Winter on the east side of the Sierras

In a magic instant, I found myself gazing on the sun-lit

The eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada is my favorite place
to visit. I encourage people who love the outdoors to visit the
east side with a near religious zeal.
The eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada is my favorite place to visit. I encourage people who love the outdoors to visit the east side with a near religious zeal.

As you fill your gas tank in Lone Pine (elevation 3,733 feet), high overhead but almost within reach, you gaze at the impressive summit of Mount Whitney (14,495 feet). That incredible relief follows your entire 150-mile ride along U.S. Highway 395 from Lone Pine up to Bridgeport and beyond. Travel the world and you will see few places that rival this magnificent scenery.

There’s always a catch – getting there isn’t easy. In summer, when Tioga Pass is open through Yosemite, it’s a five-hour drive to Lee Vining, where you first reach Highway 395. But, in winter, Tioga Pass is closed, and the best route to the east side is across Tehachapi Pass east of Bakersfield, then a couple of hours north from Mojave. Whew!

A friend of mine proposed a January trip to the east side with a group of young climbers. Their plans were uncertain – perhaps the east face of Whitney; maybe Lone Pine Peak – a winter itinerary for young studs far beyond the desire of an AARP member. Yet, he charitably invited me along; perhaps to regale the kids with historic tales of draft card burnings and Beatles concerts.

A barrage of e-mails flew back and forth among the boys, but ultimately things “came up,” and the trip was scrubbed. Well, doggone it, I had arranged for the time off, and – male bonding or not – I was going. I had never visited the east side of the Sierra in winter, and, with my camera and tripod in tow, I hoped that the snow-clad peaks would provide some special Kodak moments.

It was 7 p.m. before I was able to hit the road and midnight before I snuggled toasty warm in my sleeping bag at Red Rock State Park 25 miles north of Mojave. The next morning, my first stop was the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center at the junction of highways 395 and 136, one mile south of Lone Pine. This center, housed in a new expansive building, is a fabulous resource for books and information about the eastern Sierra, Death Valley, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest or any of the attractions along the Highway 395 corridor. The stunning view from this spot includes Mount Langley, Mount Whitney and Mount Russell; all more than 14,000 feet high.

In Lone Pine, turn west onto Whitney Portal Road and follow it two miles to Movie Flat Road, a dirt road suitable for any vehicle. Here, you enter a wondrous landscape of rounded rocks heaped upon each other, protruding randomly from the high desert floor, all beneath clear views of Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney. It looks familiar to you because hundreds of movies and car commercials have been filmed here. If you grew up watching the Lone Ranger, like I did, you will quickly recognize the terrain. Park your car and camp for free wherever you like. The visitor center has details and information about spots to see and a map of where various movies were filmed.

Clouds from inbound storms cast a dismal pall over the scene, making the light unsuitable for landscape photography, so I drove 55 miles north to Bishop hoping for brighter skies. I was on my way to see an area with Paiute petroglyphs when the sky cleared. In a magic instant, I found myself gazing on the sun-lit snow-clad Sierra summit reflected on a mirror-still pond – a perfect convergence of events just for me and my camera.

As soon as you can, get in the car and … oh, oh, here comes that religious zeal again.

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