Owens River Valley Driving Guide
Driving Guide to the Owens River Valley
San Fernando Pass to Vincent Junction
This guide is still a work in progress. Not all of the .html code is cleaned up yet and new images and links need to be added. note, 5/26/05: Yes, this hasn't changed in years, but it has been converted into Drupal and should be more easily updated from now on!
Take the I-405 North to the I-5. Soon after you enter the I-5, note the Cascades on your right where William Mulholland ceremoniously opened the Los Angeles aqueduct with the words "There it is. Take it."
Northridge is important as the home of Cal State Northridge, Cal Arts, and as the epicenter for both the Northridge Earthquake of 1994 and the adult movie industry.
Bucket of Worms
Immediately after the LA aqueduct, we approach the "Bucket of Worms," the interchange of the I-5 and State Route 14, the Palmdale Highway. The interchange was under construction when the San Fernando earthquake struck on February 9, 1971, causing extensive damage. It failed again during the Northridge Earthquake of January 17, 1994. See the article in the Federal Highway Administration's magazine Public Roads.
Head East on State Route 14. From the intersection of the Golden State Freeway, I-5 and Palmdale Highway, State Route 14, you should follow the following guide segments in the Sharp book.
Lamont Odett Vista Point
Lamont Odett Vista Point is your first stop. From here youll see Palmdale and the landscape of the western Mojave Desert. Immediately to the north of the Vista Point is the Los Angeles-Owens Valley aqueduct. and to the north of that, the San Andreas Fault. Although the original aqueduct lies underground, the 1970 version is on the surface for easier repair.
Soon after, you pass through a road cut. Take note of the massively crumpled beds of the Anaverde Formation in the San Andreas Fault zone
Aerospace Facilities at Avenue P and 25th Street
A number of aerospace related items make this a worthwhile stop if you are travelling during the day. The Blackbird Airpark contains the SR-71 and A-12 supersonic Air Force jets. The A-12 is the prototype for the SR-71. The fastest plane on Earth (68 minutes coast to coast), the SR-71 was developed as replacement for the U-2 spy plane. The park is owned by the Air Force and is an annex to the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards Air Force Base, but the land the park sits on is owned by the city of Los Angeles. A rare D-21 drone is also on display. Now under construction immediately to the west is the twenty-six acre Air Heritage Park.
Plant 42, which is visible to the North, is one of the main vehicle assembly plants for both NASA and the Air Force.
Across 25th street is the Air Traffic Control center for all of southern California outside of the airspace near individual airport towers. This complex controls the airspace extending south of San Francisco to the Mexican border and east to the borders of Nevada and Arizona. If youve flown in to, out of, or above Southern California, your life was in their hands. The computer system was being replaced in fall 1998.
Although the Antelope Valley was hit hard by the defense cutbacks at the end of the Cold War, hopes have recently been renewed for the future of aerospace research and development here.
The main player in the local industry, Lockheed, is currently engaged in a battle against Boeing to win $750 billion of contracts for an advanced tactical fighter to serve as a unitary platform for the US Air Force, Navy, Marines, and the British Air Force.
In a more romantic vein, Lockheed is also constructing the lifting body escape vehicle for NASAs manned orbiting space station and prototypes for the next generation space shuttle. Various exotic secret technologies are rumored to be under development at Lockheeds Skunk Works (note the Billboard advertising for jobs as you leave the Skunk Works).
The rapidly increasing need for wireless telecommunications is driving a score of local corporations to attempt to create the nations first private satellite launch vehicle. Companies hope to create a launch vehicle capable of putting matter into orbit at a fraction of the cost of the Space Shuttle. Proposals range from cut-rate versions of existing launch vehicles to the Roton Rotary Rocket, a SSTO (single-stage-to-orbit) vehicle with seventy individual rocket chambers mounted on a whirring helicopter blade.
