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Camping Without Reservations? Head to the Sierra

A freeway with two tall trees showing on the side.
Driving along Rock Creek Road, the highest paved road in California, on the way to Rock Creek Lake. | Yvonne Leow
The idea of pulling off a spontaneous, last-minute car camping trip seems impossible, but at Tom's Place — just a stone's throw away from Los Angeles — there are plenty of options to consider.
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It's easy to miss the sign for "Tom's Place" as you're cruising up Highway 395. In the Eastern Sierra, there are dozens of fluorescent green highway signs tempting you to drive towards its towering peaks, but where does the arrow to Tom's Place lead? It turns out the turnoff to Tom's Place is the highest paved road in the state of California. It takes you up nearly 3,000 feet through a winding, majestic valley, giving you easy access to one of the area's crown jewels: Rock Creek Lake, a popular, natural landmark near Tom's Place.

Perched at 10,320 feet, Rock Creek Lake has a history of drawing anglers, campers and hikers from all over. Despite being a five-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles (a proper road trip by any measure), people who discover Tom's Place, and Rock Creek Lake, often find themselves committing to an annual pilgrimage.

A clear lake on the right with an elevated space that has a bench.
Picnic tables along the lakeshore at Rock Creek Lake campground | Yvonne Leow

I visited this area in late-June with a particular mission in mind: To find a first-come, first-serve campsite on a Friday afternoon. California is famous for its beautiful parks and public lands, but the idea of pulling off a spontaneous, last-minute car camping trip seemed impossible. But was that true? Visiting Tom's Place was a test, of sorts, and I have to admit, I liked my odds.

Camping in Tom's Place

After turning off the 395, there are 11 campgrounds tucked between Red Mountain and Wheeler Crest in Inyo National Forest. They're managed by the US Forest Service, and they're a combination of first-come, first-serve (FCFS) campsites, reservation-only campsites or both. Here's the rundown:

A map showing campsites going through Rock Creek Road.
Many campgrounds are available along Rock Creek Road in the Sierras.

1. French Camp - Reservations & FCFS
2. Holiday Campground - FCFS
3. Aspen Group Campground - Reservation-only
4. Iris Meadow Campground - FCFS
5. Big Meadow Campground - FCFS
6. Palisade Group Campground - Reservation-only
7. East Fork Campground - Reservations & FCFS
8. Lower Pine Grove Campground - FCFS
9. Upper Pine Grove Campground - FCFS
10. Rock Creek Lake Campground - Reservations & FCFS
11. Rock Creek Lake Group Campground - Reservation-only

In California, forest service campsites are booked through Recreation.gov, but ideally they're reserved months in advance of your actual camping trip, and FCFS sites are claimed in-person the day of. I visited every campground to see what each one had to offer, but given that eight out of 11 campgrounds on my route were FCFS, I was optimistic I'd find at least one campsite for the weekend.

Who is Tom?

The history of Tom's Place begins with the construction of the Sierra Highway, formerly known as the El Camino Sierra, in the 19th century. The latter was originally a dirt road that connected Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe, which now includes parts of modern-day State Route 14, U.S. Route 395 and State Route 89. In 1910, the state announced they would build a new road connecting Southern California to Yosemite National Park, deeming it "one of the most beautiful scenic routes in the world," a sentiment that is arguably still true today.

The expansion of El Camino Sierra to Yosemite would inevitably bring a new wave of visitors and businesses, and German born Hans Lof spotted an opportunity. In 1917, Lof built a much-needed gas station in that area that is now Tom's Place to serve weary travelers driving north from Southern California. Business was so successful that he eventually added a cookhouse, a store and corrals to offer wilderness getaways into the mountains.

Five years later, Lof meets Thomas Jefferson Yerby and his wife Hazel. He sold his road stop to them for $5,000, and in 1924, as the new owner, Tom built a lodge and renamed it Tom's Place. The original lodge was lost in a kitchen fire in 1947, but the building was eventually rebuilt. Tom's Place Resort still welcomes and hosts visitors to this day.

