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Exploring the Eastern Sierras

After five days of exploring the Eastern Sierras, Jason and I had only scratched the surface.  We visited museums, national historic sites, and a wide range of natural wonders, yet left feeling like there is much more to do, and that we would need to come back.  The more populated parts of our state--those mostly along the ocean--get all the press. We definitely waited too long to experience these spectacular mountains that are full of both stunning beauty and important history.  Don’t make the same mistake we did. Whether it’s for a long weekend or a month, find the time to see this part of California.

Museum of Western Film History, or Lone Pine Movie Museum--pictured is the dentist wagon from the movie, Django Unchained
Lone Pine Movie Museum--Dentist Wagon from the movie, Django Unchained

Museum of Western Film History (or the Lone Pine Movie Museum)

I’ll admit that this museum was not on our original itinerary.  A friend recommended it a few days before we left, and it was a nice point along our drive for a break, so we stopped here on our way to Mammoth Lakes.  If you're like me, and remember television Westerns like the Lone Ranger (Hi -ho Silver, away!) then this place is worth the $5 admission fee.

What was surprising to learn was how many films from other genres were shot in the area--Iron Man, Star Wars, Django Unchained, and G.I. Jane are just a few examples.  The museum is small, but it’s packed with plenty of fun artifacts from the movies including stagecoaches, movie posters, costumes, and props. I highly recommend taking the time to view the fifteen minute introductory film since it provides a great overview of the area and the film industry.

Manzanar Cemetery
Manzanar Cemetery

Manzanar National Historic Site

Our next stop along highway 395 was Manzanar National Historic Site.  Anyone driving this road should be required to stop here. While this site represents one of the saddest moments in American history, its critical that we remember it.  This was one of ten internment centers for Japanese Americans during World War II and at its peak there were over 10,000 men, women and children housed in this very inhospitable camp.

While we were visiting the weather topped 100 degrees, and yet we had access to air conditioning, something not yet invented in the early 1940’s.  Winter temperatures dip to freezing but the cabins provided for internees had no heat. Add to that brutal winds throughout the year and it becomes clear how difficult a living situation this was for families.

Manzanar National Historic Site Visitors Center
Manzanar National Historic Site Visitors Center

In operation from 1942 to 1945, Manzanar was a 6,000 acre facility with homes, schools, churches, recreation areas, a hospital and a cemetary.  Most of the original structures were destroyed, but a handful of buildings have been recreated to give us a sense of life in this camp.

We began at the Visitors Center which offers excellent exhibits about Manzanar in particular as well as the broader issue of interning 120,000 Japanese-Americans.  Afterwards we drove the 3 mile road around the camp. There are several points to stop along the way where signage provides information about the different sections of the camp. The most iconic site is the Manzanar cemetery where a simple white, stone obelisk is set against the backdrop of rugged foothills.

One of the reasons I am determined to travel as much as possible is to experience history up close.  It’s one thing to study the internment of Japanese in a book, it’s quite another to witness the place where they lived for three years and the conditions they were forced to tolerate.  

Mammoth Lakes boat rentals--a great summer activity
Mammoth Lakes boat rentals--a great summer activity

Mammoth Lakes–Hiking, Boating and Fishing

We ended our first day at Mammoth Lakes, the town that would be our base for the next few days.  For California residents, Mammoth is synonymous with skiing, and that was quite obvious as we drove through town.  Hotels reminiscent of ski chalets and thick gondola wires overhead to transport skiers to the slopes are everywhere.  This was a town built for skiing. Like many ski resorts around the world however, Mammoth does its best to offer plenty of alternative activities in the summer.  We spent the next few days experiencing a few of these activities including hiking and boating.

One of the first stops I recommend is the Mammoth Visitors Center.  Anytime we explore a new state or national park I’ve found that the visitors centers can provide information that can’t be found through Google.  Mother Nature is full of surprises, so it's helpful to ask rangers or volunteers for the current conditions of trails and availability of activities.   During our recent visit a forest fire was raging nearby reeking havoc on the air quality. The volunteers were able to provide alternative locations for outdoor activities.

Here's 10 Reasons You Need To Visit Mammoth Lakes.

Mammoth Lakes hiking--Jason along the Convict Lake trail
Mammoth Lakes hiking--Jason along the Convict Lake trail

Mammoth Lakes hiking was one of the top reasons for our visit.  Since I wrote an extensive article about Eastern Sierra hiking, I’ll just say that there are hundreds of scenic trails in the area.  If hiking is one of your hobbies, then Mammoth will not disappoint.

But hiking is just one option.  Fishing in Mammoth is another popular activity due to the presence of 100 lakes throughout the region. Whether it’s from shore, a dock, or a boat, there are plenty of places to fish. A license is required and can be obtained at several locations.  The most common type of fish in the area is trout, and several of the larger lakes are stocked during peak season (April through November). A variety of boats can be rented for those preferring to be out on the water for fishing.

