Yes, there really was a lone pine. The solitary tree from which the town takes its name is long gone. It once stood at the mouth of Lone Pine Canyon.
Mount Whitney was first climbed on Aug. 18, 1873, by three Lone Pine locals -- Charley Begole, Johnny Lucas and Al Johnson -- who promptly named it Fishermen's Peak, thus incurring the wrath of the famed California Geological Survey team that discovered the peak. That team, in a stroke of world-class brown-nosing, rechristened the mountain after their boss.
Manzanar, the WWII internment camp where 120,000 law-abiding Japanese-American citizens and their immigrant elders were imprisoned, is seven miles north of town on the west side of Highway 395. (Look for the stone sentry huts -- and then look inside them to see some memorable graffiti.) During the war, Manzanar was the largest ''city'' between Reno and Los Angeles -- a city delineated with guard towers and six strands of barbed wire. After years of neglect, the National Park Service has recently taken over the site and added interpretive materials. The mere fact that the Lone Pine and Independence chambers of commerce will even mention Manzanar on their Web sites says a lot about how local attitudes have evolved in recent years.
For PCT hikers exiting to the east side of the Sierra crest on the main Mount Whitney trail, the first commercial source of food and drink in the PCT's Central California sector is the Whitney Portal Store , a few feet from the trail's terminus at the end of Whitney Portal Road. Signature dishes are cheeseburgers, fries and a breakfast special featuring a single flapjack the size of a Cadillac hubcap. We haven't partaken, opting for huge infusions of brew from the store's cooler instead. If you need motivation down the homestretch of the long day, you can see the store below you for the last few miles of the trail. Some people have sworn they could even smell the fries.
The Dow Villa Motel (310 S. Main St., 760 876-5521) is the traditional PCT favorite for lodging in Lone Pine. The large, clean facility (with both "modern" motel wings and an older section behind the office) is laden with enough hiker lore and PCT memories to fill a book. Centrally located on the main drag, it's a genuine piece of East Sierra history, where all the movie crews stayed when they shot Westerns in the Alabama Hills to the west of town. (Some of the big stars signed their names on the old front door frame of the Indian Trading Post on Main Street. At one time this was a big draw for the many German tourists making the National Park circuit from Death Valley and the Grand Canyon up to Yosemite.) Try to get a room in the old hotel section.
In the last four seasons, our go-to choice for Lone Pine has shifted up the street to the Mt. Whitney Motel (305 N. Main St., 760 876-4207). Nothing against the Dow Villa, but we think this clean, fully-restored older motor court is utterly charming and represents a slightly better value. The deal-sealer: Innkeeper Pete Bhakta is one cool cat. We wish he and his family would open a chain of similar motels from Campo to Manning. I have been the recipient of kind gestures great and small by the Bhaktas. It means a lot to roll into town all trail-ugly and know there's a concerned and welcoming face on the other side of the front desk.
There are five other reputable motels on the stretch of Highway 395 referred to as Main Street and several less expensive ones a block or so off the main drag. The Comfort Inn should get a pass simply because it's located so far south of town. Alternately, there's a new budget player in Lone Pine: The Whitney Portal Hostel (238 S. Main St., 760 876-0030) offers shared rooms with four beds. It's run by the same folks who run the aforementioned Whitney Portal Store. Immaculate and right in the middle of the action.
For dinner, Seasons (206 S. Main St., 760 876-8927) is the best white-tablecloth operation for many miles around, with outstanding service, a full bar in back and a decent wine list. The Merry Go Round (212 S. Main St., 760 876-4115) next door to Seasons has morphed into a dual-menu operation with old-school American and old-school Chinese offerings. The Chinese menu features the kind of extreme retro fare your parents used to get for take-out in 1968. It's a wonderful experience and we highly recommend it for a change of pace.
If you're looking for mediocre burgers at high prices, Lone Pine boasts two diners -- the Mt. Whitney Restaurant and Totem, on the main drag. Avoid both of them. The High Sierra Cafe is defunct as of summer 2011. Aside from Seasons and the Merry Go Round, the only other brick-and-mortar restaurant in Lone Pine to get our recommendation is Bonanza (104 N. Main St., 760 876-4768), a gringo-style Mexican joint with a very large menu. This would be our third-place choice for dinner. The food quality and service have both slipped noticeably as of 2012, but for us it's still a viable option. Most of the other dinner choices you'll see in town, such as Pizza Factory ("We toss 'em , they're awesome!") and the usual "family dining" chain operations, are mediocre choices you're going to be seeing in every trail town for the next 1,000 miles.
If you don't mind dining al fresco, with highway traffic whizzing by on 395, we strongly recommend the OC Catering taco truck semi-permanently parked on the north end of the main drag. This is high-quality fresh food at bargain prices. Not a great variety, but it's the real deal. The lengua, asada and adobada are all rave-worthy. And they're open really late.