Exploring the Eastern Sierra
“Between every two pine trees, there is a door leading to a new way of life.” — John Muir
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” — John Muir
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” — John Muir
The 400-mile (645 kilometers) long mountain range running along the east side of California is called the Sierra Nevada, which in Spanish means snow-covered mountains, a name given by the original Spanish explorers. Its magnificent skyline and spectacular landscapes make it one of the most beautiful physical features of the United States. It is the home of the giant sequoias, an essential water and power source, and was the epicenter of the gold rush period.
Geographically it sits between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the high desert to the east. The peaks range from 11,000 to 14,000 feet (3,350 to 4,270 meters), with Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet (4,421 meters), the highest peak in the United States, excluding Alaska’s higher mountains.
When I drive on Highway 395, along the east side of the Sierra, I imagine the caravans of pioneers in the 1850s coming through the high desert to face the daunting task of crossing this natural barrier on their long journey to California. What a scary hurdle! A testament to their stamina and spirit; this is the stuff that makes myths and legends. Was it like a voyage to a promised land?
I also think about John Muir, a man that hiked these mountains most of his life and penned his experiences, which inspired the creation of the conservation movement. He was the founder of the Sierra Club (1892). He also helped inspire President Teddy Roosevelt to create Yosemite National Park. I think of him as a great example of a man using the power of words to move and shape history for the better.
EASTERN SIERRA 2021
“When you sleep in a house, your thoughts are as high as the ceiling; when you sleep outside, they are as high as the stars.” — Bedouin Proverb
“In the desert, don’t stray away from the trail; it’s always smarter.” — Bedouin Proverb
The sinister COVID cloud is fading, time to take a breath of fresh air and do more than just a morning walks outdoors, so we went. Our week-long exploration was along Highway 395. This road runs east of and parallels the Sierra Mountains; it’s a spectacular drive. On one side are the stunning peaks of the Sierras, and on the other, the desert. The Sierra Mountains contain hundreds of gem-like lakes, many miles of fishing streams, and enough hiking trails for a lifetime of walking. It’s a vast and diverse empire of the wild, filled with potential adventures.
Red Rock Canyon and Fossil Falls
We stopped for a quick visit at the Red Rock Canyon, where Danna demonstrated a Half-Moon pose. This park’s landscape is a feels-like Bryce Canyon in Utah with eroding red sandstone in vivid colors. Then we stopped at Fossil Falls for a short walk. Thousands of years ago, when the Owens River flowed through this creek, it sculpted and polished these black and brown volcanic rocks. The river is long gone and dry. What’s left is to Imagine the sound of the waterfall.
We arrived at our rustic cabin at Glacier Lodge in Big Pine Canyon with a panoramic backdrop of the Sierra Mountains in the early evening hours. The lodge glory days are long gone. In the 1940s, it used to be the jewel of the Sierra, offering a European-style retreat, but times have changed. The new owners, a couple from Orange County, bought the place recently and are planning to rebuild the dining hall and upgrade the old cabins. We had a great time staying at the big and comfortable cabin.
Big Pine Creek — North Fork Trail
The North Fork Big Pine Creek Trail rises to Palisade Glacier, the southernmost glacier in the United States. It sits above a series of lakes, named First Lake through Seventh Lake. We promised ourselves to reach the lakes on our next trip; this time, we turned around at Chaney’s cabin. It is named after a famous silent film actor, Lon Chaney. The cabin is also significant because it was designed by the renowned African American architect Paul Revere Williams.
It’s ironic to step out from a bustling city like Los Angeles, filled with strangers cheek to cheek, and on hiking in the vast wilderness, upon saying hello to a fellow hiker, deep conversations occur. Sometimes developing into a friendship — fleeting or lasting, but always memorable. As the saying goes, ‘It’s not about the hike, but it’s about the people you meet.’ We met Jim, a retired Navy Seal captain who is working hard on staying trim so that he can fit into his Navy Class A uniform for his son’s graduation from the Coast Guard Academy. It turned out that he has another son who serves in a Navy submarine. I love those kinds of people — filled with a sense of pride and a deep commitment to military service. A couple of weeks later, Jim sent us a photo from his son’s graduation. He looks dapper and proud next to his son and the President.
