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:

Highway 395 south going into Bishop
Cottonwoods lined the roads

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!

Erick Schat’s Bakery is an institution in Bishop, and we stopped for bread and other baked yummies several times

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:
Snoopy kept an eye on us.  Steve still doesn’t get it…
The remains of an old mining truck

We discovered several mine shafts
Mountain peaks towered above the desert floor
Soaking it in
  • 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 BasinWe 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!


At the trailhead, Lake Sabrina at 9,050′
My always-charming and happy model
Jagged peaks rising along the colorful Sierra Crest
Lake Sabrina in the foreground, arid Owens Valley and the huge expanse of White Mountain behind

We climbed a series of switchbacks up the rocky hillside, gaining over 975′ in 1.3 miles
The reward, gorgeous Blue Lake at 10,400′ surrounded by awesome granite peaks.  This tough hike had Steve removing his layers in a hurry!
My AllTrails results
  • 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.

Pinkish postpile columnar basalt
Monster rocks jutted out of the canyon walls
Nope, we’re not driving this home!

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!

Rock Creek had turned to gold!

  • 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!
Signage about the lakes, bears and keeping John Muir wilderness wild

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!

A frozen trail
Marsh Lake
To accomplish my “touch the water” ritual, I had to break through the ice first!
Fozen little falls

Many Clark’s Nutcrackers were watching us along the way
Heart Lake – the shape can only be seen from above at Mono Pass
Aquamarine-colored Box Lake
Shimmering  Long Lake
Spot the hiker?  Steve wanted credit for going above 11,000′ so he continued up to the summit while I wait
Lower Gem Lake

Our destination, partially-frozen Gem Lake

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!

Lasting moments at Gem Lake

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.




  1. I’m SO glad you guys braved the cold and hiked the Little Lakes Valley Trail! That’s still one of our favorite hikes in all of our years of hiking. It was really cold when we hiked it in late October a few years ago, too—but as you found, it was a good way to have the trail all to ourselves. Your photos are wonderful, and you were lucky to have sunshine to capture the beautiful turquoise color of the Gem Lakes.

    You guys found some other good hikes, too. I’m especially intrigued by the Lower Rock Creek Canyon Trail—that columnar basalt is so interesting! As you said, it looks just like Devils Postpile, but pink. By the way…would you tell us again the app you’re using to record your hiking stats? It’s very cool!

    • It was cold but not windy, which helped a lot. And yes, unlike our first visit where it was always overcast. And thank you Laurel for the tip on Little Lakes, we almost missed it cause we confused it with another trail. We are using AllTrails app 🙂

  2. All beautifully composed photos of a very special place in California. It’s on my bucket list for sure!

  3. Such good light to capture that colorful scenery. I bet you had a hard time culling down the photos for this post. Snoopy, indeed!

  4. Such beautiful hikes in a stunning area, the lakes on particular. I wish we were going to be able to get there sooner than we will be. So many hikes, so little time!

    I see Snoopy plain as day. Maybe Steve was lacking a little oxygen just then 😁

    I love the happiness-captures of you in the golden leaf tunnel, kicking the frozen water, and Steve celebrating at 11,000′.

  5. I just LOVE this area!! Your photos are beautiful, even that grumpy man you found to pose for you on the John Muir sign! Haha! The gold leaves are spectacular and so bright. I really enjoy hiking through the leaves. Their sound is so soothing. Glad you didn’t bring that vehicle home!! What a fun trip even if it was a little frosty.

  6. I can’t get over how many of your photos from this area look like paintings… and those photos of the Aspens with their perfect golden leaves are just awesome! I am sure you guys were exhausted after so many challenging hikes, but wow… it’s just one ridiculous view after another in this region!!

  7. Wow! So beautiful and so much fun to watch the two of you out enjoying life. Wishing you many more years of such beautiful hikes :))

  8. It looks like some awesome hikes with such stunning scenery. A great bakery is always a welcome treat after
    a great hike.

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