Get Out of Town! - Eastern Sierra
Converting my Dad to Camping
July, 2006 - Issue #21
Story and photography by Eric Harnish

My dad doesn't camp. "I did enough of that in the Army," he explains. Given that his Army camping was in Vietnam, I can see his point.

But it didn't stop me from talking up my adventures in the great outdoors. I hoped my experiences might inspire him to give camping a second chance. When he said he might be open to a short trip, I tempted him with a summer weekend in the Eastern Sierra. Crisp mountain air. Trout-filled lakes and streams. Snow-capped granite peaks. Quality time with his granddaughter. He fell for it.

The pressure was on for me to find the perfect spot with the appropriate "wow" factor that would live up to my travel agent pitch. Some thorough Googling led me to Onion Valley, a small campground about 15 miles west of Independence off Highway 395. At 9,200 feet of elevation, the air would definitely be crisp. The trails leading from the campground are a popular jumping-off point for backpackers headed into the stunning high country of the John Muir Wilderness, so that took care of the snow-capped granite peaks. And more than a dozen alpine lakes are within day-hiking distance, so we would have abundant fishing options. Onion Valley seemed guaranteed to make my dad a camper.

Our appointed weekend came and Laurel, Dad and I piled into the Party Van (my legendary VW Vanagon). It was loaded with every camping convenience I could think of, enough food for two weekends, every piece of warm clothing from Laurel's closet and the Harnish Family fishing gear normally archived in Dad's garage.

It wasn't long before we found ourselves in Independence, and we turned west to head up into the mountains. The desert chaparral slowly gave way to pine trees and granite boulders. The Owens Valley slipped from view and we found snow still clinging to some north-facing slopes. Each twist of the climbing road revealed more soaring peaks and it was hard to believe a campground, let alone a valley, lay somewhere ahead of us.

Our patience was rewarded when we rounded a corner and found ourselves in a wooded bowl surrounded by sentinel peaks and bisected by a snowmelt-fed stream. The scene stopped our conversation and, after a few moments of silence to take it in, we both said "wow."

We had grand fishing plans on Saturday, but it was clear we wouldn't be hiking up to the lakes above the campground. The elevation hit Dad as soon as we arrived. He assured me he was fine. I worried the lack of oxygen would aggravate his asthma and make him miserable for the weekend. That wouldn't help him develop a taste for camping. It's not much fun if you can't breathe.

Onion Valley

Getting there: Take State Route 14 to Highway 395. Continue north on 395 to Independence. Turn left on Onion Valley Road (Market Street) and go about 15 miles. Road ends at campground.
More information: 760-505-0413
Fees: $13 per night
Note: Large RVs and trailers are not recommended.
On the advice of the campground host, we drove back into the Owens Valley in search of some lunkers. We couldn't find his recommended fishing holes and opted for North Lake outside Bishop after looking at the map.

Ominous gray clouds loomed in the northwest, seemingly hovering over our destination and awaiting our arrival. We ignored them and headed for the lake anyway. Once there, lunch took 10 minutes and restoring the rods and reels to working order took 20. I'm not sure we even spent that much time fishing. The wind picked up across the lake and the weather grew nastier. Not getting any bites, but definitely getting colder, and not wanting to get wet, we decided we'd had enough.

For something to do, we drove to Lake Sabrina, visited the cafe and store and swung through the nearby campground. The pictures of fish hanging in the cafe and store inspired us to talk about what we might accomplish if we started earlier in the day and rented a boat. And the campground met with my dad's approval.

We stopped at a bait and tackle shop in Bishop on the way back to Onion Valley. The guy behind the counter offered us some tips and sold us a jar of salmon eggs. It was late in the day and we didn't have time to use them. But they won't go to waste.

"I think we'll have to come back up here and try this again," my dad said.


Eric Harnish is a Newhall resident.
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