About seven hours, give or take, from the Pacific Coast by road is a California that’s as far removed from palm-lined boulevards and beautiful beaches as the proverbial chalk from cheese. A California where craggy snow-capped peaks hobnob with the sky, stands of slender aspen whisper in the wind, and frisky little creeks tumble over boulders in picturesque canyons. Welcome to the Eastern Sierra!
This landscape of enormous beauty forms the setting within which the lakes of the Eastern Sierra sparkle and gleam like blue gems.
As part of a quest to see fall colors on the West Coast of the USA, we spent a glorious week exploring some of these lakes. California SR 395, a gorgeous scenic highway much less traveled than the Pacific Coast Highway, traverses this beautiful part of California. The lakes we explored are all easily accessed from this highway. (Note: I was nursing a leg injury during this trip so we were limited to lakes you could view from turnouts on the road or where you could access the shore or beach from a parking lot nearby. Without such constraints, your options become much wider, with many more blue beauties accessible via hikes ranging from easy to strenuous.)
Here is my list of must-visit lakes in the Eastern Sierra, from north to south, no hiking required:
Topaz Lake is actually a reservoir built on the site of a natural lake. It lies on the California-Nevada border, about forty miles south of South Lake Tahoe on California SR 395. It’s a popular spot for boating and fishing.
This lake looks beautiful viewed from the highway.
We drove along a road going down from the highway to the shore and then all the way to Topaz Lake Park on the far shore, and we were able to view the lake up close all along this road. Unlike some of the other lakes in the Eastern Sierra, Topaz Lake looks a little built up along the shore closest to the highway, with a lodge and an RV park. Nevertheless, I thought the simplicity of the setting was stunning, as was the view from the highway.
Cool fact: Topaz Lake was on the route taken in the year 1827 by Jedediah Smith, the great American explorer, on his way back from California into Nevada. It was the first time a non-native had crossed the Sierra Nevada.
Twin Lakes, Bridgeport
If you take the Twin Lakes Road at the little town of Bridgeport on SR 395, and drive for about ten miles, you come to the first of the twin lakes. The drive is extremely scenic, passing through large tracts of ranch land, with the mountains as a backdrop. The Twin Lakes area is beautiful, with a setting close to tall mountains and bright with color from aspens and cottonwoods in the fall. You can boat, fish and hike, or just relax and enjoy the views. The first of the two lakes, as you approach from Bridgeport, has a more dramatic setting and a more secluded shore, but the second one has a little park with benches, where you can sit and enjoy the views, watch ducks frolic in the water, or have a picnic lunch.
Easily the most unique and interesting lake we visited, Mono Lake wasn’t even on our itinerary since it’s not known for fall colors. But I had read about its fascinating history and ecosystem (it provides a habitat for millions of migratory birds that feed on the brine shrimp in the saltwater lake), and we couldn’t help stopping to explore a bit as we drove down SR 395. There are many access roads to Mono Lake from the highway, depending on what you want to see. Based on suggestions from the Mono Lake web site (http://www.monolake.org/visit/activities) for a one-hour stop, we turned in at the Mono Lake County Park, about five miles north of Lee Vining, to walk the boardwalk trail.
The lake shore looked bright with color:
The boardwalk trail to the lake is easy and flat. It’s also gorgeous! It’s about a quarter of a mile to the lake, through the unique flora that includes willows, marsh grasses and wildflowers. And you can see some tufa towers, the limestone structures that are part of the unique attraction of Mono Lake. We saw many birds at the shore, but my zoom lens was not powerful enough to get a good look. Binoculars or a powerful zoom lens would be handy when visiting Mono Lake.
Lakes of the June Lake Loop
Just a little further south on SR 395 is the June Lake Loop (California SR 158), an incredibly scenic fifteen-mile side road featuring four lakes right on the loop (Grant Lake, Silver Lake, Gull Lake, and June Lake) and a fifth, Parker Lake, accessible via a hiking trail. The June Lake complex is a great place for outdoor recreation, with numerous scenic hiking and biking trails, swimming, boating, and fishing.
As you enter the Loop from the north, Grant Lake comes up first. It’s the largest of the four lakes, but the shoreline didn’t appear to have much fall color, so we just drove by, enjoying the views of the water from the road.
The next lake on the June Lake Loop is Silver Lake, where we did stop. There were anglers on the shore and people out on the water in boats. Silver Lake Resort is right by the lake, so expect this lake to be more crowded than the others.
