QUICK TAKE: Fish Valley, CA
DRIVE TIME: The John Muir Wilderness is just west of Mammoth Lakes, 325 miles north of LA (51/2 hours), and 300 miles southeast of San Francisco (51/2 hours).
THE WAY: From US 395 north of Bishop, exit west onto CA 203 toward Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. Between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., you’re required to park and take a shuttle bus ($9) from the resort to Rainbow Falls trailhead. Get there before 7:30 a.m. and you can park at the trailhead.
TRAILS: Leaving Rainbow Falls trailhead, Fish Creek Trail connects with the PCT to form a 31-mile loop through Fish and Cascade Valleys. For a long, strenuous haul, break southwest at Iva Bell Hot Springs and hike 13 miles to Balloon Dome, a Yosemite-size chunk of granite towering above the San Joaquin River.
ELEVATION: The loop bottoms out around Fox Meadow at 6,500 feet and peaks at about 10,500 feet north of Purple Lake.
CAN’T MISS: The Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River tumbling 100 feet over Rainbow Falls.
CROWD CONTROL: Permits are required, and entry is limited to 25 persons per day for Fish Creek and Red Cones. During summer months, go midweek or reserve a mandatory permit in advance by calling the USDA Forest Service information line (760-924-5500).
MAPS AND GUIDES: Tom Harrison’s Mammoth High-Country map covers the entire region (800-265-9090; www.tomharrisonmaps.com; $7.95).
PIT STOP: Kittridge Sports (760-934-7566) in Mammoth stocks any item you left at home, and the friendly staff know their backcountry.
WALK SOFTLY: Iva Bell Hot Springs sees a lot of use, so camp at least 200 feet away and commute to the springs.
MORE INFORMATION: Mammoth Lakes Visitor Center is run by the Forest Service, P.O. Box 148, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546; (760) 924-5500.