The Sierra Nevadas are a rugged mountain range in eastern California containing several absolutely stunning and world-famous outdoor destinations, including Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the John Muir Wilderness, Sequoia National Park, and Kings Canyon National Park. If you’re counting, there are THREE national parks just in this one mountain range. Does that mean we win a prize? Here, you’ll discover some of the best hiking in California AND one of the best places to view California’s fall foliage. Yes, there IS fall foliage in California – if you know where to look!
There is also an incredible amount of history to discover in the Sierra Nevada mountains, from John Muir’s wanderings – and subsequent founding of the Sierra Club, named after these very mountains – to the California Gold Rush to the harrowing tale of the Donner Party (for what it’s worth, we highly recommend listening to the Last Podcast on the Left episodes about the Donner Party while driving in/around/near the Sierra Nevadas for maximum drama).
The Sierra Nevadas span a massive area of California with several ecological zones, and depending on which part of the mountains you’re exploring, you’ll find everything from giant, ancient redwoods (aka the largest trees in the world) to shimmering glacial lakes and stunning aspen trees bursting with fall colors. The hikes in this post are in the Eastern Sierras, near Mammoth Lakes.
- Important Note: This is a guest post and was written for us by a talented local expert, Alexandrea. Which is awesome, but it also means that we (Lia & Jeremy, blog owners and slow AF hikers) may not be able to answer all of your specific questions about the eastern Sierra Nevadas personally because we lack first-hand experience. Which, incidentally, is why we love guest writers. Do you have local expertise you’d like to share? Pitch us your story idea!
Table of Contents
Psst: Looking for more places to hike & explore in Northern California? Check out a few of our other posts!
- 24 Stunning Northern California Hikes (Near San Francisco)
- The 10 Best Weekend Trips from San Francisco, California
- 12 Off-Beat Places to Stay Near San Francisco (on a budget)
Important Guidelines for Hiking in the Sierra Nevadas
As with any outdoor exploration or activity, it is crucial to follow the rules and regulations laid out by conservation groups and government agencies which are designed to protect the natural beauty, environment and wildlife of these areas – and to protect you, too. If you don’t follow these guidelines, you’re risking not only your own safety, but the very lands themselves. Please be careful not to damage any wildlife or ruin these beautiful places for future generations. Please hike safely and responsibly and follow the below guidelines!
- Altitude: Many of the hikes below are at an altitude above 8,000 feet and several top out at over 10,000 feet of elevation. If you’re not used to hiking at this elevation, you may feel more fatigued than usual. Bring LOTS of water – you’ll need much more than you usually do to help your body adjust to the altitude. You’ll also want to allow yourself lots of extra time, as you’ll likely need more stops and move at a slower pace than usual. Before you go, learn to recognize the signs of serious altitude sickness – and if you start to feel them (unlikely, but still), turn around and hike back to a lower elevation immediately. If you happen to have altitude sickness prevention medication like Diamox on hand, they might be helpful for prevention.
- Fire Safety: No campfires are allowed above 10,000 ft in this area by law. If you’re back-country camping or doing an overnight trip, be very careful – wildfires are common in this area and can occur with even the slightest amount of negligence. NEVER leave a fire unattended – even your little camp stove – and be sure all fires are 100000% out before you move on; that includes smoldering embers. It doesn’t take much out here to accidentally start a massive wildfire that can cost the lives of both animals and humans. Also, this goes without saying, but I’m gonna say it anyway: don’t toss a cigarette butt into the incredibly dry, super flammable brush when you’re finished smoking it. Put it out and pack it out.
- Leave No Trace: Pack it in, pack it out and follow the Leave No Trace Guidelines. When we say pack it out, we mean EVERYTHING – yes, everything, and yes, toilet paper is included in everything. Before you go, learn how to dig a proper cat hole. Empty Pringles cans are great for sticking in the cupholder on the side of your pack and keeping gross stuff and trash contained. Just dispose of the whole can when you reach a trash bin.
- Stay on the Trail: If you’re not familiar with back-country hiking and camping (which, let’s be honest, is probably most of us) you should stay on marked, maintained trails at all times. Venturing off-trail is not only incredibly dangerous, but can also damage and trample the local flora and fauna – particularly in planting and nesting areas – and cause erosion, harming the natural environment.
