Eastern Sierra – Owens Valley

Enjoying the fall colors of the Alabama Hills

The Owens Valley lies nestled between the Sierras and the Whites Mountains.  Interstate 395 goes right through it.  This often overlooked area offers some amazing treasures and hidden gems of California.  I’ve been there several times, but most recently we spent a week there in late November, during the last days before the winter storms.  In fact on the day we left signs were up that Tioga and Sonora passes would be closing at 6pm.  All the snow plows were spread on the sides of the road, and the area was bracing for the first winter white out.  The air was brisk, there was few people around.

Mono Lake

The tufas of mono lake

While technically not in the Owens Valley Mono Lake is a California State Park that has some amazing features.  It is the newest volcanic field in the United States being formed only 13,000 years ago.   We enjoyed a cinder cone climb and saw countless obsidian deposits and some fantastic geology.  Pulling together some interesting facts here, it is a saline lake that provides a perfect habitat for migrating birds.  Frequently called the “little sister” of the Great Salt Lake in Utah,  Mono Lake is also the largest historic nesting site of the California Gull, which is also Utah’s state bird. The lake’s tufas provide interesting photo opportunities and hint at volcanic activity nearby. There were no crowds, and we found the lake serene and relaxing.

Horseshoe Meadows

I wanted my family to see where I started my John Muir Trail hike, so we drove to Horseshoe Meadows in the Inyo National Forest and the Golden Trout Wilderness.  The drive alone was worth it.  Ascending from 4000 feet to 9600 feet, the drive is a steep zig zag not for the feint of heart. A full view of the valley spreads out below.

There was one car in the parking lot and all the animals knew a storm was coming.  It was quite. No birds chirped.  Deer, chipmunks, and marmots were no where to be found. The partially frozen stream in the meadow was a perfect playground for the girls.   Years prior, when I was there in late June, it was full of hustle and bustle. Animals, people, birds, and horses littered the area.   Pacific Crest Trail hikers were coming down to enter Lone pine and go back up to the trail.  Day use people had set up barbecues and the sound of activity filled the valley.  But now, it was silent, except for the hoots and hollers of Alyssa and Kylie.

Bristlecone Pine Forest

I first heard about the Bristlecone Pine Forest on a podcast about the Prometheus Tree.  In a short four mile loop hike from the Schuman Grove Visitor Center, we walked amongst the oldest single living organisms known on the planet.  We arrived late in the afternoon and started our hike at 10,000 feet.  The highest ever altitude hike for our girls.  It was cold, but the views were amazing.  These gnarled and ancients beings growing out of soil-less rock defied our presuppositions the requirements for life.  We started late, and finished the loop at dark. Although Kylie’s hat will never be the same, the excursion made for a lasting impression.   California not only has the tallest tree in the world (The Hyperion Tree), and the largest tree by volume (General Sherman), it also boast the oldest tree in the world (Methuselah Tree).   A person can have many takeaways from a walk in this grove. Mine: when standing next to beings over 5000 years old, I could not help but to realize how ephemeral my life is by comparison.

Manzanar

A rock garden of Manazanar

I’ve wanted to share this National Historic Site with my family for a long time.  How we deal with people who seem different than “us” in times of crisis defines who we are at our core.  During WW2 the United States first requested, then demanded people with ties to Japan (for no other reason, than having an ancestor from there), be interned in what was euphemistically called “camps”.  Thousands of Japanese were forced to leave their livelihoods, abandoned their properties and communities, and enter these confinements surrounded by wire, guard towers, in the desolation of the Owens valley.   10,000 people of mixed decent subsided there.  The park stands tall as a reminder to those who care enough to bear witness to some of the United State’s most shameful and xenophobic moments. As we walked through the monument, quotations from those interred hung on the wall.  Opinions varied from a that of civic duty, resignation, anger, to philosophical.

We were screwed, but we made the most of it and turned Manazanar into a community. – Hank Umemoto

Make sure that something like this never happens again to anybody. -Kay Sakai Nakao

We walked the grounds visiting living quarters, communal bathrooms, cafeterias, and the remains of various rock gardens.   Although the park is mostly barren with a few remodeled buildings, you can walk the streets and see the remains of cinder blocks pilings where barracks and various other buildings once stood.  The cemetery remains, as do some guard buildings.

When pushed, people quickly take sides.  It is a psychological short cut to define oneself as not one of “them” because they obviously look different from “us”.  Times of stress magnifies this emotionally informed and ultimately ignorant position.  However, change is hard.  It is even harder to challenge this mindset.  I hope that we as a family have the courage to face this small-mined perspective as we grow.  Ultimately, who shall be included in the social contract? A visit to Manazanar opens the eyes to the consequences of exclusion.

We didn’t have time, but maybe next time…..

Four days was not enough.  Other notable places to visit and things to to in this area are:

  • Mammoth resort area
  • The Devils Postpile National Monument
  • Ansel Adams Wilderness
  • Cottonwood Lakes
  • Chicken Springs Lake
  • Death Valley (just a hop skip and a jump….)
  • Mount Whitney

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