For outdoor adventure, a dash of history, and crisp mountain air, head north to the Eastern Sierras to the small top of Bishop. Nestled between two of the largest mountain ranges in the contiguous United States, Bishop is the heart of Inyo County.
Although your GPS may tell you the drive to Bishop is just over five hours, in reality plan on six to account for traffic and breaks. Once you leave the 15 freeway outside of Victorville, much of the drive is on the slower-paced Highway 395.
Where to stay (camp)
Bishop offers a variety of accommodation options, but to take advantage of the mountain and meadow views, camping is the way to go. We recommend Brown's Town, located near the center of what can be considered downtown Bishop. It's a good option for camping newbies, with clean restrooms, flushing toilets and showers, and ice cream, but veteran campers will appreciate the cushy green grass that carpets the campground and the gorgeous mountain views. Most importantly, Brown's Town is one of the few campgrounds that operates during the winter months — which begins November 1st — hence our decision to camp there.
Since it was the off-season, there were plenty of campsites to choose from and we were far enough from other campers. Initially we were worried about the proximity to downtown Bishop and noisiness of cars passing on the road, but our campsite at the far end of the campground proved to be very quiet. Night brought only the cacophony of coyotes in a nearby field.
Boulders & burgers
Bishop abounds with plenty to do, and we started our day exploring the boulders of Buttermilk Country, just up road 168 west of Bishop. We were in the mood for some easy hiking and rock scrambling and the Buttermilk Boulders proved to be just that. Little did we know that this area was popular with people bouldering.
Once you are off the main dirt road (Buttermilk Rd), the tiny two tracks are surprisingly crowded with day-trippers and overnighters. Be prepared to park every which way among the bushes and boulders. The main dirt road is fine for most cars, but the narrow two tracks are best for high clearance – and preferably already dinged - vehicles. The dry branches of the bushes will quickly scrape your car and, should you choose to park, your car may need to cozy up to the bushes. For those with regular cars, most boulders and easy hiking trails can be accessed from Buttermilk Rd.
Once you park, just look for the groups of people gathering near the biggest boulders and head that way. Footpaths will become evident, although the dry terrain makes for easy walking anywhere. For those that don't boulder (as we did not), both the skilled and beginner climbers are an enjoyment to watch. Buttermilk Boulders is a great place to people watch, enjoy the mountain views, and do some easy rock scrambling.
Hungry, we headed back towards Bishop for a hearty meal.
A craving for some local food, and Yelp, led us to Burger Barn, situated right on Hwy 168. This is a popular place especially for those on their way back down the mountain from a day spent at higher elevation. Be prepared for a line to order and a wait for the food. But it’s well worth it — the burger barn (it really is that!) features locally grown Bishop beef, custom-made and gourmet burgers with a side of sigh-worthy sweet potato fries. The menu will satisfy vegetarians and carnivores alike.
White Mountain's bristlecone pines
Late afternoon we headed up to White Mountain to explore the ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Without stopping it is a one-hour drive from downtown Bishop to the Visitor Center at Schulman Grove on White Mountain. Allow extra time for navigating the winding road and stopping at the overlooks before reaching the visitor center.
We headed up there for sunset, which made for a great experience but meant less time for hiking. It can be windy and much chillier on the mountain, so be sure to bring a jacket.
Schulman Grove offers an easy one-mile hike through many of the Bristlecone pines and imposing views of the valley below. These trees are some of the oldest living organisms on earth, so remember to respect their space and take only photographs. The gnarly trees and the stark landscape make for intriguing photos. Clear nights are a fantastic option for night-sky photography for both amateur and professional photographers.
A longer 4-5 mile hike leaves from the same starting point as the Schulman Grove walk. Restrooms are available behind the visitor center, though make sure to have a flashlight handy, as no electricity is offered in the pit toilets.
An unexpected delight to the Bishop area — and the last adventure before heading back — was a stop to the Manzanar National Historic Site, south of Bishop between Independence and Lone Pine. Manzanar is a cultural and emotional experience even for non-history buffs. A "quick stop" ended up being a compelling two-hour lesson in the area's Japanese-American encampments during WWII.
The Historic Site grounds open at dawn and close at dusk, making it a great option for early birds. We were able to start exploring at 8 a.m. even though the visitor center didn't open until 9 a.m.
Manzanar can easily be enjoyed from the car, which makes it an accessible option for all. In fact, I'd recommend the driving option. Even in late fall, it was hot and dry, and the grounds cover a surprisingly large area. The site's expansiveness — at its peak, 10,000 people lived here — is largely what accounted for the increase in time of our visit.
Without a doubt, Bishop boosts plenty to do and see — for the hiker, camper, historian, photographer or adventurer in all of us.
Interested in other adventures nearby? Keep reading about the Little Lakes Valley hike, about an hour north of Bishop.