We finally ended our month-long stay in New Mexico when faced with the prospect of multiple days of rain. Trouble was, it was also raining in Arizona, so we had to keep heading west across the Colorado Plateau in the on-and-off drizzle, past the meteor crater and Flagstaff, refueling in Kingman because we knew the California fuel prices would be higher, and then down 4000 feet to the Colorado River as upland coniferous forest turned into the Mojave Desert. We spent the night in a casino in the southernmost tip of Nevada, woke up to 73 degree temperatures, and headed back uphill and west on I-40.
Its a lonesome stretch of highway through the Mojave until you get to Barstow, California. A bit west of Barstow was our destination, US Highway 395, which heads north up the Owens Valley toward Yosemite and Reno on the eastern side of the Sierras. We planned on going northward in California up this valley, rather than our usual pattern of driving out to the coast and going up the Pacific Coast Highway, because we’ve already done that for more years than we care to count. We’ve never been to the inland part of California north of Sacramento, and it’s time we explored that section of the country while the spring weather holds. Inland means hot in mid-summer, and if we wait much past Memorial Day we’ll miss our opportunity. We’ve been here before, but usually went east or west once we got up to Yosemite. This time we’ll keep headed north.
As you drive north on US 395, you gradually climb up to 3700 feet by the time you get to Lone Pine, a one-stoplight town that is the location of the Eastern Sierra Interagency Information Center. Inyo County, where Lone Pine is located has an amazing eighty-four campgrounds, between the Forest Service, the state, BLM, the county, and the commercial parks. The Visitor Center, on your right as you approach town, will load you up on information about all of them. There’s this nifty map (above) which is a concise guide to each campground, with amenities, altitude, directions, and cost.
It was eightyish in town, so I did some quick research on my handy NOAA website which allows me to get point forecasts for any given location by putting in latitude and longitude, no town name required. It looks like the upcoming week will be best enjoyed at an altitude of around 6000 feet, so I started looking for campsites matching that criterion. We had stayed at Tuttle Creek last time through, but it was too low and already familiar to us. Further up the Whitney Portal road leading west from Lone Pine was Lone Pine Campground, a Forest Service campground with water, no electricity, and 12 bucks a night for us old people. Lone Pine Campground it is.
Whitney Portal Road is aptly named, it’s the approach to the notch in the Sierras where Lone Pine Creek originates and where climbers used to trudge to climb the mountain. Now it’s paved all the way to the trailhead, but watch your temperature gauge, because you’re climbing about 5000 feet in six miles up the giant alluvial fan created by the mountains. I babied our 11,000 pound campervan halfway up this long climb through the Alabama Hills where they shot all those movies, pulled in at Lone Pine Campground, and we miraculously got a spot on Saturday afternoon. Good thing there are so many campgrounds here, and so few people.
The campground is in the creek bed of Lone Pine Creek, and the most striking feature are the gigantic granite boulders, some 30 to 40 feet in diameter. They’re rounded, so my immediate thought was glacial, but the campground host said no, they rolled down here. I googled up a geological quadrant map, and he is right. Because the eastern face is so steep, there are no ice fields large enough to feed a glacier sufficiently to push out over the plains. The lowest glacial moraine is at 7000 feet, way uphill. The incline from the top of the mountains is so steep that huge boulders, once dislodged by weathering or earthquake, will gain astonishing speeds, and cover a mile or two of territory before finally coming to rest. The whole creek bed, halfway down to the town, is this narrow band of huge boulders. I am glad I wasn’t here when they got deposited.
I hiked a mile or so up the trail toward Whitney Portal and the upper campground, and looked back downhill toward our campground. Up on the lip of the creekbed, the view of the Owens Valley will give you an appreciation for the vast distances of this landscape. the White Mountains, of bristlecone pine fame, form the eastern edge of the valley here. Overhead, Navy fliers from China Lake do lazy loops, getting their flying hours in. As you go uphill, you start to see conifers in the creekbed- Jeffreys pines here, replacing the ponderosas I’m used to further east. The surface of the alluvial fan is covered with sagebrush and a few cholla cacti, along with a few lupines as you get closer to the mountains.
The weather here is cool, dry, and sunny – except when the Pacific storms blow in and spill over the mountains. We had one extremely gusty day here – fortunately, we were in town shopping and missed all the excitement, but there were limbs down out of most of the trees, and one tree was toppled. The wind hitting the western side of the mountains had been funneled through the gap in the mountains here, and was at least 60 or 70 mph for a brief period. I helped the campground personnel clean up the limbs and retrieve a few ones broken off but still precariously situated up in the trees, ready to fall on unwary campers. We’re out west – the weather is unpredictable and can turn treacherous on you. It still beats tornadoes back east, though.
We will probably max out our stay here at two weeks and then head further north. It was nice to sit this long and explore the local geology and enjoy the spectacular views of the mountains.