Hiking the Eastern Sierras – Bishop, CA
Continuing our drive south on Hwy 395, we quickly descended from 7,654′ at June Lake to 4,150′ at the scenic small town of Bishop. Here the cottonwoods, willows and aspens painted the valleys, mountainsides and meadows in gold! For us, autumn is the best time to visit, but the area wilderness adventures are gorgeous year-round. And thanks to John Muir, the area is steeped in conservationist history. Hiking here leads to majestic granite mountains, alpine lakes, lush forest, pretty desert scrub and spectacular views:
Options for outdoorsy folks are almost unlimited in the Bishop area – hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, ATVing, horseback riding, dry camping – the list goes on and on. Hiking being our thing, we were excited about the long list of trail options , many beginning at elevations above 8,000′ and several topping out at over 10,000′. No matter which trail we chose the glorious setting rewarded us with astounding views!
The nights were getting down into the 20’s, just too nippy for our usual early morning treks. We started a bit later and wore a few more layers, but we didn’t complain – the trails that made us huff and puff were a scenic wonderland!
- Buttermilk OHV Trail – We drove about a half mile from the beginning of rough Buttermilk Road and decided to save our car’s suspension and park. With no discernible trailhead, we bushwhacked until we found the old mine road. It was hilly terrain on desert scrub and we stumbled onto some abandoned mining equipment scattered in the area:
- Lake Sabrina to Blue Lake Trail – The trail at Lake Sabrina provides access to all of the other lakes in the Middle Fork of Bishop Creek Basin. We hiked to Blue Lake at 10,494′, which gave us sweeping panoramas of steep granite cliffs around the Sierra Crest. It was an out-and-back, 7.2-mile trek with an elevation gain of 1,444′ that had us huffing and puffing as we climbed the headwall at the southern end of Lake Sabrina. We enjoyed great views of the lake and many jagged peaks, all accentuated by the lingering fall colors. This was a fairly strenuous hike, but the reward at the end was so worth it!
- Lower Rock Creek Canyon Trail – On this one we did a “reverse” hike, starting from the top and descending into the canyon for a 7-mile roundtrip (we had missed the other end of the trailhead). The creek provided wonderful sound effects along the entire journey through several narrow and deep areas – loved it! We were surprised to see exotic hexagonal columnar jointing similar to Devils Postpile National Monument, the only difference being that the rock here was a soft pink instead of gray and black.
While the canyon walls intrigued us with many rock formations, much of the trek was in forested sections under aspen tunnels and a carpet of golden leaves!
- Little Lakes Valley to Gem Lake – Our final hike was the most popular trail in Bishop, for it led to a series of glacier-carved lakes surrounded by 13,000′ peaks and collectively known as Little Lakes Valley. The moderate hike began at 10,275′, and it was our car that did most of the work, climbing over 6,000′ from town to the trailhead. Because it had snowed the night before, the trail was beautiful and we saw hardly anyone else during our trek – perfect!
Following Rock Creek, we passed Mack, Marsh, Heart, Box and Long lakes on our way to the Gem Lakes, last and highest in the chain. They were all partially frozen, and sections of the trail were iced over with some snow dusting. We had to watch our steps in some places, but it was totally worth it!
We agree with our friends Laurel and Pam, who both suggested we take this hike. It’s indeed a quintessential experience of the eastern Sierras, and if you’re a hiker and come to the Bishop area you gotta do it!
Bishop advertises itself as a small town with a big backyard, and we can’t dispute that. Surrounded by Inyo National Forest, it offers access to literally hundreds of thousands of acres of gorgeous lakes, forest and rugged mountains in the John Muir Wilderness. There are no bad trails here, and we packed in as many as we could during our short stay. But we’re “weather wimps”, and the freezing temperatures inspired us to move a bit further south after a few days to our next stop at Lone Pine, CA.