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Hiking the Eastern Sierras - A First Timer's Experience

August 09, 2021

A "Little Hiking"

When a friend of ours asked if we wanted to do "a little hiking" and fly fishing in the Eastern Sierras, my brother and I were all over it.  We had heard about and seen numerous videos of trips to this area and with our passion for fly fishing the Golden Trout Wilderness area was something we wanted to explore.  For many it's a bucket list item, and after visiting we can understand why.  

The Eastern Sierras 

This area is about 4 hours from San Diego and 5 hours from LA, so getting there is not super easy.  Flying into Vegas is an option as well - under 4 hours.  We drove out of San Diego and did a small hike the day we arrived to acclimatize (many trailheads are at 9-10,000 feet) and stayed in Lone Pine, CA.  

The area is really hard to describe -  a bit desert feel, a bit alpine feel, with boulder fields sprinkled all over.  And huge mountain peaks. The area is known for being the spot to film Westerns, and Lone Pine has a museum featuring the movies made in the area from the 50s and later.  What strikes you when you arrive and start exploring is the sheer size of the mountains and the altitude you deal with.  The town of Lone Pine is around 3,000 feet but the trailheads nearby are around 8,000 or so.  Our first acclimation hike was the Meysan Lake Trail - an absolutely beautiful trail that heads up to lakes and streams to fish.  

There are tons of trails to explore of varying lengths and difficulty, with overnight camping available and requiring reservations for some area so check before heading out what's required for what area.  Some use Lone Pine and others use Bishop as a starting point.  We used Lone Pine and it was a decent enough town to stay at for the first night.  There's a Best Western, a decent Mexican food restaurant (Bonanza - 104 N Main St), a great coffee shop (makes great smoothies as well) and a pretty solid BBQ joint.  We didn't check out the outdoor shops, grocery store, or other places since we were not in town long.  We did get the vibe that the town is a sleepy oasis where things slow down a bit - so if you are planning a trip out here plan a bit of time before or after your time in the mountains.  One place we really wanted to try is the Frosty Chalet on Main (everything is on or close to Main St btw) for a shake  but they were closed when we were there.  



Cottonwood Trail Acclimation Hike

After some time in Lone Pine, we set up our first camp near the Cottonwood Lakes Trail Head and did 10 mile acclimation hike, with some lake fishing for some hybrid rainbow/golden trout that can be found in the lake.  I highly recommend getting acclimated - our trailhead started at 10,000 feet. So while the hiking may not be hugely technical or have significant elevation gains, you are starting at a high elevation - so get your lungs and body ready.  These acclimation hikes also help with getting the body used to carrying loads and tuning the best fit of the pack. 

The Cottonwood Lakes are packed with these hybrid trout, and take most any dry fly, so it was a bit hard leaving the area and heading back down.  I brought a 3 wt and some others brought a 4 wt and a Tenkara.  Anything in this range will work for most of the streams and lakes.  


Golden Trout Wilderness

After overnighting in the walk-in campground near Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead, we headed out to the Big Whitney Meadow, part of the Golden Trout Wilderness.  We had 2,000 feet of elevation to get through with the trail leveling out to reach our first of two nights in this area.  The Big Whitney Meadow is how meadow streams show up in your dreams - small winding streams filled with the most beautiful trout - the native golden trout - the only trout native to California.  



We spent the afternoon exploring parts of the stream and being blown away by the colors displayed by the goldens.  Given the low water conditions many parts of the stream was only a few feet wide, but deep enough to hold many trout. 



We set up camp near the meadow, and enjoyed the stars coming out, and heard a pack of coyotes singing in the middle of the night.  No bears, which we were ok with.  We packed up and moved to another section of the wilderness area near the Kern River.  During our hike we'd stop to fish - you can't help but stop when you see these streams - meadow and small mountain creek flows.  



We set up camp and explored the new area, finding similar success in the small winding stream, then chilling out and enjoying the solitude of the area.  We averaged around 9-10 miles each day, and probably walked another mile or so exploring the streams - so rest came easy.   Total tally was 46 miles over 5 days.  We agreed that if we had to do it again, we would probably add a day to be able to fish more and hike less.  I could spend days in the Big Whitney Meadow - that was my favorite spot for sure. 

It's so fortunate that areas like the Golden Trout Wilderness area in Inyo National Forest is available to explore, and is preserved for the next generation.  Time to get out there and create your own trip.  Need help getting started?  Try this link here.  


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