Eastern Sierra Hikes Away From The Crowds

5 Hikes Away From The Crowds Near Mammoth Lakes and Beyond

Burt Canyon Vista

Burt Canyon Vista

By Kimberly Wilkes, Author of Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy

The Eastern Sierra understandably draws a lot of visitors. Its towering mountain peaks, colorful wildflowers and fall foliage, ample fishing opportunities, and picturesque waterfalls coax many people to the area. Unless you hike cross-country, it’s not easy to find any solitude. But some less-traveled trails wander away from the crowds. Here, I’ll show you some hikes ideal for solitude seekers near Mammoth Lakes, Twin Lakes/Bridgeport, Walker River Canyon, Hope Valley, and Onion Valley.

Burt Canyon – Anna Lake

Best Kept Hiking Secrets - Burt Canyon

Northwest of Bridgeport, in an area of the Eastern Sierra that doesn’t see the crowds of canyons farther south, Burt Canyon sits under graceful, rounded mountain peaks that are in contrast to the jagged summits in other areas of the Eastern Sierra. In the late spring and early summer, wildflowers add splashes of color to the meadow and forest in the canyon. In the fall, the willows and aspens are the stars of the show as they don their fall costumes.

This is one of those hikes that’s more about the journey than the destination. You could go all 13.5 miles round trip to Anna Lake. Or just walk as far as you want to into the canyon. Even a mile’s walk to the edge of the meadow and back will reward you with a spectacular view of mountains and meadows.

The road to the trail, which departs near Obsidian Campground, is lined with stately Sierra Junipers. We ate lunch under one of these graceful trees near the trailhead parking area, while a chipmunk scampered around us wondering if he could convince us to share some of our feast. My husband Patrick finally gave in to its imploring stare and set a grape out on a rock. Feeding the wildlife is a bad thing, we know, but on this day Patrick has a hard time resisting the chipmunk.

The trail, which begins as a virtually flat dirt road, starts behind a locked gate. Step beyond the gate, trek past the sagebrush, and you’re soon in a lush oasis where the willow-lined Little Walker River makes its way lazily through a long meadow. Beyond, 10,000- and 11,000-foot mountain peaks, speckled with snow earlier in the summer, present a stunning backdrop. A few summer homes line the road here as well as some antique trailers off in the willows. This part of the meadow is private property, which ends in about a mile at the same place the road turns into a footpath. In mid-June, where road ends and path begins, a field of wild irises paint the meadow with accents of lavender. We weren’t sure who enjoyed the irises more, the butterflies or us.

A garden of wild irises grows in Burt Canyon.

A garden of wild irises grows in Burt Canyon.

Not long after the road becomes a footpath, the aspen forest begins. There’s a little uphill here, but 1,300 of the 2,700 feet of elevation gain on this hike happens in the last 1.25 miles on the spur trail to Anna Lake. In June and early July, keep an eye out for lupine, Indian paintbrush, golden rod, potentilla, and penstemon. We also spotted some yellow daisy-like flowers, which might have been chamisso arnica or alpine groundsel. On the aspens, try to spot the arborglyphs carved by Basque sheepherders.

It was a hot day, so we stopped and turned around just before the trail ventured into Hoover Wilderness at about two miles. You can continue onward. At 3.5 miles, expect to cross the Littler Walker River. In the early summer, it can flow swiftly, so walking sticks for balance are helpful.

Throughout a lot of the hike, views of 11,563-foot Walker Mountain will keep you company. Flatiron Butte and Ink Rock are landmarks to the southwest.

This hike was one of the most beautiful and peaceful we’ve taken in the Eastern Sierra. We hiked it on a weekend in late June and only saw two people.

Reaching The Trailhead: From Bridgeport, drive 16 miles north on Highway 395 and turn left on Little Walker River Road. You will see a sign that says National Forest Campground. If you reach the turnoff to Sonora Pass (Highway 108) you’ve gone too far. Travel 3.5 miles on Little Walker River Road where you will pass Obsidian Campground. At the campground the road will fork. Bear right and drive .15 mile past the campground to a road that veers off to the left. Follow that road for a mile to trailhead parking. It’s a bit rough but passenger cars can make it if you drive carefully.

