A Driving Guide to Infrastructure and Land Use
along Route 395 from Pearsonville to Mono Lake
This guide is arranged from north to south, centered on the only road that unites the region, US highway 395. It covers the area from just below the Valley, through the Valley's four towns, then up the volcanic tablelands to Mono Lake. We begin just south of the Owens River Valley, near the town of Pearsonville, 180 miles north of Los Angeles, at the Inyo County line.
This project is based on a driving guide I put together years ago for my course at SCI-Arc, the Infrastructural City. A book, done in collaboration with the Center for Land Use Interpretation was published in 2004. You may download a pdf of this book from the Center or purchase it at their on-line shop. To get a printable version of this book, you can click printer-friendly below. I need to work on that layout, but it's certainly serviceable.
I have updated the material a little for this site and hope to continue to do so in the future.
Today we are accustomed to the idea that the city’s reach is all-pervasive. Telecommunications and high technology penetrate everywhere, agriculture is industrialized, and widespread tourism together with unceasing migration have undone traditional settlement patterns. The most remote corners - national parks, Antarctica, the Himalayas - exist not in opposition to the urban but rather remain their natural only through special dispensation from the city. Crisscrossed by infrastructural grids - water, power, scientific research, and tourism - deployed to serve the needs of urban life, nature is as thoroughly visited, studied, and reshaped as the urban.
A visit to California’s Owens River Valley serves as a case study for understanding the reach of the city and the reshaping of nature. This forgotten land has made possible the massive growth of Los Angeles, even though it lies hundreds of miles away. In popular history, the Owens River Valley was an idyllic California Eden, a bountiful farming region under the eastern Sierras, until Los Angeles stole the flow of the river to fill its aqueduct. Passions over water still run high in the”ÀÜValley but as this guide demonstrates, water is only one of a series of infrastructures overlaying its terrain. Between the Sierras and the White Mountains water, power, and a myriad forms of tourism intersect with a sublime landscape, at once beautiful and toxic, natural and reshaped by man.
We have no record of the natural state for the Owens River Valley. Its indigenous peoples, the Paiutes, redirected river water into channels to irrigate their crops. After a bloody war, white settlers extended these systems, turning the more typical desert scrub of the Valley into heavily irrigated farmland. Had this state endured, the Owens River Valley likely would have turned into a landscape of industrialized agriculture similar to California’s present day Central Valley. The redirection of Owens River water to Los Angeles, the concurrent purchase of much of the land in the Valley by the city – L. A. is the largest landowner there - and the establishment of national park boundaries to protect the watershed all forced the territory toward an artificially enforced wildness.
Only some seven miles wide, the Valley is bounded by the 14,000 foot high east face of the Sierras on the west - among them Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower forty-eight states - and by the 14,000 foot high White Mountains on the other. The result is the deepest valley in the United States, indeed, one of the deepest on Earth. In this unique scenery are some of California’s best spots for hiking, fishing, skiing, and mountain climbing. Today tourism brings the people of the city to the Valley.
By the 1930s, the Valley’s landscape was recognized as its salvation from economic ruin. Father John J. Crowley, known locally as “the desert padre,” traveled up and down the Valley, helping the peoples of the depressed communities understand that tourism could replace agriculture as the its main industry. Today tourism brings people to the the Valley. These visitors make life economically feasible but also leave behind demands and expectations that reshape both the local culture and the local environment.
Just as the Owens River Valley’s economic role has changed, so has our perception of its”ÀÜnatural attributes. To the earliest white explorers and settlers, the Owens River Valley, like other unique places in the American continent such as Niagara, Falls, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon, was sublime. While a beautiful landscape might inspire one think of organic wholeness, unity, and boundedness, the sublime landscape allows individuals to sense their smallness against the boundlessness and infinity of the universe. The sublime reveals to us that nature is not merely beneficial, it is also catastrophic.
The vast forces that have built the mountains bounding the Valley have also created a landscape of incredible violence and toxicity. The largest recorded earthquake in California - 8.3 on the Richter scale - was centered in the Owens Valley town of Lone Pine, but even this seems minor when we visit the lava-strewn plains north of Bishop to see the trauma inflicted upon the earth 760,000 years ago when the Long Valley Caldera erupted. Today, volcanism’s remnants serve simultaneously as innocuous tourist attractions – a domesticated sublime - and as deadly threats to human life. A remnant of the eruption, Mammoth Mountain is one of the continent’s top ski areas, but undreneath lies a volcano that may yet erupt. Already, carbon dioxide emissions from the mountain have claimed one life. Likewise, the rejuvenating hot springs of Mammoth Hot Creek, also caused by vulcanism, have been marred by 14 deaths since 1968 alone. This in addition to the countless accidental deaths among skiers, hikers, rock climbers and fishermen that have taken place in the pursuit of recreation in the wild. Our domestication of the sublime comes at a price.
