Escape into California’s wilderness: Eastern Sierras

When people think about California, the typical images coming to mind are something like ocean, beaches, orange trees, expensive houses, Silicon valleys, etc. Yet there is another California – the area where relatively few people live and the nature (very beautiful) is barely touched by civilization. I am talking about Eastern Sierras – huge area stretched along Hwy 395. Lakes, forests, mountains for hundreds of miles. I spent there three days in early September and here are some highlights of the trip.

Eastern Sierras is a real “Mecca” for the lovers of wild hot springs. There are plenty of them, but two my favorites are Buckeye and Travertine hot springs located near town of Bridgeport. I recommend going to Buckeye first and during the day

The scaldingly hot water comes from the sources on the slope of the hill right next to the ice cold Buckeye creek. Volunteers have built the chain of pools: depending on proximity to the streams of hot water some pools are hotter while others cooler. After soaking in the hot pools, one can jump for a few seconds into the creek and then return to hot pools.

You can easily spend here couple hours as I did. Bear in mind, usually you will have some company of other people and – remarkably – sitting together in a hot pool is almost like drinking at the same bar counter. People strike conversation with full strangers easily and the subjects vary greatly from most mundane things to high level philosophical discussions.

While enjoying natural baths, you will be also fully immersed into amazing scenery

Buckeye hot springs are clothing optional: so, you can feel being truly “back to nature.” Also, as a practical tip, you can walk across the creek, put your tent in the pine forest and spend a day, or two, or three, or…in this captivating setting. When I was there, about ten happy campers were holidaying.

When sunset is approaching, it is time to head for Travertine hot springs. Set in mesmerizing moon-like landscape and with majestic views of the jagged Sawtooth Ridge, Travertine hot springs are perfect place to enjoy sunset, fully relax and “wash away” any concerns and doubts that “life is good.”

The real gem and top attraction of Eastern Sierras is Mono lake.

Mono Lake is a majestic body of water covering about 65 square miles. It is an ancient lake, over 1 million years old — one of the oldest lakes in North America. Throughout its long existence, salts and minerals have washed into the lake from Eastern Sierra streams. Freshwater evaporating from the lake each year has left the salts and minerals behind so that the lake is now about 2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean and very alkaline. What attract most visitors to Mono lake are picturesque tufa formation surrounding the lake.

In my mind, however, in order to truly appreciate the beauty of Mono lake, one should also drive and then hike to Panum Crater (which is not extinct by the way and can erupt at any moment). From there, you will get the full view of the entire lake.

Eastern Sierras offer endless opportunities for hiking: for all tastes in terms of variety of landscapes and all levels of physical conditions. But if you have just one (or even half) day and yet would like to have a feeling of being fully lost in nature, then Twenty Lakes Basin Loop is your ultimate destination. This 5 miles long loop travels through breathtaking alpine scenery, visiting nine stunning lakes surrounded by dramatic peaks and ridges. The hike is relatively easy, but keep in mind two things. First, theoretically, you probably can do this hike in two hours. However, you will be so mesmerized by the views and landscapes (constantly changing) that realistically you need – at least – four hours for this adventure. Second, this trail is at the elevation of 10,000+ feet. The weather here can change suddenly and dramatically: be prepared and bring additional layers of clothes even on a nice summer day. To get to the trail, drive to Saddlebag Lake resort (there is NO resort there) and take a water taxi across Saddlebag lake to the head of the trail. Here how this fun boat looks like:

Originally, I thought about step-by-step description of the trail, but there is really no need for this. Instead, simply take a look at what you will discover along the way

There are several options for traveling between Bay Area (San Francisco, etc.) and Eastern Sierras. But if you like to enjoy the nature and do some hiking “along the road,” then I strongly suggest to go through Northern part of the Yosemite National Park by taking Hwy 120 (Tioga Rd). Not only will you get great scenery (and much fewer tourists in other parts of Yosemite), but you also can “stretch the legs” and do some hiking. I have chosen Mono Pass trail. It is about 8 miles (both ways) with about 1000 feet elevation gain. I would say: if you are not in a hurry, it is a fairly easy hike. On this tranquil trail you will encounter a different Yosemite as compared to the land of pine forests, vertical cliffs and granite domes that covers much of the park. Instead, you will first see woodlands, marshy meadows and several streams.

Then the path climbs steadily above tree line and leads to a gap in the Sierra crest (Mono Pass), between 12,764 foot Mt Gibbs and 12,291 foot Mt Lewis. And here is your great reward: spectacular view of Mono lake and the edge of the Great Basin Desert some 4,000 feet below.

But this is not all yet. Backtrack a few hundreds yards and enjoy the rest (and picnic) at the Summit lake before heading back to Hwy 120

I stayed at the lake longer than planned (and who wouldn’t!). And I still was en route back home when gorgeous sunset “crowned” properly this trip

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