- Respect the Wildlife: When interacting with wildlife, there are a few guidelines to follow. First and foremost, never touch a wild animal. Ever. Stay 6 feet away from all wildlife whenever possible – that includes everything from deer to chipmunks. Never EVER feed a wild animal, EVER. And do not disturb the environment by removing anything and taking it home with you. If you find yourself walking through an area that has signs of wildlife nearby, it is important to MAKE NOISE and make your presence known. Bang rocks together, blow a whistle, talk loudly, sing. Do what you can to startle animals from a distance, so they know to flee before you reach them. The last thing you want to do is to sneak up on an animal that is not expecting you!
- Bear Safety: Bear containers are required for storage of food and trash for many of the below hikes. They’re crucial for overnight stays, but they’re also important for your car: don’t leave food in your car without using a bear canister to store your post-hike meal, or a bear just might break in for a snack! Learn how and why to properly use bear canisters and pick one up before your trip from REI. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re having to spend the night somewhere and there’s no bear box, you should tie your food up in a tree well away from your campsite. We recommend packing a length of rope (we bring a little bit of Paracord) that’s long enough to do a basic tie-up like this one. If you have anything scented with you, tie up your whole darn pack or throw it in your bear canister. Anything to put as much distance as possible between you + your delicious smelling belongings while you sleep!
- Groups: Groups cannot be larger than 15 people on most of these hikes, whether you’re camping overnight or day-hiking.
- Permits: Overnight backpacking trips & hikes require a permit. Day hiking does not require a permit.
- Water: There is plenty of available water from creeks, but lakes and springs should be treated before drinking. Just to be safe, always treat any water you drink, even if it’s snow melt – better safe than sick.
Sierra Nevada Hiking Essentials
Before we send you off on your hike, here are our absolute must-have day hiking essentials. At this point in my life, having fully accepted my status as a complete disaster magnet, I never, EVER go on so much as a mile-long stroll through the woods without this stuff locked and loaded in my bag. But particularly in the Sierra Nevada mountains, you need to be prepared to face challenges like altitude, rapidly changing weather, and wildlife. Channel your inner scout and be well prepared!
- 50-100oz of water: Most of these Sierra Nevada hikes are at a higher altitude, so you’ll need a LOT of water. Seriously, don’t skimp. In addition to bringing plenty of water, bring a water filtration back-up plan just in case you run out, like a LifeStraw water bottle (you can just fill it up and drink). We always bring a Camelbak Hydration Pack that fits 100oz of clean water, snacks, AND has room for the rest of our gear, too. For longer hikes, load up a comfortable day pack like the MHM Switch 24L.
- Hiking Clothes: The best hiking clothing is both functional and comfortable. You’ll need to layer properly to account for the differences in temperature and weather that you’ll experience during your hike – and be prepared for a change at a moment’s notice, especially at higher altitudes. We prefer wool hiking gear thanks to its ability to cool you down in the heat and keep you warm when you’re wet or sweaty. We’ve tried a lot of different hiking clothing over the years, and these are our favorite tried and true picks.
- Hiking Shoes & Socks: Jeremy and I both hike in Trail Runners (his & hers) rather than heavy duty hiking boots – they’re lightweight and travel friendly, more flexible and comfortable, and they dry super quickly when it rains or after a water crossing, so your feet will stay toasty and try. Pair them with well-made wool socks. Our favorite wool sock brand is Darn Tough: they’re soft, durable, and they come with a lifetime guarantee in the event of holes (that’s how you know it’s real). When things start getting wet, pull a pair waterproof socks on over top of your wool socks to keep your feet dry and blister-free.
- Always bring rain gear. Rain is common during the autumn months, particularly up in the mountains when weather tends to be unpredictable. This Ultra-Light Rain Jacket is super lightweight and packs down to nothing, taking up almost no space in your pack (here’s the men’s version). Waterproof Socks are also super handy to have, even if your hiking boots are waterproof.
