Driving California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada
Published: November 2011
By Michael Frank
On a journey through California's eastern Sierra Nevada, T+L uncovers a rugged land of snow-tinged mountains, cowboy villages, and quirky characters.
“You know what?” my brother Steve says to me as we speed north along Highway 395. “I am not even sure I ever really looked out the car windows when we were kids.”
Steve and I are heading into a part of California that we think we know because we drove through it countless times as boys on our way from Los Angeles to Mammoth Mountain, a ski resort on an extinct volcano in the Sierra Nevada that our father discovered in the 1950’s, not so long after its founder, Dave McCoy, hooked a rope up to the wheel of his Model A Ford and towed the first skiers up that impressive mountain.
As I gaze out the car windows I see, in rapid succession, a train slicing through the valley floor, Joshua trees poking their bony forms into the crisp morning, a dry creek bed, a tawny desert hare. A billboard flashes by: Guns4Us.
No, we have never really looked. We will now. Over the next three days, Steve and I will poke around in some of the most striking landscape to be found anywhere in California: subtle desert, vast lakes, fairy-tale mountains that gradually wear a thicker and thicker frosting of snow. Towns with more stories, nooks, and idiosyncratic museums and shops in them than we ever imagined. Hot springs, warm bread…and some of the best skiing west of the Rockies.
Movies, westerns in particular, have long loved this part of California, as we are reminded in Lone Pine, the first town we visit along the state’s fabled Highway 395, which cuts through the Owens Valley and leads up to Mammoth and beyond. At the Museum of Lone Pine Film History we bone up on the Hollywood connection. We get a kick out of Ken Maynard’s chaps (cumbersome), Gene Autry’s boots (snazzy), and the hilariously bejeweled Cadillac Eldorado that belonged to Nudie the Rodeo Tailor, who was born Nuta Kotlyarenko in 1902 in Kiev, came to America in 1913, and proceeded to invent the whole rhinestone-cowboy look.
After lunch at the convivial Alabama Hills Café, where the house-made berry pies are so freshly out of the oven the fruit is still sizzling, we check out the saddles and cowboy boots a few blocks away at Lloyd’s of Lone Pine, whose signage consists of a nearly life-size three-dimensional horse, Frosty, rearing up on its hind legs. A local woman watches me make a sketch. “You missed a memorable New Year’s Eve a few years back when a drunk climbed up and painted Frosty’s balls blue,” she says. “I bet you wish you could draw a picture of that.”
Back in the car, we drive farther into Inyo County. In Paiute, inyo means “dwelling place of the great spirit,” and with the vast desert and mighty Sierra Nevada anchoring the landscape to the west, it’s hard not to feel we’re in the presence of something ancient and profound. The area’s history of dislocation certainly contributes to the feeling. I am thinking of the Paiute, who after 1,500 years of residence in Inyo, were driven or killed off by the early settlers; of the settlers themselves, who worked so doggedly to establish bold new lives here; and, in more recent memory, of the 11,070 Japanese Americans who, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, were interned at nearby Manzanar, where Steve and I stop to visit the former relocation center.
In the afternoon light I notice that the desert, which at first I take to be uniformly brown, draws on a far subtler range of taupe, gray, pewter, khaki, silver, and mauve. I have a lot to learn about looking closely at this complex landscape, as I have discovered from my pre-drive reading of a gem of a book, The Land of Little Rain, by the self-taught naturalist Mary Austin, who lived here in Independence at the turn of the last century.
Steve and I swing by Austin’s cozy, gabled house on Market Street before slipping into the Eastern California Museum, where we fall under the spell of local history. We linger over the lamps and tools from nearby mines (and adjacent ghost towns) like Cerro Gordo; the cases full of cinnabar, malachite, garnets, and crystals found in the nearby mountains; and the noteworthy slice from a felled bristlecone pine, whose earliest rings place it and its kind as alive during the reign of Ramses II, which is to say in a remarkable 1246 B.C.