Nearest Campgrounds: Obsidian, Sonora Bridge, Chris Flat, and Bootleg campgrounds. If you want to know which spaces in these campgrounds have the best privacy, read our book Eastern Sierra and Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley, And Beyond.

Hope Valley’s Secret Waterfall

Hope Valley Waterfall

This is a short but sweet hike to a hidden waterfall. My friends, long-time Tahoe locals, told me that decades ago, you could see this waterfall from Highway 88. But today, tall aspens and pines render it invisible from the road. I hesitate to share its location, because I enjoy admiring it in silence, but the beauty of nature is meant to be shared.

To reach the trail, from the intersection of Highways 89 and 88 in Hope Valley, turn right on Highway 88 and drive 4.5 miles until you see a road on the right. As soon as you turn on to the road, on the right you will see a sign informing you this is Forest Service Road 31091. From the time you make the right turn from Highway 89 on to Highway 88, you will see only two roads on the right. Forest Service Road 31091is the second road. If you reach a really long pullout on Highway 88 with a view of a little cabin and an aspen-covered hill behind that, you’ve gone too far. If the road starts climbing toward Carson Pass, you’ve also gone too far.

Road 31091 is paved for a few yards, but there’s a big chunk out of the asphalt so you will need to negotiate around that. Passenger cars can accomplish this without any problem. The road shoots immediately uphill and goes through a cow gate. Right after the cow gate, park the car on the side of the road.

At this point, keep a sharp eye out for a cow trail to the right in the aspens. It’s not far from the fence. You might have to walk off the road to find it. The cow trail parallels Highway 88. Follow the cow trail. In a few steps, it emerges from the aspens onto an open hillside, where in late May or early June you’ll see a field of golden mule ears.

The cow trail enters an aspen forest in about 1/16 of a mile. It starts to head downhill. Scramble over a few fallen aspen trees, and in about an eighth of a mile, you will reach a little stream. I will warn you that if it’s in the fall of a drought year, the stream (and the waterfall) may be dry. I have visited this waterfall in October where I have admired the water plunging over the cliff. But the first time I tried to show Patrick the waterfall, which I think was in late summer or early fall, it was bone dry. Early fall storms will likely replenish its water source.

Once you reach the stream, find a way across. Even if the water doesn’t look like a roaring river, it can still produce a lovely waterfall so don’t give up here.

On the other side of the stream, the trail disappears. Head upstream. The banks are covered in flat pebbles and you won’t have any obstacles.

Your First View of the Waterfall

In a few minutes you will see a cliff and then catch sight of the waterfall. It’s not a giant waterfall, but what makes it interesting is that the water plunges over three tiers of sedimentary rock embedded with a conglomerate of stones. The waterfall has different personalities at different times of the year. In spring and early summer, the water roars over the three sections. Lupine, paintbrush, and other wildflowers are sprinkled around the area next to the stream and on islands in the creek. In fall, the willows in front of the waterfall turn golden. Aspens growing on the stream banks also take on their 24-karat gold hues.

By mid-summer, the water tiptoes rather than dashes over the cliff and it’s easier to climb up to the pond at the bottom of the fall’s second tier, although make sure you have on good hiking boots or tennis shoes and be very careful when you’re climbing. Even when the water isn’t roaring, this waterfall is still pleasant on the eyes.

Reaching the Trailhead: See directions above

Nearest Campgrounds: Crystal Springs, Kit Carson, Hope Valley Resort, Hope Valley Campground. Want to know which campsites have the most privacy? Read our book Eastern Sierra and Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley, And Beyond.