Mojave Desert Recreation Areas Information Center
The Mojave Desert Recreation Areas Information Center at Avenue K provides maps, books, interpretive exhibits and other information about the area.
Soledad Mountain and Elephant Butte and into Mojave
Seven miles after the border of LA and Kern counties, Soledad Mountain and Elephant Butte are visible to the Northeast. The sites of the Golden Queen and Silver Queen mines, both geological formations that have been heavily mined for silver and gold come into view. More recently, gravel has been a major product.
Note the Union Pacific yards to the right. As you pass by the "End Freeway" signs, you can see the Mojave Airport to the Northeast. The low humidity of the desert environment makes this an ideal storage area for jumbo jets. During the height of an airplane glut in the 1980s there were considerably more planes here. Some of these older model aircraft will be flown again and some will be cannibalized for parts.
To the Northwest are the Tehachapi hills and the Tehachapi Wind Farm. As easterly flowing air comes over the Tehachapi Hills from the San Joaquin valley it compresses, creating one of the nations most dependable sources of wind. Apart from the wind farm, the ever-present air currents make Tehachapi a center for gliding enthusiasts. The height of the hills surrounding Tehachapi forced the Southern Pacific Railroad to resort to some innovative solutions such as the 3799 long Tehachapi Loop, which was built in the 1870s. This is some distance away, on the route from the town of Tehachapi to the San Joaquin valley.
Mojave is the home of the Voyager, the first airplane to circle the globe without refueling. Indebted to both glider technology and to the areas aerospace community, Voyager is a metaphor for the Antelope Valleys hope for development based on homegrown aerospace research and development.
Note the sign by the side of the road as you enter into town, linking Mojave and the Voyager. As you leave town, the sign reads (if memory serves me right) "If my people humble themselves, I will heal the land."
Out of Mojave
Immediately after turning east onto Highway 395, note the blue Art Deco DWP Mojave District headquarters to the west of the highway. Mojave Airport is now clearly visible.
Somewhere out here is a giant surplus store carrying artifacts from the Cold War. Extra points for identifying it.
To the East is California City, the third largest city in the state in terms of acreage. Developer Nathan K. Mendelsohn, who founded the city in 1956 envisioned a northern Mojave version of Palm Springs. As it became obvious that there was no particular reason for anyone to come to California City, Mendelsohn took to cruising around town in his Jaguar offering property for $1 to anyone who promised to build a business on it. He eventually abandoned sold his interest in the California City Development Company in 1964. Since then the towns fortunes have not seen much improvement. A hydroponic tomato ranch turned out to be a marijuana plantation. An herb farm failed after successive assaults by rabbits and a sandstorm.
The town is now pinning its hopes on an unlikely statewide vote that would authorize Las Vegas style gambling and on the more solid plans for the already-under construction 2,500-bed, prison being built by the Corrections Corporation of America. This privately owned, medium-security facility is expected to be finished by the summer. The global power company AES has also recently announced its intention to build a 500-megawatt power station in the area.
Jawbone Canyon is a major staging ground for All-Terrain-Vehicles. The Bureau of Land Management operates an office. Maps of off-road desert recreation areas are available. Raves have also been held in the canyon.
As your geological field guide points out, about 0.3 miles after the Jawbone Canyon store the aqueducts crossing of Jawbone canyon is visible. The white line was built in 1970, the more distant black line was built in 1913.
A few miles north is Red Rock Canyon. If youre driving up in the evening during the summer, this is a potential campsite. Red Rock Canyon was the site of numerous Western films.
Burro Schmidts tunnel is a tourist destination in the El Paso Mountains northeast of Red Rock Canyon. Owner of a number of copper claims in the mountains, William H. "Burro" Schmidt sought solution to the remoteness of his claims, on the other side of a mountain from any convenient shipping point. Between 1906 and 1938 Schmidt dug a 2000 foot long, five foot high by seven foot wide tunnel in the mountain with a pick, shovel, dynamite, crowbar, and rock hammer. Over time, digging became an end in itself. Schmidt sold off many of his claims as a way of financing the project and the tunnel was never used for its original purpose. The tunnel is still open, serving as a tourist attraction.