Do you find getting outdoors romantic? We do!

Check out this article about Romantic California and all its natural beauty.

Mammoth Lakes kayaking--Wendy at the front of a kayak on Lake Mary
Mammoth Lakes kayaking--Wendy at the front of a kayak on Lake Mary

We didn’t fish during this trip, but instead rented a kayak from Lake Mary Marina.  Other boat rental choices included row boats, canoes, and pontoons. The rates were reasonable and the staff quite helpful. The view of the mountains from the middle of Lake Mary was lovely, despite the smoggy sky caused by the forest fire.  

About a dozen other boats were spread around the lake, most fishing, but everyone clearly enjoying the peaceful morning. At one point we watched as a hawk and eagle engaged in a battle for territory high over our heads. Other locations for Mammoth Lakes boat rentals include June Lake, Convict Lake and Lake George.   

One of the tufas at Mono Lake, along the South shore
One of the tufas at Mono Lake, along the South shore

Mono Lake

Just a thirty minute drive North of Mammoth is the other-worldly Mono Lake, one of the oldest lakes in North America.  When I first moved to California during high school, I frequently saw “Save Mono Lake” bumper stickers, but knew nothing about this issue. During our recent trip I learned that at one time, Mono Lake was at risk of disappearing due to the large amount of water diversion for the Los Angeles area.  In response to a lawsuit, a settlement was reached restricting water diversion and today Mono Lake is in better--if not ideal--shape.

A view of Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras in California
A view of Mono Lake

What makes this lake unique are the large tufas that are formed when fresh water springs containing calcium bubble up through the carbonate-rich lake water.  The tufas reminded me of free form sandcastles children build at the beach. We walked a short trail to see the tufas along the south shore. During certain times of year this lake is full of breeding birds, but they were absent while we visited.   

I highly recommend starting a visit here at the Mono Lake Visitors Center.  There are several exhibits describing the formation of the lake as well as the birdlife seen throughout the year.  On a clear day the visitors center also offers a great view of the lake.

Outside the Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center
Outside the Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center

Bristlecone Pine Forest

After several great days in Mammoth Lakes, it was time to return home, but we had one more important stop, Bristlecone Pine Forest. While researching this trip I was surprised to learn that the oldest living things on earth are located in California, right in this forest. Why didn’t I know about this?! It turns out that bristlecone pine trees are indeed the oldest living things on earth.

After driving to the Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitor Center I had a better understanding of why this natural wonder is not so well known.  First, it’s a long, winding, uphill drive that took us over an hour. And to make matters worse, we missed a critical turn because our GPS stopped working--there is no cell service in much of this area.  

 

A view of the Eastern Sierras from the Bristlecone Pine Forest
A view of the Eastern Sierras from the Bristlecone Pine Forest

This drive is not for the faint of heart! When we finally arrived--at an elevation of 10,000 feet--it was over 100 degrees outside, so we did not attempt the two hikes that begin at the visitors center.  Instead we enjoyed the small exhibit area inside, took a few photos of the trees, and drove carefully back to the 395. I really enjoyed learning about this forest, but in all honesty, not sure I’ll be back.  This is not the most hospitable area for hiking, and I don’t think my nerves could take the drive again.

The Village Lodge
The Village Lodge

Where to Stay and Eat in Mammoth Lakes

The Village Lodge in Mammoth Lakes was our selection for accommodations, and I’d happily stay there again.  The rooms are all suites with a full kitchen. Jason and I brought food for our breakfasts and lunches, and ate out in the evenings.  In the summer The Village offers free movies and music in the evenings in addition to all the shops and restaurants open year round.   

The lack of central air conditioning in the rooms was disappointing however, and I feel this should be disclosed to guests before making reservations.  A portable air conditioner is available in each room, but in high heat situations, these don’t work well.

The Village Lodge at night
The Village Lodge at night

Eating dinner out each evening allowed us to try several restaurants in Mammoth Lakes.  Our two favorites were Whitebark Restaurant at the Westin and Mammoth Rock Brasserie. Whitebark is a just a short walk from the Village, the service was excellent and the food delicious.  We shared a perfectly cooked ribeye steak and truffle risotto.

We selected Mammoth Rock Brasserie as the place to celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary and were not disappointed. The food here is mostly a modern take on french cuisine.  Everything was delicious and we appreciated the thoughtful gesture of the owner to comp our desert in honor of our anniversary. Jason and I shared a variety of dishes, but I highly recommend the rigatoni bolognese.

Exploring the Eastern Sierras Never Ends

Jason and I packed so much activity into our five day trip, but as I mentioned in the beginning, we know there is still more to see and do.  Whether it’s hiking new trails, learning about the gold mining history, or even venturing into Yosemite National Park, the Eastern Sierras offer endless possibilities.

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Exploring the Easter Sierras of California
Exploring the Eastern Sierras of California
Exploring the Eastern Sierra of California

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