By Chris Erskine
July 12, 2013
Tired of the shuttle-bus lines, the candy wrappers, the oh-the-humanity crowds that threaten to spoil the Yosemite experience? Have we got a summer place for you. The sleepy June Lake Loop offers all the joys of the Sierra with a fraction of the fuss. There are four alpine lakes, waterfalls, towering back-country hikes, kayaks, a high-end spa and some of the huskiest trout you've ever seen. This all makes June Lake one of the most amiable — and versatile — weekend jaunts in California. The tab? $168 for a double room at a swanky-rustic lodge you'll never want to leave; $100 for meals, including a hearty dinner at a clubby steak joint; and $30 for fishing licenses and cigars. The hiking, and enough scenery to fill two memory cards, are free.
This is the kind of info you'll want to keep to yourself, but my new favorite California retreat is the Double Eagle Resort & Spa (5587 Highway 158;  648-7004). Be sure to ask about the cabins or rooms ringing the lodge's trout pond — Units 115 through 120. The spa offers 40 types of services. Up-to-date rooms are rustic but not musty in the way older mountain lodging can be. A fishable creek also runs along the side of the resort, and the restaurant features good chow in an open, glass-walled dining room. We liked it so much we're planning a return in early October, when the aspen are turning and the trout reportedly stage their annual pre-winter feast.
To us, June Lake is like Petticoat Junction in the Sierra. Its hub is the Tiger Bar & Cafe (2620 Highway 158;  648-7551), a beer-scented slice of mountain life. Friendly, fishy and loud, it serves good breakfasts and burgers and stays busy till midnight. More bar than restaurant, it draws a diverse group of locals, skiers, anglers and jovial cycling and motorcycle clubs. This is where you discover how much June Lake has become a summer hangout, thanks to the four trout-filled lakes and scenic drives. But after a year off, the ski hill may be back in business this winter, which would be a boon to higher-end businesses that cater to those with second homes. One of those is Carson Peak Inn (5034 Highway 158;  648-7575), a steakhouse that serves chops, sirloin and seafood at estimable, après-ski prices. This charming little cottage dates to the early days of the L.A. Aqueduct, when it was used as a dance and dining hall by construction crews.
The fine but taxing Rush Creek Trail will have your heads in the clouds in a hurry. With a starting point in nearby Silver Lake, Rush Creek zigs and zags and zigs up a slate and granite mountain. In an hour, you'll be at a series of back-country lakes that are just hard enough to reach that not just everybody will be there. In four hours, you'll reach pristine Gem Lake, where one of the finest campsites ever lies just over a log bridge on the far shore. Again, this is not for sharing. But the hike's difficulty is enough to keep the site clear of riffraff. For a less-rigorous hike, try Parker Lake Trail, between Grant Lake and U.S. 395. With magnificent vistas, it is good for hikers of all skill levels. Don't forget to pick up your wilderness permit at the Mammoth Lakes visitors center first, where they'll point out the campsites where you can have a fire. Get trail info at the Inyo National Forest website.
The lesson learned
June Lake used to get the spillover when Mammoth's lodging filled up on winter weekends. These days, Mammoth has plenty of rooms, leaving little June Lake on its own and scrambling for customers. This makes June Lake increasingly a summer getaway, yet it remains a solid, year-round attraction with explosive autumn colors and an authentic north woods feel any time of year. Cycling, kayaking, hiking and bird-watching broaden this area's appeal. More authentic than Mammoth, less trounced than Yosemite, it's worth a good, long look by anyone seeking the old-fashioned serenity of a summer lake trip.
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