I try to call up to Cerro Gordo, thinking a ghost-town detour might be fun. When I finally get a hold of Robert, the town’s caretaker, he pauses before saying, “Well, you could snowshoe in, I suppose, but rations are pretty lean by now. The wife and I have just enough for ourselves.” He doesn’t have Jack Nicholson’s trademark drawl, but a mere hint of The Shining is the only prompt we need to stick with our plan.
And so we land at Keough’s Hot Springs and within minutes are into our trunks and soaking in water that has come from nearby springs at 125 degrees before being cooled to 104 degrees (in the small pool) and 89 (in the large one). The appealing celery-green pool house dates back to 1919; its bright aqua and green towels, printed with an Old West font, make a great souvenir for the ladies back home. The combination of steaming water, icy air and a winey picnic dinner send us toppling into (heated) tent cabins and groggily, happily to sleep.
In nearby Bishop, we read up on local history at Spellbinder Books, an excellent independent bookseller, and drink several bracing espressos at Black Sheep Espresso Bar in the back. At Cobwebs, an antiques shop, we buy our children arrowheads made of chert and obsidian and small fragile Indian beads sifted out of sand beside a creek in the area. Although I am a confirmed (fish-eating) vegetarian, I glance into the Meat House, the town’s butcher shop, drawn in by the examples of taxidermy above cases that are full of venison, oxtails, and big thick steaks. Down the street, at Culver Sporting Goods, I take in the bait and flies, the reels and caps: the merchandise speaks to me of sleepy, summery afternoons on the Sierra Nevada’s glassine lakes. Less peaceful, to me anyway, are the obummer bumper stickers stacked by the cash register and the T-shirt showing a country fellow pissing into a river: Keep on drinking, L.A., its caption reads. there’s more where that came from. And so the intricate story of the Owens Valley water wars is reduced to a cartoon. That evening, Steve and I have a delicious dinner of local trout at the Restaurant at Convict Lake, which is housed in a former Forest Service garage. Convict Lake’s cabins, it turns out, would have been a far nicer hotel alternative to the utilitarian room we end up in at the Mammoth Mountain Inn, a place I remember from my childhood as splendidly alpine, a sea of paneled wood and buoyant plaid. Now it is essentially a glorified motel—but a perfectly located one at the foot of that great, gorgeous mountain.
There are few feelings better than waking up to a day on the slopes at Mammoth, even when they hide under a cover of cloud. We luck into snow that is deep, hard-packed. But by midday the clouds close up into a blizzard that whites out the sky and drives us off the mountain. We take one last blurry run from the top of chairlift No. 3 to the bottom of No. 1—our father’s favorite and, we discover, ours, too.
Great Value Convict Lake Resort, 2000 Convict Lake Rd., Mammoth Lakes; 800/992-2260; convictlake.com; cabins from $125.
Great Value Keough’s Hot Springs Off U.S. Hwy. 395, Bishop; 760/872-4670; keoughshotsprings.com; tent cabins from $75 (admission to the thermal pools for nonguests $8).
Great Value Mammoth Mountain Inn 10001 Minaret Rd., Mammoth Lakes; 760/934-2581; mammothmountain.com; doubles from $199.
Alabama Hills Café 111 W. Post St., Lone Pine; 760/876-4675; lunch for two $28.
Black Sheep Espresso Bar 124 S. Main St., Bishop; 760/872-4142; coffee from $2.
Restaurant at Convict Lake 2000 Convict Lake Rd., Mammoth Lakes; 760/934-3803; dinner for two $100.
Shea Schat’s 3305 Main St., Mammoth Lakes; 760/934-6055; lunch for two $22.
The Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History 701 S. Main St., Lone Pine; 760/876-9909; lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org.
Eastern California Museum 155 N. Grand St., Independence; 760/878-0364; inyocounty.us/ecmuseum.
Manzanar 9 miles north of Lone Pine, on U.S. Hwy. 395; 760/878-2194; nps.gov/manz.
Cobwebs Antiques 307 S. Main St., Bishop; 760/873-5161.
Spellbinder Books 124 S. Main St., Bishop; 760/873-4511.