Why do we focus on our finances? A primary reason is to achieve goals that range from small to large. Travel is a common goal that almost everyone shares. Just as people across all countries and cultures typically enjoy music and stories, they also enjoy traveling. I’m taking a break from personal finance for a moment and sharing with you one of my favorite travel destinations; the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range of California.
The Eastern Sierra mountain range in California is a unique and beautiful region. It is a land where high desert meets steep inclines and jagged mountain tops. Its terrain is as diverse as California’s population. Often within an hour’s drive you can experience land that is flat, steep, rocky, sandy, forested and barren. Though the region is remote, it is an outdoor lover’s paradise and offers an extreme amount of diversity in scenery and activities within a small geographic region.
Your average traveler to the Sierra’s visits the western side of the range. The Western side is where you’ll find most of the major National Park’s that California is so well known for. Parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon bring thousands of tourists through California’s Central Valley through a graduated accent from the Central Valley floor to a forested land where pine trees span as far as the eye can see. This is the essence of the western side of the Sierra Mountain range. Beautiful, forested and heavily visited by your typical wilderness vacationer.
Traveling along highway 395 along the eastern slope of the Sierra mountains is outside of what is normal for most Californian’s and out of state visitors. This is what some would call an enchanted land. It landscape tells a story of past geologic change and economic highs and lows from the 1800’s. From Bishop to Bridgeport, the landscape to be seen from the 395 highway is on par with any of California’s more widely known natural points of interest. Venturing off the highway only enhances the experience.
For those venturing to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range for the first time, there are a few areas that contain immense beauty, historical legacy, and are located within a few hours of each other. Traveling through this region will allow your senses to be enriched by the geographic and historic diversity of this hidden gem.
Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain are by far the most well known and visited areas on the eastern side. In the 1900’s as California skiing became increasingly popular, Mammoth Mountain became a regular destination for Southern California residents to ski. Its popularity grew further as many of Hollywood’s early stars became regular visitors to what would become one of the most exclusive ski destinations in the state.
Whether it is to ski, golf, hike, fish, boat, or simply relax, the Mammoth region is a must see destination. Outside of world class skiing and golfing, the region is host to a number of awe-inspiring and breathtaking views.
If you drive a few miles beyond the main ski area on Mammoth Mountain, you will arrive at an overlook. The massive jagged mountain ridge you see is commonly referred to as the Minarets. The Minarets are a range of mountains within the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The vista is as remarkable as any Ansel Adams panoramas.
Along the same road as the Minaret overlook (Minaret Road), is a turnout to the Inyo National Forest earthquake fault walking trail. This is remarkable location. You can spend a day hiking and exploring or as little as a half hour. The fault line trail brings you to one of the most geological impressive events I have even seen written on the earth. I say “written on the earth” because the force from an earthquake hundreds of years ago literally caused a chasm to be borne on the earth’s surface. As you walk along and across this ‘scar’, you cannot help but fathom the force that had to have been thrust upon the land in order to create a gap that in places is over 10 feet wide and 60 feet deep.
Further down Minaret Road are a number of trail-heads . One famous destination that can be hiked to from the road is Devil’s Postpile, which was deemed a National Monument in 1911. Like its name, the monument resembles a pile of posts, except this ‘pile’ is made of rock. It is one of nature’s wonders.
*If you are visiting the region in the fall, the fall foliage will be on full display. One area filled with a variety of fall colors is the June Lake Loop located a few minutes north of the town of Mammoth Lakes. The loop has three separate lakes and numerous aspen groves that produce some very dramatic color contrasts in the fall.
About an hour’s drive north on 395 from Mammoth is Mono Lake. Mono Lake is a salt lake. You won’t find any fish living in it, or for that matter much of anything else outside of birds. If you’re a first time visitor, I would suggest making a stop at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center. It is on the western side of the lake in the town of Lee Vining. Not only will this provide you with scenic views of the lake, but it will orient you with the region and help you understand its geologic significance.
Visiting near the lake shore will provide you with sights of the Tufa towers that have developed through mineral accumulation over thousands of years. They are quite impressive. A very short drive from the visitor center is Mono Lake County Park. It features a well maintained walkway that allows visitors to walk among the Tufa towers. For kayaking and other boating activities the Navy Beach area on the south side of the lake is most appropriate.
The town of Lee Vining is situated on the western rim of the lake. It is a small town with a number of lodges, restaurants and western collectible dealers. Outside of the gas stations, I believe the rest of the town’s businesses are locally owned and operated. Visiting them will give you a feel for the area, its culture and its history.
If you’re feeling adventurous and are in either an SUV or truck, you should consider taking a drive up highway 120, which shoots off of 395 at Lee Vining. After traveling a few miles west you will come to Log Cabin Mine Road. It is just before you reach the Forestry and Fire Protection station. The road is a maintained unpaved road the climbs into the hills that overlook Mono Lake, At the top you will find a large mine that ceased operations in the late 80’s and panoramic views of Mono Lake. A jaunt out to this hidden treasure can be accomplished in two to four hours, depending on how much exploring you’d like to partake in.
Bodie State Park
One of California’s most famous state park’s is the Bodie State Historic Park. Located about an hour from Lee Vining, Bodie is a town frozen in time. Bodie is a ghost town that was once a very happening place. This was especially true in the 1870’s through the 1880’s. At its height around 7,000 people inhabited the town. Through the mining operation at Bodie nearly $34 million dollars worth of gold was extracted.
Today Bodie is one of the best preserved ghost towns in the world. This is no exaggeration. The buildings that were left are there as it was +100 years ago. You can look in and see the school room as if all the residents simply vanished one day and left everything the way it was. The entire scene, from the main part of town to the massive mining equipment, will cause you to pause and reflect on the nature of change and progress.
Twenty minutes from the Mammoth Lakes region heading south on highway 395 is Lake Crowley. It is not so much that the lake should be visited. Its importance here is to serve as a guidepost for hiking and horseback riding into a very seldom visited, yet extremely picturesque part of the Sierra’s.
Whether you take McGee Creek Road off of highway 395 or travel down to Tom’s Place and follow Rock Creek Road into the mountains, this section of the Sierra’s presents its visitors with some of the most striking mountain landscapes in the region. The mountains here are bold in both size and color. As you hike or ride, you will come across sections of mountains with contrasting colors that lead to meadows and streams.
Personally, I’ve done the horseback riding excursion from the McGee Creek packing station. I found that the price charged by the pack station to be very competitive compared to others in the region and its area of destination is one of the more scenic.
Whether you’re driving up from southern California via highway 395 or making your way from the western side of the Sierra’s along highway 120 via Yosemite National Park, the Eastern Sierra’s offers a wide variety of sights, activities and places to behold from the past and the present. Put it on your list of travel destinations.