Loch Leven Lake
The Piute Canyon Trail to Loch Leven Lake at 10,700 feet (3,261 meters) is a steep hike through a series of switchbacks. We reached the lake in the early afternoon when the sun was right above us. The dark blue water and the white snow colors were bright, filled with light. The lake’s size is of a football field, surrounded by snow-covered cliffs from all sides. We celebrated with a culinary delight, smoked salmon from Trader Joe’s paired with grapefruit. It was delicious!
Day 4 and 5
Keough Hot Springs and Benton Hot Springs
In the old days, the locations of natural hot springs used to be a little local secret, but times changed, and most are well known. We spent a couple of days soaking in these hot, mineral-rich waters. First, at Keough Hot Springs, located between Big Pine and Bishop. It’s a large swimming pool with a waterfall cooling system that felt like the Culver City Plunge, my local swimming pool.
Second, at Benton Hot Springs, which is remote, funky, and luxurious, located in a homey and rustic inn that offers various accommodation styles, including ten campsites with a private hot springs tub, each one is different architecturally. All with very hot water, unless cooled, it was too warm for my liking.
Benton is about 45 minutes northeast of Bishop. Its heyday was from 1862 to 1889 as a supply center for the nearby silver mines. At the end of the 19th century, the town declined. It made me think about all the little towns that went up with mining discoveries when a frenzy of adventurers headed west seeking their fortunes. But once the prize ran out, they were abanded and became ghost towns, like Tecopa Hot Springs, CA, and Kennecott, Alaska. In a best-case scenario, they became a museum of a long-forgotten way of life.
We connected with Dave, a retired high school history teacher and a basketball coach traveling with his mother. In my mind, I could hear him saying, “Mom, you were locked down all year long; let’s go somewhere.” He and his family were born and raised in central California; most of them had teaching careers. I was impressed by the depth of Dave’s connection to this piece of land, its history, and its jewels.
Mono Lake has no outlet; thus, the water that enters the lake from the Sierra Nevada snowpack evaporates, leaving a concentration of salts and minerals. The lake’s water is two and a half times saltier than the ocean and is highly alkaline (pH 10). (Check this link: What Makes Alkaline Water Different?) This unique chemistry is responsible for the lake’s vital ecosystem, including many algae, alkali flies, and tiny brine shrimp, attracting millions of migratory and nesting birds. The Mono Basin is designated as a National Forest Scenic Area to preserve its beauty and natural resources for future generations.
The story of Mono Lake in the last 100 years is a classic exemplar of the conflict that arose by the need to provide water to the growing population of California and the need to maintain its ecosystem.
A Fading Oasis
In 1941 the City of Los Angeles extended its aqueduct system into the Mono Basin, diverting water from four of the six mountain streams that feed Mono Lake. Without freshwater from the streams, the lake lost more to evaporation than it gained from the inflow. Mono Lake dropped nearly fifty vertical feet, shrank to half of its volume, and doubled in salinity over the next forty years. Miles of newly exposed lake bottom created unhealthy and unsightly dust storms in the windy Basin. These drastic changes affected the health of the lake ecosystem, impacting local wildlife and fisheries, migratory birds, and human health.
The Struggle for Solutions
In 1978 a coalition of citizens’ groups led by the Mono Lake Committee began to look for solutions to save Mono Lake. Recognizing the scenic and biological values of the lake, they called into question the legality of the City’s water diversions. Then in 1983, the State Court ruled that the Public Trust Doctrine (protecting navigable bodies of water for all citizens) applied to Mono Lake. According to this law, “the human and environmental uses of Mono Lake… deserve to be taken into account. Such uses should not be destroyed because the state mistakenly thought itself powerless to protect them.” California Supreme Court, 1983
In 1990 the Court ordered that the LA Department of Water and Power’s activities must comply with Fish and Game Code laws to protect fisheries in the creeks below the diversion points. To re-evaluate the City’s water license, the State Water Resources Control Board collected data and testimony from scientists, citizens, organizations, and agencies. With this information, they then prepared a management plan for Mono Lake.
On September 28, 1994, ten years after the California Supreme Court decision, the Mono Basin was designated as a National Forest Scenic Area. The Board decided that Mono Lake must be raised to an elevation of 6392 feet, which they thought will take 20 years.
As of today, 2021, 27 years since the planned announcement, the lake’s water level is only 6381. It is 19 feet higher than in 1994 but still 11 feet lower than the goal. This is because of a few severe drought years and the shifts in weather patterns due to global climate change. Since the effects of global warming are yet to be fully understood, it is hard to predict when the lake’s water level will reach the goal of 6392 feet.
For more photos and other travel impressions check my site.