Continuing on the June Lake Road, if you make a left on to Gull Lake Road, you can go down to the shore/marina. Gull Lake is the smallest of the lakes on the June Lake Loop. There is a lakeside trail you can walk, and boating and fishing are popular here. I loved the reflections of the fall foliage at this lake.
The Loop Road offers spectacular views of June Lake. There are turnouts on the side of the road to enjoy the view and take photos. In the fall, the aspens that fringe the shore come alive with brilliant color. The little village of June Lake is a nice place to stop for coffee.
To go down to the shore of June Lake, take the Oh Ridge Road towards the campground of the same name. You will see signs for June Lake Beach, with a parking lot and a pathway to the beach. We walked along the shore to enjoy the beautiful views from water level, which were quite different from viewing the lake from the road above. From the shore, you get a better sense for how tall and dramatic the mountains are. We came across some ducks snoozing on the shore in the morning sun, their heads tucked into their wings. In the early morning, there weren’t too many other people here.
Located just ten miles south of the town of Mammoth Lakes, Convict Lake is a true Eastern Sierra beauty. Dramatic mountain peaks form the backdrop and the water is fringed with aspen and willows that provide gorgeous color in the fall. This is a small lake, but perfect for boating on a sunny afternoon, or walking the 2.5-mile trail that goes around the lake.
Convict Lake is a magnet for sunrise photographers, who look to capture the glow of the sun’s first light on the tops of the mountains that are at the back of the lake. We woke up early one morning to do just that! If you plan to photograph the sunrise, plan to be there at least one hour before the sunrise time if you want a clear view of the mountains, especially if you have a tripod. And remember to dress appropriately for the weather: when we went in early fall, it was 26 degrees Fahrenheit at sunrise.
Lakes of the Bishop Region
About forty miles south of the town of Mammoth Lakes on SR 395 is the town of Bishop. At Bishop, you can take California SR 168 to three popular lakes in the Bishop area: South Lake, North Lake and Sabrina Lake. We stopped at the locally famous Erick Schat’s Bakkery in Bishop for fresh-made sandwiches and planned to make a day of it at the three lakes. We enjoyed South Lake and Lake Sabrina, but we did not make it all the way to North Lake. The access road is not just unpaved and quite rough, it also clings to the edge of a mountaintop, where it is just one lane! We gave up and returned when we could find a spot to turn around safely, since we were in a little Honda Civic.
The approach to this lake is spectacularly beautiful, with views of the mountains, stands of lovely tall aspen glowing with color in the fall, and views of Bishop Creek. This lake is especially popular with anglers. One angler we spoke with told us he came to fish at this lake every weekend with his young son, and that it was their most favorite time of the week. Not surprising, considering the beauty and serenity of the surroundings: wonderful for quality time with loved ones!
Heavy wind the evening before we visited the Bishop region caused leaf fall along these lakes, and much of the fall color at South Lake was spent. But the views were still beautiful!
The approach to Lake Sabrina is stunningly beautiful. The little community of Aspendell, on the way to this lake, has some of the largest and tallest aspen I have ever seen. If you visit in fall, and the aspen are at their peak, it is a sight to behold. Lake Sabrina is the result of the damming of one of the forks of Bishop Creek. There is fishing and boating at the lake. It was very windy when we visited and we were glad we had dressed warmly.
Tips and Recommendations
When to visit: The Eastern Sierra is beautiful in any season. Mammoth Lakes is a very popular ski destination in California, and the lakes look stunning against all the snow in winter. However, to enjoy recreational opportunities such as boating and hiking, it’s probably best to visit in the spring, summer or early fall. Late spring brings carpets of wildflowers to the region, and the colors of fall are simply spectacular.
Where to stay: To explore the lakes of the Eastern Sierra listed above, the most practical and relatively central place to base yourself would be Mammoth Lakes, which has a range of accommodation options and some nice restaurants. We stayed at the Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth Lakes and found it both comfortable and convenient to the highway.
Trip length: One to two weeks would give you plenty of time to see all these lakes, enjoy some walks and boating, avail of photo opportunities, and possibly do some hikes or bike rides. Our trip was eight days long, not counting our travel days, and we thought it was the right amount of time, but we could not hike or bike on this trip.
Vehicle: A high clearance vehicle would be the vehicle of choice, especially if you plan to explore the back country. Many scenic side roads are unpaved and not all of them are graded. But we were able to see all of the lakes I have listed in our little Civic.
Have you visited the Eastern Sierra? If so, which was your favorite lake? If not, what are you waiting for? It’s time to buckle up and make your way to “Outside on the Eastside”!