Geography is not my strong suit. My map of the United States is skewed, with landmarks in the wrong regions and states constantly moving. I love traveling but Kenon does the heavy lifting on the planning because he understands where things are and what those places have to offer.
This played to my disadvantage when we planned our trip to California last summer. Kenon kept saying “Sierra Nevada” and “Eastern California” but my brain kept hearing “coast” and “beach.” We were just a month out from the trip when I finally realized we were spending the entire trip in some mountain range I have never heard of and not visiting the beach even once!
Still, the trip turned out phenomenal! Eastern California is a world I never even knew existed, filled with vibrant mountain towns, deep blue lakes, and never-ending hiking. The main thing I learned is that it IS possible to see California on a budget. For nine days, we camped our way through all the best parts of the Sierra Nevada and spent less than $50 on lodging.
These are our top three favorite low-to-no-cost locations!
Twin Lakes / Bridgeport
The Twin Lakes and Bridgeport area was a serendipitous find. We were supposed to be spending these days in Yosemite. It was so smoky in Yosemite Valley, though, that we had to find something with a clearer atmosphere. We started driving and ran into the little town of Bridgeport.
Bridgeport itself has so much to offer! Visit this post to read more about the best spots in Bridgeport, California.
The beginning of Twin Lakes is a ten mile drive southwest of Bridgeport. There is a campground/RV Resort at the end of the road. If you like to pay a lot of money for a lot of amenities, this is the place to go! This campground is adorable, well-kept, and has many activity options.
We were looking for something a lot cheaper, though, so we backtracked toward the National Forest Campgrounds around Lower Twin Lake. These campgrounds range in price and ammenities. They are open and quiet. We wanted to get a little closer to the lake, so we found a free spot in a little pullout off the road. These free spots are RARE in this area and difficult to find. If you can find one, though, it is worth the views.
June Lakes is a gorgeous mountain area in Mono County, California filled with tons of summer and winter recreation. Read more about it here. Breath-taking mountain view’s meet fresh alpine lakes to create an unimaginable paradise. There is plenty of camping in this area. I would suggest reserving your spot early because this place fills up FAST! It is a highly coveted area because of all the recreation and the unbeatable views.
June Lakes has a lot of National Forest land so camping for free in a National Forest (aka dispersed camping) is always an option. We found a spot all to ourselves on the shore of one of the lakes along June Lake Loop Rd. Free camping also means ZERO amenities but it does come with it’s own stretch of lakeshore and a vibrant nighttime star show. Tripsavvy has a great article about the rules and regulations surrounding dispersed camping.
Big Pine Lakes Region
Big Pine Lakes is a backpacking paradise. You DO need permits for this one (ONLY if you are spending the night) but the permits are free. In order to obtain a permit, go to any of these offices that provide wilderness permits and information for all of the Inyo National Forest. They will also have maps and local insight into the best trails.
Big Pine Lakes has so many different places to hike. To get there, drive out of Big Pine on Glacier Lodge Road, toward Glacier Lodge. This road meanders way up the mountain and ends at trailhead parking for Big Pine Creek Campground. There are a lot of different trails to choose from. We chose to take the North Fork towards the seven lake loop.
This trail has gentle, but persistent elevation gain. The terrain constantly changes, from forest, to meadow, to glacial peaks. It ends in a loop that starts at First Lake, visits six more lakes, then circles back to First Lake. There is dispersed camping at all of these lakes. To learn more about it visit this website.
When we arrived at First Lake, we had been hiking for quite some time with dry, desert mountain view’s. When we rounded the last corner, all of a sudden there were monumental peaks and an icy blue alpine lake to great us. We hiked on to Second Lake and decided we did not need to go any further. We camped overlooking the lake, with Temple Crag watching over us in the night. We only stayed one night because our itinerary was taking us to other areas of California but we want to go back to explore the other lakes!
If you have not been to these areas in eastern California, plan them into a trip! There is so much beauty to behold and fun to be had. It can also get you away from the crowds!