The BEST Eastern Sierras Road Trip Itinerary

Temple Crag and Second Lake in Big Pine in the Eastern Sierras Near Mammoth in California
[Second Lake on the Big Pine Lakes Trail]
Oh, so I hear you’re going to the Eastern Sierras?

Well, I guarantee that you’re about to have. An. Epic. Time. The Eastern Sierras are one of the most underrated parts of California, in my opinion!

This guide goes from north, beginning in Bodie, to south, ending in Big Pine. However, you can also go the opposite way of course! You can probably do this in 2 days, although if you include the hike in Big Pine you’ll want to tack on an extra one. I guarantee you’ll want to stay longer, though – I’ve been to the Mammoth area three times and there’s still so much left to explore!

Also know that the Eastern Sierras can get a LOT of snow, so be sure to check road conditions before you go if it’s late fall, winter, or spring. You may need to carry or use snow chains, or not even be able to go at all.

I’d highly recommend early fall as the best time to go. Less people, the Aspens are changing colors, and it’s (hopefully) still warm enough to go for a dip in one of the many lakes!

Desert scrub (green, short, woody shrubs) with a back drop of mountains and cloudy sky in the Eastern Sierras near Bishop and Mammoth in California
[Desert scrub landscape near Bishop]
Snow-capped mountains, green desert scrub, and wooden houses along Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierras in California
[LOVE the mountains here]
The Eastern Sierras have such vastly different terrain, which is fascinating, too. Both desert scrub and tall pines. I’m partial to the tall pines and lakes, but I like desert scrub, too!

Check out where you should go & why below:

WHERE TO STAY IN THE EASTERN SIERRAS: FREE CAMPING

Tent on rocky terrain surrounded by pine trees in the Eastern Sierras near Mammoth, California
[Our camping spot off of Highway 108]
I love the abundance of BLM land (Bureau of Land Management, aka public lands, aka FREE camping!!) all over the Eastern Sierras. I’ve always had luck finding a spot, and relatively secluded ones at that!

Please only camp in designated spots (it’s pretty easy to tell – there’s usually a very obvious cleared dirt area, and sometimes a fire ring, although you’re not usually allowed to have fires). It’s especially important in the desert, as you want to be sure and avoid Cryptobiotic Crusts/Soils!!

Kelsey in front of an orange tent camping near Mono Lake in Mammoth, California in the Eastern Sierras
[Our campsite near Mono Lake – you can even see the lake through the trees!]
I use freecampsites.net to find the best campsites. I haven’t been steered wrong yet!

I’ve camped:

  • Just off of Highway 108, and found an awesome spot between the towns Pinecrest and Dardanelle.
  • Anywhere around Wild Willy’s hot springs – there are a TON of spots in that area.
  • Just south of Mono Lake
View from campsite at sunset on BLM land in the Eastern Sierras in California
[The view from our campsite off of Highway 108]
Also, please follow Leave No Trace principles! I’m sure ya’ll already know this, but try to leave the area as you found out. Pack out your trash, and bury the solid remnants of your bodily functions. I often bring a trowel for this reason 🙂

BODIE IS THE DEFINITION OF A GHOST TOWN

What to See in One of the Most Beautiful Regions of California - the Eastern Sierras!
[Bodie State Historic Park has the coolest old buildings!]
Bodie State Historic Park place is a mega eerie ghost town. The last residents left about 65 years ago – and you can still see inside plenty of the houses, full of abandoned furniture and belongings. It’s quite fascinating to walk around and wonder what life would have been like back then.

Inside an old ghosttown house in Bodie State Historical National Park in the Eastern Sierras near Mammoth in California
[The interior of one of the old houses]
We arrived at Bodie around 9:30 (it opens at 9), which I would HIGHLY recommend because it was starting to get busy by 10. We were happy we’d had a little bit of solitude to ourselves!

Wooden houses spread across a bunch of sage at Bodie State Historical Park in the Eastern Sierras in California

However, it is pretty spread out, so even if you arrived during peak time you could probably walk up into the hills and get away from the bulk of visitors.

