In April 2012, Hana and I were making our way from San Diego, CA, to Reno for my buddy’s wedding. We naturally took 395, as it is the prettiest route, and most trustworthy at that time of year. The first day, with a relaxing start from my Aunt Judy’s place in Oceanside, we drove all the way up to Lone Pine.
Lone Pine is a great one-horse town right below the Sierra Crest, right underneath the nose of Mt. Whitney (at 14,505 feet, the highest in the contiguous United States). Lone Pine is a great base for exploring the East side of the Sierras. Gear shops cater to all different pursuits: climbing, hiking, camping, fly fishing, hunting, birding–the list goes on. There are a few restaurants and bars, and at least one supermarket to stock up on supplies. Lone Pine is also famous for its Alabama Hills (named after a Confederate warship)–the backdrop to hundreds of Hollywood movies and TV shows. These weathered formations are remnants of some of the earliest granite formed in the Sierras, and they take on a variety of whimsical shapes. There are quite a few arches formed by centuries of weathering, and the view through them up to Whitney is a worthwhile sight.
Hana and I stopped at the Visitors Center below Whitney, and found out that Lone Pine Campground had just opened for the season two days before. This was as high up as we could camp, on the flats leading up to Whitney Portal. We headed up to the campgrounds, where it was just us and the campground host, and picked a relaxing and reclusive spot down by the little trout stream that ran all the way from Whitney’s snowpack. Protected by little cottonwoods and aspens, with beer cooling in the cold stream and a clear view up the canyon towards Mt. Whitney, we felt like there was no better place on earth!
Before sunset, we hiked and fooled around in the Alabama Hills–taking pictures through the Whitney Arch and rock scrambling. We loaded up on some firewood in town, and s’more-makings, and had a great night out under the Sierra skies.
The next day truly was our epic East side day. We awoke early, as our plan was to take the Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail right out of our campsite up to Whitney Portal–about a 4 mile journey. We snacked on some bars, and headed up the trail. Being spring, there were multiple wildflowers blooming in the desert sage. The trail rose quickly to a series of switchbacks that took us of of the valley, with some epic views of the Alabama Hills and the White Mountains across to the east. The trail then turned to follow the stream canyon up towards Whitney Portal, and we were treated to views of Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine Peak. We followed the trail as it dipped down to the stream, crossed it, crossed again, and rose back into the pine forest. We passed rangers prepping the higher elevation campsites, and then wandered through a really fun section of house-sized boulders that formed tight passages and small alcoves.
Finally, we reached Whitney Portal, and stopped in at the little store, which had literally just opened for the season that morning. When we entered the clerk was busy dredging up the remains of coffee that someone had left to rot whenever the store closed the previous year. That made up our minds to get a morning beer (9am, but it’s vacation!), but the network couldn’t connect to read the card. In an wonderful move, the clerk said, “This is your free beer day,” and we thanked him, and went to enjoy our cold beverages on a sunny boulder below the epic rock ridges that form a sluice from Whitney.
After this refreshing experience, we headed back down–I must admit that tipsy hiking is pretty fun, the miles disappear and you barely notice (not recommended except on solid, marked trails though!) We reached the car in about half the time it took us to climb up, and we broke camp quickly. We drove to Bishop, stopped at Wilson’s to pick up some climbing shoes (since I didn’t have any with me), and ate a delicious meal at Schat’s. Of course, Wilson’s Eastside Sports and Schat’s Bakery are Bishop landmarks–if you haven’t been to Bishop, you have to hit up these two. I could spend hours in Wilson’s alone; actual knowledgeable staff are on hand to help sort through the epic amount of gear they have on site. Bishop itself is a great town–like a larger Lone Pine with a music scene. The Millpond Music Festival runs annually outside town (full disclosure–my Dad is often one of the MCs) to satisfy folk and bluegrass cravings. Bishop offers easy access to much of the East side, skiing at Mammoth, multiple hot springs, thousands of routes in Owen’s Gorge, bouldering at pretty much everywhere, fly-fishing, the whole shebang. If you haven’t been, go.
After lunch, we cruised out to the Buttermilks. However, a gathering storm on the Sierras was blasting the area with freezing wind. The stiff climbing and biting wind forced us back down into the volcanic tablelands, so we headed to the Happies. I hadn’t been to either area (or bouldering for that matter) for years, but we were able to navigate most places using my dusty memories. As we hiked up to the Happies, we saw climbers heading down with sun visors pulled over their faces like masks. They said they had them for the dust! It was strange, but I guess climbing takes all kinds. However, after pulling some easy problems and fooling around, we understood what they had meant–the grit in the teeth and whirling sand scouring our skin was a little much. We finished on the last few problems, and headed back to the car as the wind increased.
We then followed the General’s Highway out to the hamlet of Benton (pop. 40?) near the White Mountains. My Dad had suggested we stop over at the Benton Hot Springs, and it was a great idea. There are lots of hot springs around Bishop, but these are nicely maintained private tubs, with camping alongside. What a wonderful feeling to finally scrub the grit from our skins in the hot water, enjoying some cold beer under the stars, watching the storm roll across the valley to nest in the peaks of the Whites. Fully recommend this stop for those who are seeking some deep relaxation.
When we woke, the White’s snowline had descended, and lingering storm clouds still boiled around the peaks. We hit the tub for one more soak, and drove across Highway 120 to Lee Vining. It’s a nice drive across the volcanic mountains and hills south of Mono Lake. We arrived in Lee Vining hoping to eat at Nicely’s, but found it closed for cleaning! So we headed on, stopping briefly at the Mono Lake Visitor Center to soak in some of the knowledge of the ancient lake and its odd tufa formations. However, the biting and increasingly colder wind kept us from venturing to the lake’s shore, so we agreed to drive on to Bridgeport for lunch.
The storm mainly stayed in the mountains as we drove, sticking to the peaks, which both create and obscured some great views. We ate lunch in Bridgeport, at a funky little hot sandwich place–pretty good. Sadly, we had to be in Reno sooner rather than later, so we couldn’t spend too much time fooling around in Bridgeport (hitting the Travertine Hot Springs). We drove north, through the Walker River Canyon, past all the little villages pressed up against the Sierras, haltingly past Carson City, and ending finally in Reno, in time for my buddy’s pre-wedding get-together.
US 395 is a great route for heading north or south along the East side. The views start just south of Lone Pine and just keep coming (pretty much all the way to Alturas). I’ll include links about all the places we stayed at, or just think are great to hit up along the way. Any West Coast climber who hasn’t done the pilgrimage to Bishop is missing out, and the closeness of the Sierras is sure to make the most die-hard urbanite want to get into the backcountry.