Say good-bye to Route 14 as it heads east and take State Route 395, the central artery of the Owens Valley, north.
Situated about 180 miles out of Los Angeles, Pearsonville is a good place to refuel. If you continue north on Pearson Road another few hundred yards, you reach the Hubcap Capital of the World, where Grandma Lucy Pearson will be delighted to help you search for a long lost hubcap. Hubcap dealers from Los Angeles drive up here and bring back hubcaps to sell at twice the price in tony shops in the city.
Spring-fed Little Lake abuts the right side of State Route 395. This is one of the centers of earthquake activity on the West Coast. Even without going to see Fossil Falls on the north side of Little Lake, its easy to see the impact that volcanic activity as recently as 20,000 years ago has had on this region.
Red Hill (3952) is a volcanic cinder cone. It is extensively mined for cinders to be used as aggregate in concrete and cement blocks. Citizens made a successful effort to save the picturesque hill from complete destruction. These operations are not easily visible from the road.
During prehistoric glacial melts the amount of water in Owens Lake was great enough to overflow the natural barrier that this patch of elevated ground forms. Descending over the now dry Fossil Falls, the prehistoric Owens River emptied into the Mojave basin, significantly changing the ecology of the area. 10 to 15,000 years ago this was an attractive place for the local inhabitants.
Debris flows from storms in the Sierras often inundate this section of road.
A geothermal plant is located in the town of Coso Junction.
Haiwee Dam and Power Plant
The Haiwee reservoir is part of the Los Angeles aqueduct. Water is usually visible from State Route 395.
Immediately after the sign "Watch for Cattle on Pavement 14 Miles" - cattle enjoy sleeping on the warm pavement at night - you will pass over the L. A. Aqueduct as it turns left to hug the southern Sierras on this gravity-fed section of its journey toward Los Angeles. At this point, we are about 3,700 feet above sea level.
The first trees since the San Fernando valley underscore that weve made an ecological transition from the desert into the Owens Valley.
South of Olancha a mill once processed Fullers Earth, a clay used in insecticides and fertilizers. Fullers Earth was mined from a pit eight miles to the east.
As you drive through Olancha, note the stealth installation to the right. Rather than being any kind of defense-related operation, this is where Crystal Geyser spring water is pumped out of the ground, bottled, and loaded on trucks to ship out over the United States. Crystal Geysers label reads that the water "begins as the pure snow and rain that falls on 12,000 - ft. Olancha peak in the towering Sierra. This pristine 'water is naturally filtered through the mountain's bedrock." What the label doesnt say is that the water only ends up in Crystal Geysers hands after its pumped out of the wells underneath the Owens Valley. Curiously enough, the path of Crystal Geyser water to Los Angeles parallels that of the L. A. Aqueduct.
The largely dry Owens Lake lies to the right. Dont be surprised if your eyes water from the alkali dust. Owens Lake is the largest point source of PM 10 (10 micron Particulate Matter) airborne pollution in the country. Its quite a health hazard.As the geological field guide points out, the absence of billboards on the northern side of Olancha is due to the city of Los Angeless ownership of this area and points north.Ruins of the Lake Minerals Corporations salt recovery operation are visible in the distance. Recently, large earth-moving equipment has been sighted on the lake and piles of salt have appeared by the side of the lake. To the west you will see riparian vegetation marking a creek descending from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The vegetation ends abruptly after the L. A. aqueduct swallows the water. The Cottonwood Creek Power Plant was built to provide power for the construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct.
To the west of 395 is the Cottonwood Polymer Plant, precise function unknown. On February 7, 1999 it appeared to be on fire.
