April 16, 2021 12 min read

California’s Eastern Sierras have some of the most breathtaking mountain views, alpine lakes, and trails in America. From Yosemite to Mount Whitney, the trails in this region are astounding, challenging, and as diverse as it gets. Before you gear up and set out on your next hiking trip, check out our guide to the best Eastern Sierra hiking trails.

As you read, you’ll learn:

  • All about the Eastern Sierras and what makes them special for hikers
  • Our 7 favorite trails in the region
  • Some helpful tips for your first time hiking in the Sierras

What are the Eastern Sierras?

The Sierra Nevada Mountains run up and down practically the entire state of California, largely defining its border with Nevada. Formed as a result of tectonic plate subduction (remember elementary school science class?), the Sierras are some of North America’s youngest mountains. Because they’re so young, they’ve been subjected to very little erosion compared to, say, the much older (and smaller) Appalachian range. That means you’ll find some of the tallest, most dramatic peaks in the country, right in the Sierras!

The Sierras are divided into different regions: The “Eastern Sierras” describe the part of the mountain range that has the highest peaks, fewest people, and is mostly made up of National Parks and protected forests. The “Western Sierras,” sometimes called the “Sierra Nevada foothills,” are where California’s Central Valley gently slopes upward into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

The eastern part of the mountain range contains many of the Sierra’s best trails, peaks, and ski areas. This region is sparsely populated and beloved by millions of nature lovers across the globe. The Eastern Sierras are great for viewing wildlife like bears and birds, rock climbing, canoeing, and (of course) backpacking. From alpine lakes and jagged peaks to sprawling valleys covered in wildflowers, there’s something for everyone. Let's discover just a bit more about this majestic area.

They Contain Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks

Eastern Sierras

The Eastern Sierras are home to some of the country’s most famous (and remote) national parks. Yosemite National Park straddles both the western and eastern parts of the range and is a very diverse landscape. Famous peaks and locations such as Half Dome, El Capitan (the subject of an Oscar-winning movie), the Yosemite Valley, and the Merced River are all in the Eastern Sierra region. 

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, also found here, may not attract as many visitors as Yosemite, but they still have a lot to offer. These parks are a bit more remote, less crowded, and stacked with incredible canyons, valleys, and giant Sequoia trees—the largest trees in the world and, while not the oldest, can still live for more than 3,000 years. These two parks are great places to go for solitude, adventure, and even to catch a glimpse of a bear.

They’re Along America’s Great Trails

The Eastern Sierras also span hundreds of miles of America’s National Scenic Trails—namely the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail (JMT). Nearly 2,700 miles long, the Pacific Crest Trail stretches from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. About 400 miles of the trail are located in the Eastern Sierras and include some of the most scenic lookouts on the entire trail. Travelers eyes' are treated to snow capped peaks, wide-open valleys, and blue lakes on nearly every mile.

The JMT spans 200 miles from the Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney (both of which we will discuss below). If you don’t have 5 months of free time to do a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, the JMT offers some of the world’s best hiking (it’s not too strenuous, the the weather is usually ideal, and it features a diverse landscape) and is still an achievement unto itself.

The 7 Greatest Eastern Sierra Hiking Trails

The trails on this list are nearly as diverse as the Eastern Sierras themselves. A couple of the recommendations on this list will take more than a day to complete, so you should plan to train for each hike before you set out and remember to pack your ultralight down sleeping bag and your tent for backpacking. Backpacking in the Eastern Sierras is a great way to experience more of what the area has to offer and truly embrace the great outdoors.

You’ll find that other trails are much shorter and can be completed in just a few hours. To help you decide which trails are right for you, we've noted the distance and elevation underneath each trail name, as well as an estimation for how long the hike should take round trip. Let’s get started!

1. Saddlebag Lake to McCabe Lake Loop

Distance and Elevation: 10.5 miles, 2,349 feet of elevation

Difficulty: Easy

Estimated Time: 5-8 hours

Why We Love It: Two pristine alpine lakes, and a trail you’ll have mostly to yourself.


