Best Day Hikes In The Eastern Sierra

Parker Lake | © Addie Gottwald
Parker Lake | © Addie Gottwald
Photo of Addie Gottwald
9 February 2017

The Sierra Nevada mountain range runs along the eastern side of California into parts of Nevada. Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, is located near the northern part of the range, and Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, lies near the southern part. In between these two natural wonders, in the beautiful area known as the Eastern Sierra, is some of the best hiking in the country.

Parker Lake (about 4.5 miles round trip)

Starting at the Parker Lake trailhead outside the small town of June, make your way up a slow incline in the sun. Look behind you (or just wait until your hike out) and see Mono Lake in the distance. The trail will peter out and leave you in the shaded company of a creek. After about two miles on the trail, you’ll make it to the lake. Look across to see the waterfalls. Early summer will bring wildflowers; mid-fall, yellowing aspens.

Though it is possible to make your way around the lake, a little bushwhacking will be necessary. If peace is what you’re seeking, don’t venture all the way around but instead make your way to a log for a rest or bring your fly rod and try for the occasional trout.

Parker Lake | © Addie Gottwald

Crystal Lake (about 2.5 miles round trip)

Drive to Lake George, one of the lakes above the popular ski town of Mammoth Lakes, and start your ascent. Though this hike won’t take you long, the switchbacks and elevation will leave you a bit winded. Once you’ve made your way to the plateau, step off the main trail to overlook the lake’s basin — an awe-inspiring site. Though Crystal Lake is your destination, this is the view you’ll write home about.

After taking your panorama picture, head back to the trail and make your way down to the beautiful, serene Crystal Lake for a picnic or — if you’re daring enough — a freezing cold swim.

View of the Lakes Basin | © Addie Gottwald

Lundy Canyon (about 6 miles round trip)

This hike, tucked away from Mono Lake and the town of Lee Vining, has a bit of everything: creeks, beaver ponds, aspens, wildflowers, waterfalls. You can theoretically turn around whenever you want, but if dangling your feet over a waterfall as you eat trail mix is what you’re after, be sure to make it the full three miles in. The hike has some ups (and consequently, since this is not a loop trail, some downs on your return), but the trail isn’t too debilitating. You’ll crave water breaks not because your legs hurt but because the views are too spectacular to walk past.

Lundy Canyon | © Addie Gottwald

Rock Creek (as long as you want it to be, up to about 10 miles)

This hike is wonderful because it is beautiful and can truly be as long as you want it to be. Start at the Mosquito Flat trailhead and make your way slowly up. This trail is never steep, but your starting elevation is about 10,000 feet, so you’ll be surprised by your heavy breathing. Follow the wildflower dusted trail along the creek to various lakes and enjoy the scenery. Keep walking the mostly flat trail as long as you want, and on your return, once you’ve made it back to the car, drive to the nearby resort for pie.

Rock Creek Hike | © Addie Gottwald

Gaylor Lakes (about 3.5 heavy-breathing miles round trip)

Don’t believe the guidebooks that have suggested this hike is a 4 out of 10 difficulty. It’s harder than that. This hike, right inside the eastern entrance to Yosemite, starts you off panting (beginning at almost 10,000 feet). Up, up, up, up, and a view, and then down, down to lower Gaylor Lake and a dazzling meadow. Make your way around the lake if you can’t fathom going up any more, but if you’re feeling good, start the slow ascent to the upper lake. Then, again, up, up, up and you’ll come to an old mine and an unbelievable view of where you’ve just walked.

Gaylor Lakes | © Addie Gottwald

Duck Pass (about 10 miles round trip)

This hike above the town of Mammoth Lakes isn’t as difficult as the mileage leads you to believe. There are only two (somewhat long) switchback-filled ascents. The first starts right from the trailhead. Once you’ve made it up the first large, boring hill, you’ll make your way by Skelton and Barney Lakes on the relatively easy trail winding your way through forests and meadows. If you’re still feeling up for it, continue the trail to the pass. It will look harder than it really is. Just follow the switchbacks and be sure to turn around for the most spectacular view. Once the trail has topped out, enjoy your well-deserved lunch looking over Duck Lake. After refueling, put your backpack on and head down those switchbacks you were just cursing and enjoy every bit of that view.

View from Duck Pass | © Addie Gottwald

North Dome (about 9 miles round trip)

Everyone talks about Half Dome, the famed icon of Yosemite, but instead of driving across the valley to the western part of the park, hike North Dome and get the most incredible view of Half Dome from across the valley.

Park at Porcupine Creek (not to be confused with Porcupine Flat) and start your way down the trail. There are some definite ups and downs, but if you’re in good shape you’ll be fine. The hardest part is getting on North Dome itself. You’ll round a corner and see Half Dome in all its majesty and a wide view of the Yosemite Valley.

If you want to shave off a mile and avoid the steepest ups and downs there’s no real need to make it to the top of North Dome itself. Instead, peel off the trail at some point as you’re descending toward North Dome and find yourself a view with fewer people. The only difference is that at the top of North Dome you’ll see a bit more of the valley and a couple more waterfalls in the distance.

Looking at North Dome and Half Dome | © Addie Gottwald

Tuolumne Meadows (as long as you want it to be)

The Tuolumne River on the eastern side of Yosemite is breathtaking. There are many variations to this hike, and you can’t go wrong.

One option is to park by the Lyell Canyon trailhead and enjoy this perfectly flat, beautiful hike. When you get to the second bridge over the river you can either cross it and head toward Vogelsang and start gaining a little elevation or you can choose not to cross the bridge and go left, staying closer to the peaceful river.

Another option is to park by the Tuolumne Meadows Store and cut across the expansive meadow and follow the trail toward Glen Aulin. This hike, too, is very flat, but you subtly are heading down. Eat lunch on the rocks by the water. If you want a long day hike (almost 13 miles round trip), keep heading down toward the falls of Glen Aulin, but just remember that your hike home will be uphill.

Tuolumne River | © Addie Gottwald

May Lake (about 2.5 miles round trip)

This is a great, short hike for those visiting the eastern side of Yosemite. You’re definitely making your way up but the incline is never too steep. After making your way to the beautiful lake, go back to the trail like you’re heading to the parking lot and then climb the ridge on your left. The view from this hilltop is expansive, giving you a panoramic shot of the granite mountains that cover Yosemite. Look to the right and see Half Dome in the distance.

View from Ridge | © Addie Gottwald

Twenty Lakes Loop Trail (about 6 miles)

Park at the Saddlebag Lake Resort just outside the eastern entrance to Yosemite and buy a ticket for the water taxi that will take you across Saddlebag Lake to start your hike. If you want to save money or get extra exercise, you can walk around Saddlebag Lake instead of taking the boat (adding about two miles).

This is the only loop trail on this list, so you won’t be seeing the same things twice. When you’re off the water taxi, you can take the trail left or right to start the loop, but heading right points your head at better views. Some ups, some downs, but nothing extremely strenuous — just beautiful.

Twenty Lakes Loop | © Addie Gottwald

McGee Creek (as long as you want it to be, up to about 14 miles)

This canyon near Crowley Lake is magical in the fall. Yellowing aspens line the creek, and though most of the hike is uphill, it not steep. Make your way as far as you want; the view is incredible from just a half-mile in. If you’re aiming for a long hike, head to Steelhead (10 miles round trip) or McGee Lake (14 miles round trip).

McGee Creek Canyon | © Addie Gottwald

Though none of these hikes are particularly long, it should be noted that the high elevation will leave your heart fluttering and the dry climate will lead you to believe you are not sweating when, in fact, you are. You’ll need to pack lots and lots of water to rehydrate.