Jason Daniel Shaw
Must-See Places from Big Pine to Mammoth Lakes
Owens Valley – Lone Pine, CA
From Lone Pine to Mammoth Lakes lies a stretch of land that is filled with outdoor adventure. From Alpine Lakes to 5,000 year old trees to natural hot springs in the middle of nowhere, there is something for everyone. This blog post will take you through some of my favorite sites that aren’t to be missed if you find yourself in the Owens Valley and looking for something to do. It is also the second blog of our Lake Tahoe road trip during the 4th of July week, 2018.
Bristlecone Pine Forest – Inyo County, CA
I had heard mention of the Bristlecone Pines in the past but never paid much attention to them until this trip. After doing some research about the trees and realizing that they are around 5,000 years old and still thriving, I knew that we had to pay them a visit. There are two groves of these trees that sit between 9,800 and 11,000 feet above sea level, the Schulman and Patriarch Groves. There are basically two ways to get to them, one a steep paved road with lots of switchbacks leading up the mountain from Big Pine and the other an old Jeep trail (shorter but riskier) leading directly up the mountain from Bishop. We decided to visit the area at sunset and with the sun sucking faster than expected, we took the sure-thing and climbed the pave road. The first spot that you come to is the Schulman Grove and the visitor center. This grove contains the Methuselah tree (oldest living thing on Earth). We knew that we only had time to visit one grove so we opted to continue on to the Patriarch Grove (home to the largest Bristlecone Pine). Having the chance to make the choice again, I think we have chosen the other option.
Getting to the Patriarch Grove is a challenge. It is only about 13 miles past the Schulman Grove but the road is entirely unpaved and like a washboard. I believe that most cars can make the trip but it took us about an hour to make the drive in the Jeep. This is in addition to the hour drive up from Big Pine to Schulman Grove. We made it to Patriarch Grove about 30 minutes before sunset and set out hiking around the barren mountaintop in search of interesting looking trees. The 11,000 elevation definitely took a toll on me, coupled with not having had anything to eat since breakfast, it was a slow hike. The trees are amazing, though, and well worth the trip. I have seen so many incredible long exposure shots of the trees at night that I want to go back and spend some time up there photographing them.
Lake Sabrina – Bishop, CA
Lake Sabrina is an alpine lake in the mountains, about an hour out of Bishop, CA. We made a quick trip up there just after breakfast to check out the sights. You take 168 as far as it will go and find a parking spot, the crystal clear lake is created by a dam that allows water to flow into the Middle Fork Bishop Creek. There is a cafe and boats for rent and we saw quite a few people fishing, in both the lake and the river. The lake is beautiful and very picturesque and worth the drive. Don’t forget to stop by Erick Schat’s Bakery to pick up a pastry and a sandwich to take along for a picnic.
Convict Lake – Mammoth, CA
Another of the area’s alpine lakes is Convict Lake, located just west of the Mammoth Lakes Airport. This one is one of my favorites because of the ease of getting to it but also because of the sheer beauty of the lake with the towering mountains surrounding it. They have a campground, small resort and some boat rentals on-site. As you travel north of Highway 395, you will see a sign on left side of the road (across from the airport) that signals the turnoff for Convict Lake. Travel about a mile down that road and you will dead-end into the lake.
There are excellent opportunities for some long exposure landscape photography as well as for some on location portraits. It even makes for a nice day flight up if you are a private pilot since it is right across from the airport, however you may want a car (there are no car rentals at Mammoth Airport) for the next couple places on this list.
Natural Hot Springs – Mammoth, CA
There is no shortage of natural hot springs in the Mammoth area, some you can soak in and others that will just boil you (literally). We made it to a few of them but there are still many to explore.
The first that we visited, by far the most colorful, is also one that you can not swim in due to the heat. Despite the temperature being in the 90s, there was still steam coming off of the water. You can find it by the name of Hot Creek Geological Site or Hot Creek Gulch. The water is a spectacular turquoise and located just off of a flowing river of blue water that is surrounded by brilliant green plants. You can no longer get too close to the water due to the water increasing in temperature over time and now being blocked off by fences. However, it is still a sight that you must see. You can access it by traveling a couple miles down the appropriately named, Hot Creek Hatchery Road that is just north of the airport on Highway 395.
We continued on down Hot Creek Hatchery Road into a maze of dirt roads that led us to our next hot spring, Wild Willy’s Hot Spring. There were quite a few cars in the parking lot, signaling our arrival. After about a 1/4 mile walk down a nice boardwalk, we made it to the first of the two pools. The first one was more picturesque but much hotter than the second – to the point that you could only stay in a minute or so at a time. We took quite a few pictures around the pool, at least as many as Amanda would allow before becoming overheated. The second pool was pretty crowded and you could tell was probably pretty great when it was first built. People were lounging and all talking and getting to know one another so we headed back to the parking lot, there were still other places for us to visit.
Our last hot spring of the day was the Hilltop Tub. It was just down and across Benton Crossing Road from Wild Willy’s and easily accessed as well. Again, there was a short walk to the top of a small hill to get to the tub. This one was man-made as well with a valved-pipe running into it to control the temperature. We soaked for about 20 minutes and took some photos before heading back to the car.
There are many, many more hot springs in the area that you spend days exploring them. Each one is unique from the others in their own way. If you enjoy soaking in natural hot springs or just enjoy exploring new locations, I would highly suggest a hot springs trip to the area.
Devil’s Postpile & Rainbow Falls – Mammoth, CA
The following day, our friends flew in from Los Angeles for the day so we picked them up at the airport and headed to the Mammoth Mountain area. There is plenty to do in and around here but we chose to hike to Devil’s Postpile and Rainbow Falls. We started the hike from Devil’s Postpile Campground, which you can access via the Mammoth Shuttle (mandatory in the summer) or by parking at the campground if you are camping there. It is around 5 miles roundtrip but an easy hike and worth it. At about the 0.4-mile mark you will reach the Devil’s Postpile which is a group of hexagonal lava columns. They look pretty unreal when you first see them and when viewed from the top, look like a honey comb made out of rock.
After continuing on, you will hike past the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail on the way to the waterfall. The forest has had wildfires both time that I have made the hike (4 years apart) and you can see the damage caused by past forest fires along the hike. There are several spots to take in the views of the waterfalls, the first being from the top of the falls. This is a popular spot for selfies and you will more than likely see lots of people at the overlook. While you are usually able to get to the bottom of the falls, they were closed this time due to crews working on a new path to the bottom. Both visits, the waterfall has lived up to its name by having a rainbow stretched across the river. It is a beautiful waterfall but the hike can be very hot during the summer so make sure to take plenty of water.
Old 395 House – Mono Lake, CA
Just south of Mono Lake, there is an old abandoned house that has become an Instagram sensation and a place that I always stop when in the area to snap a couple of photos. It is in just a picturesque location and just off Highway 395.
I hope that you make some time to visit this area and see some of these sights as they are part of what makes California so special. There are so many things to see and do with each one being unique and different from the others. Stay tuned for the next leg of our Lake Tahoe road trip which takes us to the otherworldly, Mono Lake.