Inyo County in the eastern Sierra with its 10,227 square miles can quickly put things in perspective and allow you to shed the chains of civilizations with a mere five hour drive from most of the 209 via Highway 120 through Yosemite National Park.
It is a land of glaciers, deserts, mountain peaks and canyons where off-wheel enthusiasts, fishermen, campers, hikers, and backpackers have what seems like unlimited options to pursue their passions.
Inyo harbors both the lowest spot in North America — Badwater in Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level — and the highest spot in the continental United States on Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet. Most of its 18,400 residents can be found in four communities along Highway 395 — Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and Lone Pine.
The endless hiking options from mountain passes, alpine lakes reachable only by foot, desert canyons, mountain canyons, sand dunes, gorges, and high desert exploring have been luring me to Inyo County for nearly 30 years.
In recent years I have made two trips — one in the late fall to Death Valley — and the other in the summer to explore the eastern Sierra.
I have yet to run out of hiking options although admittedly I will sometimes repeat favorite hikes.
Many trailheads can be accessed via paved roads while others require driving on dirt roads and others need a fur-wheel drive vehicle to reach
My trip earlier this month was more of an all out assault of day hikes on peaks, passes, and mountain canyons with all but one ranked either strenuous or very strenuous. All except Mt. Whitney were done without the need for a National Forest Service pass. The lottery for Mt. Whitney for day passes for the 22-mile hike with 4,500 plus feet gain in elevation as well as two-day passes is over for this year. But if you go online to www.fs.usda.gov/main/inyo/home you can check to see if there are some passes available for dates this summer and in the early fall.
Even if you have no desire to replicate the seven hikes in seven days that I did this last time covering 76 miles with a net gain of more than 28,000 feet in elevation, there are plenty of easy hikes with several less than a mile that may appeal to you.
The best book to select any type of hike from is “50 Classic Day Hikes of the Eastern Sierra” by Devon Fredericksen and Reed Harvey that’s available for $28 at REI in Stockton.
It includes a wide variety of hike types plus rates them from easy to very strenuous. Ball park times are given for the duration of the hike. But more importantly they consistently have the most accurate directions to trailheads plus is the only book dedicated to eastern Sierra hikes that I’ve found that is in full color plus makes an effort to give details and photos of other things you may find along the way such as flowers.
Admittedly, I’m kind of a distance and elevation gain junkie preferring to let those two elements guide my hike selection, but this time around I used the book to provide a different hiking experience each day.
Camping options are endless from county and national forest maintained campgrounds to wilderness options.
Personally, I prefer motels given nothing beats a nice bed and a quick shower after six to 14 hours of hiking. I’ve stayed in a number of spots over the years but for recent excursions have zeroed in the Bristlecone Motel in Big Pine for a number of solid reasons. It is central to virtually everything in Inyo County. It is less of a hassle to stay put than to pull up stakes after several nights to get another motel 60 miles away that’s near another hiking destination. Another big plus: The price is right. With room tax it comes to right around $100 a day. It is cheaper, by about 10 percent, by the way, to book directly and not through Internet travel sites.
It is a clean, 1950s era motel that typically can accommodate four to five people in a room with mini fridges that actually keep things cold and a microwave. The motel also has a general store and gas station. The owner operates a Laundromat next door as well as showers for backpackers.
Big Pine doesn’t have a lot of dining options. There’s only two if you count an impromptu BBQ place. But that doesn’t matter since most hikes start and end near the established Highway 395 communities you will find plenty of dining options.
And this may sound completely crazy, but some of the best Mexican food I’ve had this side of the border is in Bishop where you will find a strong selection of Mexican restaurants including two next door to each other.
The only thing out numbering Mexican restaurants in Bishop are hiking and fishing sporting goods stores.