Vermillion Valley Resort: Shangri-La of the Sierra

Our first impression of (what we now lovingly call The Shangri-La of the Sierra) Vermillion Valley Resort was not a pleasant one. We were exhausted, filthy, cold, wet and hungry.  Hiking the John Muir Trail had proved to be (almost) more than we could handle.  We were about half way through our  250 mile hike.  The miserable challenges we faced included snow, ice storms, high winds, lightning and nasty, oozing, debilitating blisters.  We were behind schedule. Food was low.  More importantly, so were our spirits (literally and figuratively).


At this point we don’t even remember what day it was or how many days we had actually been on the trail. It felt like forever since we had had beer, showers and non-freeze dried food. Our trip had been rough. The night before, the JMT had blessed us with another special challenge: a broken tent pole. We were fifty miles of tough backpacking away from a store or tools. Now, considering this was Laura’s sister’s first backpacking trip,  (way to go big CC, kudos!) she had done admirably well.  Yet, the look on her face told us that this was too much. We hoped for the best as we rigged her tent haphazardly to a tree.  Par for the course, the rain started again. It held through the night.


The next day, fate smiled upon us.  We oddly found a set of tent poles, in perfect condition, just sitting on a stump next to the trail. What are the odds?  It was like somebody had left them for us. Remember we are in the middle of nowhere at this point.  While the tent poles were not from the same exact tent (too much to hope for?), they were the same diameter. Now, all we needed were some tools to make the repairs and the tent would be good as new. Fortunately, we soon arrived at our next resupply point, Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) or, as we affectionately call it: The Shangri-La of the Sierra.

PLIGHT ACROSS THE DESERT TO LAKE EDISON (that’s what we’re calling it!)

Plight?  Yep.  That’s what we’re calling it.  Lake Edison wasn’t what we expected.  California was in an extreme drought the year we hiked the JMT and the water level was disturbingly low.  This added several miles of hiking in sand at the bottom of the lake in order to get to the water. Our plan was to catch a ferry to the resort.  It looked apocalyptic. There were wooden posts with upside down orange Home Depot buckets leading the way to the water.  The writing on the buckets had worn out and was illegible.  We passed tree stumps and items that had rusted years before under the water.  All were now visible in this odd environment.

It looked like it had been deserted for years. Seldom did we see other footprints in the sand.  We made jokes about none of us knowing that the world had ended. I’m not sure any of us thought they were funny.  We hadn’t had news for many days.  It seemed like eternity in some ways.  I realize how crazy that sounds, yet there is an odd disconnect from the outside world when you’re on a long backpacking trip.


We expected a pontoon boat with blue stripes (just like the cute one in the picture on their website, right?) to pick us up at the water and take us across the lake.  In the distance instead, we were able to make out a shirtless man, waving to us, from a very small motorboat.  Well, really it was a dingy.  We waved back, then had a discussion about how to proceed.  It simply wasn’t what we expected.  The scene felt off, but our food supply box was across the lake.  It was pretty simple.  He hadn’t done anything for us to question our safety, in fact he was nicely waving. Not taking his boat would add an extra 7 miles each way to our hike.


As we came closer, we realized the man was much older than we originally thought.  His skin was leathered and dark from the sun.  Hair was bleached, teeth yellow and several were missing.  The boat was by far, in worse shape than him. He must have seen our hesitation because he turned into a salesman of sorts.  Trying to convince us to hop in the old boat.  He explained that the water was too low to bring out the other boat.  We acquiesced, feeling a bit like horror story victims.  Hoping that he wouldn’t kill us, nor would the boat sink.  At some point we all started to calculate how we would survive the boat going under.  The patches were leaking badly. We made quiet conversation.  Each in our own world, just happy to be sitting down and accepting our new situation.  As it turned out he was a really nice person and we were just tired and paranoid.

Overdramatic?  Possibly.  Looking back the situation seems harmless.  However at the time, we were exhausted.  That’s my only explanation.  Don’t judge.  For the sake of pure honesty and a good story, that’s really how it went down.


We were thrilled when we made it across the lake and headed into a channel.  The ease didn’t last long when we saw the old Land Rover with velvet orange and green striped interiors and no seat belts that was to take us to the resort.  We’re not sure if the windows were down or missing.  We drove through sand and dirt.  Not that it made us any dirtier.  It really didn’t even matter at that point and we all knew it. The apocalyptic feeling continued. In a frenzied state of constant risk management, I forgot to take pictures.  However, I did get them on the return trip which are equally glorious.  If this van had picked us up (we sat on milk crates and were locked in the back) I never would have jumped in!  The entire trip I could hear my parents tell my seven year old self to never get in the back of a van.