Until the conquest of the American frontier in the late 1880s, the sublime landscape was key to the young country’s national self-image. For European settlers, the vastness of the continent and the extremity of its features were proof of God’s gift of manifest destiny. But, as historian David Nye explains, with the conquest of the frontier complete, we needed to turn to a technological sublime: the belief that our manifest destiny was confirmed by our construction of immense engineering works that would tame the sublime continent. Works such as the Hoover Dam, the skyscrapers of New York, the Golden Gate bridge, and the Saturn V rocket all stand as evidence of this technological sublime. Not only did these works tame the continent - and in the case of the latter, the unfathomable distance between Earth and moon itself - they themselves were sublime: gigantic and awe-inspiring.
But these are icons of a bygone age. If there is a sublime today, our awe now derives not from a visible icon but from the vastness and uncomprehendability of an unmappable network that appears everywhere simultaneously. If the Los Angeles Aqueduct was built in the days of the technological sublime, it also anticipates this networked sublime. Taking the six hours to follow the Aqueduct from the city to its furthest reaches above Mono Lake forces one into the scale of ultra-large human artifacts that cannot be comprehended spatially but rather are understood only through the measure of the time it takes an automobile to travel from one end to another. Instead of demonstrating our capacity to control the world, such objects demonstrate a technology so vast and ungraspable that it is a form of nature again.
Driving through the Owens Valley, we find evidence of these multiple layers of infrastructure and belief at work. Rather than seeing them purely as distractions from the “natural,” we should recognize that not are they only inescapable, but that our very conception of the “naturalness” of the Owens Valley is dependent on them.
Pearsonville is the home of a gas station, the Pearsonville Speedway, and the No Name Trailer Park. It is also home to Pearson Automotive, the self-proclaimed Hubcap Capital of the World where Grandma Lucy Pearson, the "Hubcap Queen" helps patrons search for hubcaps among the hundreds of thousands she has in stock. Dealers from Los Angeles regularly stop by to bring back hubcaps that they can sell at twice the price in the city.
The twin power lines of the Owens Gorge Transmission Line and the Pacific Intertie cross the highway a few times, and they are visible throughout the valley. The 230,000 volt Owens Gorge Transmission Line delivers electricity generated at three hydroelectric plants in the Owens River Gorge to Los Angeles. Carrying 1,000,000 volts for 846 miles, the Paciific Intertie is the world's longest distance and highest voltage transmission line, bringing power from the hydroelectric plants of the Columbia river in Washington state to the homes and industries of Southern California.
Red Hill (3952’) is a volcanic cinder cone that has been extensively mined for cinders used as aggregate in concrete and cement blocks. Some years ago, local citizens made a successful effort to save the Red Hill from complete destruction by limiting mining to the side hidden from the road. Volcanism continues underground to this day in the Coso volcanic field nearby. A geothermal plant east of the town of Coso Junction takes advantage of this free energy source.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct consists of two roughly parallel pipe/channel systems. The original aqueduct was completed in 1913, and is gravity fed for its entire journey of over 200 miles to Los Angeles. A second aqueduct, roughly paralleling the original one, was completed in 1970. Both of these aqueducts flow into the Haiwee Reservoir, the southernmost reservoir in the "resource" (Owens Valley) end of the water supply system.
Emerging from the water at the southern end of the Haiwee are the intakes that draw the reservoir water into both the first (1913) and the second (1970) aqueducts. From this point to Los Angeles, the water flows only in troughs and pipes.
The primary source for the most popular bottled water brand in Southern California is in a series of metal sheds on the east side of the highway in Olancha. Here, the western shore of dried-up Owens Lake, is where Crystal Geyser spring water is pumped out of the ground and bottled. The path of the trucks carrying Crystal Geyser water to Los Angeles parallels that of water flowing through the Aqueduct.
Piles of potash and ruins from a processing plant that closed many years ago cover the area around the town of Cartago, which was once a port on Owens Lake. In the 1870s, bullion from the mines at Cerro Gordo that were shipped across the lake landed here, and were transferred on to Remi Nadeu's 14 mule teams for transport to Los Angeles. The teams then returned here, full of provisions, that were shipped across the lake to Keeler and up to the mines. This commerce helped to stimulate the formation of the City of Los Angeles.
