By DENNIS WYATT
JUNE LAKE — If you employed the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” rating system to judge Eastern Sierra resort destinations, June Lake would be “just right.”
There are a lot of great spots for the Papa Bear crowd — Mono Village Resort and Virginia Lakes Resort among others — that have the prerequisite lakeside RV spaces, camping and even cabins tucked part way up a canyon less than 10 miles off Highway 395. It’s a bit “hard” in terms of what you get in creature comforts as well as what you can access.
There are a few destinations for the Mama Bear types — Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. They are essentially small towns with a bit of the hustle and bustle you said you wanted to leave behind. While both are close to a repertoire of great Sierra outings, basing a vacation in either one is definitely on the “soft” side although Paris Hilton would strenuously disagree.
Then there is June Lake. It is off the beaten path but it’s not at the end of the proverbial road. It is also not a one horse wonder. There’s not just one set of outdoor experiences when you step out of your tent, RV, cabin, or motel room first thing in the morning. There is also a wide repertoire of destinations in less than an hour that makes June Lake the ideal base to enjoy an Eastern Sierra getaway.
Plus it has a handful of amenities — several restaurants including a brewery, a general store, and a few specialty shops — when combined with nature’s offerings makes it “just right” by being not too hard and not too soft.
So what can you do along the June Lake Loop — a horseshoe route dubbed Highway 158 that connects with Highway 395 — that is roughly a four-hour drive from the Central Valley via Tioga Pass/Highway 120?
In terms of Sierra adventures the easier question might be what can’t you do?
First there are the four lakes that are nestled in the glacier carved loop at 7,700 feet that are below towering peaks pushing 10,000 feet that have prompted some to dub June Lake as the American Switzerland.
The three natural lakes — June, Silver, and Gull — are popular fishing spots as well as canoeing and swimming areas. June offers the added bonus of an expansive sandy beach that rivals what you will find at Lake Tahoe including Sand Harbor. Silver Lake is particularly popular with the fishing crowd thanks to extensive shady shore locales for dropping a line. Grant Lake — a manmade reservoir — gets high marks for fishing and is ideal for wake boarding, water skiing and jet skiing.
World class trout fishing can be found in the numerous lakes above June Lake at 9,000 feet. It takes a hike — you can also pack in by horse for an overnight or multiple day stay — but the rewards are worth it. During two-day hikes I took along the Rush Creek and adjacent watersheds more than half the hikers and overnight backpackers I encountered had fishing poles.
The few I struck up conversations with said it was the best fishing they’ve ever enjoyed. I could literally see why as at several lakes I opted to stroll along the shores instead of hiking by I was able to see trout swimming in the clear water.
For me, hiking is the thing. I was able to take three different hikes out of June Lake and still not do all of the primary options. There are arguably more accessible lakes via day hikes out of June Lake than any other starting point along the Highway 395 corridor. Toss in a few passes and I’m a happy hiker.
You hike into the Ansel Adams Wilderness and can even enter the John Muir Wilderness on a longer day hike. Because of how the mountains unfolded and the elevation that often cajoles afternoon summer rain from clouds you’ll be hard pressed to match the combination of relatively abundant wildflowers and dramatic backdrops. It explains why on the course of hikes I came across three rare sightings — hikers carrying traditional camera equipment on the hunt for breathtaking photos.
I’d be remiss not to mention the biggest attraction of June Lake is the ability to relax.
It is especially true in the lodging options. I stayed at the June Lake Motel where a number of guests return every year for week-long stays. They take advantage of available barbecues to prepare family meals they enjoy on the balcony on the front of their motel rooms at the end of the day. It also helps that there is minimum traffic on Highway 158 and that the atmosphere is low key. I used to think that was the case when I stayed in Lee Vining, Bridgeport, Long Pine, or Big Pine. But all of those motels were just off busy Highway 395 with 24-hour truck traffic and more.
I’ll admit a big plus was being able to sleep with the windows open to enjoy the cool breezes sweeping down on June Lake from the 9,000 foot mountains above.
And because June Lake is slightly off the beaten path and isn’t a major resort like Mammoth Lakes you can rent rooms and cabins for less while arguably getting better accommodations, a lot more relaxation, and more of a true Eastern Sierra experience.
Even better yet is what you can do in drives of 45 minutes or less by basing in June Lake.
You can walk among onshore Tufa towers — created when calcium from underwater springs combines with carbonate in the water —they are eerie moon-like pillars on the landscape surrounding Mono Lake.
You can take a guided kayak tour on the ancient Mono Lake that traces its roots back to the initial massive volcanic explosion that created the Long Valley Caldera 767,000 years ago. The lake is one of the largest stops for birds on the Pacific Flyway.
You can beat the crowds to Yosemite National Park’s High country gem — Tuolumne Meadows.
There are a number of canyons you can drive into to either fish or hike toward the Sierra Crest.
Mammoth Lakes with all of its natural attractions as well as amenities is a short drive.
There are lots of canyons to hike and fish to catch in nearby canyons including the Eastern Sierra classic hike up Lundy Canyon.
Spend another few minutes on the road and you can visit Bodie State Park — the West’s largest ghost town left in an arrested state of deterioration.
And you can even squeeze in a hike to unique destinations such as the Palisade Glacier out of Big Pine requiring an 18-mile round trip hike within a reasonable two hour drive.
For me, it also helps that my favorite bookstore is less than 20 minutes away from June Lake in Lee Vining at the Mono Lake Committee that doubles as a visitors’ information center. It has arguably the most complete collection of books on water politics — with a heavy emphasis on California — and water in general. I rarely escape without spending $100 to $150. Fortunately it’s only a once-a-year indulgence. And if you haven’t figured it out, my favorite books center around water politics and water issues.
If summer isn’t your thing the fall colors on the June Lake Loop are second to none in the Eastern Sierra.
It is also home to June Lake Mountain Ski Resort as well as well as the world class Double Eagle Resort and Spa.
June Lake is also popular for winter snowmobiling, snowboarding, and snowshoeing.
For the best source of information on the June Lake area and accommodations go to junelakeloop.com.