Girl taking photographs of Bodie State Historical Park, a ghost town amidst green sage bushes in the Eastern Sierras in California
[Photo ops abound]
Road along Bodie, a ghost town with old wooden houses and sage bushes, in the Eastern Sierras near Mammoth in California
[You can see the tourists starting to descend, but continue walking up the hill and they start to disappear]
It costs $8 for adults to visit. Very worth it, in my opinion! They also do occasional night opening hours – I can’t even imagine how cool it would be to visit under the stars.

Standing in front of a wooden house at Bodie State Historical Park in the Eastern Sierras in California
[Old houses abound – photo by Sabrina]

MONO LAKE: SALTY WATER, TUFAS, AND A BAJILLION BIRDS

Mono Lake and its Tufas (large limestone structures rising out of the blue water) in the Eastern Sierras in California
[Mono Lake in all its salty glory]
And no, I don’t mean a lake where you come back with mononucleosis.

I mean a lake where floating is made easy because of its high salt content; a lake where birds gather in masses; a lake where flies swarm across the shore like black curtains. Sound appealing?

And I can’t forget the Tufas! These large behemoths rising out of the water are made of calcium carbonate and alkaline water, aka limestone.

Mono Lake and its Tufas (large limestone structures rising out of the blue water) in the Eastern Sierras in California
[Check out them Tufas, those limestone behemoths jutting out of the water! This was taken in the fall, you can see the difference in the snow on the mountains in the background as compared to the next photo that was taken in the spring.]
Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras with Tufas and snow capped mountains in the background
[So pretty right!]
If you plan on swimming (which is actually encouraged!), be prepared with a bathing suit, so you don’t end up stripping down to your underwear while some older kayakers pass by mid-pants drop. You can enter the water from Navy Beach.

If you want to swim, summer and fall are definitely the best times! The lake was by no means warm, and when I went for the second time in the spring the water definitely wasn’t as salty due to the large amount of rainfall we’d received that winter. You didn’t get that floaty feeling like I’d gotten when I went in the fall, as shown in the photo below.

Kelsey swimming in the salty water of Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras, with blue green water and Tufas in the background
[Floating! Like actually floating!! In the lake]
The salt will also make your hair, bathing suit, and life in general extremely crunchy! So maybe don’t swim if you plan to camp for the next couple of nights without showering… (oops…)

Wooden building on the shores of Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras in California
[Random wooden building thing that I thought looked cool]
Kelsey in front of Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras, with Tufas, snowy mountains, and blue green water behind her
[This was in June – you can see there’s still snow in the mountains, and the water definitely wasn’t as ‘floaty’ that time around]
And if you have any cuts – godspeed, my friend.

If you’re into birdwatching, bring your binoculars, because you can see some cool shit out there! California Gulls nest at the lake, and other birds migrate through – depending on the time of year, you’ll see Phalaropes (so cute), Eared Grebes, Snowy Plovers, Avocets, and White-faced Ibises, just to name a few. We also saw an Osprey nest!

It’s $3 for adults to visit the lake.

RAINBOW FALLS IS STILL PRETTY SANS RAINBOW

Rainbow Falls near Mammoth in the Eastern Sierras
[We missed the rainbow but it was SO PRETTY]
Both Rainbow Falls and Devil’s Postpile are located along the same trail, so you can see them both at the same time! Keep in mind that they’re popular spots, so if you’re visiting on a weekend in the summer GET THERE EARLY.

In the summer months, you have to park at the Mammoth Adventure Center and take a shuttle to the trailhead area. They’re trying to cut down on traffic since it’s becoming such a popular spot. It’s actually kinda nice to not have to worry about driving/parking, since the road down to the trailhead is pretty narrow and windy, although the shuttle does cost money. It’s pretty cheap, though.

Cabin surrounded by meadow and tall pine trees seen along the trail to Rainbow Falls in mammoth in the Eastern Sierras near Mammoth in California
[Okay, I can’t EXACTLY remember where this was seen, but I THINK it was along the trail]
The hike isn’t bad at all, either – about 5 miles round trip (2.5 each way), although we took a short cut and probably cut a mile out.

You can even hike down to the base of the waterfall if you want! The stairs were unfortunately closed when we went, but they’ve since reopened.