Owens Lake is a 100 square mile alkali lake that famously dried up after the city of Los Angeles diverted the region's water to its aqueduct. Dust blowing from the exposed dry lake bed makes OWens Lake the largest point source of PM 10 (10 micron Particulate Matter) airborne pollution in the country. After years of political campaigning by local residents, in July 1998 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District signed an agreement to attain federal air quality standards at the Lake by 2006. Dust control measures, already underway, consist of shallow flooding, cultivation of saltgrass, and spreading gravel on the lakebed.
The redness of the salt deposits is caused by salt loving halophilic bacteria. Their survival in this harsh and inhospitable environment makes them the subject of study by NASA, which believes that similar life could inhabit Mars and the Jovian moons Europa and Callisto. NASA is also studying the protein that gives the bacteria their intense color for possible “electronic ink” displays.
At the old rail siding of Bartlett, on the east side of the highway, and the west shore of Owens Lake, the ruins of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company's chemical plant are some of the few structures between Olancha and Lone Pine. The modernist lab building and the large sheds and silos have been largely unused since the 1960s, when the company ceased crystallizing and processing carbonate compounds mined from the exposed lake bed. After it was abandoned, the plant was bought by a Dr. McCabe, a medical valve inventor, who used it recreationally, along with some Hollywood friends. Though Dr. McCabe died some years ago, people who knew him still own the building.
Cerro Gordo is a classic Western ghost town, in the mountains east of Owens Lake. Starting in the 1860s, this remote site became a major source for silver, lead, zinc, and other minerals. An aerial tramway operated for a few decades, bringing ore from the mines, as high up as 9,000 feet, down to the shores of Owens Lake, where it was transported across the lake by steamships to the landing at Cartago. Later, the railway was brought around the lake to Keeler and Swansea, which had smelters and processing facilities for the mine. Now Cerro Gordo is a privately owned, partially restored historic site, reachable via a long dirt road.
Keeler is the only existing settlement on the east side of Owens Lake. Through the 19th and early 20th century, the town was a landing for boats crossing the lake, a terminus for the area's narrow gauge railroad, and a center for mineral processing, and at one point had a population of 7,000 residents. Today, however, there are only 100 souls in Keeler, among whom live some of the region's more colorful characters, who live in overgrown houses, covered in Owens Lake dust. Just south of town, on Highway 136, the DWP has developed a staging area for the dust reduction programs on the lake.
The Eastern Sierra Interagency Information Center provides information on the geology, ecology, history, and tourist possibilities of the Owens Valley and Eastern Sierra. Nine government agencies cooperate to run the information center. Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous forty-eight states is visible from here, through a display in the window.
The town of Lone Pine is known as the gateway to Mt. Whitney, and was the epicenter of the strongest earthquake in California's recorded history. On March 26, 1872 a tremor registering 7.4 on the Richter scale shook the town, killing twenty-seven people as the eastern side of the Owens Valley dropped twenty feet. There is a graveyard for the victims of quake just north of town.
Thirteen miles west of Lone Pine and 8,365 feet above sea level, Whitney Portal is base camp for climbers to Mount Whitney. Over 20,000 climbers attempt the hike to the top of the highest peak in the lower forty-eight states. Although the hike is only ten miles long, the elevation gain on the way to the 14,495 foot peak, coupled with the likelihood of altitude sickness, makes this a tough haul. Once on the top, hikers may visit a small cabin for shelter. At the base, the Whitney Portal Store provides supplies and food for hikers. Bear attacks on cars in the Whitney Portal area are common, even during the day.
The Alabama Hills, just west of Lone Pine, have been used for over 400 movies and television shows, especially Westerns and British-army-in-India films, featuring the likes of John Wayne, Gene Autry, Gunga Din, Tom Mix, Errol Flynn, the Lone Ranger, Clint Eastwood, and Mel Gibson. This unusual landscape is favored by the industry because it can be filmed to look like other places.
The hills were the site of one of the last battles between the indigenous Paiute people and the white settlers of the Owens Valley. The name, "Alabama Hills," however, was given by Southern sympathizers from Lone Pine who named the geological feature after a Confederate cruiser. In response, Union sympathizers named a 12598’ peak in the Sierra crest above after the U.S.S. Kearsarge, which had sunk the cruiser.