Tom Yerby passed away in 1940, and over the decades, the ownership of Tom's Place has traded hands a few times. Since 2000, Mark and Michelle Layne, and their son Charlie, own and manage the property.

A Fishing Destination

Locals informally refer to this area as Tom's Place, but visitors have flocked to this part of Mono County to camp and fish at Rock Creek Lake. Since Mount Whitney's Fish Hatchery opened its doors in 1917, anglers have been stocking Eastern Sierra creeks and lakes with trout, making the region, and Rock Creek Lake, a premiere fishing destination. It's impossible to drive by Rock Creek Lake today without spotting someone fishing on its shores, and for many, spending time in this area has become a family tradition.

Susan Little and her family have been visiting Rock Creek Lake for nearly fifty years. "I started going there when I was about five," explains Little, a resident of Claremont, California. "My family would take a two-week vacation, and we'd go fishing by the creek at Rock Creek Lake. It's just a magical time to spend time with family. We'd have cousins, aunts and uncles, and some years it was a big to do, and other years it was just our family."

An older couple smile for the camera with a river in the background.
Susan Little and her family have been visiting Rock Creek Lake for almost half a century. | Susan Little
A young boy holds a fishing rod.
Susan Little's grandson, Cameron, knows his way around fishing equipment. | Susan Little

Little grew up in Pomona, but her family wouldn't hesitate to drive the five or six hours to relax at Rock Creek. Part of Rock Creek's allure is its vicinity to other natural gems in the Eastern Sierra. It became a launching point for Little and her family as they developed a tradition of swimming in Mono Lake, an ancient salt lake with fascinating limestone formations called tufa towers, less than an hour away from Rock Creek. "Because there's so much salt in the water, you'd float, rub your skin and feel kind of smooth after a swim," she reminisces. Her family would also visit Bodie, a historic ghost town and state park, another 45-minute drive past Mono Lake. These outdoor memories left such an impression on Little that she would later name one of her dogs Bodie, and the other, Sierra.

Finding a Campsite

During my visit, it was immediately apparent why people fall in love and make an annual pilgrimage to this corner of the Eastern Sierra. Despite my mission to find a campsite that evening, I couldn't resist pulling over along the road to Rock Creek Lake and savoring the valley's breathtaking views.

I began my journey at French Camp, the first campground located right off the 395 and the most popular of the eleven forest service campgrounds. The campground is huge and sprawling with 83 tent and RV campsites, but all of them were booked up that weekend. In a conversation with one of the camp hosts, Melissa Hall, she describes French Camp as nearly always being full, especially on the weekends, because most campers are families who have been coming here for generations. For $37 a night, French Camp does have all the perks of a large, family-friendly campground, i.e. fee-operated showers, clean restrooms, water spigots, access to firewood and paved roads throughout for biking and easy RV access. It does get booked up for all of the same reasons though so it's best to reserve a campsite here weeks, if not months in advance.

A campsite full of rocks, a small seating area surrounded by trees.
French Camp is the first campground located right off Highway 395. | Yvonne Leow

My next stop was Holiday Campground, but the campground was entirely reserved by a non-profit organizing a children's campout that weekend. It typically offers 35 FCFS campsites to choose from, but I quickly move on to Aspen Group Campground, which was booked that day and can be reserved in advance online, and then Iris Meadow Campground.

Iris Meadow is a small, but serene campground, with only 14 FCFS campsites. The rate is $29 per night and the campground is typically busy in July and August, but it was full that evening in June too. Several RV campers and van lifers seemed to have made Iris Meadow their home for the night. At this point, I was getting slightly anxious about my chances of scoring a FCFS campsite that night, but I continued on to the next campground: Big Meadow.

A road with a mountain background
The Iris Meadow campground is small and serene, which is typically busiest in July and August. | Yvonne Leow

At the entrance to Big Meadow, I was greeted with a bumpy dirty road where a portion of it was flooded by a rainshower from a day or two before. It was totally manageable in my SUV, but might be a bit of a rougher drive for sedans. Contrary to its name, Big Meadow only has 11 FCFS campsites and the campground was as full as Iris Meadow.