- Sun & Heat Protection: Some of the hikes below are exposed, and even when it’s cold you’ll be getting lots of sun exposure. Slather on high SPF sunscreen on any exposed skin, including SPF chapstick to protect your lips. To protect yourself from the heat, keep a bandana around your neck so you can soak it in water and keep your core temperature down – or use it as a tieback for your hair. Sunglasses and a hat go a long way to protecting your eyes from the sun as well.
- Snacks: A hungry hike is a miserable hike! Always bring a snack, even for a short hike, just in case your hike goes on longer than planned. You want something nutritious, with a good mix of complex carbs, fats, protein, and electrolytes to fuel your body. My favorite hiking snacks are peanut butter filled pretzels, dried fruit (like apple rings or dried mango), and almonds. I’m also mildly obsessed with Clif Builders bars, and bonus, they’re local to Northern California.
- Headlamps: If you’re starting your hike before dawn, bring a good headlamp, like this one, to light your way hands-free. But after our disastrous night-hiking incident in Cataract Falls, I’ll never hike without a headlamp again even when I’m starting well after dawn. They’re small and lightweight and easily fit in any pack. Bring one. YES, even on a day hike! You never know if you might need it and if you do, you’ll be SO glad you brought it.
- Trekking Poles: Trekking poles are incredibly helpful for difficult terrain or potentially tricky hikes, or if you are a person who is very clumsy (or all 3). I like the Black Diamond trekking poles because they’re lightweight and fold down easily, but they’re super sturdy. They saved my butt on every single hike we did on our year-long honeymoon in South America, while Jeremy – who did not bring trekking poles – injured his wrist and knee as a direct result of not having them. They are a safety tool. Plus, you can wave them angrily at bears, if that’s a thing that happens.
- First Aid Kit: You need a first aid kit that covers you in the event of a variety of calamities. We happen to be disaster magnets, so we’ve whipped ours out a few times. Your first aid kit doesn’t need to be big – this one is pretty small – but it should have the basics. If you’re DIY-ing your own, we recommend including bandaids, sterile alcohol wipes, waterproof matches, burn and bite treatment, and moleskin patches for when you feel a blister coming on, which can easily change your fast pace into a disastrously slow one! Be sure to include a compass as well.
- Whistle: This teeny tiny little tool takes up no space in your pack but is an incredibly useful emergency tool. Not only does a whistle help signal people off in the distance if you should become hurt, but it can also be helpful in scaring off wildlife predators.
- Bathroom Supplies: You’ll need to cat-hole and pack out ALL of your waste, including toilet paper. To avoid the “ick” factor, carry a bathroom kit in your pack: a lightweight trowel, toilet paper in a travel-friendly dispenser, hand sanitizer, and a container for your pack-out waste – I like using an empty Pringles can.
- Emergency Walkie-Talkies: I know these Radio Signaling Walkie-Talkies are overkill for most hikes. But if you’re going a little further away from civilization or heading into potentially dicey weather conditions, these just might save your a$$. These bad boys have a 35-mile mountain to valley range, are fully waterproof (and even have a water-activated flashlight, nifty), and have a handy emergency alert button that will sent out a signal the minute you need help. Sure, you’ll probably never need to use them… but think of them as the best insurance policy you’ll ever buy.
Looking to buy something for yourself or your favorite hiker? Check out these gifts for hikers under $25.
Now that we’ve covered the basics and safety, I’ll hand things over to our guest poster Alexandrea, who moved to the Eastern Sierras from California’s Central Coast. Take it away, Alexandrea!
Hiking in the Sierra Nevadas
Eastern California is a side of the state that is rarely known to many people. Tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the high desert plains, this area provides an array of vast terrains, environments and entertainment. Spring time brings out the fishermen to the Owens River, and summer gives all the climbers a chance to take on the rock face of their dreams. California does indeed get snow – quite a lot of it, in fact – and Mammoth Lakes fills up with skiers and snowboarders and snow bunnies alike all winter long.
But my favorite time of the year is autumn, and there’s no better place to watch the fall colors than in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. The dazzling change of the leaves on these trees comes and goes so quickly you’ve got be moving fast to catch the immensity of it all. But the adventures that await you while you’re chasing the season’s turn is what life is all about! Plan your fall foliage trip for optimal fall colors using the Mono County Fall Color Guide.
