California’s Backyard: Eastern Sierras & Death Valley

The Eastern Sierras is an area east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. From the west side, approaching the mountains is very gradual. However, from the east side, it is very steep. The mountains appear to be sheer cliffs from the valley floor. This is one of the reasons why many people visit through the 395 scenic highway. The mountain peaks appear to be ethereal from high above. When the sun sets, the mountains cast a shadow over the Eastern Sierras that’s breathtaking. You can’t help but just stare at them until the sun is finally swallowed in.

To the east of the Eastern Sierras is a smaller mountain range, the White Mountains, and the desert, Death Valley. The White Mountains may not have the conventional mountain beauty like the Sierra Nevadas, but it makes up for its uniqueness. For instance, the mountain range is home to the oldest trees in the world that are on average 4,000 years old. These ancient trees, the bristlecone pine, are very robust to withstand harsh temperatures at high elevation. Further east is Death Valley, and the name speaks for itself! The hottest air temperature ever recorded is 134°F.

So from the 395, where should one travel to? Up the mountains of the Sierra Nevadas? Or down towards the desert of Death Valley? The choice should be simple enough. However, let’s break down the facts about traveling to both areas.

Eastern Sierras

Best Time to Visit: Spring (Off-Season), Summer, Fall (Off-Season), Winter

Top 3 Places to See:

  • Whitney Portal: This area is the gateway to Mt. Whitney – the highest point in the contiguous United States. You can walk around the area and enjoy a picnic or try hiking a couple of miles on the trailhead. Just make sure not to pass the point where a permit is needed. Beyond this checkpoint, experienced hikers have a long way to go before summiting Mt. Whitney.
  • June Lake: Head over to June Lake Beach and enjoy a nice swim. You can also take out a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to explore the lake.
  • Wild Willy’s Hot Spring: If you are a hot springs aficionado, I highly suggest this spot for the mountain backdrop. Make sure to arrive right before sunset with a couple of beers and enjoy the soak!

Technically, the start of the 395 coming from the south is almost desert-like at the valley floor in the summer. However, as you drive up north, the elevation begins to increase and the temperature starts to dip as soon as you approach Mammoth Lakes. The drive through the 395 makes it easy to stop by the different towns to refuel and to restock for supplies.

The Eastern Sierras is filled with so many outdoor activities depending on the season. You can backpack in the mountains, rock climb or boulder at the valley floor, or go snowboarding or skiing on Mammoth Mountain. To check out even more things to do in the Eastern Sierras, take a look at my Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway Guide here!

Death Valley National Park

Best Time to Visit: Spring (Off-Season), Winter

Top 3 Places to See:

  • Badwater Basin: See the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Take a picture in front of the sign and hike off a mile out on the sand flats to view the stark horizon.
  • Zabriskie Point: Check out one of the most photographed sites of Death Valley. It is especially best to see these striped gold and brown eroded cliffs either at sunset or sunrise. Preferably, my favorite time to visit is at sunset after a hot day out hiking.
  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Explore the most popular sand dunes at the park. The best time to visit is at the sunrise when there aren’t too many people around. Also, the sky lights up in beautiful hues of blue and pink.

From being the largest national park in the U.S., you can definitely find quietness and solace at Death Valley. You can either drive to the harder-to-reach, remote areas on a four-wheel drive or visit around the off-season in the early morning or evening. Either way this desert has a lot to offer and is quite beautiful. For more cool spots around Death Valley, check out my guide, A Desert Lover’s Guide Through Death Valley, here!


It is hard to pick between the mountains and the desert. The Sierra Nevadas and Death Valley are beautiful for their own reasons. If you want a variety of outdoor activities then the mountains are calling! However, if you want to find seclusion, the desert is the place to go! Definitely make time to visit both destinations from California’s backyard.

About the Author

Elizabeth is an engineer, a grad student, and an avid hiker. When she isn’t in front of the computer screen working, she is exploring! Find her on Instagram @ohkaaaaaaaaaay (yes there’s 10 a’s in between)!

Elizabeth Fabio

Elizabeth Fabio