The Curious Case of the Eastern Sierras
The Eastern Sierras have it all. Snow-capped mountains, natural hot springs, alpine lakes, geothermal areas, small western towns and interesting geologic formations. Let’s not even mention the eastern entrance to Yosemite. Along with that lie old ghost towns and plenty of shameful history. This area is equally accessible from northern and southern California, and with so many places to camp (on BLM land or otherwise), makes for a uniquely peaceful, adventurous, and layered road trip.
This was my second time spending about a week in this area – revisiting some of my favorite hot springs, and as always, on the lookout for more. I balanced soaking with a desire to explore the geologic uniqueness set between two mountain chains and a collapsed volcano. So much of the land in-between is owned by Los Angeles, who harvests the water and takes it hundreds of miles through the Owens Valley in aqueducts in order to quench the thirst of Los Angelinos. This also presents us with a shady history of land control, native forced migration, water politics and the Japanese Internment Camp (read: PRISON) at Manzanar.
It’s a complicated place, as is anywhere if you dig into the history. What feels uncomplicated is the beauty, the history of how land moves and creates over time, and the interesting formations of rock and earth that abound. I still feel like I’m just scratching the surface of this eastern California land, hovering near the Nevada border.
Land + Sky
From Bridgeport to Lone Pine, the scenery here is just spectacular. Some of the vistas include Mono Lake, Mammoth Mountain, and the open skies of the west.
Western Towns + Forgotten Places
There’s something fabulous about the lore of abandoned places. In the eastern Sierras, gold rush boom towns are now crumbling and often mostly inaccessible ghost towns. Last year I visited Bodie, which is a park and is preserved in what they call ‘arrested decay.’ This year I chose to find the boom town history in the structures that I could more easily access. Many of the little towns that dot 395 south of Mammoth Lakes, serve the hikers and adventurers on their way to the John Muir or Pacific Crest Trails. It’s an interesting combination of ‘old west’ in politics and mentality, and nature-loving people. I found the most awesome bakery in Bishop (Great Basin Bakery), and turned to the local brewery for delicious vegetarian food. In Lone Pine, the gateway to Mt. Whitney is also the place where many western films were shot. The plethora of outdoorsy stores well-matched in the plethora of western film ephemera.
I’ve never met a hot springs that I didn’t like, especially if it’s out there in nature, sans exchange of money, and kept clean by volunteers. Last year I did my first trip to the Eastern Sierras, in search of all the hot springs that I could find. This year I went back to my favorites and also searched for new ones. Many of these are located in the Long Valley Caldera – a once collapsed volcano with an incredible amount of geothermal activity. In the case of all of these springs, volunteers have come along to divert this hot water coming from the earth, into small pools to soak. It’s pretty amazing.
Most of these are located on rough dirt roads – some rougher than others. My low clearance car was able to make it to a number of springs, though I turned around while attempted to find a few others. Just like in life, you have to know your limits when you are out on adventures.
Sometimes I find myself quiet and seeking peace, and other times I welcome whatever conversations I find myself in. It’s the beauty of sharing unique space with strangers. Never once have I felt unsafe in these environments.
Alabama Hills, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Hot Creek Geothermal Area, Fossil Falls
I’ve never been *into* geology, but this trip encouraged the curiosity to come through. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is over 10,000 feet into the White Mountains. These trees are the oldest in the world, even older than redwoods! They can *only* survive in extreme, arid, windy conditions at high elevations. It’s basically the opposite of what you might imagine. But there they are, twisted and thriving.
The Alabama Hills are incredible rock formations in Lone Pine, CA in the Owens Valley. They are geologically part of the Sierras behind them, but look incredibly different. Their distinct look has filled in for many western scenes in movies, as well as parts of the middle east and beyond. They are perfect to scramble up and down and watch the sun shift over the sky.
Fossil Falls is neither fossils, nor falls. They are basaltic lava. You can read more about them here.
Lastly, Hot Creek Geologic Site is around where all the other hot springs are. This is boiling water coming up from the earth!
Manzanar ‘War Relocation Camp’
I’m using quotes because what I saw here was a prison. Coming here to witness what we did to our fellow Americans in the name of fear and bigotry feels all too familiar in the time that we are currently living in. Being at Manzanar, having been at Auschwitz and Birkenau (Holocaust concentration camps) felt incredibly similar. Barren landscape, remnants of barracks, people doing their best to live in a hostile environment with guns trained on them. The once high school gymnasium is now a museum, sharing oral histories of many of the 12,000 people who were forced to reside here. Again, in addition to bigotry, it’s an example of the city of Los Angeles taking advantage of the people and the land.