Bishop, California’s East Side Winter Trail Running Basecamp

Come winter, mountains turn white. While this is a fantastic occurrence for most people, many trail runners, if they don’t also ski, find it a sad reality. If warm sun and dry, mountain trails are your thing, winter options are greatly limited. Thankfully, there’s a very special destination that provides it all, Bishop, California.

Bishop itself is a classic, western US town sporting an abundant amount of fishing and hunting supplies, a robust fast food district, and more than a few shotgun blasted road signs. World famous for rock climbing, Bishop swells each November with climbers from all over the world who come for bouldering in the Buttermilks, Happy and Sad Boulders, sport climbing in the Owens River Gorge, and the mixed sport & trad at Pine Creek Canyon. It’s also home to a huge community of friendly mountain athletes, great coffee, loads of Mexican food, a microbrewery, and even a distillery.

In recent years, Bishop is seeing a new group showing up, not only for Mule Days, not for the climbing, not for the skiing, but for the trail running. The Eastern Sierra, and specifically the Bishop area, may well be America’s best winter trail running destination. Combine trail running with the region’s climbing and ski touring and one of the best winter mountain sport towns just got even better.

Bishop, at 1265 meters, sits in the high desert of the Owens Valley. Flanked by the Sierra Nevada to the west and the White Mountains to the east, there is more than 3000 meters of relief on both sides of town. Being on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, Bishop sits in the rain shadow and enjoys a dry, warm, and often sunny, winter. Surrounding the town are rolling hills covered in boulders and laced with just enough trails to keep you running dirt no matter how much snow there is (The Druids, Tungsten City, Rossi Hills, and Starlite/Buttermilk Country). Meanwhile, east of town, in the White Mountains, snow free trails can typically be found up to about 2800 meters.

High desert wellness

East Side Life

A visit to the Eastern Sierra should include so much more than just running in the mountains. If you’re living in your rig, angle your car just right and catch the last sun as it drops behind the Sierra. Enjoy a soak at the local Keough hot springs, make friends at the Mountain Rambler Brewery, or wander the aisles at the Grocery Outlet simply to enjoy the tunes. 

Runners who climb will be incredibly distracted by all the winter bouldering, sport climbing, and if things are dry, Pine Creek trad climbing. You’ll be more than sorry if you made the decision to not bring climbing gear. Actually, you’ll want all your gear for Eastside winters so you can choose between running, climbing, skiing, cycling, swimming – or multiples – all in the same day.

Cruising DG on the Druids Loop

The Druids

Perched above town are a collection of boulders on a flat plateau marked by one conspicuous tower, the Druid Stone. With parking 10 minutes from town on Bir Road, an entire network of trails await. Built by mountain bikers, the hills beneath the Druids are a confusing network of singletrack spanning in all directions while the Druids themselves are accessed by just two trails climbing the nearly 400 meters to gain the plateau. This area is also called Chipmunk or Andyland.

The nature of the terrain is rolling and covered in a wild landscape of rounded, granite boulders. The ground is decomposed granite (DG) and the running idyllic. 

Southeast of the Druids area the trails merge into what is loosely called the Rossi Hills where running happens on a mix of mountain bike and dirt bike trails. 

Rossi Hills

Rossi Hills

The closest trails to town would seemingly be the busiest. Instead, the Rossi Hills trails are nearly empty but for the occasional mountain biker who’s strayed from the more popular Druids/Chipmunk/Andyland area. 

In my opinion, the Rossi Hills are some of the best and most efficient trails for running as they are the closest to town and seldom covered in snow. They are a huge network of trails and easily linked to the Druids/Chipmunk/Andyland area allowing for runs with plenty of vert and distance.

Basin Peak looming large over the Tungsten Hills

Tungsten Hills

15 minutes west of Bishop in the foothills of the eastern escarpment of the Sierra are more hills dotted with gold, granite boulders. But where the Druids/Chipmunk/Andyland is primarily singletrack, the Tungsten area is more dirt road running. Consider this your “long run” venue. There are trails, again primarily thanks to motorbikes, but the flavor is more about linking up dirt roads and a few great trails. The big draw for Tungsten is the setting. Sitting directly beneath the famous Bishop skyline of Mt. Humphrey’s, Basin Peak and Mt. Tom, running through this region will have you feeling the true enormity of the Eastern Sierra.

