Small Town, Big Backyard: 6 Reasons Why Bishop is a Must-Visit Destination for Outdoor Lovers

A visit to Buttermilk Country is necessary when visiting Bishop.
A visit to Buttermilk Country is necessary when visiting Bishop. Mark Doliner
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Bishop, California is in what is arguably one of the most beautiful pockets of land in the Lower 48. It’s no wonder that the town is known as "small town with a big backyard." Between the Sierra and Inyo National Forest, just south of Yosemite and north of Death Valley National Parks, it’s backyard is big indeed.

This pocket of Inyo County is a secluded paradise with just about every ecosystem imaginable within reach—the Owens Valley, alpine forests, the deserts of Death Valley, hot springs, the oldest trees in the world, canyons, and everything in between. There are mountains and forests and lakes and every kind of outdoor recreation imaginable. You could spend your entire life exploring this small section of California and still leave many a trail untouched, forest nooks undiscovered, and mountaintops left to be summited. Here are just a few reasons why Bishop is a must-visit place for outdoor lovers.

1. Hot Springs

In business for almost one hundred years, one of Bishop’s most popular destinations is Keough’s Hot Springs—a hot spring with campsites for both tents and RVs. It’s the largest hot spring in the Eastern Sierra and provides visitors with a hot soaking pool and a waterfall cooling mechanism that pours into a larger pool. The pools are open year-round, with an average temperature between 86 and 92 degrees, perfect for summer and crisp nights alike. Keough’s is fun and historic—the perfect place to set up camp for a couple of nights and soak away sore muscles from a day of hiking or climbing the nearby Sierras.

2. Alpine Lakes

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Located in the Inyo National Forest, Lake Sabrina is one of the most scenic places in the region. With round-trip hikes ranging from 6.2 to 11.8 miles, there are options for both day and overnight adventures that’ll take you through 13,000-foot granite peaks and above blue glacial lakes. The hikes are strenuous in nature, but incredibly rewarding as you climb the steep switchbacks and unveil view after view. If you camp above the treeline, a night sky with no light pollution reveals a magnificent starry sky.

3. Oldest Trees in the World

Just an hour east of Bishop is a section of the Inyo National Forest called the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which is home to the oldest trees in the world. Weather depending, the forest is generally accessible between May and October each year. The trees, which are more than 4,000 years old, reside in the White Mountains, growing at high elevations between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. The mountain road to the visitors center and Schulman Grove is well-maintained, and gives visitors the opportunity to access several hiking trails. If you have a four-wheel drive, the dirt roads that wind through the bristlecone forest reveal even more of gnarled, storybook trees.

4. Rock Climbing and Bouldering

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With more than 300 days of sunshine each year, the Bishop area has ideal weather for world-class climbing and bouldering opportunities. Owens River Gorge is a climber’s paradise, with hundreds of routes throughout the gorge. With steep walls, cracks, and crevices of volcanic tuff, Owens River Gorge is one of the most popular climbing areas in the state of California. Most climbing routes are found between 4,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation, and guarantee wild topography. Alternatively, Buttermilk Country is well-known for its dramatic landscape and bouldering opportunities, and the Happy and Sad Boulders are the place to go to give you skin a bit of a rest after spending some time in the Buttermilks.

5. Mountain Biking

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With all the surrounding national forests and parks, there are endless opportunities to hit mountain trails on two wheels. Buttermilk Country Loop is a narrow dirt road that winds through the John Muir Wilderness and reaches 8,500 feet at its highest point. While some explore the loop (and its side roads) in their 4x4, it’s a much-loved loop for mountain bikers. The 17.4-mile loop is steep and technical, so expect a solid challenge. The views are a pleasant reward for the hard work, particularly in the spring and fall when wildflowers and changing leaves abound.

6. Water Activities

Bishop Creek, the summer honey hole, is known statewide for its world-class trout fishing. It’s stocked annually by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with supplemental stockings from the Bishop Chamber of Commerce. Perfect for a weekend angler getaway, there are more than 200 campsites in the area, and a few cabins and lodges along the Bishop Creek drainage, so you never have to be too far away from the fishing. There are also several hotels in the town of Bishop, just a short drive away. Float the river, cast a line, and throw your fresh catch of the day on the grill, all while enjoying the solitude that comes with the remoteness of the area.

In the winter, try the Lower Owens River for fly fishing. It can get busy on the weekends (especially holiday weekends), so the middle of the week is the best time to go for solitude. This time of year there are midday blue wing olive (BWO) mayfly hatches in this area, so use BWO imitations to capture the wild brown trout—on a good day, you can get 20-30 trout in just a few hours!

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