Walking outdoors is a great remedy for pandemic confinement. On the east side of California’s impressive Sierra Nevada range from 18 July to Aug 3, our family group undertook four day hikes plus an easy 4-day backpacking trip. To help prevent spread of COVID-19, we and the overwhelming majority of fellow hikers considerately wore masks or bandanas or kept 6+ feet of distance as we passed.
Backpack from Green Creek Trailhead to Summit Lake in Hoover Wilderness
In Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, our scenic backpacking trip from Green Creek Trailhead to Summit Lake was 7.6 miles one way with 2360 feet gain and 310 feet descent over three leisurely days, reversed on the fourth day. A day hike from our Green Lake campsite to West Lake was 3.9 mi with 1830 feet gain to 8896 feet elevation. Our favorite campsite was nestled above quiet Nutter Lake. From our Summit Lake campsite, two of us hiked east to Burro Pass for a pleasing view to Virginia Lakes (2180 ft gain over 4 miles round trip). Unique and colorful rock patterns delighted my photographer’s eye! The next day, half of our party hiked over Burro Pass to Virginia Lakes Trailhead, to be picked up by us driving around from Green Creek Trailhead. (This makes a great one-way hike via car shuttle for those with two vehicles, as we did in 2000.)
We trained for the backpacking trip with the following four day hikes.
Day hike 1: Leavitt Meadows Loop Trail in Hoover Wilderness
Staying below 8000 feet elevation, the Leavitt Meadows Loop Trail helped us acclimatize before attempting the higher trails on this page. We hiked Leavitt Meadows Loop clockwise (8.9 miles with 1570 feet gain including a ridge extension above Lane Lake) in Hoover Wilderness, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The best ambiance is at Secret Lake. Roosevelt and Lane Lakes also provide pleasant views. The Trailhead is at Leavitt Meadows Campground (GPS 38.33401 N, 119.55177 W).
Day hike 2 of 4: Hike Crystal Lake & Mammoth Crest Trail, at Mammoth Lakes
Pandemic closures of many indoor activities has sent hikers onto trails in record numbers. Advance reservations resolved the stiff competition for campsites in Mammoth Lakes village and for overnight backpacking permits.
Starting early to find parking and avoid crowds, we walked from Lake George Trailhead to beautiful Crystal Lake (side trip) then to volcanic Mammoth Crest for 7 miles round trip with 2000 feet gain. Both the scenery and high altitude (exceeding 10,000 feet elevation) were breathtaking. Mammoth Crest trail ascends the rim of the Mammoth Lakes Basin, an impressive glacial cirque, to attain far-reaching views of the Ritter Range and Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River Canyon.
If you have extra energy, consider hiking a rewarding loop including Deer Lakes and Duck Pass (13.2 miles with 2765 ft gain, using a car shuttle. Or break this into a separate hike from Duck Lake Pass Trailhead to Duck Pass (7.2-8 miles round trip with 1680+ feet gain). If backpacking, reserve it many months ahead, or check for “walkup” reservations on shorter notice.
Day hike 3 of 4: Shadow Lake Trail, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Shadow Lake made an excellent day hike for 7.5 miles with 1200 ft gain in Ansel Adams Wilderness. An early start from Mammoth Lakes village allowed us to squeeze two cars into the small parking lots at Agnew Meadows Trailhead. Normally required for day hikers, the “Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile Shuttle” was cancelled during the pandemic summer of 2020, and a limited number of vehicles were allowed to drive in and park.
Historic Benton Hot Springs, Mono County
Historic Benton Hot Springs is worth an hour to view the rusting old cars and farm equipment. Benton Hot Springs (elevation 5630 feet) saw its heyday from 1862 to 1889 as a supply center for nearby mines. At the end of the 1800s, the town declined and the name Benton was transferred to nearby Benton Station.
Mono Mills ghost camp above Mono Lake
With views of Mono Lake and Mono-Inyo Craters, the gravel side roads around the site of the historic Mono Mills offer free primitive campsites partially shaded by handsome pine trees, cooled at 7356 feet elevation in Inyo National Forest. (From Lee Vining, drive south on U.S. Route 395 and turn east on California State Route 120, for 9.1 miles to Mono Mills.) Luckily, in addition to developed campgrounds, our National Forests designate many free “dispersed camping” areas along the more-remote gravel roads.
Day hike 4 of 4: Piute Pass Trail in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest
The following giant boulder tumbled from cliffs above and nicked the corner of this restroom at Sabrina Campground!
Situated along Middle Fork Bishop Creek, Sabrina Campground is a great base for reaching several good hikes within a short drive. We enjoyed hiking Piute Pass Trail via attractive ponds, lakes, and wildflowers (9.7 miles, 2200 ft gain) in John Muir Wilderness.