Held every October since 1990, the Lone Pine Film Festival reprises the role of the area by showing both new and old Westerns.
When they are opened, the Alabama Gates, on the west side of the highway, four miles north of Lone Pine, divert the flow of water out of the aqueduct into a spillway leading to the now dry bed of the Owens River. The most famous event in Owens Valley history took place here in 1924 when sixty local men took over the Alabama Gates and opened the spillway to return the water to the Owens River. With the construction of Crowley Lake, the need to divert water into the Owens River in times of abundance has largely ended.
Soon after the Alabama Gates, Route 395 passes over the open Los Angeles Aqueduct. This portion of the aqueduct extends 23.7 miles north from the Alabama Gates to the Owens River and is unlined. Riparian vegetation takes advantage of readily-available water. The Aqueduct system provides about 70 percent of the water for the city.
Manzanar was the first of the ten Japanese-American relocation camps in the United States established during World War II. Prior to the war, the site was active farming community, with apple orchards, packing houses, and post office. The last harvest was in 1932, after the site had been bought by the City of Los Angeles and left to dry up. During the war, it became an instant and involuntary town of 10,000 people of japanese ancestry, housed and working in hundreds of buildings built hurriedly by the Army Corps of Engineers. After the war, the buildings were removed, many of them finding new uses in the surrounding communities. The site continues to be developed into an interpretive site, operated by the National Park Service.
Though smaller than Lone Pine and Bishop, the town of Independence is the Inyo County Seat, and the regional administrative and maintenance center for the Los Angeles DWP. Local attractions include the Eastern California Museum, founded in 1928 and offering an overview of Owens Valley history as well as the home of early twentieth century author Mary Austin (whose famous Land of Little Rain recounted life in the Valley), and the Winnedumah Hotel. There is a large, old, hand-drawn map of the Owens Valley and its various tourist destinations in the Chevron Station.
Built in 1917, the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery is the earliest and grandest of the hatcheries in the valley. Game fish such as trout were artificially introduced into the streams of the eastern Sierras and the Owens River watershed starting in the 1870s. Some 3,500 tons of native granite collected from within a quarter mile of the site were fit together””?none were cut””?to form the building. The fish native to the area ore of the smaller and less desirable variety, like pupfish and suckers. After whirling disease was found at the premises in the late 1980s, this hatchery stopped hatching or raising fish, and was nearly closed by the state in 1996. Local outcry, and the tourist potential of the sixty-thousand visitors to the site every year kept it open. Today some four million trout eggs are raised here, then transported into other hatcheries in the area which then raise the fry and grow catchable fish for release into the lakes and streams of the Sierras. An interpretive display inside explains the process.
Once located on the main route through the Owens River Valley but now bypassed by State Route 395, the seven acre resort village of Aberdeen has spaces for 34 mobile homes and 35 RVs. The Los Angeles Aqueduct intake is 2 1/2 miles east of the village. The water wars of the twentieth century were prefigured at Goodale Creek where the Hines and Goodale irrigation ditches joined and a dispute led Bill Hines to shoot one of the Goodales in 1895.
Capable of holding up to 16,282 acre feet of water, Tinemaha Reservoir is a supplementary storage area to hold Owens River waters when the aqueduct is shut down for repairs or when river flow exceeds the capacity of the aqueduct.
Developed by the Inter-Agency Committee on Owens Valley Land and Wildlife, this viewpoint above the Tinemaha reservoir gives tourists a chance to see a herd of Tule Elk. Not indigenous to the Owens River Valley these dwarf elk rather come from the San Joaquin Valley and coastal areas where the introduction of cattle nearly drove them to extinction. Legislators realized the danger of extinction and gave them protection in 1873. Although the elk began to recover, their raiding of crops was considered to be a nuisance by San Joaquin Valley farmers. 55 animals were transplanted to the Owens Valley in 1934. The herds flourished on protected Los Angeles land and in Inyo National Forest and have been transplanted back to other parts of the state.
The Fish Springs Fish Hatchery is one of three active state hatcheries in the Owens Valley area. It produces about 1.6 million catchable-size trout a year. Although trout are not indigenous to the lakes of the Sierras, they are a major attraction, providing local towns with a great deal of fishing-related tourism in the summer. Statewide, sport fishing is a $3 billion a year industry, fueling some 75,000 jobs. Nationwide, sport fishing is so big that if it were a corporation, it would be the thirteenth biggest in the US. The existence of game fish in the Owens River Valley is maintained by the state hatcheries, which are funded by fees from fishing licenses.
The Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) is a major site for radio astronomy observations, with numerous large steerable dishes. It is located here because of the lack of conflicting radio sources, a result of the remoteness and depth of the Owens River Valley, with 14,000 foot high mountains on either side. Features of the facility include the Caltech Millimeter Array, which consists of six 10-meter dishes on a configurable track, a solar interferometer antenna array, with two 27-meter dishes, and two Cosmic Microwave Background antennas. Most of the site is operated by Caltech and funded by the Office of Naval Research since 1960, with the exception of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) antenna, which is one of a network of ten antenna sites across the United States that make up the VLBA, a National Science Foundation project. Given its proximity to the ancient Bristlecone pines and fossil rich White Mountains, it is a propos that some of the oldest stars in the universe were discovered here.
A road from Big Pine leads up to the Bristlecone Pines, which some scientists consider the world’s oldest living things. Up to 4,700 years old, these trees can be found on the seemingly barren summits of the White or Inyo Mountains. At 4,723 years of age, the Methuselah Tree has been called the oldest living thing in the world. The forest is a protected area, and there is a visitors center with walking trails that lead through the various groves. Despite the notoriety of the tree, its identity is not indicated on the walking trail in order to protect it from souvenir-hunters and vandals, making it an invisible attraction. Its status as the world's living thing is, not surprisingly, subject to some debate. A recently discovered creosote bush in the Mojave desert is said to be 11,700 years old while some Pennsylvanians claim the title for a rare box huckleberry plant near a highway.
The White Mountains are prime habitat for the "chukar" or Hungarian Partridge, actually the Kurdish national bird, introduced into the United States by the government in the 1950s. The chukar’s natural habitat consists of the barren mountain highlands of Asia and Southeastern Europe. A gray bird with black and white stripes on its front, the chukar is about twice the size of a quail and is called the chukar because of the "chuck-chuck-chuck" noise it makes. Apparently a tasty game bird in the pheasant family, the chukar is notorious for being hard to bag. A hunter lucky enough to chance upon a chukar will typically find it near water, low down on the mountain, only to face a long chase as the cliff-dwelling bird leads him up one side of the mountain and down another.
Founded in 1940 by the Navy and operated by the University of California, the White Mountain Research Station is a high altitude and alpine research complex, composed of four separate facilities located at different elevations. The Owens Valley Laboratory is located in Bishop, the Crooked Creek Conference Center at 10,150 feet near the Patriarch Grove of Bristlecone Pines, the Barfcroft Laboratory at 12,470 feet, and the generally unmanned Summit Station, the highest high altitude lab in North America (fourth highest in the world) is on top of the 14,250 foot White Mountain Peak. Winds on the summit routinely exceed 150 miles per hour.
Even though the White Mountains are nearly as high as the Sierras, they lie deeply in their rain shadow, keeping them dry and relatively snow-free throughout the year. This lack of heavy snow makes them the only suitable place in the country for year-round high altitude study. Research is conducted in a variety. of disciplines, including archeology, physiology, biology, and aerospace.
The Mt. Barcroft laboratory also boasts the highest pool table in North America while the summit station contains the continent’s highest Internet node, allowing for real-time, remote monitoring of scientific equipment. University of California Television recently made an Emmy-award nominated documentary on the facility. It can be viewed on the Internet.
Bishop is an old ranching town and the biggest settlement in the Owens River Valley. It is located in the fertile north end of Valley, though the Owens River, Highway 395, and Los Angeles aqueduct continue north from here towards Mono Lake. Just north of town, Highway 6 begins, a two lane blacktop route that heads 3,200 miles east to Cape Cod. Attractions in Bishop include Erick Schat’s Bakkery in Bishop is a major attraction, their Sheepherder bread famous throughout California. Major entrepreneurs in Bishop, the Schat family is also undertaking an effort to be a provider of Internet services for Bishop. KAVA is the only Lithuanian coffeehouse and cybercafe in the Owens Valley. The Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Indian Cultural Center displays exhibits on the lives of the Valley’s original peoples.
