Day Hiking in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains

East of Yosemite's high country, on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, lies a wonderland of lakes and waterfalls, alpine meadows, and geological oddities.
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Autumn in the mountains. Photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Geotourism

Autumn in the mountains. Photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Geotourism

East of Yosemite's high country, on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, lies a wonderland of lakes and waterfalls, alpine mountain meadows, and geological oddities including hot springs for day hikers to explore. Note that the Tioga Road (Hwy. 120), which connects Yosemite National Park with the eastern Sierra Nevada, is usually only open from June to October. The road's opening and closing dates vary each year, depending on snow levels.

Less than an hour's drive east of Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows, Mono Lake is a scenic beauty. Take an easy naturalist-led sunset stroll along the south shore for a close-up look at strange-looking tufa formations, or summit volcanic Panum Crater further west, accessible via the Rim and Plug Trails. The steep Lundy Canyon trail, which passes through aspen groves and wildflower fields, also starts nearby the town of Lee Vining, as do several other pretty lake trails.

Heading south on Hwy. 395, you can ride the gondola up Mammoth Mountain (elevation 11,053 feet) in summer for 360-degree panoramas, then hike 5 miles down the mountain's back side. More tempting trails await in the Mammoth Lakes area, especially around the Lakes Basin, where day-hiking opportunities range from short nature trails to steep ascents. Popular day-hike destinations include Panorama Dome (1-mile round trip), Emerald Lake (1.5 miles), Sky Meadows (4 miles), Crystal Lake (3 miles) and Mammoth Crest (6 miles).

For more unusual hikes with a geology theme, visit Mammoth's volcanic Inyo Craters (1-mile round trip hike) or head south to Devils Postpile National Monument, an otherworldly looking columnar basalt formation easily reached via a 0.8-mile round-trip trail. Longer day hikes nearby lead to Rainbow Falls (2.5 miles), Minaret Falls (1.5 miles) and into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Ranger stations and visitor centers can let you in on the secrets of hot springs in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, some accessible by short hiking trails.

Farther south along Hwy. 395, Bishop is the jumping-off point for those planning to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the USA outside of Alaska. Although the mountain can be summited as one long, grueling day hike, most people who are not elite athletes prefer to do it as an overnight backpacking trip! Whether you day hike or backpack to the summit, you must have a wilderness permit (available from the Inyo National Forest by a lottery in mid-February and on a space-available basis starting in April). The Bishop area also has plenty of gentler lake and mountain pass hikes to keep the whole family occupied, as well as boulder scrambles in the Alabama Hills where many Western movies were filmed.

For fun camping opportunities in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, click here.