I’ve laid out the below list of eastern Sierra trailheads in a line that you could take from Highway 395 going South to North. If you’re coming from Southern California or hitting the highway from Tehachapi via Highway 58, you could, in theory, hit each of these spots one right after another (with lots of time and energy). If you’re coming from the North, heading South from Yosemite, Tahoe or Nevada, the order goes from the last section to the first.
I recommend picking one or two hikes to explore and basing yourself in Bishop, Mammoth, or cozy June Lake. Or you can try your luck with endless places to camp in between and all around the area. Either way, this is one of the best destinations to celebrate sweater weather and the coming of the holidays – by treating yo’self spoiling the most important person you know (you, duh). What a great excuse to be out doing what you love!
Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s get to the hikes!
Sierra Nevada Day Hikes
Big Pine Lakes, John Muir Wilderness in Big Pine, CA
- Miles: 14.3 for the entire loop or 11 for first three lakes
- Elevation: 3,300 ft gain. 7,660 ft elevation at trailhead.
- Trail Guide: Big Pine Lake Loop or all the way to Palisade Glacier
Just south of Mammoth Lakes off of Highway 395, you’ll find the Seven Lakes Trails departing from the tiny town of Big Pine, also known as the Big Pine Lakes. The route to view these glacial lakes is incredibly popular during all times of the year – except when there’s too much snow on the ground! The trail is beautiful and covers a wide terrain of rocky switchbacks, brightly colored aspen groves, waterfalls and shimmering ice blue lakes, with a variety of colors everywhere you look. Don’t miss your chance to brag that you’ve been there too – especially during fall, when the aspens explode into bright yellows and oranges.
Along the trail, stop off at your only speck of civilization in those mountains: Lon Chaney’s cabin. The classic horror film actor had a stone cabin built several miles up the trail, before the lakes. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “isolated,” but if we’re being hones he was probably the scariest thing out here…
Altogether, the full trail distance is 14 miles – perfect for an overnight backpacking trip. But if you prefer a day hike, it will only take you just over 5 miles each way to get to the first, second and third lakes. The shortened route isn’t too terribly difficult, even for beginners. If you’re looking for the shortest route, the easiest option is an 8 mile out and back day hike to the first lake to see stunning Temple Crag. Many hikers complete the full Big Pine Lake Loop to see all three lakes for a total of about 11 miles, but feel free to turn back after Lake 1 or Lake 2 if you’re pressed for time.
More experienced hikers can go backpacking and stay overnight, hiking a few more miles the next day to view the upper lakes and the grand Palisade Glacier, the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada and the southernmost glacier in the United States!
South Lake Day Hikes, John Muir Wilderness near Bishop, CA
- Miles: Around 5 for lake hikes; 12 for Bishop Pass
- Elevation: Generally under 3,000 ft of gain for lake hikes. 9,820 ft elevation at trailhead.
- Trail Guides: Moderate day hikes: Treasure Lakes, Long Lake, Chocolate Lake, Green Lake or Tyee Lakes. Longer hike: Bishop Pass.
The hiking trails available in the South Lake/North Lake/Lake Sabrina area seem endless when you only have a limited amount of time to spend in the area .During the spring, the entire area of South Lake near Bishop, California is blooming with vibrant floral life. And during the fall foliage season in early October, it turns to a scenery of red and golden hues. Even the drive to South Lake is stunning! There are a variety of hikes to choose from, and you can hop from one lake to another in this area, trekking through a forest wilderness that could take your breath away. Just keep your mouth closed, there’s a lot of bugs.
From the day use parking lot, you have access to several different trails that end with various lakes. Treasure Lakes or Long Lake are each around 5 mile hikes, both very moderate walks with less than 3,000 elevation gain each.