Although it’s more than 10 miles long, this trail is actually pretty easy. There are a couple of steep sections, but they’re relatively short and safe. If you’re up for a few minutes of intense scrambling, the rest of the trail is a pleasurable stroll.

Starting from the parking lot at Saddlebag Lake, you’ll walk along the lake’s western side and follow the trail farther into Inyo National Forest. About halfway through the hike, you’ll encounter a steep scramble—covering 900 feet of elevation in just six-tenths of a mile. Once you’re over the ridge, though, the trail becomes surprisingly flat once again. 

At the end of the trail, you’ll be able to enjoy near-complete solitude at McCabe Lake. This lake isn’t quite as picturesque as Saddlebag Lake, but there is a much higher chance that you and your group will be the only people there. This is one of the best parts of hiking in the Eastern Sierras—you’re never far away from a serene, picturesque lake that you can have all to yourself.

Saddlebag Lake to McCabe Lake Loop Trail, courtesy of Google Maps.

2. Mammoth Crest: Duck Pass Loop 

Distance and Elevation: 12.7 miles, 3,044 feet of elevation

Difficulty: Moderate

Estimated Time: 7-9 hours

Why We Love It: Incredible views and some of the least-trafficked miles near the Mammoth Lakes ski area.

This is one of the more unique trails on our list, not just because of the views (which are still phenomenal) but because many sections of the trail hardly seem to exist. It’s not a very popular trail, and wildfires in recent years have forced trail closures. This has caused some parts of the trail to become faded and overgrown. 

When the trail feels like it’s hardly there, the feeling of adventure is seriously elevated. That makes the nearly 13 miles round trip of this trail so special. You get to experience the incredible mountain views and crystal clear lakes with a feeling of true wilderness. Starting from Lake Mary, you’ll take a leisurely stroll on the side of a small mountain out to the smaller Duck Lake. From there, the trail winds around the other side of the mountain back to Lake Mary. 

Picturesque Lake Mary is also a great place to camp for the night. This area has several other trails as well, so it’s also a fantastic place to set up camp for a few days and plan some smaller hikes. If you’re looking for a place to spend a few nights under the stars, Lake Mary is it.

Mammoth Crest Trail, courtesy of Google Maps.

3. Yosemite Valley Loop Trail

Distance and Elevation: 20.3 miles, 1,240 feet of elevation

Difficulty: Moderate

Estimated Time: 8-10 hours, potentially overnight

Why We Love It: Many of Yosemite’s iconic features, all on one trail. 

Those high alpine trails are great, but not everyone wants to be 12,000 plus feet above sea level every time. The Yosemite Valley Loop is a long but easy trail that winds through Yosemite’s most recognizable locations. You’ll get to see Half Dome, El Capitan (beloved by all the world’s best rock climbers), and the gentle winding of the Merced River. 

This area is one of the more heavily trafficked areas in the park, so it isn’t ideal if solitude is your main goal. Other than that, though, this trail is nearly perfect. It has so much to offer, especially in the fall when the changing of the leaves paints the valley bright gold. It was this valley that John Muir, the famous naturalist and “Father of the National Parks,” fell in love with and spent his life trying to protect. 

The trail itself isn’t hard to trek, but it is pretty long. This makes it an excellent full-day hike (from sunrise to sundown) as well as a breezy overnight. If you’re looking to get into hammock camping, grab your hammock, straps, and hammock compatible sleeping bag before you leave. You’ll have your choice of massive trees and scenery to set up camp, enjoy eating trail food with friends, and get some deep, peaceful rest. 

Yosemite Valley Loop, courtesy of Google Maps.

4. Sawtooth Pass Trail

Distance and Elevation: 12.7 miles, 4,314 feet of elevation

Difficulty: Moderately hard

Estimated Length: 7-10 hours

Why We Love It: Wildflowers, alpine lakes, and staggering peaks.

Located in Sequoia National Park, Sawtooth Pass is a wonderful trail that packs in a lot of what people love about the Sierras. It’s secluded, dramatic, and rewarding. Starting at the trailhead (there is a small parking lot there for convenience), the trail heads uphill, fast. 

