I lived in the Western Great Basin, as this country is known, as a young man, and I get back whenever possible. Once exposed, a visitor feels a magical pull that few can resist, and here is no known antidote. I just read that internationally known photojournalist and adventurer Galen Rowell sold his Berkeley home and relocated to Bishop. He even opened a second gallery there. He explained it this way in his Outdoor Photography column: "…after more than a dozen expeditions to the Himalaya, often with unlimited National Geographic Magazine film budgets, in 1986 when (his classic photo book) Mountain Light was published only two (out of a total of 80) pictures were from Nepal, six from Tibet and 23 from the Eastern Sierra." The area must really have something to rack up those kinds of numbers against world-class competition. But don't take my word for it, go see for yourself.
As you drive toward Bishop along US Highway 395 in eastern California you're in the Owens Valley, deepest valley in America. It's over one hundred miles long and twenty miles wide, and at 4000 feet above sea level, it is still 10,000 feet below the surrounding summits. To the west is the Sierra Nevada, to the east the White Mountains. North of Bishop the valley slopes up a 3000 foot-thick pink lava flow marking the valley's northern end, and on the south it broadens and eventually melts into the Mohave Dessert.
As a vacation destination, Bishop and the Owens Valley have only recently been discovered by most Californians. The valley is known to many in the South only as the conduit that leads to Mammoth Mountain, Mono Lake and Reno, and to a few others as a prime fishing venue, rich in delicious trout. As for those in Northern California, it is known as a beautiful but hard to reach spot that isn't on the way to anywhere, except maybe a mid-summer short cut (when the passes are open) to Las Vegas.
Bishop itself is a clean city of some thirty-six hundred genuinely friendly and helpful people. From motel proprietors to shopkeepers to citizens you pass on the street, the residents seem to have both the time and the disposition to make your visit an enjoyable one. First of all, most Bishopites are but newcomers plus a few years themselves, and they remember how it feels to be new in town. Second, a good part of the area's economy is based on satisfying the needs of the tourist, and the area merchants act like it. Bishop's raison d'être is to provide you a place to sleep, a good meal, a tank of gas, any four-season outdoor paraphernalia that you could possibly need but don't have, and directions on where to use it.
After all, visitors to Bishop come for the outdoors, whether it's hiking, fishing, backpacking, Nordic skiing, sightseeing, bicycling, camping, mountain climbing, watching a rodeo, or just walking around town enjoying the weather. This is a place that just-feels-good-to-be-here. The climate is dry and sunny, the air is clear and fresh, and all around you are these incredible mountains. The feeling is much like a first visit to New York City. Your neck gets tired from looking up and you want to sample everything you see but don't know where to start. The extremes are extreme: Mount Whitney at 14,000 feet is 60 air miles to the southwest and Death Valley at minus 283 feet is 85 miles southeast. In between is a range of options that could take a lifetime to exhaust.
With Bishop as a base, a good place to start exploring is to head west from Highway 395 on one of the paved roads into the canyons that pierce the eastern Sierra wall. All of these deep fissures penetrate the spine of the range, and all provide access to sights, sounds, and smells that one guiltily feels should require hours of hiking if not days of backpacking to enjoy. Glaciers, aspen groves, alpine lakes, postcard quality views, as well as trailheads for day hiking or backpacking are but a few steps from the car. But that's only the beginning. Take off on foot from one these lofty perches for some of the most spellbindingly beautiful sights in the lower 48 states. Specifically, there are four principal paved access roads into the Sierra between Bishop and Lone Pine and they are detailed in the "Getting There". While each of these canyons is distinctive and should be explored, they are similar in that all lead you up almost a mile above the valley in just few horizontal miles for a superb sensory experience. While all four are closed seasonally for snow, they are accessible by car to the snow line where opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and general frolicking are abundant.
But don't hesitate to head north or east, toward the White Mountains or the high plateau between the ranges because, almost no one does and it's a shame. Anywhere you travel in these directions you are rewarded with no crowds and fantastic views of the Sierra escarpment. One of the best of these excursions is the road along the crest of the White Mountains east of Bishop leading to the Bristlecone Pine Forest and the trailhead to White Mountain Peak (elevation 14,246 feet). The 4000 year-old-plus Bristlecones are reputed to be the world's oldest living things, and seem to thrive in the rarefied, hostile environment at the top of these mountains.
If the road into the forest is closed for the season (from November through May) the drive as far as Westgard Pass on State Route 168 is open all year. Get out here and start hiking or snowshoeing on the closed road through the cedar forest. No matter how far you are able to get, you are provided with an inspirational panorama of the loftiest summits in the Sierra Nevada. The White Mountain/Inyo National Forest Service Office in Bishop can give you all the weather and road conditions you need for the public lands (almost anything in the area above 6000 feet) and suggestions for outdoor adventures.
Another lovely side trip from Bishop is the drive north on US 6 as far as Montgomery Pass (which is in Nevada). This route is open all year and is an 80 mile round trip. It provides photo opportunities of both mountain ranges, including a good view of Boundary Peak, Nevada's highest mountain at 13,140 feet (see the climb described in California Explorer July/August 2001).
One of my techniques for discovering new Owens Valley locations for hiking or winter fun is to drive (or bike) the gravel routes into the canyons on either side of the valley, going in one after another. Most of these are on National Forest, Bureau of Land Management or DWP/Southern California Edison Lands and many if not all have trails at the end of the road (or at that point where you decide the road SHOULD end). But be sure and honor any "No Trespassing" signs, as you never know how an owner will enforce his will. When I get to the end I get out and look around. If an area looks promising, I'll hike it for an hour or so to get the feel of it and note it on my topo map for either further exploration (a full-day hike or backpacking trip) or not. And then onto the next canyon. A day spent like this can uncover a host of wonderful outings and give you a good bit of exercise at the same time.
While summer is when most visitors come to the Owens Valley, this is true four-season country. The significance of the changing seasons is not so much what you might miss, but what you get to see instead. Not whether there is sufficient beauty around you, but what is the appropriate altitude at which to enjoy it. You may miss spring wildflowers at 5000 feet or the summer equivalent at 10,000 feet, but instead you will see autumn's aspens outlined against a background of conifers, or the White Mountains majestically living up to their name.
The most important things to remember while traveling the lands east of the Sierra is to start off with a full tank of gas, take along warm clothing, and get out of the car as often as possible to let your senses be stimulated by the surroundings. And by all means start early and/or stay late no matter what you do, as that is when the special Eastern Sierra light does its thing. Just ask Galen Rowell – most of the 23 local pictures in Mountain Light were taken in the magic light of dawn or dusk.
Author's Note: As most of the world knows by now, Galen Rowell and his wife Barbara were killed with another couple in a plane crash as they were landing in Bishop, CA early in the morning of August 11. They were returning to Bishop from a trip to the Artic region. While this cruelly premature event takes from us one of the most prolific image creators in modern times, much of his photographic legacy is on display at Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop. For details see his website at www.mountainlight.com. I was there is recent weeks and the display is truly spectacular.
From The Bay Area – There are multiple options: 1) Interstate 80 to Reno and US 395 south to Bishop. This route takes 8 to 9 hours to cover 430 miles, and is the all-year route. 2) A faster and more scenic route starts with I-580 to I-205 to California 120 (towards Yosemite). Branch off 120 onto California 108 (to Sonora), and stay on it over Sonora Pass until meeting US 395. Turn right, south, on 395 to reach Bishop. This covers 313 miles and takes 6 to 7 hours. Highway 108 over Sonora Pass closes in the winter, so call CALTRANS at (800) 427-7623 for current conditions
For help with lodging, events, and area information, call Bishop Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center at (760) 873-8405
Major Sierra Trailheads (and their distance from Bishop):
In Bishop, drive west on Highway 168 (West Line Street) up aspen-lined Bishop Creek towards either Sabrina or South Lake. The road forks and then ends at the lakes. Total distance: about 20 miles, and elevation change: from 4100 to 8500 feet. Trailheads take you over the Sierra Crest into Kings Canyon National Park.
From Big Pine (15 miles south), drive west on Glacier Lodge Road (Crocker Street in town) to road end, about nine miles. This provides access to Palisade Glacier and two hiking trails, South Fork Trail to the glacier and North Fork to an impressive series of falls and numerous lakes. Elevation gain: from 4000 to 7760 feet.
From Independence (45 miles south), drive west on Onion Creek Road (Market Street in town) to road end, about 17 miles. Access to multiple trans-Sierra trailheads and lovely scenery. Elevation gain: 3925 to 9200 feet.
From Lone Pine (60 miles south), drive west on Whitney Portal Road 13 miles (to road end). Despite being the busy trailhead for hikes up Mount Whitney, it's pretty impressive and provides an elevation gain from 3700 to 8365.
All roads described above are paved and, despite breathtaking elevation changes, they're car friendly. (Be certain to check out the Alabama Hills on the way to or from Whitney Portal.)
The best overall map of the area is the USFS Inyo National Forest available at the White Mountain Ranger Office. You can get detailed Topo's for any trail you decide on at the Ranger Station as well. Two other helpful maps are the AAA "Eastern Sierra" (I have even used this one for hiking on occasion). It is available to members of the California State Auto Association and for sale at bookstores. CSAA Member Service 1 (800) 922-8228. The Compass Maps "Highway 395" available at bookstores and from the company (209) 529-5017.
White Mountain Ranger District in Bishop: Trail and weather closing information (760) 873-2500. Open all year.