Past Long Lake, you can make the 12-mile round trip to Bishop Pass, crossing the offshoot for Chocolate Lake (5.3 miles), and passing by Saddlerock and Bishop Lakes, all while climbing towards Mount Goods. It is quite the excursion and climbs up to nearly 12,000 feet of elevation. I’ve personally never made it all the way to the pass; the two times I tried, certain crossing points were overcome with running water from snow melts. I recommend attempting the full Bishop Pass hike in late summer or early fall instead, when snow melt won’t be an issue after the hot summer months. If you plan to do the hike as an overnight, apply for a permit early as you likely won’t be the only one!
You may also take the trail for Green Lake which is another mid-range experience level hike, 6 miles round trip from South Lake. More quaking aspens to make you gape in awe at their startling beauty.
Last, but certainly not least, is the Tyee Lakes trail, just before the Willow Campground, several miles before South Lake. This is an almost 6 miles round trip trail, leading you past several bodies of water on your way to the fourth and main attraction, Tyee Lake. Just southwest of the southern shore is a smaller, fifth lake, that may provide more privacy as you explore.
Choosing between any of these trails is a tough decision. I make my choice by how many people are around. Legend had it that aspens would ward off evil spirit, and whether that’s true, I’m not sure. But I do know one thing: they sure as hell don’t ward off hordes of gawkers and walkers!
McGee Creek Canyon, Inyo National Forest near Mammoth Lakes, CA
- Miles: 6.6 round trip
- Elevation: 1,210 ft. of elevation gain. McGee Creek sits at 7,720 ft elevation.
- Trail Guide: Link
McGee Creek Canyon is a lesser known, secret not so secret, tucked a little out of the way trail that is my first stop on my own personal fall foliage tour. On the Northern end of Crowley Lake territory across Highway 395, you can take the road that curves back into the canyon and turns to dirt before you hit the McGee Canyon Pack Station and then finally arriving to the small parking lot and trail head. Once you hit the pack station, you want to park there if there are as many people as there are trees, because you can bet the lot is full.
By this point, you’ve already been overwhelmed by the swath of leaves that have turned as bright as the sun. The campground turn-out leads you to Horsetail Creek on a short trail (3.6 miles round trip) – perfect for you to get lost on while looking around.
To complete the full hike, you’ll end up following the creek on your left as you head up the canyon and through the wilderness (to grandmother’s house we go). With a steady incline and your destination – McGee Lake – a few miles up ahead, this hike can last you all day with plenty to look at.
Make sure you pack a lunch and an extra camera battery. The brightness of the scenery never stops following you the entire way up the trail. In the spring, this is also a b*tchin’ spot for wildflower blooms – but water levels are higher in spring and summer. There are some creek crossings that may be tricker in spring and summer but should be fine in the fall – be sure to pack waterproof socks just in case.
Convict Lake, Inyo National Forest near Mammoth Lakes, CA
- Miles: 3 round trip
- Elevation: 200 feet of gain. Lake sits at 7,850 ft. elevation.
- Trail Guide: Link
Convict Lake has been one of my favorite places since I was a child. Even as social media has brought hordes of people en masse, everyone is always in a swell mood when they’re exploring this little slice of heaven. Who wouldn’t be happy? Just under 3 miles of moderately flat terrain, you can enjoy a leisurely, easy walk under the falling leaves. Be sure to enjoy a meal at Convict Lake Resort afterwards.
Wondering how the lake got its name? In 1871, a group of convicts escaped from prison in Carson City, Nevada. A group of furious men led by Sheriff Robert Morrison chased after the convicts and an altercation occurred near the head of what is now Convict Creek. Morrison was killed in the encounter, and Mount Morrison – the dramatic mountain towering over Convict Lake – was named after him. Isn’t Gold Rush history fascinating!?
There is a sign to park for the trail just before the lodge in a lot all to its own. This is where you can hit the loop from the North side of the lake, giving you a wide-angle view of the lake and it’s changing trees below. There’s an access trail/stock trail turn off to the Pacific Crest Trail about a mile in. Stay to your left and keep to the loop for the easy stroll that will take you a little over an hour.
If you’re driving all the way up to the lake, at the T-section make a left, following the road around the lake to the South point of the trail. This is a day use only parking lot, where I usually access the pathway making the same loop. This side has the abundance of trees you’re looking for and is my preferred way of starting out the hike. Enjoy the shady dips and secret coves all along the way.
