The best places to visit in California’s Eastern Sierra

The landscapes of California

California’s landscape is one of the most varied that I have had the pleasure to visit. From the dramatic coastline of the Pacific Coast Highway, the mountains of Yosemite National Park and the giant forests of Sequoia National Park, the sunshine state has a little bit of everything to offer. The other major landscape that I didn’t mention is desert, which makes up more than 25% of the state. The desert locations of Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park are pretty popular on West Coast road trip itineraries, but thanks to an epic road trip we once took, we managed to find time to explore the Eastern Sierra and the weird and wonderful landscapes that it contained.

Let’s go on a road trip

Let’s take a little step back to this epic road trip – I’ll write up the itinerary one day. We took in cities, the coast, wine country, theme parks and mountains, all in the space of 17 days. The Eastern Sierra wasn’t originally factored in, but I had decided on wanting to enter Yosemite National Park through the eastern side across the Tioga Pass. This meant that we had to venture much further inland and travel along Highway 395, which runs through the Owens Valley desert basin close to the Nevada border.

So, on a beautiful and sunny morning after a couple of days riding rollercoasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain, we headed north east for a couple of hours before reaching Ridgecrest and joining the I395. It’s a flat and fairly straight road, surrounded by barren desert landscape, wind farms and epic mountain ranges to both sides. We drove north along the 395 to Lee Vining – a total of 200 miles, with an overnight stay thrown in for good measure. A tiny distance in US road trip terms, but I am so glad we made the journey as we took in some amazing locations on the way, three of which I will share with you here.

The Wild West of the Eastern Sierra – Alabama Hills

Our first stop along the I395 was the Alabama Hills Recreation Area, a short distance west from the small town of Lone Pine. Visiting Alabama Hills is like stepping foot into the scene of a Wild West movie. The reason for this is that you actually are stepping into the Wild West that you may have seen in many old movies – this area has been a popular filming location over the years. From old classics such as Gunga Din and How the West Was Won, to more recent movies such as Gladiator, Iron Man and Django Unchained, many a movie star has filmed on location in this area.

Eastern Sierra views of the high sierra from lone pine

Views of the High Sierra mountains from Lone Pine

We picked up a map from the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center which was located south of Lone Pine. It was great spot for rest break, and useful to pick up some supplies or treats from the gift shop. The map that we bought pointed out several locations along Movie Flat Road where certain movies had been filmed.

The area is made up of a collection of rounded rocks, eroded over years into unique and fascinating formations. The contrast between these rock formations and the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range creates jaw dropping scenery. The area can be reached by taking a turn off the 395 at Lone Pine onto the Whitney Portal Road. Following this road for a couple of miles, keep an eye to the right hand side and the first unusual sighting will be a large face painted on one of the rocks. No idea what the story was here, but it was quite fascinating.

Eastern Sierra painted face on a rock in Alabama Hills

Painted face on a rock in Alabama Hills

Movie Flat Road

Travelling on a little further from here, a right turn will take you onto Movie Flat Road. This road is paved for a little while before becoming a firm dirt track, which is manageable for a standard family car, but probably preferable for a 4WD. Movie Flat Road winds through the rock formations with plenty of side roads and parking areas for trail heads. The ‘roads’ are not clearly marked, although you can keep an eye for trail head signs.

Eastern Sierra Movie Flat Road at Alabama Hills

Movie Flat Road at Alabama Hills

Eastern Sierra curved contours of the landscape at Alabama Hills

The curved contours of the landscape at Alabama Hills

Eastern Sierra Alabama Hills rocks formations with the Mount Whitney backdrop

Alabama Hills rocks formations with the Mount Whitney backdrop

We spent a few hours wandering around the trails of Alabama Hills, parking up at any spot that looked interesting and generally wandering, taking in the desert scenery. I had done a little bit of research beforehand though, and was aware of one trail that I didn’t want to miss – The Mobius Arch trail. The area has a few natural ‘arches’ within the rock formations, and the most impressive of these is the Mobius Arch. It can be accessed by a trail which is about half a mile in length, and not too strenuous despite the heat. The special thing about the Mobius Arch is that it’s location perfectly frames the peaks of Mount Whitney (the highest summit in the US), creating the perfect shot and making the hike worthwhile.

Eastern Sierra Mount Whitney through the Mobius Arch at Alabama Hills

Mount Whitney through the Mobius Arch at Alabama Hills

Eastern Sierra Mount Whitney and Alabama Hills contrast

Mount Whitney and Alabama Hills contrast

We could have spent far more time exploring the area, but as our final destination for that day was still a couple of hours away we needed to get back on the road.

Eastern Sierra Mount Whitney Portal Road through Alabama Hills

Whitney Portal Road through Alabama Hills

Mountain life in the Eastern Sierra – Mammoth Lakes

From Lone Pine, the I395 continued north through the Owens Valley to reach Bishop, before starting the ascent up into a more mountainous region. With the change in elevation, came a change in scenery. The barren flat landscape of the desert was replaced with green pine forests and as the dramatic mountain peaks got closer we knew we weren’t far from our next destination of Mammoth Lakes.

