The Eastern Sierra’s Best Weekend Backpacking Trips

Are Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree sold out? You can still find peace and solitude on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.

Pine Creek from Pine Creek Pass. Photo by Jordan Vincent
Overview map of the Eastern Sierra with the location of the backpacking trips

The Eastern Sierra is my favorite backpacking spot in California. It’s far enough from San Francisco and Los Angeles to deter most people from making the trip, yet it’s close enough for a long weekend trip. Drive up Friday night, hike Saturday/Sunday, and return home Sunday evening.

Overview map of the Eastern Sierra with the location of the backpacking trips

While the western side of the Sierra Nevada (Sequoia National Park, Yosemite National Park, etc.) is gentle, the Eastern Sierra is more dramatic. Towering peaks, high-altitude lakes, and mineral landscapes define this side of the range.

Yet, trailheads are easily accessible by car, trails are well maintained, and some of the best backpacking trips are under 15 miles roundtrip. While you could day hike these trails, I recommend spending the night by one of the countless lakes.

Permits

All the trips listed here start from Inyo National Forest, a long and skinny park running along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. You need an Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit to spend the night on the trail.

Here are seven backpacking trips you won’t forget.

#1

Thousand Island Lake

Sunrise over Thousand Island Lake. Banner Peak is towering over the lake, partially lit by the sun. Its reflection is visible in the lake.
Thousand Island Lake. Photo by Jordan Vincent

My favorite backpacking trip! I’ve been there half a dozen times already. Follow the Pacific Crest Trail to Thousand Island Lake, a lake as impressive as the name implies. Make sure to catch sunrise to see Banner Peak’s glowing reflection in the lake.

Map and permit info

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Thousand Island Lake is accessible from two other trailheads, the River Trail (also starting from Devils Postpile) and Rush Creek Trailhead (June Lake).

#2

Mammoth Crest Loop

Lake and meadow in a rocky landcape. Mammoth Mountain is visible in the background
Barney Lake from Duck Pass. Photo by Ravi Pinisetti

A short yet scenic loop. Camp either at Duck Lake or Deer Lake on your first night. On the next day, complete the loop by following the Mammoth Crest. The crest offers incredible views of the Minarets and Mammoth Mountain. Reward yourself with a nice beer at Mammoth Brewing Company.

Map and permit info

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#3

Pioneer Basin

Lake surrounded by a meadow. Mountain range in the distance.
Pioneer Basin. Photo by Jordan Vincent

This trip starts from the popular Little Lakes Valley trailhead, but it gets more remote past the sandy Mono Pass and into Pioneer Basin. Located on a plateau, Pioneer Basin offers numerous lakes, meadows, and incredible views of the surrounding peaks.

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#4

Granite Park

Semi-frozen lake surouned by rocks. Peaks visible in the distance, lit by the sunrise.
Granite Park. Photo by Jordan Vincent

If you like mineral landscapes, this spot is for you. While you could camp at a lower elevation (see Upper Pine Lake), I recommend climbing up to Granite Park to discover this moon-like landscape. With no trees to block the view, you’ll witness the best alpine sunrises and sunsets in the Sierra.

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#5

Bishop Pass

Three lakes surouned by rocks. Patches of snow are still visible.
Bishop Lake from Bishop Pass. Photo by Michael Kwok

This trail goes over the nearly 12,000 ft Bishop Pass. Over the pass lays Dusy Basin, a high-altitude plateau surrounded by 14,000 ft peaks. Keep going down to find pristine lakes and meadows where you can set up camp and enjoy the mountain views.

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Do you have extra time? Check out the North Lake to South Lake Loop. This trail traverses Evolution Valley, one of the most beautiful sections of the John Muir Trail.

#6

Big Pine Lakes

Mountain cliff overlooking a shaded lake. Sunrise is lighting up the top of the mountain.
Second Lake and Temple Crag. Photo by Dylan Taylor

Instagram has made this spot famous, but once the day-hikers leave, you’ll have this place to yourself. While you can camp at Second Lake, I recommend making it a loop and setting up camp at Fourth or Fifth Lake.

Map and permit info

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#7

Kearsarge Pass

Lake at dawn with a mountain range in the distance. The moon is visible right above the tallest peak.
Kearsarge Lakes. Photo by Jeff Sullivan

Another mighty pass. At 11,700 ft, Kearsarge Pass is the access point to King Canyon National Park from the east. You can decide to camp before the pass at Matlock Lake, or on the other side, at Kearsarge Lakes.

Map and permit info

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From Kearsarge Pass, longer trips include Onion Valley to Mt. Whitney or the Rae Lakes.

And that’s a wrap! Inyo National Forest has hundreds of backpacking trips, so if you’re looking for more, check out the full list.

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