DEVILS POSTPILE IS ACTUALLY A WORK OF GOD

Devil's Postpile in the Eastern Sierras in California
[Devil’s Postpile is gorgeous! Definitely don’t step on the posts as it will degrade them over time, but you can step on the dirt at the base of them.]
I can’t find why in the world it’s called Devils Postpile, and don’t 100% understand how it became what it is today. But basically, some crazy earth shit went down and this was the result. Geology nerds, feel free to explain away in the comments!

I wish we had hiked to the top of the Postpile (a super short hike) because the tops of the columns look like really cool honeycomb-shaped tiles!

I’ve heard that it’s awesome to stop and eat at the Mulehouse Cafe in Reds Meadow (a popular spot for PCT hikers in the Eastern Sierras), but didn’t get to try it this time.

GET NAKED AND GET IN A HOT SPRING

Girl in Wild Willy's Hot Springs in Mammoth California surrounded by grassland and mountains at sunset
[Wild Willy’s Hot Springs – it really lives up to its name as it’s known for late night (sometimes nude) partiers]
And lol no, you definitely don’t have to get naked (but I mean, you can if you want to)!

We went to Wild Willy’s Hot Springs, famous for it’s heart-shaped pool, and it was pretty crowded. Granted, we went on a Friday night, but you still may want to check out the other hot springs along the highway that are less popular. Wild Willy’s also tends to live up to its name and get a little ‘wild’ with partiers, so if you want to go but aren’t into that scene you may want to go before nightfall.

There are three pools in total at Wild Willy’s, the heart shaped one, a bigger one, and another medium one. So, you do have options!

Kelsey in Wild Willy's Hot Spring, a heart-shaped pool in the Eastern Sierras and Mammoth in California, with snow-capped mountains in the background
[The heart shape pool at Wild Willy’s.]
Keep in mind there are no real toilets, only a portapotty at the beginning of the trail (it’s about a 5ish minute walk), so plan accordingly. There may or may not be toilet paper, and there’s definitely no hand sanitizer!

Be sure to see the geothermal hot springs right near Wild Willy’s – but don’t get in unless you want to lose some limbs.

BISHOP IS A COOL CLIMBING TOWN

Before hitting Lake Sabrina, you’ll most likely drive through Bishop. It’s a cool small town that climbers flock to, since there are lots of great spots around the Mammoth area.

LAKE SABRINA IS PROBABLY A GREEN SCREEN

Girl sitting on a rock in front of Lake Sabrina in the Eastern Sierras in California
[LOOK AT HOW BEAUTIFUL THIS PLACE IS I AM DYING FROM ITS BEAUTY – Photo by Sabrina]
Lake Sabrina is SO pretty! We admittedly mainly went because my friend, Sabrina, wanted to visit her namesake. But we were pretty happy with our choice!

We decided to kayak, which cost an hour for $15. Pretty damn good deal, if ya ask me! You can also swim in the lake, but most other people were fishing, and renting motorized rowboats. They only have 2 kayaks available for rent, so I imagine fishing is the main draw.

Kayaking at Lake Sabrina in the Eastern Sierras in California
[Kayaking in Lake Sabrina was soooo relaxing]
Later, we got THE BEST ICE CREAM IN THE WORLD EVER at Dessert’D, an organic bake shop. I swear. I even got the vegan flavors, and you wouldn’t have been able to tell! So, if you’re in Mammoth (or anywhere in the Eastern Sierras honestly), you should 10000000% do this, especially after a day outside. Beware that it is a little pricey, though, but so worth it!

My friend Sabrina at Lake Sabrina
[My girl Sabrina at Lake Sabrina]

HIKE TO THE BIG PINE LAKES

Second Lake in and Temple Crag in Big Pine Lakes near Mammoth, California is a light green lake surrounded by rocks and trees and overlooked by a large mountain
[Second Lake, mine and my friend Sabrina’s favorite]
If you have an extra day, definitely plan to spend it hiking the Big Pine Lakes Trail! At 13 miles, it’s definitely doable in a day. However, we found the hike to be semi-grueling, especially if you’re backpacking (every backpacker we passed on our way back down had the same look of pain in their eyes). The beginning section is pretty much ALL uphill, but so worth it once you hit the lakes!