The ruins of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Companys chemical plant are visible to the right of the highway. The company crystallized and processed carbonate compounds mined from the lake. A number of chemical plants extracted chemicals from the lakebed. These plants were located either on the west side by the Southern Pacific tracks or by the depot for the narrow-gauge Carson & Colorado railroad in the town of Keeler on the far side of the lake. It is estimated that between 1885 and 1950 over a million tons of soda products were produced at Owens Lake. Keeler is a ghost town today. If you have the time, a trip around Owens Lake is worthwhile. Avoid making the trip when dust storms are blowing. They tend to be far worse on the Eastern side of the lake and are bad for you, your cars paint, and its engine. A Chinatown was located at the end of Malone street in Keeler. Chinese miners and others would visit the opium den, among other places. The connection with China was not, however, merely one way. Some of the sodium carbonates produced at Keeler were shipped to China to produce porcelain. At the northernmost tip of Owens Lake, the rings of its former shoreline are clearly visible.
The Eastern Sierra Interagency Information Center
This is another spot for more information on the geology, ecology, and history of the Owens Valley. Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous forty-eight states is visible from here. The center closes at 5pm.
Apart from being a key link in the water system of Los Angeles, peaceful Lone Pine was the site of the strongest earthquake in Californias recorded history. On March 26, 1872 a tremor registering 8.3 on the Richter scale shook the town, killing twenty-seven people as the eastern side of the Owens Valley dropped twenty feet. Although it takes some searching to find it, a 23 foot high bank of boulders that runs for miles to the west of the town marks the event. Over millions of years this type of cataclysmic drop formed the valley. We can expect recurrences.There is a good barbecue restaurant in Lone Pine although it is open at the owners discretion, which happens to be increasingly infrequently. Look for it behind a low stone wall on the east side of the main street. The construction of the restaurants garden is worth attention as well.
To the left of state route 395 are the low Alabama Hills, geologically distinct from the Sierras and much older. Visitors are often told that these hills have been used in films. Gene Autry, Gunga Din, Tom Mix and the Lone Ranger are among the visitors to the Alabama Hills Less well known is the fact that these hills were the site of one of the last battles between the Paiutes and the settlers of the Owens Valley. Indeed, the very name, "Alabama Hills," reflects a bloody war. Southern sympathizers named the Alabama Hills along with the Alabama Mines after a Confederate cruiser. In response, Northerners named the 12598 peak above along with their claims in the mountains after the U.S.S. Kearsarge, which had sunk the cruiser.
Four miles north of Lone Pine on the west side of the highway are the Alabama Gates which control the flow of water out of the aqueduct into a spillway that leading to the now dry bed of the Owens River. In 1924, sixty local men took over the Alabama Gates and opened the spillway to return the water to the Owens River. The Alabama Gates are closed to the public. Progress has recently been made in the construction of two lanes of highway to carry southbound traffic here.
Manzanar Detention Center
The racial hatred of the war with the Paiutes was reprised in the Japanese Relocation camp at Manzanar. Ostensibly a measure taken to isolate a dangerous, unassimilated population of Japanese immigrants during World War II, executive order #9066 was much more of a deliberate act of racial revenge. No similar action was taken against German-Americans or Italian-Americans or even against those active in pro-Nazi and pro-fascist groups such as the German-American Bund. In contrast, millionaire architect Philip Johnsons activities as a propagandist for extreme-Right wing groups and involvement with shady figures associated with the Nazi government only merited him a few years cleaning latrines for the US army. The large building to the north of the entrance was an auditorium and high school gym during the detention period and is now the Inyo County Equipment Maintenance Station.
There is a large, old, hand-drawn map of the Owens Valley and its various tourist destinations in the Chevron Station as you enter Independence.
North of Independence you can see the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery, an alpine style building with red roof tiles. Trout are raised here for release into the lakes and streams of the Sierras. An interpretive display inside explains the process.
North of Independence is the village of Aberdeen. 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. A dispute led Bill Hines to shoot one of the Goodales in 1895.
