders, Jeffrey and lodgepole pines, and cedars. Along the way you’ll cross a thundering cascade before finding yourself on a brush-covered plain. The jagged ridge in the distance is the Middle Palisades Glacier, the only glacier in the Eastern Sierra. Seasoned hikers can continue on as the trail switchbacks along dramatic cliffs to Willow Lake (four miles ahead) and Brainard Lake (a mile beyond). Or drive 23 miles outside Big Pine on Highway 168 to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, whose gnarled conifers are among the oldest living things on the planet.

Bishop, the region’s commercial hub, lies 15 miles north of Big Pine on the 395. It’s home to Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ (760-873-7156)—look for the faux Danish chalet—where you can get a turkey sandwich at the deli counter and finish with a wedge of carrot cake. (The soft, chewy sheepherder’s bread is good enough to eat plain.) Ten miles north of town, the Owens River cuts through narrow chasms backed by tawny cliffs, providing expanses of shoreline for picnicking and trout fishing. (From the 395 turn right onto Gorge Road and park by the power plant. Footpaths wind down the bluff to the water.) There’s more wilderness—trout, too—at North Lake in colorful Bishop Creek Canyon, 20 miles outside town off Highway 168. The lake, with Mount Darwin reflecting off its surface, is small enough to circumnavigate by foot in an hour. At about 6:30 p.m., before the sun has dropped, backtrack to the North Lake Junction, turn right (west), and drive up the mountain past Aspendel to the Sabrina Lake parking lot (about five miles away). Then pause on the short trail along the dam to watch the mountains across the lake turn gold, pink, and purple in the setting sun.

You wouldn’t expect to find a serious Japanese restaurant down the street from a rodeo fairground, but Bishop’s Yamatani (760-872-4801) serves fresh toro and chicken katsu that have travelers thronging the place. You’ll want to linger over the images of the Sierra at Mountain Light Gallery (760-873-7700), which was established by the distinguished photographer Galen Rowell and his wife, Barbara (the couple died in a plane crash in 2002). If you’ve still got energy, drink a pint in the bar at Whiskey Creek (760-873-7174)—the Mammoth offshoot makes a respectable burger. Otherwise, do what many do: Go back to your room to chill. The Best Western Creekside Inn (800-273-3550; $129-$169) has Bishop’s most dependable accommodations. (Ask for a room near the creek, away from the 395 and the swimming pool.) Averse to corporate chains? Zip an hour south to Lone Pine’s Dow Villa (800-824-9317; $94-$142), a midcentury motel with a classic neon sign and comfy, utilitarian digs. The area was in countless westerns. The Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History will tell you all about it—but first, head to the carousel-shaped Margie’s Merry Go Round (760-876-4115) for ribs and rib eye. Sitting on the patio, you’ll have views of Mount Whitney towering over the Alabama Hills, where John Wayne and Roy Rogers sent up clouds of dust as they galloped along.

Eastern Sierra in 60 Seconds
Where: Four hours northeast of L.A. along Highway 395, between Lone Pine and
Bishop. Elevation: Between 3,700 feet (Lone Pine) and 14,505 feet (Mount Whitney).
Weather: Summerlike temps from May through September, although snow can fall as early as mid-September.
Pack: Hiking boots, hiking poles, sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat, fleece clothing, rain gear, water, and lunch. The White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop (760-873-2500) has trail maps and a free fall foliage guide.
En route: At the Manzanar Historic Site, seven miles south of Independence, an interpretive center documents the stories of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans interned there during World War II.