Dane Deaner is a commercial and travel photographer from Los Angeles. He recently published his first photo book entitled, Along for the Ride: Unplanned Adventures in the Eastern Sierra, from which he has graciously shared the following photos & camping beta.
Whether you've visited or not, chances are you're familiar with California's Eastern Sierra. Comprising Mono and Inyo counties, the region spans the east flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains west of Death Valley and is easy to access via Route 395. Towns like Bridgeport, Lee Vining, and Bishop are waypoints, but it's the scenery you'll recognize from countless commercials, photos, and even Hollywood films.
I came to know California's Eastern Sierra region when I was young. What started off as multiple trips a year to visit my family in Mammoth Lakes, home to Mammoth Mountain ski area, became innumerable day trips, camping trips, and road trips around one of the most insanely unique and inspiring regions in the country. The more I became familiar with the Eastern Sierra, the more my world expanded. And the more I visited, the more I learned where the best places to camp there are.
Before I get to the camping intel, and before you plan your own trip, It's important to know where this region came from and to know where it needs to go. The Eastern Sierra was originally home to several different Native American Tribes, predominately the Paiute, who established a home In these mountains and valleys for thousands of years before ranchers and gold miners started taking over this ancestral land in the mid-19th century. The Paiute are still represented in this region, but tribal leaders still face the long process of gaining federal recognition of their Native American status. It's a necessary step for establishing a land base, a measure of sovereignty, and qualifying for assistance with healthcare, education, and the protection of sacred sites.
Today the Paiute people are the fifth-largest California Tribe with 2,000 members, yet have one of the smallest land bases. Despite the land predicament, the Tribal government has upgraded technical capabilities and developed infrastructure for the present and future growth of the Bishop Paiute Reservation.
And the Paiute's ancestral home is beautiful—the Eastern Sierra is home to some of the most incredible landscapes and terrain in the world. It hosts the tallest peak in the continental US, Mt. Whitney. It also has one of the most scenic and epic legs of the Pacific Crest Trail, an ancient bristlecone pine forest, plus a seemingly endless amount of camping, hiking, backpacking, biking, fishing, climbing, and swimming. You've probably heard of Mammoth Mountain or Yosemite National Park—both are right in the vicinity of excellent Eastern Sierra group campgrounds.
There aren't many places on Earth with this amount of geographical diversity. Waking up to the sunrise in Alabama Hills gave me a sense of appreciation for the day ahead like I’ve never felt before. Driving through Big Pine and following Big Pine Creek up towards Glacier Lodge showed me that there can be so much life in unexpected places. Walking across a frozen Convict Lake with my friends helped me realize just how small we really are (and that most things in life don’t matter all that much).
These moments helped establish a love for the Eastern Sierra that manifested into my first photo book, Along for the Ride: Unplanned Adventures in the Eastern Sierra, which features a collection of a half decade's worth of photographs from this incredible region.
In creating the book and spending so much time in the Eastern Sierra, I amassed a ton of intel on the best places to camp in the area. Here are my favorites, along with tips to keep in mind before visiting the region, and, of course, some photos from the book.
The 10 Best Eastern Sierra Camping Spots
You can pull your car right up to the sand at Grant Lake, which is the largest in June Lake Loop. It's a popular spot for fishing with its population of trout and there is boat access, but despite that, there's often plenty of space and lots of privacy between campers. The views from up the hill aren't bad either. I’d recommend heading as far down the west side of the lake as you can go for a great weekend by the water.
You can't go wrong with a trip to either Aspen or Moraine Campgrounds off Tioga Road in Lee Vining, unless you hate sleeping in a pine forest next to creeks and relaxing all day. The best part about these camping spots is that they're central to amazing bodies of water like Virginia Lakes and Saddlebag Lake. They're also a short 15-minute drive away from Yosemite National Park if you’re there in the summer or fall (access via the Tioga Road closes from November to May).
You've heard the name and you've seen it in movies like Django Unchained and Gladiator. But Alabama Hills is absolutely worth the hype, and you can camp for free in Alabama Hills thanks to our friends at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). If you want an Eastern Sierra campground with a few amenities though (picnic tables, fire pits, water), you can hit Tuttle Creek Campground for $8 per night, first come first served. All of these camping spots offer impressive views of the Sierras and Mt. Whitney—all just 3 miles outside Lone Pine. Just please respect the place and pick up after yourself, as there's been a big problem with trash over the years.