At 9988’ above sea level, Coyote Flat was the highest airfield in North America until its recent decomissioning and is one of the few military installations to have been based in the Owens Valley and immediate surroundings. In the 1960s, the Air Force Flight Center, Edwards Air Force base (AFFTC) took over 642 acres of Coyote Flat as a test site. The official explanation is that the Department of Defense used the landing strip to test the high altitude performance of helicopters and airplanes. More conspiracy minded individuals point out that AFFTC also ran Area 51 and that the inaccessibility of Coyote Flat kept operations far from prying eyes. In the last few years, control of the area was ceded back to the Forest Service which removed the three buildings, dug up the pavement, and surrounded the site with barbed wire in order to return the site to its natural condition. The Forest Service insists that the large “X” is meant to discourage landings. Even so, backcountry flying enthusiasts have found it possible to land on the airstrip without undo trouble.
Route 168 West out of Bishop is a long, steep road to the Sierras. Hundreds of lakes dot the alpine landscape, providing fishermen with stellar places to stop. With Bishop Creek falling 5,500 in 15 miles, Southern California Edison Corporation harnesses the water to create power in a string of four powerhouses running down the mountain. Redwood dams on South Lake and Lake Sabrina store water for the LADWP and to provide year-round flow for the powerhouses. The pipes running down the mountain are there to increase the velocity of water, not to protect it in any way.
Laws was the name of a stop on the old narrow-gauge railroad, and though the railroad is gone, the stop is now an 11 acre museum of railroad life. The rail line that once connected the Owens Valley to the world, the Carson and Colorado, was built in the 1880s, primarily to service the mines of the valley. It ran from Keeler to Carson City, Nevada where passengers and freight would transfer to trains bound for San Francisco. The Owens Valley line was abandoned by the 1960s, and the steel rails removed for scarp. The hamlet of Laws, named after Robert J. Laws, the engineer who supervised the line’s construction, was an interface between the railroad and the town of Bishop. After service to Carson City was discontinued, the railroad continued to serve Keeler with the “Slim Princess,” operated by the Southern Pacific Company until 1959. By this point, most of the buildings in Laws had fallen apart or had been torn down. Only the depot, agent’s house, turntable, and the oiland water tanks survived. Many of the historic looking buildings moved to the museum at Laws are old movie sets. Like much of the Valley, the museum is on land leased from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
The Owens River Gorge is a natural canyon carved by the river as it passed through the volcanic tablelands at the northern end of the Owens Valley. This landform, a giant, sloping volcanic scab, was formed on top of the existing valley floor 760,000 years ago by the eruption of the nearby Long Valley Caldera. The DWP has built three hydropower plants in the gorge, to take advantage of the 2,300 foot drop between Crowley Lake and the Owens River Valley. Between the plants, river water is diverted into pipelines in order to increase the velocity of the water flow, thereby increasing power.
On the west side of the road lies Round Valley, giving something of an impression of what the Owens Valley would have looked like in its agricultural heyday.
Located high in the Sierras, this mine, formerly owned by Union Carbide, opened in 1916 and served as the largest tungsten producer in the United States. Tungsten’s durability, hardness, and resistance to corrosion allowed it to be used in high speed tools, light bulb filaments, armor plating for tanks, and armor-piercing bullets. The “Mine in the Sky” extended thousands of feet into the mountains. The mine is a victim of globalization: with tungsten mines in China producing the ore at less than half of what it cost to extract it here, the mine was no longer profitable and production ceased in April 2000. The mine is being considered as a potential site for earth science research in deep underground laboratories. The company town of Rowena, half way up the road to the mine, is an interesting relic.
Part of Long Valley was flooded by the city of Los Angeles in 1941 to form Crowley Lake, the largest reservoir of the LA Aqueduct system in Mono County. Paradoxically, Crowley Lake’s creation came about because in the water rich years of the 1930s, the DWP had to divert excess water back into the valley through the Alabama Gates, thereby flooding the mineral operations in Owens Lake. Crowley Lake now helps regulate the water supply by absorbing the excess water. The lake is named after Father John J. Crowley, “the desert Padre,” who was a key figure in Owens Valley history and a local hero. When it became obvious that the city of Los Angeles’s appropriation of the water supply had made agriculture impossible in the Owens Valley, many of the residents of the Valley lost all hope. Father Crowley traveled up and down the Valley, convincing many of them that it could become a tourist destination. Thus, it is fitting that while it exists to serve the Los Angeles aqueduct, Crowley Lake is also a prime destination for anglers. 30,000 fisherman gather on shore and in boats to mark the beginning of fishing season. Father Crowley was killed in 1940 in an automobile accident.