Bordering the Buttermilk Country on Starlite’s trails

Starlite and the Buttermilk Country

Moving further away from town and also slightly higher in elevation is the Buttermilk Country. Home to the world famous Buttermilk Boulders, this area is loaded with climbers all winter. Accessed by what can be a very bumpy, sometimes unpassable, dirt road, the landscape is otherworldly and dotted not by small, round boulders, but by freakishly enormous boulders that have everyone asking, “How did those get there?” 

The running around the Buttermilks is almost entirely on dirt roads and more of a novelty for the place than for quality running terrain. But then there is Starlite, a community very close to the boulders themselves and home to some higher singletrack running. Being higher, at nearly 2000 meters, the area does get more snow and can be entirely shut down beyond slow postholing.

If you plan to run the trails from the community, it’s critical to not enter or park in the community itself. Instead, drive in via Buttermilk Road and park in the huge turnout here

High in the Whites, east of Bishop, the views are of it all

White Mountains

The White Mountains are probably the only mountain range in the US that are dry, and warm, enough to trail run in all winter, with huge amounts of vert. And, they’re a 15 minute drive from the quirky, funky, and athlete abundant town of Bishop. 

The current White Mountain trails exist primarily thanks to motorbikes. While rare to see, they do leave their mark in the form of very direct trails up steep terrain. Runners, mountain bikers, paragliders, hikers, and even the local firefighters training have smoothed these tracks out, and in places even added their own connections to help link trails for the best loops and summit access. Not many of the trails are found on any maps so it’s back to the days of exploration that make running here even more fun and rewarding. 

Local Ethics

Being the high desert, the Eastern Sierra Nevada is a fragile landscape vulnerable with increased use. 

  • Leave wildlife alone! 
  • Do not leave any garbage of any kind anywhere. 
  • Drive slowly and considerately on dirt roads.
  • Stay on trails.
  • Be courteous to fellow user groups.
  • Do not make fires.
  • Leave no trace of your visit.
Roughing it in the van

Car Camping 

For those living out of their rigs, the Eastside is one of the last remaining recreation rich & wild camping combo-friendly areas in the US. We all need to do our part to keep it this way.

Do not camp where there are signs saying No Camping. These are typically Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) signs and they mean business. Don’t do it. Camp in established parking spots only. Don’t make fires! And, be responsible about your poop. According to the Leave No Trace ethics, bury poop & toilet paper 6-8” deep. I’m going to modify that – stick with the burying’er deep, but pack out that TP! Animals are known to dig for gold and TP blowing in the breeze is something easily preventable. It’s not a big deal to pack out that paper, please do so.

The American west

Seasons

While popular year round, Bishop’s immediate surroundings are ideally accessible from October to about May when it’s sunny but cooler, and a getaway from a wet or snowy winter. Outside of this window, summer is roaring hot and higher ground will be preferred. And that’s what Bishop is truly famous for – being the gateway to the Sierra Nevada where abundant mountain running is found. 

For this, we made an entire guidebook: Sierra Trail Runs : A Guide to the Eastside – the trail running guide to the Eastern Sierra, primarily high mountain runs for the summer and fall, but some of this winter running too.

Get the Routes

You can find info and GPX tracks for some of our favorite winter routes on the Sierra Trail Runs blog or in the Guide Book!

Bishop locals huffing and puffing in the Whites
Sometimes it looks more wintery than it feels
The complex terrain of the Whites is not apparent from a distance
If you’re lucky, it will snow down low and you’ll find yourself in the right place at the right time
Winters can be dry enough to run Mt. Whitney on snow free trails, but don’t count on it
Bonus : If the weather truly goes to hell, head to nearby Death Valley

Share:

Your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *