If you have a hankering for wide open spaces, love to fish, hike, take pictures, or sit in a chair with stupendous views and you want to make some really good use of shoulder season time, consider an extended tour in the Owens Valley of California on the eastern side of the Sierras.
Away from any big metropolitan areas, this valley is surrounded by mountains - the Sierras to the west and the White mountains to the east offering amazing photographic opportunities at both sunrise and sunset. With Reno at one end and Los Angeles on the other end, the 395 corridor gives you a good start and end destinations - none of which are a gamble.
My wife and I are avid hikers, but we met plenty of fishing folks, soaking folks (in the natural hot springs), and just plain sight seers along the way. Bring some good windex to keep your windshield clean and plan on cooking lots of meals in - because there are some big open spaces here. Even though there are a plethora of Federal, State, BLM, and private campgrounds to be had at most destinations, we opted to bushwack most nights - looking for manageable dirt roads off the main routes that lead invariably to isolated and peaceful camping spots away from the generators, music players, and late night campfire singers.
Starting in mid-April to view the wildflowers, and ending in early October (to avoid the snow at high elevations) you have 6 months to explore this place - although the summer months can get pretty hot unless you stay over 8,500 feet.
Starting in the north and listed going south here are the cheap or free dump station options - not including all the dump stations at the National forest campgrounds which you can use for free if you spend the night.
Mono Village at Twin Lakes 760-932-7071 April-October $10.00
Texaco Mo-Mart 760-932-7266 April-October Free with 10+ gallons of fuel - otherwise $7.00
Mobil Mo-Mart at the intersection of 120 and 395 - -free dump with fuel - they have water there too an great fish tacos
Fern Creek Lodge/Store April-October 760-648-7741 Free sani-dump
Community Water District 760-934-2596 - Free San-dump
Convict Lake Campground April-October - free sani-dump
Highlands Trailer Park year-round 760-873-7616 $5.00
Four Jeffrey Forest Service Campground - free dump with camping or $7.00 without
Most of the larger campgrounds with water have free sani-dump with park entrance fee
If you go - contact the Inyo National Forest and get the newsprint visitor guide which is chock full of great information. This publication can be picked up at any of the National Forest visitor centers listed below:
Mono Basin Scenic Visitor Center 760-873-2408 near Lee Vining
Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center 760-924-5500, Main Street Mammoth
White Mountain Ranger Station (gateway to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest) 760-873-2500 in Bishop
Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center 760-876-6200 in Lone Pine, CA
Things to consider doing in the Owens Valley (from north to south)
Reno - avoid Street vibrations motorcycle rally in late September
Bodie (Ghost Town) on rt 167
Virginia Lake - great hiking and pack station
Yosemite Nationa;l Park - Tolumne Meadows (Rt 120)
Saddlebag lake (great hiker ferry in summer) off 120 east of Yosemite gate
June Lake loop - scenic, and great day hikes
Mammoth Lakes - mountain biking, spring skiing, scenic hiking
Red's Meadow - Devil's Postpile
Tom's Place, Lake Basin, Little Lakes Valley - amazing hiking, great fishing
Convict Lake - good restaurant, good day hike, nice fishing, scenic
Buttermilks Climbing area - scenic and fun
North Lake - hiking/fishing
Lake Sabrina - hiking/fishing
South Lake - hiking/fishing
Mt. Whitney - lots of easier hiking opportunities too
White Mountains and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at 11,000 (can drive there)
Death Valley - that's a whole separate story...
Invest in a Natural Hot Springs of the Eastern Sierra book and explore - most of the springs are free, accessible via dirt road, clean, and very enjoyable after a day on the trail or behind the wheel. There are also a handful of commercial hot springs if you prefer concrete pools and adjacent locker rooms.