We spent May drifting down the Oregon coast, June in the redwood forests of California, the 4th of July on a mountaintop in Sonoma County’s wine county, and sweltered in gold rush country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Now it’s mid-July and time for the High Sierra; the wilderness and small towns along legendary highway 395 on the eastern edge of the magnificent Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.
We crossed over the Sierra Nevada mountains on highway 88 towards Lake Tahoe in order to avoid the more crowded roads nearer Yosemite National Park. The drive was beautiful and we reached highway 395 on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada at Mindon, Nevada and turned south. Our goal was the high-elevation campsites outside of Bridgeport, California, the only town of any size for many miles around. We followed Twin Lakes Road out of Bridgeport to Anette’s Mono RV camp at the end of upper Twin Lake, but the place was a zoo; an RV ghetto mobbed with motorhomes and trailers packed in side-by-side, radios and motorboats roaring, just the kind of place we avoid. We left immediately.
We had noticed some U.S. Forest service campgrounds along Twin Lakes Road and found a small one, Robinson Creek, with some sites available. We had found probably the best campsite in the valley, #53, quiet, under the shade of a giant old gnarly ponderosa pine with campsites spaced far apart, and the glacier-covered peaks of The Matterhorn and Sawtooth Ridge shining in the distance. At 7,000 feet elevation, it was cool and sunny. No services or hookups, and no cellular signal, just water at community spigots and vault toilets in a central bathroom, but the cleanest I’ve ever seen. It cost $23/ night, but with my America the Beautiful senior pass we paid half price, $11.50/night (it pays to be an old guy). We moved in immediately and made it our home for the next nine days.
The only disadvantage was that our camp was far from the sights we’d come to see; thirty-five miles from eastern entrance into Yosemite National Park at Tioga Pass and seventy-five miles from Bishop in the Owens Valley. And, fuel was super expensive in Bridgeport (diesel fuel over $4/gallon). But, we liked Bridgeport, a real western town, not a tourist resort, and free WiFi at the community library, available 24-hours per day, where we could lounge in the shade out front and take care of all our communications needs.
The next day we drove to nearby Bodie, a gold rush era ghost town now a California state park. We spent the morning walking through the dilapidated buildings of the once thriving boomtown imagining the gamblers and miners living it up in one of the sixty–five saloons that once entertained them in the 1860s. This is a must-see for anyone traveling through the eastern sierra.
After Bodie we drove to Mono Lake, another must-see in the eastern sierra. We wandered along South Tufa Beach through a rock forest of strange limestone pillars formed by ancient underwater springs now exposed by lower lake levels. I waded into the lake with water 100 times saltier than the ocean and full of minerals. It felt soapy but refreshing and we decided to come back later to swim in it when we had fresh water with us to wash off the salt.
The next day we explored further from camp; south to June and Mammoth Lakes. The goal was to explore remote camps in the mountains closer to Yosemite National Park and the Owens Valley. We never found another camp as good as we had in Robinson Creek. But, we hiked up to a tremendous waterfall above June Lake that was pouring out of a high valley of naked granite surrounded by the high peaks of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The falls were spectacular, but June Lake was crowded and we left for our quiet camp at Robinson Creek.
The next day, another road trip, this time to Bishop seventy-five miles south in the Owens Valley. It got hotter as we drove lower through the valley until temperatures reached into the upper nineties. We stopped at Manzanar, where Japanese/Americans were forced into “internment” camps during World War II.
Then we drove on to tiny Lone Pine and into the Alabama Hills, a maze of jumbled granite canyons, with Mount Whitney and the high sierra rising to 14,000 feet behind them. We hiked through the 100-degree heat to Mobius Arch, a hole in the granite boulders forming a perfect circle framing the high sierra in the background. We drove the backroads out to highway 395 turning north towards Bishop.
But it was getting late. We had planned to drive up to see the ancient Bristlecone Pines outside of Big Pine, another small town, but that would have to wait for another day. We returned through Bishop stopping to grocery shop and buy fresh bread at Schat’s Bakery. We were getting tired of all the driving, but we had one more long road trip to make; Yosemite National Park.
We took the next day off from driving and spent it in Bridgeport using the strong WiFi at the library, visiting the small but interesting museum and old jailhouse, and eating a barb-b-que dinner at the historic Bridgeport Inn.
As evening fell I drove out to nearby Buckeye Hot Springs, a couple of small natural pools along a mountain stream. After a nice soak in the hot mineral water I had a blowout on a tire on the way back. When I changed it, I saw that all of our tires were worn out. Thank god the flat didn’t’ happen while towing the trailer, but we would need new tires immediately.
The tire problem was an emergency, so the next day we drove an hour and a half north to Mindon, Nevada and bought a set of new tires at the Les Schwab tire store there (I buy all my tires at Les Schwab). Big, heavy duty tires are expensive, $1,400 in our case, but now we had new, all-terrain tires and were prepared to drive anywhere. As a bonus, we stopped at a local auto body shop and had the twisted front bumper I’d damaged in gold rush country pulled out to its normal position (although still dented).
Now confident with our new tires, we left early the next day for the town of Lee Vining and the entry over Tioga Pass into Yosemite National Park. We had been postponing going into Yosemite fearing the mobs of tourists that we knew would be there and as we entered the park, it was mobbed.
But, crowded or not, Yosemite is spectacular. We took short hikes across the open granite highlands and stopped at the Tuolumne Grove of giant sequoia trees and hiked down to them. But after seeing the giant sequoias in Gold Rush Country we found the small grove at Tuolumne underwhelming.
When we finally arrived in Yosemite Valley we were stunned. The massive granite block of El Capitan is the first thing you see, rising vertically over two thousand feet above the valley. Then there are the spectacular waterfalls of Bridal Veil and Yosemite, so high the wind blows the white water far across the face of the mountains. Yes, it was mobbed with people, but magnificent none-the-less.
We drove out to Yosemite Village and watched deer browse in a meadow in the shadow of Half Dome, the other iconic granite monolith in the valley. The sheer size of these naked blocks of granite are hard to comprehend rising thousands of feet in sheer vertical cliffs above the valley below.
But the crowds were getting to us. We just weren’t used to being around a lot of people anymore. So, we made the long, long drive back to our quiet camp at Robinson Creek. That was enough long road trips. We settled into our camp for the next few days.
For the next few days we explored the high meadows and mountains around Bridgeport. We spent one afternoon paddling our kayak across lower Twin Lake. Another day I hiked 14-miles into the high country of the Hoover Wilderness and back while Sonia took care of business in Bridgeport. We took shorter hikes around Virginia Lakes or along the river.
We could stay in the eastern sierra for weeks, . . . months, but it was time for us to swing northward, along the so-called Volcanic Route; to Lassen National Park, Lava Beds National Monument, and the volcanic high deserts of northern California. We’d been at Robinson Creek so long it took a little while to remember our routines for hitching the trailer up and moving on. Next stop, volcanoes and lava flows along the Volcanic Route.