GETTING OUT: Virginia Lakes offer pleasant high-mountain setting

GETTING OUT: Virginia Lakes offer pleasant high-mountain setting

Highway 395 traces the grand eastern escarpment of the Sierra
Nevada for 130 miles between Bridgeport and Lone Pine. Along every
mile, the mountains leap from the high desert to magnificent
heights. In Lone Pine, at the southern end, the Sierra crest
reaches 10,000 feet above the town, yet it appears nearly close
enough to touch.
Highway 395 traces the grand eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada for 130 miles between Bridgeport and Lone Pine. Along every mile, the mountains leap from the high desert to magnificent heights. In Lone Pine, at the southern end, the Sierra crest reaches 10,000 feet above the town, yet it appears nearly close enough to touch.

All along this stretch of highway, side roads tempt the curious traveler – one direction it climbs into the mountains to a road end and trailhead, the other direction takes you out onto the broad and desolate Mono Basin or down south, the Owens Valley. Any road you choose holds special wonders. The road to Virginia Lakes is one.

We crossed the Sierra at Tioga Pass on the east end of Yosemite and descended steeply down to Lee Vining near ancient Mono Lake. No sane person can pass the Whoa Nellie Deli in the Mobil Station at the base of the pass without stopping for the fish tacos. From our outdoor picnic table, I pointed north beyond Mono Lake, ignoring the fresh mango salsa dripping down my arm.

“Do you see that huge road cut in that rise over there? That’s Conway Summit. The turnoff to Virginia Lakes is up there.”

In the clean fresh air of the eastern Sierra, “over there” is always farther away than it looks. Through Lee Vining, past Mono Lake, Highway 395 makes a large looping “S” that climbs steeply to Conway Summit. Just as we turned onto Virginia Lakes Road, we stopped and stepped out of the car. The road here sits above the countryside on the far sided of the summit that stretches out to the northwest. Countless calendar photographs have been taken across this reach of land in the fall when the cottonwoods and aspens below you put on quite a show.

Five miles ahead, we reached the end of the road at 9,800 feet. Even if we never left the parking lot, the view would have satisfied us. The familiar white granite of the Sierra is replaced here with the bright red rock of Dunderberg Peak (12,374 feet) rising to the north. Across from Dunderberg Peak on the south side of the valley, Black Mountain and Mount Olsen form a still snow-covered bowl that cradled the first of the Virginia Lakes.

A year ago, I backpacked into the northeast corner of Yosemite, only five miles up the trail. This is a beautiful and rarely visited portion of the park where several wide glacier-carved canyons lay next to each other like bowling alleys. Cutting across their northern tip, magnificent Sawtooth Ridge rises up to 12,000 feet, dividing Yosemite Park from Bridgeport Valley on the other side. If you are a Jack Kerouac fan, read “Dharma Bums” and the account of his climb up Matterhorn Peak along this ridge many years ago. I brought my sister here because the walk to the pass is not the normal east side gut-busting climb. Here is a more congenial high-mountain setting. Naturally, there are steep sections, but the pass is only 300 feet above the trailhead, so the walk is generally easy going past alpine lakes strung together like pearls.

Our visit was in late June, and the lingering snow pack turned us back after a couple miles. But the snow-covered slopes and floating ice on the lakes added a special beauty and drama to the scene.

Each side road that pokes into the Sierra off Highway 395 leads to special beauty and surprises. At the end of Virginia Lakes Road, your passengers can dawdle near a lake just steps from the car or stroll into alpine country that is usually beyond easy reach.

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