During the summer, you can take a horseback ride around the lake or rent a kayak for a clear morning paddle.The fishing is great – I recommend the North side of the lake as my favored place to be. Cast out right past the drop off point and wait for those 5 pounders to take your line for a ride.
This is a great place to bring the whole family and dogs and enjoy a day of relaxation and activity on the lake. There is an accessible, wheelchair friendly trail on the South side of the lake that goes for .3 miles. Little offshoots down to the shore have picnic tables for you to enjoy while you teach the kiddos to skip rocks. Bring a portable easel and let your inner Rembrandt out on the rocky shore as you face Mount Morrison and all its glory. You can even stay at the Convict Lake Resort to round out a wonderful weekend getaway!
Note from Lia
The next three hikes on the list are located the June Lake area. I took a trip here in early October 2018 to catch the fall foliage as it began to turn, and it was STUNNING. I highly recommend staying in June Lake for a few days and enjoying the area! I’ll have a dedicated post coming soon, so stay tuned.
Fern Lake Trail, Inyo National Forest in June Lake, CA
- Miles: 3.4 round trip
- Elevation: 1,600 feet gain. Highest elevation 8,800 ft.
- Trail Guide: Fern Lake or Yost Lake
As you’re taking the well-traveled, scenic trip around the June Lake Loop, prepare yourself for a nice stretch of the legs to get to Fern Lake. A little over 3 miles on the Southern side of Carson Peak, a sparkling, serene body of water awaits you – just like everywhere else you go in this area (I say that with reverence: this area is STUNNING).
Depending on the mood of Mother Nature and the weather that day, you may be able to take advantage of the small beach that makes up part of its shore. Bring a book, grab a seat with your feet in the water and relax.
On your way up the trail, you’ll immerse yourself in the golden hues of the trees during the autumn months. There are multiple spots to stop and enjoy beautiful, vast views of the whole valley containing Silver Lake below. This is the perfect spot to try and capture the beauty of the fall season. Get your stair climbing practice in beforehand – this trail is a bit steep
Because of its location within the heart of the June Lake Loop, this trail may be well traveled during the fall foliage season. Pack a lunch and make your way through the fellow gawkers so you can stake your claim at the edge of that crystal blue water.
Additionally, you can access the trail to Yost Lake and add an additional 6 miles to your hike from this same hike. This is a less steep but longer hike. Either way, be aware: both trails are considered to be fairly strenuous.
Agnew Lake and Gem Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness in June Lake, CA
- Miles: 4.4 round trip to Agnew Lake, 6.6 round trip to Gem Lake
- Elevation: 800 ft gain to Agnew Lake, 1,800 fain to Gem Lake. 8,500 ft elevation at trailhead.
- Trail Guide: Agnew Lake, Gem Lake
Another stop for your June Lake Loop journey. If Fern Lake didn’t give you those awesome, birds-eye view you were looking for, try this hidden treasure of an adventure This bad boy goes up the mountain and brings you right out to Horsetail Falls, giving you a bad*ss viewpoint of the water rushing past you and the water below you. Let the scenic views of Silver Lake and everything around it blow you away.
Agnew Lake is two miles up the trail, with pieces of the Rush Creek hydroelectric plant still left for people to look at. Don’t let the manmade hubbub keep you from enjoying this pristine area.
Just past the 3-mile mark, you’ve hit Gem Lake. For all of you thru-hikers (or wannabe thru-hikers) you can keep heading West to Waugh Lake and meet up with the Pacific Crest Trail, or hike this as a 3-day 21 mile loop. This trail is also popular with ice hikers in the winter time, when Route 158 (the loop) is closed for the season.
Important Note: the trailhead has no sign, so keep an eye out for a little break in the trees just before the Silver Lake Resort & Campground if you’re coming from June Lake. By the way, the breakfast at Silver Lake Resort is amazing, so do yourself a favor and stop there first to fuel up. Lia also recommends kayaking on Silver Lake – it was by far one of the most beautiful kayaking trips she’s ever done.