On your way to the top you have the option of heading to Monarch Lakes, a gorgeous alpine lake that’s perfect for a long lunch. It can even be a destination unto itself if the weather or difficulty level makes getting to Sawtooth Peak no longer an option. If you’re feeling strong and the weather holds, follow the signs along the trail toward the peak. 

The last section of the trail, about 2 miles long, is steep and very rocky. If you’re not used to scrambling, this section might feel pretty scary. However, if you keep your cool and don’t take risky steps, it’s still a rather safe trail. You’ll know when you reach Sawtooth Pass because the trail ends, giving way to much more difficult scrambling . 

If you're an experienced hiker with some ambition, you can head to Sawtooth Peak. There are no marked trails on this stretch, and the trek can be very unsafe if you don’t know what you’re doing, but the adventure is worth it for those who can handle it and are prepared. Most people, though, are more than satisfied (and tired) when they reach Sawtooth Pass. At the top, you’ll be able to see other tall peaks and look at the lakes and valleys below you.

Sawtooth Pass Trail, courtesy of Google Maps.

5. Big Pine Lakes Trail

Distance and Elevation: 16.2 miles, 4,051 feet of elevation

Difficulty: Hard

Estimated Time: 7-11 hours, potentially overnight

Why We Love It: There’s nothing quite as serene as an alpine lake … except maybe seven on the same trail. 

If you’re tired of feeling FOMO every time you see a friend post photos of alpine lakes and you are ready to finally see one yourself for a change, this is the place to do it. Every couple of miles, you’ll be slightly higher up in the Sierras and looking at yet another alpine lake. Each one is more gorgeous, remote, and crystal clear than the one before it. 

This trail is located in the John Muir Wilderness, an expansive and secluded piece of land adjacent to Yosemite National Park. Even though the trail is a bit long and has some steep points, it’s not too challenging for most people. The ascent is gradual and the views are so rewarding that it’s easy to forget your legs are tired.

Nearby are the small mountain towns of Big Pine and Bishop, both great places to have a massive post-hike meal. Slightly to the north, you’ll find the resort town of Mammoth Lakes, popular for skiers and hikers alike. These towns are perfect places to visit after your hike (or even before!) for the comforts your body will be craving after 16 miles on the trail. 

Big Pine Lakes Trail, courtesy of Google Maps.

6. Mount Whitney

Distance and Elevation: 22.5 miles, 6,656 feet of elevation

Estimated Length: 10 plus hours, potentially overnight

Difficulty: Extremely hard

Why We Love It: It’s the highest point in the contiguous United States and you don’t need to be a mountaineer to summit it—need we say more?

Mount Whitney, located near the town of Lone Pine, is the tallest US mountain outside of Alaska, at 14,505 feet above sea level. Summiting a mountain this tall often requires you to be an experienced mountaineer or climber, but Mount Whitney is different. As long as you’re in very good shape and have done some hard hikes in the past, you’ll be able to summit Mount Whitney and be back down the mountain by dark.

This trail isn’t for beginner hikers, people who aren’t in great shape, or those who like to take their time. Summiting Mount Whitney is, more or less, a marathon race up and down a mountain. You’ll have a little bit of time to stop and enjoy the views, but there won’t be much leisurely strolling if you want to make it up and down before it gets dark. 

All that being said, the Mount Whitney Trail isn’t so much dangerous as it is physically daunting. If you’re a decent hiker, but don’t want to try all 22.5 miles in the same day, you can try to secure an overnight camping permit for the trail. These permits come in limited supply each year, so be watching the National Parks Service reservation portal like a hawk to make sure you get a spot.

Mount Whitney Trail, courtesy of Google Maps.

7. The John Muir Trail 

Distance and Elevation: 210 miles, 40,902 feet in elevation gain

Difficulty: Extreme

Estimated Time: Minimum 10 days

Why We Love It: One of the most legendary trails in the US, it's over 200 miles of stunning scenery.

