Winter Camping East of the Sierras

It’s been some time since I last wrote a blog post, I hope I still remember how. We are experiencing some unprecedented times due to the COVID-19 situation and I hope everyone is doing as well as can be with our new normal at the moment. In California we (my hubby, daughter and I) are almost finished with our second week of “sheltering at home.” There is so much uncertainty about what will happen in the future, but we are managing to stay positive, although a little stir crazy, and grateful to have immediate tasks to focus on. It doesn’t mean I don’t have those moments when I break out in a cold sweat, especially after checking the news. However, knowing that we are all in this together helps. To all those amazing people who are keeping our infrastructure going to allow people to “shelter at home,” thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to publish a post about a trip recommendation right now, but now is as good a time as any to remind ourselves that these dark times will pass and we will be able to travel and enjoy the outdoors again. That day will come! Until then, we can research the many places that we’ll be able to visit in the future, and try to stay as positive as we can by thinking about those things that make us smile.

If you’ve followed my blog, you know that winter “camping” trips are our favorite ways to spend the Christmas holidays and a great way to experience nature without the crowds. I put camping in quotes because we travel in our campervan (with water, toilet and electricity) and are not one of those hard-core winter campers who actually stay in a tent… in the snow (my hats off to you). Last December we explored the many scenic areas along Highway 395, checking out campgrounds and taking in gorgeous views of the  snow covered Sierra mountains on one side, high desert on the other, and every other landscape imaginable in between. Hwy 395 and all of the points of interests along the way have been on my bucket list for forever. Not everything is open at this time of year, but the places that were, made the trip well worth the time and effort to get there and worth a little inclement weather.

Red Rock Canyon State Park (Christmas Eve)

We spent our first night at Red Rock Canyon State Park, a place we’ve stayed at many times before because it’s about 6 hours from the Bay Area and because we just love this place (see previous post here and here). Their campground, Ricardo Campground, is first-come first-served, and on Christmas Eve, the campground was mostly empty. We spent the evening taking night pictures, and by ‘we’ I mean my daughter who was the only one brave enough to venture out of the van into the cold night. The one thing we did different this time was get there earlier to have time to hike the Desert View Nature Trail along the ridgeline of the cliffs surrounding the campground. The sunsets are so much earlier during this time of year (4:30 pm!). It was a short hike, but the views were amazing right before sunset. We loved this trail and also the climb up to Whistler Ridge!

You probably want to pay attention to where you’re walking up here
See our lone campervan down there?
The trail along the ridge was very thin at times, made things exciting!

Tuttle Creek Campground, Lone Pine (Christmas Day)

On Christmas day we woke up to a beautiful sunny day, took a few minutes to soak in the warmth of the sun, and enjoyed a quick breakfast. I mention that it was sunny because just a couple of hours up north, it was a very different story. We drove 1.5 hours north to Tuttle Creek campground in Lone Pine so that we could be close to the Alabama Hills. Tuttle Creek campground is another first-come first-served campground ($5/night), managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This campground, which is open all year, has 83 sites, which were mostly empty on Christmas Day. We had our pick of campsites and we settled on site #53 at the end of the loop on the east side of the campground. Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States (elevation 14,505 ft), is supposed to be visible from this campground, but the cloud cover hanging around didn’t look like they were leaving anytime soon. Even without a view of Mount Whitney, we found the area to be breathtakingly beautiful.DSC_2478.3DSC_2498.2DSC_2476.3We spent the rest of the day exploring the vast campground, walking along Tuttle Creek, marveling at the 360° views, and taking a thousand photos. When it got dark (remember sunset is 4:30) we stayed inside and ate a leisurely Christmas dinner and played our new game, Trekking the National Parks, inside the campervan (loved this game!). This was a Christmas I will remember for years to come!

2019-12-24 17.37.55
A lemon merengue pie that we picked up from Casa de Fruita for Christmas dessert


Alabama Hills

The next morning, we woke up to ice on our windows and snow blanketing the campground. With all of the winterizing we did to the van, including covering the windows and the canvas of the penthouse top with reflectix (see winterizing the campervan post here), the van’s internal temperature was pretty moderate (we survived our first camping trip in the snow!). That is not to say that we didn’t turn on the heater later, because we did 🙂 Having said that, there were other campers in tents and sleeping in their SUVs that seemed to have fared just fine. The views from the day before all but disappeared behind the clouds and snow. The campground was so quiet that the crunching of the snow under our feet was deafening. As much as we were enjoying the peacefulness of it all, we started to get worried that we might get snowed in. We had chains with us, but we figured if we left at that moment we probably didn’t need to put them on. Thankfully, we made it to the main road without ending up in a ditch, and headed to Movie Flat Road, the main road in the Alabama Hills just a few minutes away.

Dusting of powdered sugar on gingerbread hills

The Alabama Hills, managed by BLM, are a range of unique rock formations and hills made even more beautiful with the high Sierras as a backdrop. Over a hundred movies were filmed here, mainly old westerns, but we recently rewatched Iron Man and recognized the Alabama Hills in a scene. There is a museum in town, Lone Pine Film History Museum, which showcases and exhibits memorabilia from movies filmed in the Alabama Hills. Of course the museum was closed on Christmas, but that just meant we had more time to explore the Alabama Hills themselves.

