GETTING OUT: The best trail to visit from Highway 395

GETTING OUT: The best trail to visit from Highway 395

For people who love the outdoors, there is no place that equals
the eastern Sierra. Despite my efforts at restraint, I talk about
it like some TV evangelist. Like them, I know I have a secret that,
if I could only convince you to embrace it, would change your life.
The only difference is that if you don’t go to the east side, you
don’t face eternal damnation
– at least I don’t think so.
For people who love the outdoors, there is no place that equals the eastern Sierra. Despite my efforts at restraint, I talk about it like some TV evangelist. Like them, I know I have a secret that, if I could only convince you to embrace it, would change your life. The only difference is that if you don’t go to the east side, you don’t face eternal damnation – at least I don’t think so.

Highway 395 between Bridgeport and Lone Pine divides a landscape of striking contrasts. On the west, the breathtaking Sierra escarpment rises steeply to heights thousands of feet over your head but seemingly close enough to touch. To the east, the vast reach of the high desert will confound your efforts to give it scale. The overall affect on you will be, dare I day it, religious.

Every side road into the mountains off Highway 395 leads to a trail with its own charms, but, if I were given the impossible task of selecting just one that would bring you into the fold, it would be Little Lakes Valley. It is the perfect alpine valley. Wide and gently sloped, it traces a string of lovely mountain lakes linked by gently cascading creeks, all at the foot of remarkable 13,000-foot peaks. Every east side photo calendar includes a picture of this valley.

Fifteen miles south of Mammoth Lakes, look for the Tom’s Place exit and drive 11 miles up Rock Creek Road to the trailhead at Mosquito Flat. This drive is especially lovely in the fall when the aspens that follow the creek radiate a wild luminous yellow. When you reach Mosquito Flat, you will probably find yourself short of breath. You are at 10,300 feet, the highest paved road head in the Sierra and an elevation that backpackers walk miles to reach in other locations.

Most mountain hikes withhold the truly spectacular scenes until you have paid the price of at least a few arduous miles. Here, the coffee table-book views are only steps away, hidden by a short rise above the trailhead. Once there, Bear Creek Spire, Mount Abbott, Mount Mills and several other peaks – all well over 13,000 feet – will accompany you however far up the valley you choose to go.

Beneath the powerful peaks, the trail traces a gentle idyllic beauty that is almost a caricature of Eden. Lake after lake is joined by a tumbling creek in a design that suggests collaboration between Mother Nature and Walt Disney.

A 3 1/2-mile walk takes you to the head of the valley beneath the climb to Morgan Pass and regions beyond. Here, near Chickenfoot Lake and the lovely collection of Gem Lakes, is a great place to leave the trail and wander. Open meadows, rocky promontories and tucked-away lakes call here with an irresistible invitation.

For backpackers seeking a greater adventure, this is also the trailhead to Pioneer Basin, one of the finest destinations in the entire Sierra. A half mile from the parking lot, the trail to Mono Pass forks to the right. As you climb to the pass, views up Little Lakes Valley are all the more beautiful. At the 4-mile mark, you cross 12,000-foot Mono Pass and are half way to Pioneer Basin and the 20-plus lakes that rest here.

Mid-day In July and August, the Mosquito Flat trailhead can be very crowded. To see its fresh beauty in a peaceful setting, come near day break for a special treat. There are few places that live up to vigorous hype. This is one.

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