Small Town with a Big Back Yard and New Friends ~ Bishop, CA

Bishop, largest populated city in Inyo County, sits at the crossroads of well-known Highway 395 and Highway 6.  It has a small town feel as you walk its streets, meandering among long-time locals, hippies with dreadlocks and weathered backpackers.   With all Bishop has to offer, it may well be the most popular stopping off point along the Highway 395 corridor.

When I think of Bishop, this is the scene I first envision.
When I think of Bishop, this is the scene I first envision.

We had planned several days in Bishop before we headed out for the summer as we wanted to experience this bustling little jewel in the spring, but our stay has been longer than anticipated as Mother Nature has decided she is not yet done with winter in the Sierras. So what is there to do in Bishop when you are waiting out storm fronts? Here are our top 3 picks:

1) Feasting

Bishop is the foodie paradise on the 395, with over 40 restaurants covering any type of meal a discerning palette could want.   We followed Nina’s lead on this one.

Any guesses whether we ate the whole thing?
Any guesses whether we ate the whole thing?

Bishop Burger Barn – offering a wide choice of burgers on homemade buns (even gluten-free) and grass-fed beef, the barn is a must if you love a good burger. Be forewarned, you could blow your daily allowance of calories in one sitting. We opted to bike out to the barn and felt just a wee bit comforted by the fact that we burned off a few extra calories, but definitely not as many as we consumed.

Mountain Rambler Brewery – new to town, with four of their own brews, one being a porter…yeah!  They are working on eight more taps and will surely improve over time.

Terry, Tom, & Z at Mountain Rambler Brewery
Terry, Tom, & Z at Mountain Rambler Brewery

The best part of our time at the brewery was meeting new full-timers Zsuzsa (better known as Z) and Tom. Z is from Hungary and they are a delightful couple. We learned during our visit that it was their 5th-wheel that was parked next to Dragon Face Rock in the Alabama Hills when I was respectfully trying to capture a photo without encroaching on their campsite.   Facebook brought us together from there.

Great Basin Bakery – go for the cookies, especially the Sierra Mud and Molasses…amazing!

Thai Thai Restaurant – another meet-up with Z and Tom. We had eaten here during our last visit…tasty!

One last meal with Z & Tom before we leave Bishop.
One last meal with Z & Tom before we leave Bishop.

2) Window Shop or Contribute to the Bishop Economy

There are lots of little boutique shops in which to spend your hard-earned money.  Here were our top three favorites.

Mountain Light Gallery – If you are the least bit interested in landscape photography, you should not miss out on the opportunity to visit this fabulous gallery, a tribute to the magical, one-of-a-kind photography of Galen Rowell and his wife Barbara.  We spent hours here during our last Bishop visit and did so again this time.

Wilson’s Eastside Sports – fabulous products, wonderful clerks and Terry is the proud owner of new hiking boots.

Spellbinder Books – a quaint bookstore with a variety of new and used books.

3) Hiking, Bouldering, Rock Climbing (now we’re talkin’)

There are plenty of high elevation hikes to consider but since the winter storms keep rolling in, this has been out of the question. It has made for some beautiful mountain photos but is not conducive to hiking. We did get our high altitude fix in when we last visited in the fall, which you can read about here.

Bishop, unbeknownst to us, is one of the top rock climbing places in the world, offering over 2,000 bouldering “problems” for all climbing levels.

Gigantic granite egg-shaped boulders dot the landscape in the Buttermilks, challenging the very best climbers.   It is said that the open windswept nature of these mountains will freeze your skin before your muscles give out.   The vistas are breathtaking, the hiking wonderful, and we were greeted by some interesting characters on the way back to our camper.

In the Volcanic Tablelands, where we spent several days boondocking, the volcanic tuff of the Happy and Sad Boulders present countless bouldering opportunities. The “Happies” have a larger choice of boulders and the “Sads”, less visited, have a dense population of more difficult problems. We visited both and the rock formations were spectacular. We hiked from where we camped and took the long way home, making for a 7-mile day of hiking and bouldering…fun times.

As of this writing we are still in Bishop, hoping for a break in the weather further north. It looks like spring here, with temps hovering near 70 degrees but the snow-capped mountains all around us tell another tale of what to expect on the mountain passes.  If we stay here much longer, we might get to experience Mule DaysBishop’s week-long festival held since 1969 celebrating the contributions pack mules have made to the area.  It might be fun to see but fingers-crossed we will be heading north soon.

