6 Eastern Sierra wilderness and city adventures

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Back in the infancy of California motoring, a ride down the El Camino Sierra — Highway 39’s original name — promised a carload of adventure. The romance of that open road still beckons on a road trip that winds through the high desert, skirting the Sierra Nevada on the eastern side, to take in the wonders of nature and plenty of history.

The city of Bishop, 30 minutes south of popular Mammoth Lakes in the Owens Valley, is Inyo County’s largest city. With plenty of hotels, inns and down-home eateries — including Schat’s Roadhouse and Holy Smoke BBQ — it’s a great base for exploring the marvels of the region, most within an hour’s drive. (And the city itself offers some interesting stops, including the Laws Railroad Museum and pioneer village and the Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center.)

Here are just a few ways to play — in the rugged wilderness and in tiny towns, too.

1 Lakeside picnics: Our first jaunt takes us out to Rock Creek, just west of Bishop. On this particular day, the rushing water is alive with fly fishermen, their monofilament lines glistening in the sunlight. Tucking sandwiches and water in a day pack, we hit the Little Lakes Trail into the John Muir Wilderness and head toward Morgan Pass, where spectacular views await at every turn. Stunning Marsh Lake, a mile and a half down the trail, makes a fine place for a picnic.

Details: https://bayareane.ws/LittleLakes

2 Off-road treks: The next day, we hitch up with Randy Gillespie’s GSC Off-Road Adventures for a tour of the Tungsten Hills. It’s an exhilarating, twisty and steep experience. We ford creeks, explore old mine sites, gaze at the wondrous Buttermilk rock formations — a popular bouldering site — and take in the Sierra’s mighty eastern wall from high sweeping vista points.

The Buttermilks in the Tungsten Hill are of the Eastern Sierra are a popular bouldering destination. (Photos by Dino Vournas) 

There’s an incredible amount of public land open for recreation of all types. You can go boondocking — primitive camping — in most of the undeveloped areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management and some U.S. Forest Service tracts. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power offers 13 campgrounds (and many day-use areas) scattered throughout the Eastern Sierra, if you prefer camping to hotel stays.

Details: GSC Off-Road Adventures can be reached at 760-920-1701.

3 Ancient trees: East of Bishop stand the elders of our earth, magnificent Great Basin bristlecone pines. Drive up lonely Highway 168 to the White Mountains’ equally lonely 10,000-foot plateau and ridge to discover trees of nearly unimaginable age: the 4,800-year-old Methuselah and an as-yet-unnamed tree recently discovered to be 5,050 years old. Their specific locations are unmarked to protect them, but the grove where they live is accessible by the Methuselah trail.

We hike in from the handsome visitors center, panting from the high elevation and encountering few hikers. It’s an emotional experience to walk among these ancient trees, which took root long before Egypt’s Great Pyramid was built.

What explains the bristlecones’ longevity.? Ranger Dave Hardin says adaptation to the stark conditions —very alkaline soil, little water and harsh weather — produces very dense, resinous wood that keeps the elements, insects and fires at bay.  The wood is so impervious to the elements that there is downed wood here that’s at least 7,000 years old and may date back to the last ice age. But climate change, he says, may doom trees that have lasted some 50 centuries on this earth.

Details: Learn more at https://bayareane.ws/bristlecone.

4 Historic museums: Head south on Highway 395 — you may spot the giant array of universe-searching radio dishes of the Caltech Owens Valley Radio Observatory along the way — to the little burg of Independence, Inyo’s county seat. We stopped in at the fascinating Eastern California Museum and its fine collection of Paiute and Shoshone baskets and clothing, historical photos, vintage implements and vehicles, including a steam locomotive — and, curiously, a dress belonging to aviator Amelia Earhart. Her husband lived here after she went missing in the Pacific.

The Eastern California Museumin the tiny town of Independence, California offers a blast to the frontier past. 

The sobering Manzanar National Historic Site is nearby, too. It’s one of 10 detention camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II.

Details: The observatory offers free tours on the first Monday of every month (except holidays); www.ovro.caltech.edu. Admission is free at the Eastern California Museum, which is open daily at 10 a.m. at 155 N. Grant St., Independence; www.inyocounty.us/ecmsite. Manzanar opens daily at 9 a.m. Admission is free; www.nps.gov/manz/index.htm.

5 Lofty peaks: The soaring heights of Mount Whitney — its 14,505-foot peak is the highest mountain in the continental U.S. — lie to the southwest, where the road leads to Whitney Portal, elevation 8,400 feet. Don’t let the drop-offs and absence of guardrails intimidate you; the views are well worth the drive. Whitney Portal offers campsites, a cool little store and cafe featuring pizza-size pancakes, and a gushing waterfall.  From the Portal, you can hike to the summit, but you’ll need a wilderness permit and plenty of food and water for the roundtrip, which can take eight to 15 hours to complete.

Details: https://bayareane.ws/WhitneyPortal

6 Cinematic glitz: Return to earth in Lone Pine and step into the superb Museum of Western Film History. Curator Don Kelson shows us around the excellent displays of props and artifacts from famous movies and vintage camera equipment, many used in on-location filming in this corner of the Sierra.

More than 700 Westerns were filmed in the Alabama Hills and nearby regions of the Eastern Sierra south of Bishop. (Courtesy Dino Vournas) 

Some 700 films and TV shows, primarily Westerns, were shot in the nearby Alabama Hills. The museum offers a self-guided tour map so you can explore this iconic range with its huge rock formations, rock arches, stone ridges and jaw-dropping views of Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak.

Feeling a touch of deja vu? If you watched Gene Autry or John Wayne and their trusty steeds chase desperadoes in your youth — or on Netflix — this is where those scenes were filmed. “Django Unchained” and “Iron Man” were shot here too. As I survey one canyon, I can almost hear the Lone Ranger and Tonto approaching.

Details: The museum ($5 suggested donation) opens daily at 10 a.m. at 701 S. Main St., Lone Pine; www.museumofwesternfilmhistory.org. Learn more about the Alabama Hills Recreation Area at  www.blm.gov/visit/alabama-hills.

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