Third Lake in the Big Pine Lakes Trail in the Eastern Sierras is a blue lake with pine trees and mountains
[Third Lake why you so pretty]
There are seven lakes, and one extra called Black Lake, on the loop, all named by their order – ie First Lake, Second Lake, etc.

Girl overlooking First Lake in Big Pine on the Big Pine Lakes Trail in the Eastern Sierras near Mammoth in California - a beautiful blue-green lake surrounded by rocks and pine trees
[First Lake and its beautiful bright blue self]
We only made it to the first three, which are supposedly the most beautiful (although I’ll never know because we didn’t make it to the other ones…). Second Lake is the crowd favorite, though, with Temple Crag looming above it!

Third Lake on the Big Pine Lakes Trail in the Eastern Sierras near Mammoth in California - a beautiful blue-green lake surrounded by pine trees and mountains
[Third Lake – this one was also so unbelievably pretty]

IT WOULDN’T BE A ROAD TRIP WITHOUT GETTING YOUR CAR STUCK…

Black Honda CRV on a dirt road in desert scrub (green, short, woody shrubs) with a back drop of mountains in the Eastern Sierras near Bishop and Mammoth in California
[After we got my car unstuck – but you can see how tall the desert scrub was that we had to drive over to get it out]
Here’s a fun little story about how things don’t always go according to plan on the road…

My friend Sabrina and I drove to Lake Sabrina, and for some reason Google Maps took us on an alternate route as it claimed that the main road was closed (which we later found out wasn’t!!). Of course, the alternate route was along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. A similar situation happened during our road trip in Oregon. You would think we’d have learned our lesson, but nope! The dirt road got worse and worse until it became pretty much undriveable, and then – my car got stuck.

I’d been driving (mistake #1) and tried to go up a hill filled with rocks and grooves. My car got stuck in one of the dips, so I backed up, but panicked and did so in a very crooked fashion – off the road and into a bunch of desert plants.

Desert scrub (green, short, woody shrubs) with a back drop of mountains and cloudy sky in the Eastern Sierras near Bishop and Mammoth in California
[Some of the poor plants we had to run over to get my car out – I’M SORRY!!!]
Typical.

I forced Sabrina to take the wheel while I tried to breathe, and she confirmed: we were stuck.

My car was leaning way to the left (like halfway to tipping over on its side), the back wheels were stuck in plants, and the front right wheel was digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole.

Two backpackers passed us, saw our predicament, and just said “good luck” before continuing on. Like, they must’ve clearly heard Sabrina say, “we’re stuck” – and didn’t do anything. What would you have done? I think I at least would’ve asked if I could do anything, and then hung out for moral support if needed, even though I suck at driving (clearly, from this incident).

People in Boat on Lake Sabrina , surrounded by mountains in the Eastern Sierras near Bishop in California
[Lake Sabrina was worth it, though]
They also had a tiny little car with very low clearance with them, and had gotten almost as far as us before giving up. I have NO IDEA how, we went over some pretty big rocks! I was nervous for my CR-V, and it has pretty high clearance!

Anyways. Luckily we had service, and I was about to call AAA, because my car was digging itself deeper and deeper into a hole. BUT THEN! Sabrina decided to try and back up over the desert scrub (so sorry, plants!!), and she was a G and got my car out!

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel on a rock (orange head and black and white stripe on grey body) at Lake Sabrina near Mammoth in the Eastern Sierras
[This Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel was definitely judging us]
This whole ordeal lasted about 15-20 minutes. I really wish I’d gotten a video (and Sabrina says she wishes the same, but was too afraid I’d yell at her LOL which I probably would have).

Sunset over desert landscape with desert shrubs in Mammoth in the Eastern Sierras in California
[THAT SUNSET THO!!! Unfortunately, there were a ton of fires nearby when we went, but the smoky air made for some really pretty sunsets]
If you wanted to extend your California road trip, I’d also highly recommend visiting Yosemite!

LOVE IT? PIN IT!

Third Lake in the Big Pine Lakes Trail in the Eastern Sierras in California

Swimming and floating in Mono Lake, in California

Floating and swimming in Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras and Second Lake on the Big Pine Lakes Trail

Kelsey sitting at Second Lake on the Big Pine Lakes Loop, with Temple Crag looming over

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