I’ve been a mountaineering guide in the Eastern Sierra since the late 1980’s, so I’ve been up and down and around my share of the area’s trails. With so many great options sometimes I find myself stuck at home, wondering which of my favorites I should take a walk on today. And friends, or customers of our store, often ask “where should I go for a hike today, what’s your favorite hike near (x, y or z)?” In these moments I just sigh quietly to myself and say that old, worn phrase: “just go take a hike”.
First, a disclaimer: In four hundred words this couldn’t possibly be a hiking guide. For that you should run out and get the Frederickson and Harvey “Fifty Classic Day Hikes of the Eastern Sierra”. Secondly, these are real day hikes. You need to know how to keep yourself found and carry those important safety essentials.
Ok, all that said I do have some favorites. Not in any particular order here are my top three, hikes that I do again and again, just for the shear pleasure of the places:
Cottonwood Lakes: Out of Cottonwood Meadows, up the Horseshoe Meadow Road from Lone Pine, any hike to Cottonwood Lakes will reward you with great views towards the Sierra Crest and Mt. Langely (the southern most Fourteener in the Sierra) and spectacular scenery. Foxtail pines – the nearest relative to the renowned Bristlecone Pine, Earth’s longest living tree – abound and are quite beautiful. Some scientists speculate that some individuals of these may rival Bristlecones in lifespan. They surely rival them in form and splendor. A great hike here is to head north towards Cottonwood Lakes but then take the little-travelled cut off trail to South Fork Lake (your topo map will help you find this trail). A quiet and seldom maintained trail, this route will give you plenty of solitude and fine views. Hikes here range from short out and backs to full day hikes, and longer of course if you care to spend a night or two.
Kearsearge Pass trail. Moving north from Cottonwood Lakes, Kearsarge Pass is a moderate out and back from the trailhead at Onion Valley, located at 10,000’ up a good paved road from the town of Independence. The goal here is the pass, five miles from the parking lot, and the reward is the stunning view out into Kings Canyon National Park. From the 11,800’ pass one can see down to aqua blue Bullfrog and Charlotte Lakes and uncountable peaks can be seen as well. University Peak to the south towers over the pass. More Foxtail Pines and serene lakes help take your mind off the big hill you are trekking up as you make your way to the pass. The hike back is pleasant, as you descend back into the Owens Valley.
Finally, if I had to pick one hike it would be the Methuselah Trail in the Bristlecone Pine Forest, above Bishop and accessed from Big Pine. Plan on about an hour and a half drive up from Bishop, the road is good but plenty curvy and the parking lot is over 10,000’ in elevation. Once there plan on a day to spend among the Bristlecone pines, they are spectacular. There are shorter hikes here but the five mile Methuselah trail, with the free trail guide from the visitor center, is one of the best moderate day hikes on the planet. But you know me. I think you should just go take a hike!
Todd Vogel is a mountain guide and long time Bishop resident and along with his wife is co-owner of Bishop’s backpacking and climbing shop Eastside Sports.