Twin Lakes may be the Eastern Sierra's best-kept secret. The spot is tucked up just outside the town of Bridgeport and might as well be a hidden oasis. You can pitch a tent or rent a cabin near multiple trailheads at Lower Twin Lakes Campground and get an early start on hikes in the area, and boat rentals are just around the corner. Fishing is also popular here—the California state record brown trout was caught in Upper Twin Lake in 1987, and weighed in at 26 pounds, 8 ounces. Take note—there are two Twin Lakes in Mono County, the one you want is Twin Lakes Bridgeport.
Owens River is massive—hone in on the north part of the river up past Lake Crowley for Grade-A camping. You can camp for free at designated BLM camping areas, or stay at a place like Brown's Campground. The scenery is also gorgeous, and you can spend an entire day walking back and forth across this snake-shaped river. Optimal fishing times are usually March to June for the spring spawn runs. Do your homework and you might be able to find a hot spring for a soak, too.
Lake Sabrina, roughly 18 miles southwest of Bishop, California, is a gem. If you like to fish, you can do a lot of that here and at other nearby lakes like South Lake, North Lake, and Intake Two. (I recommend getting a boat and cruising to the north side of Lake Sabrina if you want to catch the beefy boys.) If you do try to camp at Lake Sabrina Campground, try to hit it on a weekday to secure a good spot. Weekends can be busy up there, and there are only 18 campsites ($30/night, no reservations). Bishop Park is another nearby campground if you can't get a spot.
Without exaggeration, Convict Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes you'll ever see. Apparently, that’s also what convicts fleeing prison in the late 1800s thought—other than needing a place to hide out from local sheriffs, I’m sure they didn’t mind finding the quiet and privacy that Convict Lake offers (eventually, they were caught). Tucked between the mountains of the Inyo National Forest just off Highway 395, the lake is remarkably easy to get to and offers fishing, hiking, and dining at one of the best restaurants in the Sierra, The Restaurant at Convict Lake. You can also visit in the winter and walk across the lake's frozen surface. Camping is available nearby at Convict Lake Campground, which is open from late April through October, with rental cabins available all year.
You can't go wrong at any campsite in Lundy Canyon Campground, just west of Mono City and Mono Lake. All of the sites hug Mill Creek and offer epic, tree-covered spots right by the water. Lundy Canyon is a one-stop-shop for beautiful views, rushing creeks, and relaxed hikes. If you want to get the feet really turning, you can hike up to the Lundy Lake Waterfalls via a five-mile out-and-back hike from the lake. Go in October and you'll find all the trees dressed up in gold.
There are hot springs aplenty in the Eastern Sierra, and you can camp at many of them. Travertine, just outside of Bridgeport, is easy to access and wholly unique. Alternate between the various pools here and enjoy the view looking out over Bridgeport at the Sawtooth Ridge. Avoid weekends unless you want to get real friendly real quick— the tubs are tiny. The heart of Bridgeport is just a short drive away, and you can grab a burger and a Coke at The Barn after you get nice and pruney. If you do want to camp here, know that there are no facilities but primitive camping is allowed on the surrounding Forest Service Land. Just make sure to practice good Leave No Trace ethics.
Driving around the June Lake Loop is like rounding the corner on Christmas morning. If you want to see one of the most beautiful places in the Eastern Sierra, find a spot to camp on June Lake and bring a camera. There are two campgrounds: Oh Ridge Campground on the northern shore and June Lake Campground on the southern, close to town. You can stop by June Lake Brewery or June Pie Pizza Co. if you’re feeling like a night out. Take a stop at Silver Lake to walk around, throw a rod in and take in some serious Sierra landscapes. Fall here out of this world so if you can, plan a trip in September or October.
7 Pro Tips for Camping in the Eastern Sierra
Bring cash—many campground hosts don’t have a card reader.
Check fire restrictions before you go by visiting the USDA Forrest Service.
If you pack less food, that'll make you even more motivated to catch enough fish for dinner.
My go-to camping speaker is the JBL Clip 3, but respect your neighbors and keep the volume to yourself.
Drink more water than you think you need, especially on longer hikes (the whole region is at elevation, and it's dry up there!).
Wherever you camp, make a point to be awake for sunset and sunrise.
Keep your phone off as much as possible.