Rock Creek

For section hikers, there is a reasonable alternative to Vermilion Valley Resort and/or Red's Meadow -- provided you're willing to burn an extra day getting to or from the trailhead to the PCT. Our radical position is that an east side exit on Rock Creek -- right up Mono Creek, and over Mono Pass opposite Vermilion Valley -- is the preferable route if you're piecemealing the PCT or JMT.

The climb up and over the pass is quite beautiful. The pass and its unfathomably blue lake are one of those great unforgettable moonscapes you'll carry with you forever. And once you've dropped down to the Mosquito Flat trailhead at the top of Rock Creek Road you have several choices for lodging and dining. The kicker: You're on 395 when you come out -- the Main Street of the High Sierra, as opposed to the hellish Kaiser Pass Road (see Edison Lake section). This makes a lot of other options far simpler, particularly for those doing car drops and shuttles. (We did the west side equivalent -- an unbelievably taxing car-shuttle for a John Muir Trail hike between Vermilion Valley and Cedar Grove a few years ago -- and found ourselves wishing we'd gone in and out on the east side instead. Never again.)

This one is personal. Of all the backwater High Sierra outposts we've frequented over the years, there is nothing like Tom's Place (760 935-4239). We could write several novels based on just the human drama we've seen unfold in the bar. Two decades of history -- good and not-so-good -- have deeply colored our feelings about the place -- essentially a bar, restaurant and store/post office operation all in one long building on one side of the road, with a modest six-room lodge on the other. (The unincorporated community of Tom's Place is on the other side of 395. The commercial part you care about is actually a wide spot on Crowley Lake Drive, a frontage road just to the west of 395, south of Crowley Lake and above Lower Rock Creek Road.) If you hitch down to 395 from the Mosquito Flat trailhead on Rock Creek Road, this is the place you see 150 yards up the hill.

There was a time not that long ago when the state of affairs at Tom's Place was so iffy that we used to darkly joke to ourselves that sooner or later every person in that settlement (population 115) would eventually get a chance to mess up royally as either general manager or restaurant manager. At one point it was a million-dollar Forest Service concession contractor run as a cash operation out of three battered cigar boxes watched over by Betty, a dear woman who often had a hard time remembering where she'd put her teeth.

The husband-and-wife team who have operated the rustic facility since 2000, the Laynes, are making a slow but steady difference: Long-overdue basic infrastructure improvements (lodge room interiors, water heaters, etc.), marketing and general professionalism. Unfortunately, the basic grub in the cafe is still absolutely mediocre and uninspired even on the best days. (This is particularly tragic since this bar/restaurant serves as the hub of all social activity for about a 25-mile radius between Mammoth and Bishop.) On any given day, your best bet is breakfast. Bloody Marys are a house specialty, particularly during brunch hours on the weekends.

While the cabins are a good value in the $60 to $120 range, we prefer the clean and recently remodeled lodge rooms, which, at $55-$65, we price as an exceptional value. But they come with a big caveat: Twice we've had lodge stays absolutely ruined by boorish and loud guests in adjoining rooms. The worst of these situations was an extended family group of Cro-Magnons from the San Fernando Valley who more or less laid siege to the lodge side of the road and made other guests feel like interlopers on their personal family reunion. Know your neighbors. Or rent a cabin. With those warnings, this is still the best lodging value for 50 miles north or south on 395.

About 15 minutes to the south of Tom's Place (and 25 minutes to the north of Bishop) on a sinuous stretch of Lower Rock Creek Road is Paradise Lodge (760 387-2370), tucked in the folds of a volcanic gully, a habitation that appears to be stuck in a 50-year time warp: cabins and trailer spaces on one side of the hairpin turn and a world-class roadhouse on the other, with a respectable wine list, professional service and a solid if unimaginative dinner menu heavy on the surf and turf. And as a special bonus, you have a creek that *runs through the restaurant*. Seriously. If you want a nice white-tablecloth dinner between Death Valley and Convict Lake, this is about your only sure option. Granted, it's not going to be any great leap of culinary art, but ... it's a damn notch higher up the food chain than anything you're going to find down the hill in Bishop. Worth the drive. Both Paradise and Tom's Place sport bars that can be entertainment in their own right on any given evening.

Also noted: Rock Creek Lodge (HCR 79, Box 12, Mammoth Lakes, 760 935-4170) is a small, four-season family resort secluded at the top of Rock Creek Road, featuring a selection of rustic (read: no bathrooms) and modern cabins with a fairly steep rate sheet. (About $100 a night and no shower? Thanks, but at that rate I think Išll go down the hill to Tom's Place ...) Although the place has always looked very attractive, the three-night minimum stay requirement has kept us from trying it. Rock Creek Lakes Resort (P.O. Box 727, Bishop, 760 935-4311 ) is the other operation near the top of Rock Creek, basically a fisherman's hangout. Cabins have a four-night minimum in season, so again, that ruled us out. The small breakfast-and-lunch operation is big on pie.