Thousand Island Lake on the JMT

John Muir, who was a legend in his time, dedicated a large part of his life to lobbying for the creation of the National Parks system. It’s a perfect section hike for beginners and experts alike; starting in the Yosemite Valley and ending at Mount Whitney, this trail has something new to behold on each and every mile.

The JMT is actually a long section of the Pacific Crest Trail, containing many of its most stunning views. Even though it’s got 40,000 feet of elevation gain, that isn’t much considering how many miles it’s spread out across. It’s bound to be a life-changing trip for anyone who undertakes it. 

The John Muir Trail takes about two weeks to complete for most people. If you can get some time away from work or plan out a break from school, you won’t regret it. You’ll have a blast, see some of the most incredible landscapes in the country, and instantly belong to a group of the luckiest hikers in the world. 

John Muir Trail, courtesy of Google Maps

Tips for Hiking in the Eastern Sierra Mountains

What is the Best Time of Year to Hike in the Sierras?

Just like any alpine area, winters in the Eastern Sierras are harsh and unforgiving. On top of that, the snow on the trails takes forever to melt—sometimes well into what most of us would call summer. However, because it’s California, it can also get wildly hot.

There is a short but decent window of time each year where the trails are clear of snow and the temperatures are just right. The best months to be on Eastern Sierra hiking trails are between late June and October. Some places are just fine in May, and the same can be said for November. For the most part, though, you’ll have the best experience hiking these trails between June and October. 

Get Your Permits

Before you set out on a trail, especially a popular one, you should confirm whether or not you need a permit. The National Parks Service and National Forest Service work very hard to limit human impact on the lands they manage—often by limiting the number of people who can hike or camp in one place at one time. 

If you plan on camping, this is especially important. There are many places you can hike without a permit, but very few that you can camp without one. Permits help the park rangers manage crowds, prevent wildfires and deadly animal encounters, and respond to emergencies effectively. You can head to the Recreation.Gov reservation portal to search for campground and trail permits before your trip.

Bear Safety

The Eastern Sierras are home to the majority of California’s black bear population. Black bears, though not as physically intimidating as grizzlies, can still weigh up to 300 pounds and are often more aggressive than other bears. If you see a bear, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever be in danger; bears have no reason to attack unless they feel threatened. However, you still want to be prepared in case you encounter a bear that seems afraid, angry, or is just too close for comfort. 

The first thing you should do is be a noisy hiker. Talking with your group, singing, clapping hands—these are all things that can alert bears to your presence while you’re still very far off and give them a chance to stay at a safe distance. Bears aren’t often interested in people, and they will simply keep to themselves if you let them know you’re there. 

Second, if you’re camping, you should always keep your food in a bear canister and hang it from a tree at least 50 yards away from your tent. Hungry bears have entered people’s tents before because they smelled food. The last thing you want is for a startled bear to wake you up. “Bear hangs,” a common hiker term for bear food safety, are required by law in the Eastern Sierras. 

Finally, carry bear spray if you feel you need to. Bear spray is the most effective and safe way to deter a charging bear. It’s like high-powered pepper spray: it works from 30 feet away and is more than 98 percent effective in safely deterring an aggressive bear. Not everyone carries it, but it is wise to do so. 

Best Apps for Trail Maps

Before you set out on the trail, you need something to guide you on your way. Paper maps are still perfectly suitable, but buying and printing a map is a bit tedious. Download a hiking app, such as AllTrails or The Hiking Project, and you’ll have access to downloadable maps of every mile of trail in the Sierras. If you lose your way, all you have to do is pull out your phone.

These apps also let people write reviews and trip reports. These are very helpful for getting a feel for the trail as well as the current weather conditions. Download one, or both, to plan your trip like a pro. 

Wrapping Up

Which trail do you think you’ll set out on first? Will you climb Mount Whitney, stroll around the Yosemite Valley, or do it all on the John Muir Trail? We’d love to hear your plans in the comments section below! No matter what trail you choose, though, you’re sure to have a phenomenal time on any Eastern Sierra hiking trail you choose.

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