Buckeye Canyon

Buckeye Canyon Vista

Like Burt Canyon, Buckeye Canyon is one of the few hikes in the Eastern Sierra where you don’t have to huff and puff your way up a steep hill. There’s just over 1,200 feet in elevation gain and that’s only if you travel from the trailhead at 7,200 feet all 9.4 miles to The Forks at 8,469 feet. It’s also a lightly used trail where you’re more likely to see cows than people, especially midweek. During weekends, you might have to share Buckeye Canyon with a few other people, but it’s nowhere near as crowded as other trails in the Eastern Sierra.

I took this hike on Memorial Day and found the trailhead confusing. It’s located where Buckeye Creek Road dead ends at a gate in the Buckeye Campground. I had read that you’re supposed to proceed through the gate and continue on the dirt road, which eventually peters out into a trail. However, I parked my car where the road dead-ended at the gate, rounded the gate into a lush, green meadow, and then a second gate halted my progress. There was a sign on the gate giving me the impression that I could only proceed if I had permission of Hunewell Guest Ranch. I also couldn’t find a way around the gate, other than to climb over it.

Turning away from the gate, I wandered across a bridge to the opposite side of the creek, where I picked up another trail. This trail, which passed the stables, headed in the same direction as the trail I was supposed to be on, and paralleled the stream. It took me where I needed to go, even if it was the wrong trail.

I recently called the Bridgeport Ranger Station to try to clear up my confusion. The ranger I spoke with there told me that Hunewill Guest Ranch allows hikers to pass through their cattle grazing land on the way to the Hoover Wilderness beyond. She said that there isn’t an easy way to get around the gate with the Hunewill Guest Ranch sign on it and that I would have had to climb over it.

The ranger also told me that I wasn’t trespassing when I trekked along the other trail across the stream, even though it wasn’t the standard route.

Taking The Less Traveled Route

This means you have two route choices. The route I took actually has the advantage of allowing you to avoid crossing Buckeye Creek later in the trail, where there’s no bridge, which can be difficult in May and June. That crossing occurs at about four miles when you’re on the other trail.

The path that I inadvertently chose led me across Buckeye Creek right from the start, via a wooden bridge. Soon, I strolled through a grove of aspens near the stables and then a pine forest dotted in places with what looked like yellow groundsel. After a couple of miles, the trees gave way to a large sagebrush-studded meadow where wild irises clung to their last bit of color. Beyond the meadow, Eagle, Victoria, and Hunewill Peaks served as an impressive snow-speckled backdrop to a green aspen forest.

Bridge Across Buckeye Creek

Bridge Across Buckeye Creek

In mid-summer you might share the meadow with cattle, in which case it will be an especially mooving experience for you. But I didn’t see any cows or evidence of their presence when I was there.

The creek here flowed about 20 yards off the trail, mostly hidden behind pines and other vegetation, but I wanted a rest in the shade. I cut over to the stream, and sat immersed in silence with my feet dipped in the water.

I had really wanted to hike to The Roughs, a narrow stretch of the canyon with glacier-polished granite walls, and beyond to The Forks, where the North Fork and South Fork of Buckeye Creek meet. But that would have been an 18.8-mile round-trip hike, and the day was dwindling.

It was Memorial Day and I didn’t see a single person on the hike. Of course, I was on the wrong trail, but judging by how few cars were parked at the trailhead (only two besides mine), the other trail would have been just as quiet.

Reaching The Trailhead: From Highway 395 at Bridgeport, turn on Twin Lakes Road and follow it approximately 7 miles to Doc and Al’s Resort. There, turn right on Buckeye Road and drive for 3 miles. Turn left at the fork and drive 0.7 miles into the Buckeye Campground. The road is dirt, but passenger cars can easily make it to the campground, where it becomes paved again. Follow the campground road to its end and park near the gate.

Nearest Campground: Buckeye Campground. To discover the campsites in Buckeye with the most privacy, read our book Eastern Sierra and Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley, And Beyond.

Glass Creek Falls – Glass Creek Meadow

Glass Creek Meadow

Glass Creek Meadow

I departed on this hike on a hot weekday in late June when Patrick was with his 84-year-old mom in Texas. Even though there was someone taking advantage of the dispersed camping space next to the trail, I never saw a single person on the hike. What I did see where lots of wildflowers, a waterfall, and serene views of San Joaquin Mountain.