When we arrived, the man drove us around the back of the resort.  So we saw run down cars, old motor homes, rusted machines and equipment.  It wasn’t what we expected at all.  Our hearts sank a little.  Remember we’ve been living in Orange County, California for the past few decades!  It’s possible that our idea of a “resort”  might be a little off.  Then, we walked to the front.


Wait a second…there was an adorable little store.   And a restaurant.  We walked in and the nicest woman welcomed us and told us to grab a beer… for free!  Such a small gesture, a free beer.  Nonetheless, it made us proud and thankful for the acknowledgment of accomplishing the part we’d already done on the John Muir Trail.


Vermillion Valley Resort is located among the pine trees on the shores of Lake Edison in the John Muir Wilderness. The resort features a full service restaurant, grocery store, motel, tent cabins and a marina. In addition, Vermillion Valley Resort caters to John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail hikers offering resupply, Wi-Fi, laundry, showers, free campsite for the first two nights and a free beer upon arrival.


At this point, I will pause to dispense some advice to hikers: Stop at Vermillion Valley Resort, plan a resupply, pay for the water taxi ride (no matter how it looks) and take a zero day.  Trust us!  You’ll save about 5 miles of hiking (two more if the water in the lake is low).  Other hikers walked around the lake in order to get there, lost half the day, had no water access and truly regretted it.


We arrived, found an impressive variety of frosty beers and friendly staff who, upon hearing about our broken tent, took us to their workshop. The workshop was a giant A framed building filled with every tool we could imagine. We were surprised that the guy just smiled and said we could use whatever we needed and left. Best part, it was free!  We completed the repairs and returned her tent to like new condition. After that, it was time to explore the rest of the camp.


Vermillion Valley Resort was an enchanting place. When you arrive you set up a tab for your purchases. After that, anytime you need anything the clerk, who remembered everyone by name, would simply add the beer to your tab.  It was like walking into your own kitchen. The food at the restaurant was delicious. We feasted on wine, thick, juicy, steak and plump, fresh vegetables.    Everyone who worked at Vermillion Valley Resort was incredibly nice.  Most had hiked through and decided to stay or came back some seasons.  They offered free food to hikers in exchange for work!  The 8 minutes for $6.50 showers were great!  In our wildest dreams we never thought a public shower could possibly be magical.  We were wrong.  They are at the Shangri-La of the Sierra.


We ran into a lot of the people that we had met along the trail.  A reunion of sorts, we became friends.  It felt like home.  Considering what a strange arrival we had, none of us want to leave.  Ever.   After daydreaming about it, Paul even looked into buying the place after returning home!  There is a simplicity about life that only exists in the Shangri-La of the Sierra’s.  Another great example friends, Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.  It might just surprise you.  We’ve been to a lot of “resorts” and none have taken a piece of our heart like this place

By | 2017-09-23T16:42:42+00:00 May 25th, 2017|Hiking, John Muir Trail, Uncategorized|3 Comments

Amazing Weekend California Road Trip on Highway 395 (Part 2 The Drive Home)


From here we drove back to Bridgeport and down the 395 to Lundy Lake.  Mainly Lundy is known for three things. First, its fall foliage.  Secondly, there is an abundance of wildlife.  You can easily see beaver damns in the river, bird everywhere and luckily, we saw a big white Bighorn sheep.  One group we spoke with even reported seeing a Bald Eagle!  Last, it has incredible fishing.

Our number one priority this morning: coffee! We headed to the town of Lee Vining.  Can’t say enough great things about Mono Cup Coffee’s Cold Brew!  On a road trip whim we decided to check out the Upside Down House and Old School House Museum.  Regrettably, both were both closed.  The Upside Down House has a great story worth checking out.


Mono Lake Tufa State National Reserve was our next stop.  We were lucky enough to jump into a talk by Nora Livingston from the Mono Lake Committee.  This was hands down our favorite part of the entire trip.  If you head in this direction please take an hour and don’t miss their work on the history, education, restoration, and protection of Mono Lake.  It’s fascinating!


We turned off of 395 onto Highway 158 at the North June Lake junction.  This is a 14.6 mile scenic tour of a glacier formed canyon with lakes at the bottom.  You’ll see Grant Lake, Silver Lake, Gull Lake and June Lake. Reverse Creek (named after the fact that it is the only river that flows west toward its source in the Sierra) flows throughout the canyon.  We stopped at June Lake Brewing and Ohana’s 395 food truck.  Lots of dogs, outdoor seating, wonderful people, good food and amazing beer!


