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SUMMER CAMPING SECTION

12 Wild Sites

Though it's not exactly roughing it, car camping provides a quick escape into the outdoors. Not far from where the road ends, there are places where the surf stops at your sleeping bag, dawn breaks through skyscraper-sized trees and wide-angle vistas unfold right outside your tent door.

June 21, 2005|Daniel Duane; Leslie Carlson; Darrell Kunitomi; Julie Sheer; Mary Forgione; Susan Dworski; Hugo Martin; Emmett Berg; Bill Sheehan; Jerry Schad; Ann Japenga

1. The big high

Tioga Lake, Inyo National Forest

For some, the phrase "east side of the Sierra" conjures almost everything we love about the mountains -- the wild open spaces along lonely Highway 395, the empty high-desert valleys and the big, big views.

And if you throw in the phrase "high country," then you've also conjured up everything else we love about the Sierra: the Japanese rock-garden meadows and the crystalline streams and the mirror-like lakes, the sprinkled violets and yellows of wildflowers and the stark white of granite against the cobalt sky.

Perched right on the boundary of these two worlds, Tioga Lake offers the best of both experiences.

Two miles east of the Yosemite National Park boundary, Tioga Lake Campground is a safe distance from the overcrowded, hyperregulated tension of campgrounds within the park, but still in the heart of the region's most beautiful terrain.

It also provides a front-row seat to the sweeping red-rock drama of Tioga Canyon -- pure "east side" country if ever there was any -- but without the slightly scary, drifters-on-the-high-plains atmosphere of campgrounds farther east, in the true desert.

But best of all, there's not a prettier little patch of green grass, stretching into a prettier alpine lake, below a more spectacular cirque of peaks.

The place has it all, from pure mountain spectacle to the soothing lap-lap of wind-driven waves on the sandy shores.

Campsites: 12, not reservable, but best to wait until the snow melts

Fee: $15

Information: (760) 647-3044

-- Daniel Duane

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2. The big picture

Grandview Campground, Inyo National Forest

Imagine a sage flat under giant junipers and fragrant pinon pines, high and dry at 8,500 feet in the Eastern Sierra's White Mountains. At the west end, a dramatic drop-off reveals the Owens Valley 4,500 feet below, and looming before you is the immense and jagged Sierra Crest. It feels as if you could take a running leap, soar across the valley and land on an icy peak.

This is Grandview Campground, within striking distance of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

Now picture this perch at night under some of the clearest skies in the world. The telescopes setting up around you will make you want to become an astronomer for the evening, to get even closer to the thick band of stars glittering gently above your tent.

The view alone is worth the 4 1/2 -hour drive up Highway 395 to Big Pine.

Be sure to check out Schulman Grove at 10,000 feet. There, on the 4-mile Methuselah walk, is the oldest living thing on Earth, the 4,734-year-old Methuselah tree, protectively unlabeled by the Forest Service.

From there, continue upward 16 miles on a maintained dirt road toward the White Mountain trail head if you haven't had enough stunning views already.

Campsites: 25, not reservable

Fee: $3 (voluntary donation) requested

Information: (760) 873-2500 or www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/index.shtml

-- Leslie Carlson

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3. The big fish

Big Pine Creek Campground, Inyo National Forest

Famed character actor Lon Chaney built his cabin retreat in Big Pine Canyon near this campground. He picked a good spot -- a piney Sierran slot with a frothy trout stream, good camping sites and an easy-to-fish pond for young anglers.

Located nine miles west of Big Pine, the sites at Big Pine Creek are carved into brushy areas beneath shading trees. It's possible to pick one that feels isolated and quiet. You may hear only the gurgle of the creek, but be forewarned: It's a popular destination.

A day's hike from the camp puts you near the Palisade Glacier, southernmost ice field in the U.S., and a string of beautiful alpine lakes. There is a free hike-in campground called the First Falls camp, with tables, fire rings and a pit toilet. As back country work goes, the hike is on the easy side (though it's at altitude).

Go during high summer or in the fall, when the leaves turn gold on the cottonwoods, the aspens quake, and fishermen skulk around the Big Pine trout stream alone, like Chaney, each a phantom in the canyon with a fly rod.

Campsites: 30, not reservable

Fee: $15

Information: (760) 873-2500 or www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/index.shtml

-- Darrell Kunitomi

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4. The big beach

Plaskett Creek Campground, Los Padres National Forest

The truth about Big Sur's 90 miles of splendid, rocky coast is that many of its beaches aren't very accessible. The beauty of camping at spacious Plaskett Creek Campground is that it's a short walk to Sand Dollar Beach, the longest strand of sandy beach in Big Sur.

Many Highway 1 drivers whiz past Plaskett en route to Big Sur's state parks north of Lucia, but this site has a lot to offer: Its tent sites are set around a meadow shaded by Monterey pines and cypresses. Most of the campsites are far enough from the road that you won't hear cars, but you can hear waves.

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