California’s Eastern Sierras offer up enough rugged splendor to satisfy wilderness junkies for a lifetime. When you’re ready to trade the low roar of freeway traffic for the rush of wind through trees and the bustle of cityscapes for the reflective face of cerulean lakes, grab your pack and compass and explore one of these beautiful mountain hikes.
Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail
The North Fork trailhead in Inyo National Forest is located at First Falls, a torrential rush of snowmelt tumbling over boulders. The trail leads you through verdant forest refreshed by roaring waterfalls and through sage and manzanita flats, all periodically giving way on vertiginous panoramas as you climb toward Big Pine’s chain of alpine lakes. The main trail, which leads to Third Lake, is a 9.4‑mile loop, comfortably tackled in a day. You’ll see plenty of evidence of glacial activity etched by time into the steep rock faces. Before ascending to the lakes, be sure to stop and re-lace your boots and filter some fresh creek water at Lon Cheney’s Cabin.
Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail
The South Fork provides a more rugged and weather-exposed trek, encompassing steep switchbacks and rocky scrambles. Climbing beneath Palisades Glacier, you’ll eventually reach Willow, Brainard, and Finger Lakes. On a hot day, this trail attracts little traffic and so is a great place to be alone with your thoughts and the sounds of nature. To complete the 8.4‑mile loop with plenty of time for midday rests and scenic viewings, get an early start.
Mount Whitney Trail
Once you’re well-acclimated and ready for a grueling adventure, take on this 22-mile super-strenuous hike. You’re heading up the tallest mountain in the Lower 48; steep gain in altitude (6,130 feet), intense switchbacks, and the sensory feast of gorgeous alpine scenery are all part of the game. While a really committed, experienced hiker can knock this off in a day, backpacking this over two to three days is recommended. At Outpost Camp, the first main camp, you’ll drift off to the sound of babbling brooks and waterfall, then wake refreshed in the cool mountain morning. So why rush? Slow down and savor the whole experience.
Convict Lake Loop
If you’re seeking something a little less strenuous, check out this popular two-mile trail that follows the outline of Convict Lake—so named for a famous shootout back in the days of the wild west. With the looming backdrop of Laurel Mountain and the splash of trout on fishermen’s lines, this family-friendly amble gives you a great taste of the geography without requiring a full day to complete.
Parker Lake Trail
With views of Mono Lake to the east and the far-off summits of Mount Wood, Mount Lewis, and Parker Peak to the west, you’ll find inspiration at every turn on this beautiful stretch of trail. Take time to snap some photos of the impressive aspen groves along the way. While the trail gains 646 feet of elevation, the 3.8‑mile stretch offers plenty of level places to catch your breath.
Mono Lake Tufa Trail
Mono Lake’s tufa formations are limestone towers resembling piles of dripped wet sand: abstract and intricate. One of Mono Lake’s hallmark attractions, these otherworldly rocks are a must-see. Thankfully, the one-mile Tufa trail gives you plenty of great views. With an elevation change of just 40 feet, you can focus on the beauty of the strange scenery, not on huffing and puffing your way up to a steep climb.