Eastside Vanlife: Alabama Hills, June Lake, and Mammoth

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By Matt Ulery.

“We should get a van.”

It was half-statement, half-question to my wife after another uncomfortable night of sleeping in a tent. I truly didn’t expect her to say yes…but then:

“Yeah, I could be into that.”

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Fast forward six months of researching different van options, weighing pros and cons, and then getting a dog which forced us to do all of that over again. Ultimately, we realized that a high-top Sprinter was what we really wanted/needed for the types of trips we planned to take.

Anyone looking into purchasing a high-top Sprinter anywhere on the West Coast knows that they rarely come up and that they sell very quickly. After a number of false starts and broken hearts, we got lucky with a retired plumbing and HVAC (read: super dirty) van with low miles and a price well below our original budget.

With our modest budget we set out to build the adventure van of our dreams. Our main goals with the van were to have somewhere to sleep, cook, and relax during our climbing trips. Near the top of our list was a solid solar setup so we could power a fridge, lights, and other electronics. We also opted to add in a propane stove/oven combo, primarily for cooking but also because we wanted to be able to bake cookies after a long day of climbing.

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I won’t bore you with all the details of how we built out our van—but if you want to see all the fun photos, feel free to check out my Instagram. After four months of hard work, successes, do-overs, and 147 trips to Home Depot, we were ready to hit the road.

For our first trip we had originally planned to go to Maple Canyon in Utah for some sport climbing, but poor weather in that area mandated a change. Without much debate our happy back-up plan was the Eastern Sierras!

Alabama Hills

Despite what the Bishop Area Rock Climbs guidebook says, you can camp in the Alabama Hills and it is not discouraged by the BLM. You do need to get a fire permit (they are free and can be obtained online) even if you are only cooking with your small gas stove. There are no bathrooms or trash cans in the Alabama Hills—plan accordingly with poop and trash bags. Because of conflicting information, we opted to stay at a nearby campground called Portagee Joe’s—they have pit toilets and a place to fill up your water bottles. Next time we will be camping in the Alabama Hills.

The guidebook describes the rock as “pancake batter on cardboard.” While this might be a little harsh, I can see why this statement could be made. There is some suspect rock and it is a little grainy, but there are lots of great climbs throughout the grade range that are super fun. The climbs are generally well-bolted and a 60-meter rope will get you up and down the vast majority of them. Plus, the views are incredible with Mount Whitney as your backdrop!

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Mammoth and June Lake Areas

There are lots of options here, but we opted for the free developed Forest Service site called Glass Creek, which is right off of 395 between Mammoth and June Lake. They do not have water or trash service (pack it out!) but they do have brand-new pit toilets. We were there mid-week and there were only three other groups spread out over 100 sites. There is a rest stop about one mile away that has water and trash cans.

We had not planned to climb here so we didn’t have a guidebook, but the content on Mountain Project for the bouldering in this area is pretty good. We had originally planned to boulder in Bishop but the weather was way too hot. The higher elevation makes these areas a great option for summer climbing on the Eastside. For the four days we stayed here we bouldered at the following areas:

  • Mammoth – Knowledge Boulders: There were a handful of really fun boulder problems here and the approach was one minute from the parking lot. One of the boulders requires you to hike through some overgrown manzanita—we didn’t go to that one. Good for a quick session after we picked up some groceries in town.
  • Mammoth – Aspen Boulder: This boulder was a ton of fun and the landscape was beautiful. The road out to the boulder is a bit rough—Subarus and larger will not have any issues with it, but a smaller car might find one or two parts a little tight.
  • June Lake – Hartley Springs: We loved this area and came back to it twice during our short time here. Tons of great problems throughout the grade range. The road up here is not going to be friendly to your commuter car—you need a bit of clearance to do it safely.
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