Banish the backpack
Sunscreen, bug spray, great socks. The packing list concise, the objective lofty: Get into the Sierra high country without going backpacking.
If you are willing to invest in a few hours of driving time, you can reach some astonishing places in less time than it takes to drive to San Francisco. Perfect for a long weekend or four-day trip, the Eastern Sierra north of Mono Lake provides easy access to the breathtaking landscapes above 9,000 feet.
Whether you want to hike, swim, ride bikes or take pictures, just grab your gear and go!
Hope Valley and the Kit Carson River
Hope Valley, Calif., sits at the junction of highways 88 and 89, about a half hour’s drive from South Lake Tahoe. If you have never driven this route, you are in for a treat.
While the campgrounds and fishing holes are no secret, there are plenty of places to hike, ride bikes and view wildlife. Depending on what time you leave home, three campgrounds along Highway 89 offer an excellent first night’s stop.
In the mid-1800s, Hope Valley was a critical stop along the Mormon-Emigrant trail and Carson River Route. Boasting one of the largest alpine meadows in the Sierra Nevada, ranchers and emigrants used the valley for grazing and a welcome stop from travel in either direction. Currently, the area is a protected scenic wildlife refuge.
Rumor has it that fishing along the West Fork of the Kit Carson River can be good, if sometimes crowded. Consider Burnside Lake for an easy half-day excursion: great swimming, lovely views, perfect for a picnic. Accessible by mountain bike or car, the lake sits 5.7 miles up a graded dirt and gravel road beginning at the southern parking lot at the 88/89 intersection.
For you bikers, Burnside Road offers a solid workout without killing your legs. Rising 800 feet one way, beginners and intermediate mountain bikers will feel challenged, especially with some steep sections.
Advanced riders may be bored, but the scenery could make up for that. Don’t miss a turnout at the top of the grade, at around the 8,000 foot mark for those carrying GPS units. The air is so crisp and the views so lovely that you could sit for hours just watching the landscape.
Sorensen’s Resort, also along Highway 89, offers guided tours of Emigrant Trail and the Hope Valley area.
These folks love sharing their home with visitors: Programs include bird watching, local history and wildflower talks, among others. Most are no more than four hours and include lunch, with prices ranging from $45-$65 per person.
Leaving Hope Valley, I recommend the picturesque drive down Highway 89, through Markleeville and over Monitor Pass. The road winds through the lovely gorge along the West Fork of the Kit Carson River, with plenty of picnic spots available. Try a stop at Grover Hot Springs west of Markleeville. Great for families, the hot springs boast hot and cold pools, albeit with standard, somewhat uninspiring concrete facilities. Admission is $5. Other hot springs abound in the area, most far less developed, and many with clothing optional policies. Know before you go.
In keeping to the spirit of the adventure, that is driving as little as possible and enjoying the high country, you don’t need to go much further than Bridgeport. Heading south on Highway 395, two excellent entry points can be found just north of Mono Lake: Green Creek and Trumbull Lakes.
Seven miles south of Bridgeport and eight miles up Green Creek Road is Green Creek Campground. Nestled 7,995 feet at the head of a box canyon, the campsite rests beneath 12,000 foot peaks and makes an excellent base camp for day hikes and rides.
Green Creek offers 19 campsites with fire rings, pit toilets and running water. Grab one opposite the stream – the water is deafening and the mosquitoes hungry.
Trumbull Lakes Campground off of Virginia Lake Road, farther south on 395, also offers both camping and RV sites. Similar to Green Creek, the campground is at the end of a dirt road and provides great base camping options to explore nearby environs.
If you wanted to, you could start any number of backpack trips from Green Creek. The trailhead leads up, up and up over the first ridge and into the remote northeast corner of Yosemite.
After a couple miles and about 2,000 feet, the trail forks, leading to several accessible lakes for day hikes. But take a topographical map, since the trail eventually leads to the Pacific Crest and Virginia Lakes’ trail systems. Fast and light aficionados might try a loop from the Green Creek campground to the Virginia Lakes campground. Emphasis on might.
Nearby Lundy Lake (10 miles south on Highway 395) also offers excellent high country access. Two popular trails run from the lake. The first is a four mile up and back, leaving Lundy Lake on the south side, and winding to an abandoned miner’s cabin.
The longer and prettier trail, with greater high country access, starts at the Lundy Lake Trailhead, about two miles past the lake.
Again, where the road ends, the trail up begins. The stunning scenery may distract you from a 2,000-plus foot elevation gain in two miles, so enjoy the view.
Along the way you’ll see great beaver dams, waterfalls and huge aspens. Some good swimming, too. Once you climb up and over the canyon walls, you pop out at lovely Lake Helen, with a milder walk to four other nearby lakes. But bring your lungs and your binoculars – you’ll need both to catch the aerial display of eagles, osprey and hawks.
If you are looking to give your legs a break, consider visiting nearby Bodie State Historic Park; the town – according to local legend – that God forgot. After gold was discovered in 1859, the town swelled to more than 10,000 souls looking to work the mines or profit from the flow of human greed. With summer temperatures in the 110s and winter snowfalls up to 15 feet deep, Bodie earned the reputation as the “worst climate out-of-doors.”
A photographer’s playground, Bodie is preserved by the California State Park system in a fascinating condition of “arrested decay.”
Don’t miss the brochure guiding you on an excellent walking tour through the residential and commercial districts.
As you look at the parched landscape, weathered buildings, fully fashioned outhouses and abandoned mining engines, consider that in 1892 the Standard Mill Co. flipped a switch and activated the first long-distance transmission of AC current (electric power) in the United States.
Of course, engineers at the time thought electricity couldn’t bend, so they ran power in a straight line 13 miles directly east from Green Creek.
On your way out of Bodie, stop and marvel at the unbelievable panorama from the first rise. You won’t miss it – it’s the place where your jaw hits the floor as the entire mastiff of the Eastern Sierra rears up in front of you. Take a picture or just stand and gawk. It is, after all, why you came.
K. Ryan Hodgkin is a resident of Grass Valley. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 273-1801.
1.USGS Topographical Maps. Found at local outdoor retailers or online at http://www.usgs.gov.
2.www.reservations.com: makes your campsite reservations before you leave home
3.Light jacket or long sleeve shirt – temperatures drop quickly above 8,000 feet
4. Hat and sunscreen
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