Fish Springs Fish Hatchery
A series of lap pools filled with fish grown be stocked in the streams and lakes of the Sierras, the Fish Springs Fish Hatchery is worth a stop as part of the infrastructure of "nature."
Ancient Bristlecone Pines, White Mountain Research Station, and Cal Tech Radio Observatory
Leaving Big Pine, you pass by a sign pointing to the "Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest." Up to 4700 years old, the oldest living trees in the world can be found on the seemingly barren summits of the Inyo Mountains. Trilobite fossils also abound.
At the base of the Inyo or White Mountains to the East, you can see the three dishes of the Owens Valley Observatory, a radio observatory operated by Cal Tech and funded by the Office of Naval Research by 1960. The site was chosen because it offers a patch of clear sky yet is isolated from radio and television interference by the Sierras and the Inyos. Two 90 and one 130 dishes ride on an 1800 railroad track. The listening equipment is so sensitive that a car ignition will disrupt it. As a result, visitors are not welcome.
Given the proximity to the ancient Bristlecone pines, it is a propos that some of the oldest stars in the universe were discovered here.
Scientific research also takes place alongside the Bristlecone Pines. Even though the Inyos are nearly as high as the Sierras, they lie deeply in their rain shadow. The lack of heavy snow makes them the only suitable place in the country for year-round high altitude study. Experiments are carried on at the White Mountain Research Station, run by the University of California. Recently, proposals have been made to create a demonstration hydrogen power grid at the WMRS.
The Inyo Mountains are also prime habitat for the "chukar" or Hungarian Partridge. 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. The chukars natural habitat consists of the barren mountain highlands of Afghanistan and Iran. It was introduced into the United States by the federal government in the 1950s. Apparently a tasty game bird, the chukar is notorious for being hard to bag. A hunter lucky enough to chance upon a chukar will typically find it low down, near water only to face a long chase as the cliff-dwelling bird leads him up one side of the mountain and down another. In the summer months, remarkable numbers of cows follow. Note the cowskins on the fence acting as constant reminders of our bovine friends fate.
Dont miss Erick Schats bakery in Bishop. Their Sheepherder bread is famous throughout California. KAVA, a Lithuanian cafe, has good cappuccino.
A GTE microwave facility is located in Bishop.
Take state route 395 north out of Bishop. You pass the Bishop Gun Club on the right and then ascend into the volcanic tablelands that mark the northern end of the Owens valley. 760,000 years ago the eruption of the Long Valley Caldera (see below) deposited a series of layers on the graveled earth here, a layer of white pumice, a 200-foot layer of beige volcanic rock, and a 500-foot layer of darker volcanic rock. These can be distinctly seen in the bluff to the east of 395 cut by the Owens River.
About five miles out of town look to the west side of the road at the Round Valley area. This gives something of an impression of what the Owens Valley would have looked like in its agricultural heyday. Once you begin to ascend to the higher elevations, the ecology of the place changes. Eventually Pinyon pines come to dominate the landscape. Pinyon pine nuts were a staple of the local diet of the indigenous peoples. They are available in some Bishop stores.
Nearby you cross under the power lines of the Pacific Intertie System, which carries huge amounts of power from hydroelectric projects in the Northwest to Los Angeles.
Three miles west of the highway, the town of Rovana is a residential area for miners at the nearby Union Carbide Nuclear Companys Pine Creek mine. Although tungsten is the mines major product, copper, gold, silver, molybdenite and scheelite are also processed there. Eventually, what appears to be a weather station comes into view on the right.
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. Crowley Lake serves both for water storage and for flood control. The city of Los Angeles incurred expenses for diverting excess waters through the Alabama Gates thereby flooding the mineral concerns in the Owens Lake. You may see cows grazing near the water supply.