Eastern Sierra Desert Roads - The I395 through Owens Valley

Desert Roads – The I395 through Owens Valley

Eastern Sierra green meadows and mountains

Green meadows and mountains

Eastern Sierra pine forest and peaks of the High Sierra

The pine forests and peaks of the High Sierra

The town of Mammoth Lakes is located at an elevation of 7880 ft giving it a true alpine feel. It is one of the most popular winter sport areas in the West Coast, with the longest ski season in the state. Mammoth Mountain, the main peak, sees on average about 30 feet of snow over winter, so you can see why it would be a popular spot. We visited Mammoth Lakes in June, and there was still snow at the highest elevations even then.

Eastern Sierra Woolly Mammoth statue at the Mammoth Lakes Ski Area

Mammoth statue at the Mammoth Lakes Ski Area

Eastern Sierra Mammoth Lakes chair lifts and snow in June

Mammoth Lakes chair lifts and snow (in June)

Most of the apres-ski or general socialising is done in The Village at Mammoth. This is an area in the centre of the town that’s packed full of shops, bars and restaurants. Although summer is low season, when we visited, the majority of restaurants were open and the place had a really good vibe. There are ski lifts directly from the centre of the village which will take you to the slopes.

The Village Lodge

We stayed at a property called The Village Lodge – a large mountain lodge style complex in the centre of the village consisting of studios and 1, 2 & 3 bed condos. We stayed in a 1 bed condo which had a separate living area and kitchen. It would be perfect as a self catering accommodation but given it’s location it had a wide range of restaurants on the doorstep. The complex features a heated outdoor pool and 5 hot tubs. I’d really love to visit again in the winter time, as I imagine there would be an awesome vibe.

Eastern Sierra The Village Lodge exterior at Mammoth Lakes

The Village Lodge at Mammoth Lakes

Eastern Sierra One Bedroom Condo at The Village Lodge, Mammoth Lakes

One Bedroom Condo at The Village Lodge, Mammoth Lakes

As much as the town is mainly geared up for winter, it’s a beautiful area to visit in the summer. There are miles of hiking trails that lead from the town. The gondolas will still transport you to the mountains where you take in the fresh alpine air and scenery. Mountain biking is another popular activity in the area. Even if you are just looking for a relaxing break, you can soak up the atmosphere and cool vibes that this town has to offer.

Eastern Sierra Village at Mammoth Lakes Overview

The Village at Mammoth Lakes

Unique landscapes of the Eastern Sierra – Mono Lake

After departing Mammoth Lakes and heading back to the I395, we headed further north for another thirty miles or so. Our next amazing destination was as far as we would travel along this road. The small town of Lee Vining is the intersection between the 395 and Highway 120. This acts as the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park. Before we made our journey up the Tioga Pass to Yosemite, we had to stop and see the spectacular Mono Lake.

Eastern Sierra shoreline of Mono Lake

The shoreline of Mono Lake

Eastern Sierra Mono Lake with a mountain backdrop

Mono Lake with a mountain backdrop

Sitting on the edge of the Great Basin, Mono Lake is a large saline lake that covers 70 square miles. Being a saline lake there are no fish, instead it is home to trillions of brine shrimp. It is also home to millions of migratory birds each year. The unique feature of Mono Lake is that along the shoreline are some bizarre limestone formations. These rise from the water and are known as tufa towers. These unusual towers create some interesting shapes and reflections in the still waters of the lake.

Eastern Sierra Tufa Towers of Mono Lake

Tufa Towers of Mono Lake

Eastern Sierra Looking out across Mono Lake from the shoreline

Looking out across Mono Lake from the shoreline

Eastern Sierra rock formations on the edge of Mono Lake

Rock formations on the edge of Mono Lake

It’s worth stopping off at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center first of all. The visitor center features exhibits, art galleries, a book store and WC facilities. From here, you can drive to the Mono Lake South Tufa Area parking lot. This acts as a trail head to the shore of the lake. There are several trails and boardwalks, and it’s fascinating walking around the tufa towers and doing some bird watching. There is something quite eerie about the landscape here, it’s unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Eastern Sierra Mono Lake Tufa Towers

Mono Lake tufa towers

Eastern Sierra Violet-Green Swallow at Mono Lake

Violet-Green Swallow at Mono Lake

Eastern Sierra perfect reflections on Mono Lake

Perfect reflections on Mono Lake

Other points of interest

We covered a lot of ground in those two days. That’s the thing with road trips though, isn’t it. So much to cram in, and so little time. There were so many things that we missed along our journey through the Eastern Sierra too. If we had more time at Alabama Hills we could have headed further up the Whitney Portal Road to Whitney Portal. This is the gateway to Mount Whitney and looks stunning. If we’d had more time around the Mono Lake area, we could have headed out to the ghost town of Bodie. It also looks amazing. If we had carried on up the I395 another couple of hours, we could have re-visited Lake Tahoe. This is definitely on my list to head back to. We only had half a day there last time we visited.

That’s the positive and negative of California. There are such diverse, varied and beautiful landscapes it’s almost impossible to choose where to visit on the next trip.

Have you visited the Eastern Sierra? What were your favourite areas?

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4 Comments on “The best places to visit in California’s Eastern Sierra”

  1. Stumbled across your blog via Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree. I’m largely based in California (but not a lifelong Californian) and want to do more exploring in the Eastern Sierras. This piece gave me a LOT more knowledge than I previously had. Thanks & keep it up!

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