I started around noon, which was a mistake, because once I began walking uphill it was scorching hot and the trail baked in the sun. I had meant to start earlier but I was enjoying a leisurely morning with my brother and sister-in-law back at our campsite before they left for home. The trail starts at 8,170 feet and it was 79 degrees when I left the car. There are very few trees near the trail until past Glass Creek Falls so you’ll receive a blast of sun. But there are plenty of places along the way to dip your feet in the water and cool off.

The willow-lined stream remains to your left as you trudge uphill. Look behind you from time to time to appreciate the interesting geology of Obsidian Dome. I reached the falls, located about a mile into the hike, much faster than I anticipated. The willows open up here to offer a view of the charming waterfall. What Glass Creek Falls lacks in size it makes up for in personality. It fans out over the rocks, spraying the yellow monkey flowers and other wildflowers growing at its base. It’s a welcome spot to cool off before continuing up the hot trail.

Glass Creek Falls - It's small, but has a lot of personality and charm.

Glass Creek Falls – It’s small, but has a lot of personality and charm.

At the falls, the trail steepens. To the left, Glass Creek skips over some miniature waterfalls. Soon, as your reward for enduring the climb, you’re treated to a display of miniature lupine, red paintbrush, and common wooly sunflowers on the hillside to the right. This garden has sprouted in the most barren, rocky “soil” you’ve ever seen, and it’s a wonder the plants can grow here.

Also above the falls you’re treated to some shade courtesy of scattered evergreens.

As I climbed higher, past some trees that had been downed by an avalanche, the wind picked up, Mother Nature’s air conditioning. Gardens of these tiny mystery flowers with dark pink petals and a yellow heart with a red outline in the flower’s center grew out of sandy soil sprinkled with pumice.

The trail here climbs a hill. On the other side, to the left of the trail, in a gully down by Glass Creek, broad-leafed lupine and the occasional paintbrush made their home next to the stream. Here, too, San Joaquin Mountain becomes visible. Unlike many of the more jagged peaks in the Eastern Sierra, its slopes are more rounded and velvety green.

At 1.5 miles, climb another ridge, and you’ll have your first view of Glass Creek Meadow, the largest subalpine meadow in the Eastern Sierra. At two miles, you reach the meadow. You can go as far as you want from here—the meadow stretches along for a mile and is dotted with wildflowers in June and into early July.

Wildflower along the Glass Creek Trail

Wildflower along the Glass Creek Trail

On the way back, not long after leaving the meadow, look off to the east, where you can spot White Mountain Peak. Its summit still covered in snow in late June, the mountain stood out against the blue sky.

Reaching The Trailhead: On Highway 395, drive 3.7 miles south from the southern June Lake Loop turnoff. Turn right on Obsidian Dome Road (Forest Service Road 2S10). Continue past Obsidian Dome at 1.5 miles. Continue for another 1.2 miles to where the road splits into three. Take the road to the right, which dead ends at the trailhead and a dispersed campsite on the banks of the creek. (Where the road splits into three, be certain not to take the road that crosses the creek.) Park in front of the blank wooden signboard. The trail is unsigned, but it departs behind the signboard.

Note to Folks Who Have Passenger Cars: The road becomes rougher after Obsidian Dome. I have an all-wheel drive Toyota Matrix, which is more than a passenger car but not an SUV. It’s low clearance. I made it to the trailhead just fine but there is a 0.1-mile stretch of road just before the road splits into three that made me nervous. It was downhill with a lot of rocks. You might want to park your car just above this spot and do a visual inspection to see if you think your car can make it. If you have doubts, park there and walk the remaining 0.2 miles to the trailhead.

Nearest Campgrounds: Hartley Springs, Glass Creek, Upper and Lower Deadman, Big Springs. Which campsites in these campgrounds are best for people who like privacy when camping? Find out in our book Eastern Sierra and Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley, And Beyond.