Little Walker Lake, Inyo National Forest in June Lake, CA
- Miles: 1 Mile
- Elevation Gain: 800 feet
- Trail Guide: Link
Let’s say you’ve already hiked the Gem Lake Trail. You may have made your way down to Silver Lake, meandered around the crowds of people posing in front of the aspens. You probably posed yourself. (Don’t lie. We all do it.) You had an awesome lunch at Silver Lake Resort, stuffing one of their famous burgers into your face to quench your dire need for protein.
But your adventure bone is tingling still – I mean, you are in the Eastern Sierras – so you feel like roughing it a little on a dirt road with a pleasant hike and a little late afternoon fishing. Bring it on!
Little Walker Lake – known locally as Lil Walker Lake – is a little tricky to find. Chances are, you’re going to miss it coming from June Lake towards Grant Lake (South to North). I always do. If you hit 395 and have seen no sign for trails, turn around.
Shortly thereafter, on your right-hand side, you’ll see the small brown marker with the backpacker’s symbol. Follow the dirt road and stay to your right at the curve. If you turn left, you’ll find Parker Lake. As you continue to drive the dirt road, you may end up at larger Walker Lake. It is only in a hidden, winding dirt road to your left that you may find yourself at the tiny Lil Walker Lake. Important to note: part of this lake is privately owned – please don’t trespass!
You’ll have to walk to the lake. You can hit it from up top, climbing down the steep face of the Southern side of the lake to an open shore under evergreens. Or, you can walk the secluded dirt road that you would be driving on if it wasn’t blocked off by a gate. The walk is a little steep but the views are phenomenal. Open fields filled with evergreens as well as deciduous trees alike make for a beautiful border to your trail. Consider this a late evening stroll just to check out the serenity of the lake.
- Tip: After your hike, head to June Lake Brewing for a frothy pint of Lil Walker IPA, cuz you just hiked its namesake!
Virginia Lakes, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Bridgeport, CA
- Miles: 3.2 miles round trip to Frog Lakes, 5.6 miles round trip to Burro Pass, or 10.0 miles round trip to Summit Lake
- Elevation Gain: 1,320 ft. Trailhead beings at 9,800 ft. elevation
- Trail Guide: Link
Virginia Lakes (aka Vagina Lakes if you’re immature/me) is a great spot to stop at as you’re leaving Mammoth to head to Bodie or even further North, like driving back to the Bay Area. They’re located right between Bridgeport and Lee Vining, on the shores of Mono Lake.
Right after you pass the turn off for the view of Mono Lake to the South of you (you’ll want to stop here for a photo) you’ll come up on the left hand turn on Conway Summit to this string of lakes. Take notice of the beautiful open valleys below you, right as you turn off on to Virginia Lakes Road. It’s a sight to be seen. Continue West on this road for several miles, and you’ll see the Virginia Lakes Resort to your left on the edge of Little Virginia Lake.
Keep going down the road to hit the parking lot for the trailhead, right at the base of Big Valley Lake. The lakeside is decorated on all sides with our favorite fall color trees, leaving you with more picture-perfect views. That’s what we’re all here for, right? This place is even great in the deep of winter for back country skiers, if that’s your kind of thrill.
Get out and stretch your legs, heading South a short distance to Red Lake. Go a little further with Blue Lake, two miles North of Big V. Lake. Past that, get your chance to see some waterfalls and head towards Cooney Lake, Frog Lakes, Summit Pass and finally, Summit Lake, 6 miles in.
When you’re done with whatever adventure you’ve created for yourself at the Virginia Lakes Trailhead, head North some more to hit Bodie, the eerie ghost town 15 miles off highway 395, or take a dip in one of the nearby natural hot springs: Bridgeport, Buckeye or Travertine.
Whew, that was a LOT of mountainy, hiking goodness! My legs are aching just from looking at all those stunning photos. Er, actually, maybe that’s just because I’ve been sitting for too long reading this post.
I just got back from June Lake yesterday and I’m already dying to go back and try a few of these hikes! Did you know that the Eastern Sierras were so freakin’ gorgeous? Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Looking for more places to hike & explore in Northern California? Check out a few of our other posts!
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