Blue hour in the Volcanic Tablelands before the storm
Blue hour in the Volcanic Tablelands before the storm
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Trekking on Hallowed Ground ~ John Muir Wildnerness

“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where.  Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars.  This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”  ~  John Muir 

Some of the finest alpine hiking in this county can be found in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.  Looking up at the peaks I am drawn to discover her secrets whispered on the wind; smell her intoxicating scents of pine and sage; listen to the thundering of crystal clear streams cascading down her slopes; walk on these hallowed grounds named in honor of the father of American environmental consciousness, naturalist John Muir.  To immerse yourself in these many wonders means your mind and body must embrace high altitude hiking, something in the past that has been a little challenging for me.  But my desire to embrace all this wilderness has to offer surpasses my concerns.

We were planning on two hikes while in the Independence and Big Pine areas, but the forecast wasn’t looking good, with snowstorms predicted in the mountains and rain in the valley.  We decided to camp outside Independence, up at the 6000′ level and get an early start on a hike that began at Onion Valley, the Kearsarge Pass Trail.  We arrived at the trailhead the next morning to a chilly 38º at an elevation of 9200′.  We layered-up and hit the trail.  Unless you have hiked in the mountains, you cannot imagine how breathtaking the alpine lakes can be and there were five that we encountered on our way up to the pass, some still frozen over, awaiting the spring thaw.

Once we cleared the tree line, the howling wind was our lone companion on the barren, windswept trail that switchbacked the remaining 1.5 miles to the pass. Snowflakes swirled around us as we continued our upward trek, but quite frankly, I did not notice their beauty until I stepped onto the pass.  The view down into Kings Canyon National Park, dotted with alpine lakes, was breathtaking.  And the sign indicating that we had arrived at an altitude of 11,760′ put a smile on my face that seemed frozen in place until we began our descent.  Snowflakes danced around us as if to the pulse of Nature’s heartbeat.

Our hike back down seemed colder than earlier in the day, as the winds picked up speed, bringing in a storm that would dump a foot of fresh snow in the mountains that night.  It was a beautiful 10-mile hike, albeit a bit frigid.

We sat out the storm and luckily the days following were warm, so after checking with the rangers and a couple of locals we decided to head out to Big Pine to hike the North Fork Trail.  Originally we thought we would hike to Black Lake to get a view of the Palisade Glacier, the largest in the Sierras and the southernmost in the U.S.  When we came to the fork in the road, we opted for Third Lake, which is fed by the glacier, and was reported to be a milky turquoise color. The hike was the same distance and the lure of several more alpine lakes was too much to pass by.

This hike begins at 7700′ and unlike the many switchbacks on the Kearsarge Pass Trail, it has a grueling long stretch of upward climbing.  You can almost forget about how tiring this first section is by looking at the beauty around you. You catch a glimpse of the Middle Palisade Glacier on this stretch, and some lovely waterfalls.  Once beyond the uphill slog the trail begins to zigzag through a slope of sagebrush, manzanita, and Jeffrey pine, before reaching Second Falls.  And once again you are bewitched by the tantalizing smells and sounds enveloping you.

At the 3-mile mark you come upon a cabin built by movie actor Lon Chaney, now used as a wilderness ranger camp, a beautiful setting along a lovely stream.

Lon Chaney cabin
Lon Chaney cabin

Continue upward and you arrive at First Lake, a lovely blue-green oasis sitting in a bowl, then on to Second Lake a short distance later.

First Lake
First Lake
Second Lake
Second Lake
Third Lake with Temple Crag looming overhead
Third Lake with Temple Crag looming overhead

Third Lake, where we planned to stop and have lunch, was a bit of a disappointment, but still a handsome gal with Tempe Crag looming over her.   Given the lack of snowfall these past four years, glacial runoff has not been occurring at the normal rate so her coloring was, shall we say, less than spectacular.  It was still “lunch with a view” as John and Pam would say, and at 10,400′, the air was crisp and the sun was shining.  Once we lightened our load by consuming a few calories we headed back down the trail, making for an exhilarating, but bone-weary 11-mile trek.

There is another storm predicted but we are hopeful to do a few more hikes before we leave the Sierras.  To quote John Muir, there is nothing like hiking in the mountains to “wash your spirit clean”.

Next Stop:  Bishop, CA

A Breathtaking Hike and a Sad Farewell ~ Sierra Nevadas, CA

whitney portal trail
Lovely Lone Pine Lake, set in a granite bowl

We have bid a sad farewell to the Sierra Nevadas and moved on from the Alabama Hills due to the threat of a high-wind warning.  Our original plans were to leave a few days hence anyway, so we thought erring on the side of caution was prudent for us.  Our friends Nina and Paul had plans to stay another week, so hopefully the high winds bypassed the Alabamas and we will all be treated instead to some of Nina’s fabulous photography of snow-capped peaks in an upcoming post.

