Exploring the wilderness outside of Yosemite
The crowds are few and you can hike with your dog
Since we live in southern California, we have travelled up and down Highway 395 through the eastern Sierra Nevada on numerous occasions, each time driving faster than the last, in an attempt to reach Mammoth, Yosemite, Reno or home before our vacation days ran out. We often wondered what we might be missing as we raced by the little fishing signs directing you off 395 and up toward the mountain valleys. It turns out all those little fish-signed roads could beat Yosemite National Park in one big way: they all follow along stocked creeks up to gorgeous wilderness areas loaded with hiking trails, and all are available for you to enjoy with your dog.
So when the day came to hit the road fulltime in our Airstream, we knew right where to begin: driving up as many of those fish-signed roads as possible until either we got tired of eating fresh trout or the snow chased us out. We set out on October 1, 2011, with the gorgeous sunny weather powering our solar panel and nothing but unlimited vacation time ahead of us.
Having spent some time backpacking in the Sierras, we had an idea of what natural beauty might be tucked away in the mountains. However, nothing prepared us for how those obscure little roads made the jaw-dropping beauty so accessible. Every road we took up into the mountains yielded near-empty campgrounds and trailheads leading to alpine meadows and lakes--often in under a mile of easy hiking. That is, the hikes are easy on your legs but not necessarily on your lungs, as the climb often starts near 10,000 feet.
If you only have a limited amount of time, consider exiting Highway 395 at Tom’s Place and continuing up Rock Creek Road. Not only is the fishing and hiking spectacular, but you can reach camping nirvana by reserving pitch 86 at French Campground, which boasts an almost unheard-of (in a National Forest facility) full hook-up site. That’s right, hot showers with unlimited water will be waiting for you after your glorious days of hiking and fishing. If it weren’t for the two-week limit and the closure date of October 31, we might have stayed there forever.
Just driving up Rock Creek Road is a pleasure, particularly in the fall with the leaves blazing in color against the backdrop of white-capped mountains. There is great fishing to be found all along the road and in the campground. Just pull off, plop on a fly or a worm and you are almost guaranteed fresh trout for dinner.
Best hikes and eats
Follow the road to the end and you’ll be at the trailhead for Little Lakes Valley. This string of alpine lakes will steal your breath away faster than the altitude, and it all starts after less than a mile of hiking. By the way, if you head up Rock Creek Road before September 30, stop in at A Pie in the Sky for some of the wildest pie varieties, all equally delicious and packed for your rucksack at your request.
If you are an avid hiker, take the well-signed right turn after almost a mile into the hike and head up to Mono Pass. The views back over the Little Lakes Basin are worth the extra effort and stand in great contrast to the moonscape pass you reach after four miles. Ruby Lake makes a great stopping spot for lunch (and pie!) on your way up or down from the pass.
Another hot tip: as you head back down to French Campground, you will pass Rock Creek Lodge on the right, just after Rock Creek Lake. There is a fantastic fishing hole on the north side of the bridge. The fish were so abundantly catchable that we named this spot the fish market.
If the thought of hiking doesn’t entice you to leave a sunny pitch, then head south on Highway 395 to Bishop, exiting at Highway 168 toward Aspendell for even easier access to the stunning beauty of this area. This scenic drive puts you within easy viewing of Lake Sabrina (if you want to be taken for a local, pronounce that with a long “i”) and, if you take the South Lake Road turnoff, you will arrive right at the edge of South Lake itself. Although you aren’t likely to find the solitude of the Little Lakes Valley, both are gorgeous lakes standing ready for pictures, a picnic lunch and a lazy day in the golden California sunshine.