The lake is named after Father Crowley, the desert Padre, who was killed in 1940 in an automobile accident. When it became obvious that, as a result of the city of Los Angeless appropriation of the water supply, agriculture had become 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 the beauty of the valley could make it a tourist destination. To this day residents remember Father Crowleys efforts to help them think of new ways to make a living without leaving the place they loved.
Thus, it is fitting that while it serves the LA 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. Although water skiing is permitted in the summer, swimming is not.
The McGee maintenance station to the east of 395 appears to service the highway. The High Sierra Presbyterian Church with its glass brick cross appears to the right. It was built in 1954. As you pass the Mammoth Lakes Airport to the east, a road leads west two miles to Convict Lake, a mile long glacial tarn (a bowl carved by the glaciers) at the foot of the Sierras. A visit to Convict Lake 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.
To the East on Fish Hatchery/Airport Road you first encounter Mammoth Lakes Fish Hatchery. This is the largest rainbow trout fish hatchery in California as well as a key way station for the raising of the Golden Trout, our 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. Once the eggs reach a stage at which they have recognizable eyes, they are then brought to the Mammoth Lakes 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. Money from fishing licenses pays for the program.
Further out on the road is Hot Creek Geothermal area. Bud Lite and bikinis offer a 90s reprise of 1970s good-time California. Supposedly the most spectacular hot springs in the country, the Hot Creek Hot Springs are revered by lovers of scaldingly warm water.
But as with so many aspects of the California casual lifestyle, our enjoyment of the hot springs must be tempered by their multiple dangers. Signs indicate that scalding water, spontaneous eruptions of gas and steam, and unsafe footing have claimed many lives over the last thirty years. But this is merely an immediate danger. The real danger lies below. Hot springs are the products of a magma heat source lying close to the earths surface (see Mammoth Mountain).
Three happy water tanks lie to the east as you pass the road to Mammoth Lakes.
Steam rises from the Casa Diablo Hot Springs Power Plant to the east of state route 395. The power plant is owned by Mammoth Pacific. Although geothermal energy is a relatively clean and efficient source of power, like all forms of energy, it has a dark side. The heat indicates that a magma chamber awaits a bare five miles underground. A diagram of how Casa Diablo works is available at the US Department of Energy geothermal energy website.
Mammoth Mountain and the Long Valley Caldera
As home to the Mammoth Mountain ski area, the town of Mammoth Lakes helps round out the recreational needs of Los Angeles. With one of the single largest alpine ski areas in the country, Mammoth Mountain is the favored winter sports destination for residents of Southern California. Over 30,000 rooms are available. On holiday weekends all 30,000 will sell out. Nordic ski enthusiasts flock to the Tamarack Cross Country ski area. With its rustic atmosphere and an excellent young French chef running the restaurant, Tamarack Lodge is a popular base for skiers of both sorts in the winter and for hikers and fishermen in the summer.
Standing at 11,030 feet Mammoth Mountain marks the eastern end of a low passage in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Winter storms coming in from the west hit the mountain and precipitate on its slopes, giving it one of the most dependable snowpacks in the continental United States.
But this idyllic landscape is host to invisible dangers. Part of the Tamarack cross-country ski trail system near Horseshoe Lake has been closed. The mysterious death of a large area of trees near the lake was originally attributed to a draught in the late 1980s and early 1990s or to biological infestation. In March 1990 however, a United States Forest Service ranger entered into a snow-covered cabin near Horseshoe Lake and quickly fell ill with symptoms of asphyxiation. Investigation revealed that other people had fallen ill with similar symptoms in other confined spaces near the lake. The United States geological survey determined that confined spaces in the area contained remarkably high percentages of carbon dioxide. Whereas normal air contains about 0.03 percent carbon dioxide, restrooms and tents showed concentrations of over 1 percent, enough to make a healthy person fill dizzy and short of breath, and one cabin showed concentrations of 25 percent, enough to kill. Research showed that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the soil in the tree kill areas ranged from 30 to almost 100 percent. The danger to humans is particularly great 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 places for the heavy gas to accumulate. The death o