Mobias Arch and Heart Rock Trail

The snow was still gently falling as we pulled into the parking lot. We put on some more layers to hike this short loop to see Mobias Arch and Heart Rock. The nice thing about winter hiking is that once your body starts moving, your body warms up pretty quickly and the hike was actually pleasant (it helped to keep our extremities like ears and hands warm). We discovered Mobias Arch right away, but we didn’t really know what Heart Rock looked like (there weren’t any signs), so we kept wondering if every formation that kind of resembled a heart was Heart Rock, and there were quite a few. We didn’t know Heart Rock was visible from where we started at the parking lot!

Mobias Arch (on clear days you can take a picture of the arch framing Mt. Whitney – this is so not that picture)
Is this Heart rock?
See the actual Heart rock?
Now do you see it?

We spent a couple of more hours scrambling around on the rocks looking for points of interests (movie locations, arches, rock formations with names, etc…) before we had to head to our next destination. We barely scratched the surface here!

Benton Hot Springs

We made only one reservation for the entire trip and it was for a night at the campground at the Inn at Benton Hot Springs. Benton was about 2 hours away from Lone Pine and we got there pretty close to check-in time at 3 pm. We had reserved site #9 and we really liked that it was private ($70/night, 3 person occupancy). However, some of the sites near #9 were not occupied, so it probably seemed to be more private than it really was. This place was on my bucket list after seeing it on TV. Each campsite has its own private hot spring tub!

Hwy 395 views (on the way to Benton)
Each campsite had its own private hot tub fed from a natural hot spring
Another view from th hot tub on site #9

We had a wonderful time here, but was surprised at how hot the temperature of the water in the hot tub was, that’s water from a hot spring for you! When we first got there, we couldn’t wait to get in the water, but getting acclimated to the temperature actually felt painful. It was burning hot, like you could boil an egg hot! When we did manage to get in, we could only stand to stay in for a few minutes (and got out looking like lobsters). However, after a cold night with the blue cover tarp left off, the temperature of the water cooled down and was very nice in the morning. Finally, we were able to spend a lovely morning in the hot tub looking at the scenery, just as we had dreamed. Heavenly!

Benton Crossing Road

After finding out that Benton Crossing Road was open, we headed west in the direction of Hwy 395 to eventually reach Mono Lake. Google maps, however, showed that a section before Mono Lake required chains. Without chains, it would’ve been a quick 1 hr and 15 min drive to Mono Lake from Benton. Who knew how much longer it would take with chain restrictions? These are winter travel dilemmas, but with so many choices for places to stay, it’s much easier to change plans.

The views on Benton Crossing Road were breathtaking! At the time we traveled it, there was snow on certain sections of the road. Not deep enough to put chains on, but enough to make you nervous when you went up and down elevations and around turns.

Benton Crossing Road

We decided to drive through Mammoth Lakes, where my hubby skied as a child. This is a wonderful ski town this time of year, but it just wasn’t the vibe we were looking for. We liked Schat’s Bakery and Cafe though, perfect place to indulge in a carb overload. We drove south on Hwy 395 looking for a place to camp and explore for the night. The clouds had disappeared and the tops of many majestic mountains were seen along our route. This of course made us think of Mount Whitney and our missed chance of seeing it in all its glory. Tuttle Creek Campground soon became our final destination for the night and we raced to see if we could get a sunset picture of Mount Whitney.

Back to beautiful weather with no clouds

We were too late for any sunset picture and frankly, we couldn’t tell which mountain was Mt. Whitney. We did, however, find a cool place to scramble around and explore near Tuttle Creek Campground (rock area off of Horseshoe Meadow Rd on the left before you get to the campground).DSC_2725DSC_2727DSC_2734DSC_2753.2Tuttle Creek Campground, take 2

Even though we picked the same campsite, the second time around was a whole other experience. Let’s just skip to the following morning when we woke up (ok, I woke everyone up) to see the sunrise. Oh man, what a sunrise you’ll see from this campground!DSC_2772.2

This is Mt. Whitney (we finally spent some time looking at pics of Mt. Whitney on the internet to make sure)
Morning view from our campsite
Another view from the campsite
Cholla cactus and snow, love it!
Beautiful day, but still very cold here

This is already getting to be a long post, so I’m going to write about our hike in the Alabama Hills where we found a couple of rooms in the rocks (with doors) and about the  uniqueness of Fossil Falls in the next post.

Please stay safe and healthy. Keep researching places to visit, we will get through this!

14 replies to “Winter Camping East of the Sierras

  1. So good to read another post from you! I’m glad to hear you’re all healthy. Gorgeous photos, this sounds like a really fun getaway… adding some new things to my travel to-do list 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post, and I’m so glad to see an update from you. Your pictures are amazing!! You find such incredible sites! I love the one with the private hot spring right at your site. That is so cool! We also love the game Trekking the National Parks. We got it for Christmas. We’ve been playing so many games lately like that one since there’s not much else for us to do these days. Like you, I’m really looking forward to when we can travel and explore again. This post was a great encouragement. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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