All four of us had planned a second hike before our departure, sadly not to be, but fortunately we did hike the Whitney Portal Trail  to Lone Pine Lake, which was spectacular for viewing soaring granite walls, stunning fall colors, and a lovely lake at the end.  It was rather exciting to think that we were trekking up the same trail that those summiting Mount Whitney hike, although our journey was a much abbreviated version – 2.5 miles vs. 13 miles to the summit.

The gang headin’ out!
Stunning fall colors racing up the canyon

Whitney Portal is one of the busiest trailheads in the Sierra Nevadas and is most often hiked by those going the full distance.  Our 5-miler round-trip began at 8365 feet with a 1500 foot elevation gain to Lone Pine Lake, a far cry from the 6100 foot gain required to summit.  It is a well-maintained trail and a hike that we highly recommend if you are in the area.

Terry enjoying an amazing view to the desert floor below

Although our time here was cut short, we soaked in a lot of natural beauty and enjoyed a breathtaking hike, sharing some good times with friends along the way.  It’s no wonder we are bidding a sad farewell to this magical place.

Lenticular cloud above the Alabama Hills ~ “Sierra Wave”

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A Boondocking First ~ The Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, CA

Alabama Hills
Camped at the Rawhide movie Grave Site

We are on our first big “boondocking” adventure, thanks to RV buddies Nina and Paul.  They slowly indoctrinated us at June Lake where we were dry-camping but now it is the real deal, truly goin’ naked out on BLM land.  I must say it is invigorating, just like running around naked in the wilderness would feel, and now that I mention it, we could definitely traipse through the desert au natural if the mood hit as campers are few and far between here.

First happy hour

Our location, chosen by none other than the lovely RV bloggess Nina, is in the Owens Valley just west of Lone Pine, CA in the Alabama Hills.  If you have never been, this place seems a bit otherworldly.   Technically the Alabamas are part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains but considered more a range of hills and they look nothing like the Sierras.

Sunrise in the Alabama Hills

The Sierras stand as tall, rugged granite peaks all around us, with Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states towering above them all at 14,505 feet.  The Alabamas, however, although about the same age as the Sierras, roughly 150 million years old (give or take a few million years), are a volcanic rock that has been weathered over millions of years to resemble large potato-shaped boulders that have been turned on their ends.  It is believed that the same cataclysmic events shaped both the Sierras and the Alabamas.  A millennia of driving winds and snow are the tools that sculpted the unusual shaped granite boulders that are now the Alabama Hills, strewn throughout this desert landscape.

Rugged Mt Whitney seen through Mobius Arch

Approximately 300 arches dot these 30,000 acres of Alabama Hills, the most famous being the Mobius Arch, which is a favorite of photographers.  If you place yourself just right, you are able to capture Mt. Whitney within this lovely curved arch.  The trail to the arch is a short ¼ mile hike and from there you are free to explore the many unusual boulder pilings against a backdrop of granite peaks.  It is important to keep your bearings out here as the piles of boulders all begin to look alike after a time.  I must admit to getting a bit turned around and coming out at a completely different location than I had entered but was still able to find my way back home.

With landscape this otherworldly, you gotta know that something special has happened here, right?  Heck, the name alone had me wondering why ‘Alabama Hills’ in the middle of California?  First, let’s get that answer out of the way.  The Alabama Hills were named for the Civil War Confederate warship, USS Alabama.  It seems there were a few wayward prospectors wandering them thar hills who were sympathizers to the Confederate cause.  They named these hills and it stuck!

Alabama Hills beauty
Geological changes at their finest

Probably what this area is most noted for is the 150+ movies and roughly a dozen television shows that were filmed here, most notably old Western movie productions, dating back to the early 1920’s.  A few of the more notable Western films include Gunga Din, How the West Was Won, Rawhide, Bad Day at Black Rock and a few non-Westerns filmed here were Gladiator, Iron Man, and Star Trek Generations.  A few of the old television productions, for those of you who can remember (I was a wee bit too young!) were Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, and The Gene Autry Show.

Lone Pine Film Museum

If you tour the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center at the south end of Lone Pine, and you should because it is very well done, you can pick up a booklet that will take you through a self-guided tour of the Alabama Hills movie filming locations.  As long as you are in the area, a stop by the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History is pretty fascinating as well.  We discovered shortly after flipping through the Movie Road tour guide that our rigs are situated at the Rawhide movie Grave Site.  Does Nina know how to pick a site, or what?!

I have lots more to share about this amazing area, along with a couple fabulous hikes, which I will do in subsequent posts, provided my Internet connectivity cooperates.  We are out in the boonies, you know!  Although it hasn’t stopped those techie engineers Nina and Paul from blogging away!

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