The Southern Sierra's granite peaks and giant sequoias bedazzle heart and soul so completely that for many visitors the experience surpasses that at more famous urban attractions. Most of the Sierra's wonders lie within national parks, but outside them deep-blue Mono Lake and its tufa towers never cease to astound. The megaresort Mammoth Lakes, meanwhile, lures skiers and snowboarders in winter and hikers and mountain bikers in summer, and the town of Three Rivers delivers laid-back hospitality with a smile.
The national parks are accessed most easily via gateway towns that include Oakhurst, Fish Camp, and Lee Vining for Yosemite and Visalia and Three Rivers for Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Pristine lakes and rolling hills outside the parks offer year-round opportunities for rest and relaxation. Or not. In winter the thrill of the slopes—and their relative isolation compared to busy Lake Tahoe—draws a hearty breed of outdoor enthusiast. In summer a hike through groves and meadows or alongside streams and waterfalls allows you to see, smell, and feel nature up close.