ryan grandson pic

Ryan in the Eastern Sierra. 

A local takes his teenaged grandson on an Eastside roadtrip and learns a lot along the way

Have you ever wanted to share your passion for a place with someone so much that you knew if you took them there it was possibly the best gift you could ever give them?

For me, that passion was to introduce my 17-year-old grandson, Ryan, to the Eastern High Sierras and its backcountry. I wanted to give Ryan, currently living in North Carolina, the same love for the Sierra that my father gave me. I hoped Ryan would absorb my passion like a sponge absorbs water.

So, in July 2020, I talked his mother into letting me take Ryan on a road trip to the Eastern Sierra and share my old haunts with him, including some places I had never been to myself.

The drive from my home in Sandpoint, Idaho, to the Eastern Sierra took us through five states – Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. Almost every aspect of our trip was affected by COVID-19. Some restaurants had closed and most others required masks.

There was no better place to introduce Ryan to the beauty of the Eastern Sierra than Convict Lake, near Mammoth.

Convict Lake is in one of the most beautiful settings in the Sierra. No one can see this lake and not be gobsmacked by the immense scenery surrounding the area. Nearly 4,000 feet of multi-colored rock layers, folded back and forth like taffy, rise from the lake level of 7,600 feet. Ryan loved it. Perfect.

We then drove two canyons to the south and arrived at Rock Creek Canyon where we stopped at Toms Place, situated on Rock Creek at the head of the canyon just off of U.S. Highway 395. I wanted to show Ryan one of my favorite cafes and stores in all of the Sierra. Toms Place has kept its rustic attraction and charm since it was first built in 1919 with a café and sporting goods store. It’s a rare thing to visit a building that hasn’t changed since you were a kid, giving you the same wonderful feelings all over again.

A couple of miles up Rock Creek canyon, we took pictures of each other standing in front of one of several huge Ponderosa pines growing majestically alongside Rock Creek and the road.

We then drove farther up the road to Iris Meadow, the first family campsite I remember as a young kid along Rock Creek. Iris Meadow has a lot of fond memories for me. While at Iris Meadow, I showed Ryan where I poured some of my dad’s ashes in the creek in August 2008.

Next, we checked in at the Rock Creek Pack Station near the end of the road above Rock Creek Lake where we would ride horses into Davis Lake the following morning.

After checking in, we drove to the end of the road at the trailhead to Little Lakes Valley. While hiking in the area we encountered a large but brief thunder-and-lightning storm. When the rain stopped we headed back down the road to overnight in Bishop, 6,000 feet below us. As we approached the Iris Meadow campground we noticed a small fire on the southern hillside about 500 feet above the road.

We were sure it had been started by the lightning just minutes earlier. We tried calling 911 but there was no reception. Farther down the road we passed 4-5 Forest Service trucks traveling up the road presumably to deal with the fire. I told Ryan I was sure there was no way those men could put that fire out without a helicopter dropping water on it right away.

The next morning, on our way to the pack station, we drove past the fire, which had spread along the hillside. A few Highway Patrol cars were at the base of road but let us continue up the road to the pack station.

After being assigned our horses Ryan and I were led by a packer on a 2 ½ hour scenic ride into the John Muir Wilderness to my old haunt, Davis Lake, below the Hilton Lakes. After fishing for, catching and releasing some nice trout, we headed back to the pack station in the late afternoon.

As we got nearer to the pack station, we heard and soon saw numerous aircraft including a 4-engine jet, a large turbo-prop plane and two helicopters. The helicopters collected water from Rock Creek Lake below us and surgically dropped the water onto the fire, which had now spread significantly uphill. The jet and plane dropped orange fire retardant on the fire. When we returned to the pack station we were informed that all of the campgrounds and resorts were being evacuated. That eliminated our two nights we had reserved in the creek-side log cabin at the Rock Creek Resort. If it wasn’t COVID-19, it was now a fire! Ugh!

The fire and subsequent closure of the road prevented Ryan and I from going on our next scheduled horseback trip the following morning to the Little Lakes Valley.

So, we had to punt.

Instead, we decided to drive south to Sabrina and South Lakes and then farther south to the Whitney Portal, the Mt. Whitney trailhead, and then to the Alabama Hills.

Lake Sabrina was a lake I often told myself I would like to see sometime but I was always in a hurry to get to a trailhead to the back country and I never seemed to have the time. I must admit that Lake Sabrina is in a gorgeous setting and I wish I had visited it years ago.

Driving south to Whitney Portal, we went through the town of Independence. Whenever our family would go on vacation that took us north on U.S. Highway 395 my mom would always make it a point to have dad stop for lunch along Independence Creek where the steam locomotive was located.

We would always take off our shoes and rest our feet in the creek while eating our sandwich that mom made for us. I told Ryan I had to do the same thing in remembrance of those occasions. So, I took my shoes off and dipped my feet in the creek. What a fun way to remember those wonderful times our family stopped there for lunch.

Like my missed opportunities to visit Lake Sabrina, I had driven past the turn-off to Whitney Portal countless times in the past, and now seeing Mt. Whitney up close was like a dream come true. My brother and I and a couple of our friends had tried to drive up to Whitney Portal as teenagers, but our car overheated and we never made it.

Once Ryan and I arrived at the trailhead, we decided to hike a portion of the Mt. Whitney trail, but we didn’t have the time or a permit to hike very far up the trail because we also wanted to visit the Alabama Hills. The mile or so we walked was relatively easy, providing ever closer views of Mt. Whitney and the adjacent peaks. We could have kept going but time and our next destination, the Alabama Hills, reluctantly made us turn around like responding to a mother’s call to her kids to come home for dinner.

Driving down from Whitney Portal and looking back at Mt. Whitney was like saying a long goodbye to a close friend and not knowing how long it would be before you would see each other again. Losing elevation quickly and seeing the valley below quickly rising up to us was like coming in for a landing in a plane.

Arriving at the entrance to the Alabama Hills took some of the sting away from leaving Mt. Whitney as we looked back to the west, but I could still imagine her waving goodbye to us.

The Alabama Hills, at the eastern foot of the Sierras, take on the revered responsibility of maintaining a caretakers’ perpetual watch of Mt. Whitney and the jagged peaks on either side of her. Almost like being dropped from the sky, the rock formations that compose the Hills, are like no other.

The Alabama Hills, more than almost any other landform in the United States, have appeared in countless Westerns.

Rounded and peppered with windows, they allow a visitor to view Mt. Whitney and the other

Generations celebrate the Eastern Sierra peaks from the many galleries within the Hills. Countless bad guys have rolled and fallen off these rocks during arm chair-gripping gun fights while the queen of the Sierras held court over each scene.

We overnighted in Lone Pine and had a terrific Chinese dinner at the Merry Go-Round restaurant.

On our return trip home the next morning, Ryan wanted to see Mono Lake, a relic of the ice age, across U.S. Highway 395 from Lee Vining.

I had mentioned to him on our way to the Sierras that the water is “slippery” due to the calcium carbonate, which is responsible for the tufa formations in the lake. Putting his fingers in the water Ryan tested and confirmed that the water is indeed “slippery.”

While walking along the shoreline, Ryan stirred up thousands of infinitesimally small, non-biting flies that would jump as a coordinated cloud with Ryan’s every step.

Having introduced Ryan to my old Eastern Sierra haunts, including some places I hadn’t been to myself, Ryan told me he had a great time. Did he absorb my enthusiasm like a sponge? Well, he said he would like to visit the Sierra again and see new places. That’s good enough for me.

Recommended for you