North of Bishop, the road climbs steeply toward Long Valley, a caldera formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption 760,000 years ago. Unlike typical volcanos, this was an example of an entire volcanic field coming to life simultaneously. Some 150 cubic miles of 1500?Ç¬?F pumice and ash were ejected from a series of vents throughout the area. Some of the molten Bishop tuff flowed southeast past Big Pine, forming the volcanic tablelands visible north of the town while some flowed over the Sierra Nevada into the drainage for the San Joaquin river while a sizeable fraction was ejected up to twenty-five miles in the air and carried as far away as eastern Nebraska and Kansas. With the eruption of the magma, the ground subsided, creating a two mile deep depression from Mammoth Mountain to the end of Crowley Lake that was in turn filled to about two-thirds full by falling tuff, a pinkish-red rock. The last eruption in Long Valley was in the Mono-Inyo Crater area about 500-600 yearsago.
The Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) has been operating at the base of the Sierras since 1973, managed by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The lab's 55 acre site on the west side of Highway 395 includes a system of nine artifical diversions of Convict Creek, used to study stream hydrology and ecology. Research at SNARL influenced the State Water Resource Control Board's 1994 decision to order Mono Lake's water level to be raised to restrict its ecosystem. In addition to the field lab here, SNARL has a snow lab on Mammoth Mountain and recently acquired the old High Sierra Presbyterian Church on Highway 395.
The Mammoth Lakes Airport offers charter and commuter flights to Los Angeles and other California destinations. The airport features a seven thousand foot long runway and capacity for one hundred and fifteen aircraft. Airport management has recently begun a major expansion plan to lure in larger passenger aircraft and to provide a fly-in resort community.
The Casa Diablo Hot Springs Power Plant, east of Highway 395, is a geothermal electrical production complex, one of several in the state. Wells drilled into the ground inject water that is subsequently heated geothermally heated to 170 degrees C. Returning to the surface, the water drives three turbine driven power plants to generate some 40 megawatts of electricity for Mammoth Pacific, enough to power roughly 40,000 homes. Although geothermal energy is a relatively clean and efficient source of power, like all forms of energy, it has a dark side. The heat that produces the hot water comes from the magma chamber five miles underground that caused the Long Valley Caldera Eruption.
This is the largest rainbow trout fish hatchery in California as well as a key way station for the raising of the Golden Trout, California’s state fish. The journey of the Golden Trout begins when employees of the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery hike into the wilderness to trap pregnant females. At the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery, the females lay their eggs. When the eggs reach a stage at which they have recognizable eyes, they are brought to the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery. After growing into three-inch fingerlings, the fish are loaded on board a tanker airplane that takes off from Mammoth Lakes Airport and dumps the fish into lakes in the Sierras. Prior to the stocking program, the natural range of the Golden Trout did not extend to these lakes. Built in 1936, Hot Creek Fish Hatchery is one of the largest such facilities in the Western states and is instrumental in supplying fertilized trout eggs to the region, state, country, and beyond. It also takes steps to ensure the survival of lesser known native species such as Kamloops rainbow troutk. Wires overhead protect the hatchlings from predatory birds.
Further out on the Fish Hatchery/Airport Road is Hot Creek Geothermal area. Bud Lite and bikinis offer a contemporary reprise of 1970s good-time California. One of the most spectacular hot springs in the country, the Hot Creek Hot Springs are revered by lovers of scaldingly warm water. As with so many aspects of the California casual lifestyle, enjoyment of the hot springs is tempered by their multiple dangers. Signs indicate that scalding water, spontaneous eruptions of gas and steam, arsenic releases, and unsafe footing have claimed fourteen lives over the last thirty years. A safer alternative are the hot tubs located in the area that have been carved out of the local rock or made out of cement by locals. On Benton Crossing Road, Whitmore Hot Springs is a large public swimming pool operated jointly by Mono County and the town of Mammoth Lakes.
Convict Lake, a mile long glacial tarn (a bowl carved by the glaciers) at the foot of the Sierras lies two miles West of 395. A visit early in the morning is often rewarded by masses of fishermen maintaining a silent vigil over their fish. Given the cathedral-like presence of the mountains, they appear to be not sportsmen but religious pilgrims. Convict Lake is a popular site for weddings and the Restaurant at Convict Lake is considered one of the best in the valley.
The Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is the single largest alpine ski area in the country. The development of the mountain into a resort was started by Dave McCoy, a surveyor and hydrographer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power who, in 1953, was awarded a permit to operate a skiing site permanently on condition that he develop it. The first chair lift opened in 1955. Over 30,000 rooms are available and on holiday weekends every last room will sell out.