A road with trucks parked on the side intending to camp for the night.
Big Meadow campground has 11 first come first served campsites. | Yvonne Leow
A small tent pitched at Big Meadow campground.
Big Meadow campground has 11 sites with roads that may not be as suited to sedans. | Yvonne Leow

I was about halfway to Rock Creek Lake, so I hustled past Palisade Group Campground, which didn't look occupied at the time, but according to Recreation.gov is almost fully booked through September, and headed to East Fork Campground.

This is where I found my first available FCFS campsite of the evening. East Fork Campground is huge. It has 133 FCFS campsites, and the atmosphere is more boisterous and bubbly than Iris or Big Meadow Campground. I excitedly spotted three or four more available FCFS campsites within East Fork. These sites were on the smaller side, so it'd be ideal for tent campers and individual families, rather than RV'ers and groups.

I was thrilled to have found a FCFS campsite, but what other campsites did the road to Rock Creek Lake have to offer? Unfortunately, not much.

Signs at Lower & Upper Pine Grove Campgrounds declared they were full, which didn't surprise me because there were only a total of 11 campsites. I only had one more stop to make, and it was the one I had been looking forward to the most: Rock Creek Lake.

54-year-old Jesus Amarillas has been enchanted by the Rock Creek area for decades. After he moved to Southern California from Mexico when he was 13, his uncle Alex would often take him camping in this part of the Eastern Sierra. He learned to sleep, cook and live outdoors, and when he turned 18, he started inviting friends out to camp with him too.

A man with a mustache sits on a small jeep with other children in Vietnam.
Jesus Amarillas' uncle, Alex Cota, served in the army in Vietnam. | Courtesy of Jesus Amarillas

Nowadays, he'll wake up at four in the morning and drive from La Mirada to Tom's Place for a four or five-day campout. If he can't convince his friends or family to join, he'll happily make the trip alone, always relying on finding a FCFS campsite. "If I get there on a Thursday morning, I can always get a tent campsite." What's Amarillas' method? "Well, I know where my campsites are, and I don't go to Tom's Place on the weekends, July 4th, Memorial Day or Labor Day Weekend," he explains. Amarillas had a bad experience trying to find a last-minute campsite in the Rock Creek area over a holiday weekend once, and he learned to never make the same mistake again.

A younger and older man are hiking a mountain.
Jesus Amarillas hikes outside of Mammoth with his son, Andrew. | Courtesy of Jesus Amarillas
Two men fish a lake.
Jesus Amarillas and his son, Andrew, fish Rock Creek Lake. | Courtesy of Jesus Amarillas

Rock Creek Lake

Indeed, Rock Creek Lake campground was full when I finally arrived, but even at dusk it was stunning. Amarillas describes his experience as "When you're out there, I don't think about anything else, stuff from work, stuff from the house, anything. It's so peaceful up there." And I couldn't agree more. There are 28 tent and RV campsites at Rock Creek Lake, with five of them being hike-in campsites. The atmosphere is tranquil even as campers from other campgrounds trickle into catch the sunset. There are picnic tables situated along the lakeshore so even if you're not able to reserve or find a last-minute campsite, you can plan a picnic or visit during the day.

Even after visiting 10 other campgrounds, I'm glad I made the trek to Rock Creek Lake. The views from this alpine lake were awe-inspiring and deserving of a visit. I finally understood why generations of campers have been making the drive to this special spot tucked away into the mountains. Amarillas captured it best, "I've been camping in the Sequoias, the Redwoods, the beach and Joshua Tree. I went to Big Bear about a month ago, and it's okay, it's not too bad, but it's not the same as when you're in the Sierra."

A man looks out into a peaceful lake.
Rock Creek Lake campground boasts a peaceful atmosphere that soothes campers and visitors alike. | Yvonne Leow

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