Bench Lake and Slim Lake

Bench Lake

Bench Lake

Most people who hike up the Kearsarge Pass trail go to—you guessed it—Kearsarge Pass. And with good reason. The view from Kearsarge is one of the best in the Eastern Sierra and it’s one of the easiest passes to reach. But a side trip on the Kearsarge Pass trail to three lakes—Matlock, Bench, and Slim—yields a lot more solitude than the main trail, which is usually packed with hikers.

On weekends in July and August, you’ll likely find several other people at Matlock Lake, although I’ve been there during the week in summer when I had the lake to myself. However, if you put in a little extra effort you can reach Bench and Slim Lakes, Matlock Lake’s two nearby cousins, and even on the weekends you might not have any—or very little—company.

From Onion Valley, hike up the Kearsarge Pass trail. After 1.5 miles, you’ll see Little Pothole Lake on your left. A couple of waterfalls tumble into this lush little lake surrounded by greenery. University Peak at 13,632 feet emerges into view behind a ridge to the southwest of the lake. As you climb, look over your shoulder every once in a while to capture views of the Owen’s Valley and the serpentine road to Onion Valley. At 2.3 miles, Gilbert Lake, at 10.240 feet above sea level, stretches out in front of you. While admiring its blue waters and peaceful pine-lined shores, watch for the cute sage hens that waddle around the area.

Not long past Gilbert Lake—0.4 miles—you’ll find the trail to Matlock Lake, hugging the east shore of Flower Lake. Take a left onto the Matlock Lake spur trail. This is where you’ll leave behind 90 percent or more of the other hikers on the main trail. Follow the spur trail 0.7 miles south, where you will reach Matlock Lake. Spend some time admiring Matlock’s scenic location. The massive wall of University Peak, usually speckled with snow in early to mid-summer, is the backdrop for the lake. Depending on the lighting you can capture some great photos of the reflection of the peak in the water.

You now have a choice. You can either go to Bench Lake or Slim Lake. On one visit, I decided to venture up to Bench Lake. To find the use trail to Bench Lake, notice the waterfall pouring into the west side of Matlock Lake. That’s the outlet stream for Bench Lake. Just above the northwestern shore of Matlock Lake, you’ll find the use trail heading uphill. It’s a short hike to Bench Lake from here, but you’ll feel every step of it since it’s very steep and you’re hiking at just under 11,000 feet. But that only gives you an excuse to stop and enjoy the spectacular view of Matlock Lake and its unnamed neighbor to the east.

Only Me And My Froggy Friend

The use trail spills out onto the north end of 900-foot-long Bench Lake, which is located in a granite cirque sprinkled with copses of pine trees. University Peak once again serves as a dramatic backdrop to the water. The blue of the water and the green of the pine trees contrasts sharply with the talus slopes of the mountains.

The day I was there my only company was a little frog that liked to lounge around on a water-covered rock next to where I was sitting.

My friend the frog at Bench Lake

My friend the frog at Bench Lake

I hear fishing is good in Bench.

After returning to Matlock Lake, consider another side trip to Slim Lake, which also sees few visitors. To reach Slim, find the outlet stream for Matlock Lake and follow it a short distance. Slim is smaller than Matlock or Bench, but just as scenic.

If you’re not ready to go back to camp yet, you can also explore the two little tarns in the area.

Reaching The Trailhead: From Independence, travel west on West Market Street (which soon becomes Onion Valley Road) for 14 miles to trailhead parking. It’s a curvy, scenic drive to the trailhead with dizzying views of Owen’s Valley.

Nearest Campgrounds: Upper and Lower Gray’s Meadow, and Onion Valley. Each of these campgrounds have some stellar campsites with perfect privacy, but there are some spots you’ll want to avoid if you like your elbow room when camping. To find out which campsites have the most privacy, read our book Eastern Sierra and Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Most Private Campsites Near Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley, And Beyond.

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