JUNE LAKE — It’s a place some call America’s Switzerland thanks to abrupt rises of 2,000-plus feet from what is more a “horseshoe” shaped flatland than a valley formed by a splitting glacier.
Thanks to that geography carved by glaciers and volcanoes, June Lake — or more specifically the June Lake Loop — is the ideal eastern Sierra destination for those who are called to rugged wilderness destinations as well as a more serene and almost flat alpine playground.
And it is found away from the hustle and bustle of Mammoth Lakes to the south or wide spots on Highway 395 such as Lee Vining and Bridgeport. Instead you can enjoy an easy-to-access true resort destination minus the commercialism and crowds.
The best part is it is less than a four hour drive via Highway 120 through Yosemite Avenue making it just as pleasant for a weekend or midweek outing as it is for a weeklong stay.
Just like Mammoth, June Lake is a year-round destination. It is a haven for winter sports and even has its own ski resort — June Mountain. Spring through fall is ideal for hiking, fishing, bicycling, and other outdoor pursuits while the fall colors are among the most spellbinding in California.
Arguably the biggest charm of June Lake Loop for most visitors is the four lakes just off low-key Highway 158 that forms the loop to Highway 395. The largest is Grant Lake brought to you by Los Angeles Water and Power. Besides being the most sun drenched by far it is relatively devoid of trees. While it attracts fishermen, Grant Lake is the lake where you will see personal watercraft. Further upstream on Rush Creek to the south is my favorite — Silver Lake. It is surrounded by aspens and lush wetlands. There is an RV resort along with cabins. The trail that takes you into the high country on foot or via pack train is also located here. The lake, thanks to its location in the glacier carved loop, is almost always in partial shade. Fishing is rampant. My favorite scene either coming at the end of a hike from the high country or driving by slowly on Highway 158 are families fishing on the edge of the water seated in grass beneath aspens just feet off the highway. Gull Lake is the smallest of the four lakes and has the Donner Lake disease of being surrounded for the most part by housing. June Lake is not just a fishing mecca but on its eastern shore is a sandy beach that rivals the best Lake Tahoe can offer minus the crowds.
Varied lodging options
There are a number of housing options from camp sites and RV parks to rentals, motels and resorts such as Double Eagle Resort & Spa that has amenities that have earned it world-class status. There are a smattering of restaurants and a handful of specialty stores catering to the sportsmen and art lovers. There is also a general store.
The reason I like staying at the June Lake Motel — a misnomer since most of the rooms have kitchenettes on the verge of being a kitchen as well as ample space — partially has to do with the fact it is next to the general store and two doors down from a Mexican restaurant where they know my order by heart.
The main reason is the view. You can look off the back and see across the street a tree studded mountainside soaring nearly 3,000 feet skyward. There is no need for air conditioning even after a 90 degree day thanks to the cool mountain night air at 7,200 feet and the light breezes. My favorite room is above the office. Although it does not have a kitchen, the way windows are orientated is true decadence as it brings in soothing, slightly chilly breezes after midnight requiring a retreat under blankets.
Great sleeping and mellow days are why the biggest attraction of June Lake is the ability to relax.
It is why a number of guests return every year to the June Lake Motel for weeklong stays. They take advantage of available barbecues to prepare family meals they enjoy on the balcony in front of their motel rooms at the end of the day. It also helps that there is minimum traffic on Highway 158 and that the atmosphere is low key. I used to think that was the case when I stayed in Lee Vining, Bridgeport, Lone Pine, or Big Pine. But all of those motels were just off busy Highway 395 with 24-hour truck traffic and more.
Because June Lake is slightly off the beaten path and isn’t a major resort like Mammoth Lakes you can rent rooms and cabins for less while arguably getting better accommodations, a lot more relaxation, and more of a true Eastern Sierra experience.
Hiking & bicycling
If you are a bicyclist — especially a roadie — the 15-mile June Lake Loop is a nice moderate way to enjoy bicycling while taking in the eastern Sierra. If you don’t mind pedaling eight miles on the shoulder of Highway 395 you can make it a true 23-mile loop as opposed to the 15-mile “horseshoe loop” that the highway creates.
Hiking is world class. Once you climb 1,300 feet over a 2.2 mile trail segment that lifts you from June Lake to the cusp of the high country the options are numerous. You can day hike to 10 substantial lakes with Thousand Islands Lake being the farthest requiring a 14- or 17-mile round trip depending upon the route you take. The lake is also the highest at 9,833 feet with the added bonus of being the headwaters of the San Joaquin River. There are also well over a dozen smaller lakes along the way as well.
The hikes are in the Ansel Adams Wilderness and you can even enter the John Muir Wilderness on a longer day hike. Because of how the mountains unfold and the elevation that often cajoles afternoon summer rain from clouds you’ll be hard pressed to match the combination of relatively abundant wildflowers and dramatic backdrops. It explains why on the course of hikes I came across three rare sightings — hikers carrying traditional camera equipment on the hunt for breathtaking photos.
If passes are your thing, there are two right around 10,000 feet that you can conquer during a day hike.
June Lake is where what I’d rate as the best short lake hike at a high country destination can be found in the eastern Sierra. The trail head is near Fern Creek. It is a 1.7-mile hike one way that takes you up 1,600 plus feet to Fern Lake at 8,920 feet. The last segment of the hike is almost magical with the dense vegetation. But it is nothing compared to the splendor of Fern Lake.
There is a segment of the trail that is steep and a bit challenging but that is part of the fun.
Drives of 45 minutes of less
There are numerous drives of 45 minutes or less you can do by basing in June Lake.
* You can walk among onshore Tufa towers — created when calcium from underwater springs combines with carbonate in the water —that are eerie moon-like pillars on the landscape surrounding Mono Lake.
* You can take a guided kayak tour on the ancient Mono Lake that traces its roots back to the initial massive volcanic explosion that created the Long Valley Caldera 767,000 years ago. The lake is one of the largest stops for birds on the Pacific Flyway.
* You can beat the crowds to Yosemite National Park’s High country gem — Tuolumne Meadows.
* There are a number of canyons you can drive into to either fish or hike toward the Sierra Crest.
* Mammoth Lakes with all of its natural attractions as well as amenities is a short drive.
* There are lots of canyons to hike and fish to catch up nearby canyons including the Eastern Sierra classic hike up Lundy Canyon.
Spend another 15 minutes on the road for an hour and you can visit Bodie State Park — the West’s largest ghost town left in an arrested state of deterioration.
And you can even squeeze in a hike to unique destinations such as the Palisade Glacier out of Big Pine requiring an 18-mile round trip hike within a reasonable two hour drive.
For the best source of information on the June Lake area and accommodations go to junelakeloop.com.