11,030 foot tall Mammoth Mountain marks the eastern end of a low passage in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Winter storms from the Pacific hit the mountain and precipitate on its slopes, giving it one of the most dependable and longlasting snowpacks in the continental United States. The unusual location of the mountain is related to its origin: unlike the Sierras, which were formed by tilted and uplifted ground, Mammoth Mountain is a rhyolite dome formed between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago as magma began to rise to the earth’s surface again under Long Valley Caldera.
Part of the Tamarack cross-country ski trail system near Horseshoe Lake has been closed because of high levels of carbon dioxide in the local atmosphere produced by constant outgassings from the mountain. A large number of trees have died. The danger to humans is greatest in the winter as the carbon dioxide collects underneath the snow surface. Places where the snowcap breaks such as at restrooms or in snow holes around trees are likely spots for the heavy gas to accumulate. The death of a cross-country skier in 1997 has been blamed on these emissions. The Horseshoe Lake tree kill area is around 170 acres in size and growing.
One of the most geologically active volcanoes in the United States, Mammoth Mountain releases some 1,300 tons of carbon dioxide a day. There is some controversy as to the significance of the emissions. Some geologists have argued that they are the result of a swarm of earthquakes in the late 1980s that indicated an uprising of magma underneath the mountain. Others maintain that the emissions come from a large reservoir of carbon dioxide that has been under the mountain for some time but has only recently been breached. Scientists do agree that the carbon dioxide emissions are unusual. Tree die-offs indicating the presence of large amounts of carbon dioxide have not taken place in the area for a few hundred years and 1,300 tons of carbon dioxide is a remarkably large amount. In comparison, Mount St.- Helens emits similar quantities during low-level eruptions. Solar-powered monitoring devices, such as this one, help government agencies better understand the evolving situation.
The 11.3 mile long tunnel was bored through the hills known as the Mono Craters to extend the reach of the Los Angeles Aqueduct into the Mono Basin. Completed in 1940, the tunnel increased the capacity of the system by about 35%. This task was made exceedingly dangerous because Mono Craters are not only the youngest mountain range in North America, largely formed in the last 10,000 years, they are recently active volcanos. Work crews digging through the mountains encountered hot and cold groundwater, deadly carbon dioxide gas, and steam, costing nearly one life per mile. While the West Portal is accessible and contains the ruins of buildings used in the construction, the East Portal lies on private land and is off-limits to the public. Remains of one of the four camps occupied during the tunnel's construction are still visible at the west side of the Mono Tunnel. For five years this was a town for workers and their families, with a peak population of over 200 people and 26 buildings.
338 miles from Los Angeles, Lee Vining Creek is diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct system?ä¬ºs
Lee Vining-Grant Lake conduit. This is the northernmost point in the system. As the DWP points
out, it is due east of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Approximately 350 miles from Los Angeles, Mono Lake marks the last visible effects of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. Although the saline lake is not itself used for drinking water, its feeder streams were largely diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct starting in 1941. Controversy about the draining of Mono Lake reached a fever pitch in the 1980s and 1990s and resulted in an agreement with the city of Los Angeles to begin letting water return to the lake, allowing it to rise somewhat.
The High Sierra Shrimp Plant harvests brine shrimp from Mono Lake for a use as tropical fish food. These aquatic crustaceans are not closely related to shrimp but are instead related to lobsters and sow bugs. The Mono Lake brine shrimp are found nowhere else in the world.
Located on the brief main drag of Lee Vining, the Mono Lake Committee Information Center and Bookstore is the local base for the organization that was formed in 1978 to protect and restore the Mono basin ecosystem. The organization has been largely successful in its efforts.
Overlooking the treeless landscape of Mono Lake, the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center opened in 1992 and is operated by the National Forest Service. It contains a variety of exhibits, an art gallery and photo gallery, a book store, and a room for screening the twenty-minute film Of Ice and Fire: A Portrait of the Mono Basin. Interpretive tours run by the center explore the basin. Operated by the National Forest Service, the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center opened in 1992. It contains a variety of exhibits, an art gallery and photo gallery, a book store, and a room for screening the twenty-minute film Of Ice and Fire: A Portrait of the Mono Basin. Interpretive tours run by the center explore the basin.
A boardwalk trail from Mono Lake County Park allows visitors to access the North shore marsh and tufa area. Markings along the boardwalk demonstrate the previous extent of the lake as it shrank due to diversion of water to the L. A. aqueduct and also point to where water will rise again in the future with the restoration project. The spot is popular with birdwatchers.