Regrettably, it was a quick stop in Benton.  We did, however, manage one great picture of their old store.



Our next stop was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.  First of all, the trees are over 4000 years old!  It’s a fun drive up with steep turns, rolling hills and many curves.  California had a heavy snow year and the temperature mid May was 27 degrees.  We camped in Grandview, a first come/first serve site for only $5.00!

Woke up early to an amazing sunrise panorama and headed to Schulman Groves.  Snow was on the road and to our left on the Sierra mountains overlooking Owen Valley.   The isolation created a strange feeling of quiet in the midst of the ancient trees.    There were no visitors or rangers.  We wandered outside the closed visitor center.    The trunks are twisted and gnarled with beautifully colored wood that grows in tiny amounts each year.  Their wood is resistant to insects, disease and decay.  Interestingly, there is a direct correlation between the harshness of their environment and the ability to live longer.  I’d like to think there is  a life lesson there.

Isn’t it beautiful?!


Next, we drove back down to Bishop for coffee.  We love the Black Sheep Coffee Roasters and visit whenever we’re in town.  They have espresso, burritos and unworldly banana bread that is totally worth the extra time to our drive.  They also have outside seating and are totally dog friendly.  Mule Days Celebration was the following weekend and a sweet woman who was dressed as a unicorn pet  our dog Tucker throughout breakfast!  One just doesn’t experience that every day!



Finally, our last stop on the weekend road trip on California 395 was on the way home,  Manzanar National Historic site.  In 1942 the United States Government detained over 110,000 men, women and children to relocation centers.  Manzanar is one of these sites that became home to over 10,000 Japanese people.  Visiting this site emphasizes the stark reality of their cold isolated location and everyday realities.

And…our favorite Tucker picture of the trip at Twin Lakes!

Amazing Weekend California Road Trip on Highway 395 (Part 1 The Drive There)


An amazing weekend California road trip on Highway 395, what could be more fun?  The California scenic highway 395 is arguably one of the best California road trips, if not the entire United States.  One of our favorite things about living in California is that there are so many fun things to do within  a short drive.  Road trip!  Paul and I spent 86 hours exploring destinations in Mono and Inyo Counties.  While we’ve skied and backpacked in the Mammoth Lakes area, we’ve never ventured further north.

California 395 is often referred to as one of the West’s Best road trips.  You’ll see a vast change of scenery along the way and breathtaking views.  Driving North in California you first experience seemingly endless desert miles, rolling hills, sage, then the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Mount Whitney.  As you continue North, this road trip continues to unfold with beautiful mountains and lakes.

There is more to do on an amazing road trip on California’s 395 than can be done in three days, so we settled on these highlights:  the tufa towers at Mono Lake, the alpine beauty of Twin Lakes, the world’s oldest trees at Ancient Bristlecone Forest, Mazanar National Historic Site and the ghost town of Bodie.  Our goal was to briefly see as much as possible so that we know which places we’d like to visit again.  The wonderful part of this vacation is that it has a bit of everything: scenic natural wonders, history, tales of the old west, environmental causes, and recreational sports.  Whatever you are into, you’ll find it here.  This is a road trip you don’t want to miss!


For this California’s 395 adventure we opted for a loose idea of what we wanted to do.  This is our favorite type of traveling, with no schedule. We basically pack up the car and see where the wind blows.  For this trip we had three requirements:

  1. We had to be back Sunday afternoon, meaning only four days of travel ( 86 hours).
  2. Everything had to be dog friendly, we were bringing our fearful two year old golden retriever, Tucker with us.
  3. We are on a tight budget!

We packed the car with camping gear and left Orange County at 3pm on Thursday arriving near Mono Lake in the evening.  Found a dispersed camping area and called it a night.  We woke up early Friday morning and headed to Bodie State Historic Park..

Bodie State historic park


Bodie State Historic Park is heralded as America’s best preserved un-restored ghost town.  During its heyday from 1877-1888 this remote gold and silver mining town held roughly 10,000 residents.  After the mining was depleted, the town shrunk to a single caretaker within several decades.  In the 1940’s it became an official ghost town and in 1962, California State Parks purchased it.  Currently it is kept in “a state of arrested decay”.  The buildings roofs, foundations and windows are repaired and stabilized, but not restored.  Amazingly 170 of the town’s original buildings still exist, each containing its original artifacts.

Make sure that when you arrive you buy the $2.00 self-guided tour booklet.  It’s worth every penny!  It will tell you all about each building and the people who lived in there.  Second, don’t miss the school house.  Look in the windows!  There are desks, books, even writing on the chalk board.  There is an eerie sense in Bodie that kept reminding me of Stephen King’s book the Langoliers. Very few times in your life do you experience a place where people just  leave.  It’s almost as if they vanished.  Usually when people move they take their belongings, yet that’s not the case here.  It’s a strange, yet surprisingly wonderful.


Next we headed to Bridgeport where we stopped and received our fire permit at the ranger station (required to have a fire or use a propane stove in the back country).  The ranger provided useful information including camping, hiking and restaurant ideas.  She suggested lunch at The Barn because they have outdoor seating for our dog.  The food was good.  However, to our surprise, this cute little hamburger stand had the best sweet potato fries that we’ve ever had!  Also, check out the court house on your way through town.  Next, we ventured to Travertine Hot Springs.

Travertine Hot springs

The road that leads you to Travertine Hot Springs is a short distance (about a mile) and just behind the ranger station, simply follow the signs.  There is one tub by the road, four tubs about 25 yards from the parking area and a few other small tubs scattered around the area.  We have found that this type of undeveloped hot springs often provides the most colorful experiences.  They seem to attract interesting characters.  Many places openly go naked at sunset to allow more sensitive types to use the tubs during the day.  Some hot springs are more modest, others openly nudist.  This might sound strange, but each hot springs really has a different culture that we try to respect.  The culture varies depending on the location.

Really what it comes down to is everyone is trying to have a good time and relax, but sometimes these characters will be more entertaining than others. This was the case at Travertine.  Today featured an extraordinarily chatty 60 something year old man parading around outside the hot tub wearing only flip flops, two tattooed women taking naked photos of each other and one spry 80ish year old man only wearing an open white button down shirt and neckerchief.

Hot tub Story #8,341

You really need an idea of what the hot springs looks like in order to continue the story.  It’s really a large mound of travertine rock, maybe 12 feet high, with hot water coming through holes.  Surrounding the mound are about five small individual pools.  If you lean back on the mound you can look out at a mind blowing view of the mountains.

We first saw this naked fellow go by carrying a pool hose and a pick ax. Odd, but nothing completely abnormal at a hot tub.  Ultimately, he decided that our area suited him (pun intended). Instead of sitting in one of the four tubs, this old man scrambled up the rocks to the right of  us doing amazing feats one wouldn’t expect from a man his age.

Initially, we were on one end of the pools and he was on the other.  We leaned back on the rock, looking out to take the picture above.  We wanted a picture that capture the amazing view we were seeing.  When we turned around to take a selfie with the mountains behind us, we realized we weren’t alone.  A mere inches away from our faces, pick ax in hand, Yukon Cornelius was hanging by one hand and trying to chisel out new water channels through the rock. After several swings of his ax (and nether regions), we decided we’d had enough fun and decided to leave for the next destination.    Old butts aside, the views of the Sierra were stunning.

california road trip to Twin Lakes

 The beauty of Twin Lakes was a site for sore eyes.  Nothing like a naked butt to get you to really appreciate anything else.  To get there, you drive through the most wonderful, green meadow complete with cows, horses and a lovely little stream. As you drive up the canyon there are many campgrounds along the river.   When we arrived at Twin Lakes, my mind was blown.  As a kid, I went to Glacier National Park. I have compared every single lake view to that memory my entire life.  I guess I have romanticized finding a lake that is the deepest blue with huge mountains on all sides that could truly command my attention since then.  One could even call it a quest of sorts to find the perfect lake that I could take my kids to and teach them to kayak and fish.   This is the lake that I’ve been looking for.
At the lakes, there’s fishing, kayaking, hiking, and boat rentals. We continued to the end of the second lake where we found Mono Lake Resort. Mono Lake Resort is a mountain resort offering campsites, RV sites, cabins, a restaurant, general store, boat ramp, boat rentals, kayak rentals and  a car parking lot for day hikes. We attempted a hike called Horesetail Falls, but ended on a hike around the lake which was beautiful.  After about three miles we retraced our steps and found the correct one. Helpful hint!  It’s the trail to the right after the bridge.


Paha campground

We stayed at Paha Campground and found a spot right next to river.


Twin Lakes Campground from the US forest service is located next to the river at the beginning of the lake.  It has lush vegetation, trees and flowers.  We preferred this campground to Crags Campground, which is more brown and open.  There is also a cute General Store.  You’ll find stuff you need (matches) to stuff you just want (s’mores fixin’s). Everyone there was helpful and nice!


By | 2017-09-18T18:03:50+00:00 May 23rd, 2017|Family Destination, Road Trip|0 Comments