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Eastern Sierra Nevada 1

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United States Highway 395 runs from the Cajon Pass northeast of Los Angeles to the Canadian border. The 395 in California is famous for its spectacular scenery as it parallels the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains for some 400 kilometers.

Heading north from Los Angeles, Highway 395 begins at the southern end of the Owens Valley. Sandwiched between the Sierras and the Inyo Mountains, the valley is flat, desolate, and very dry (Death Valley is to the east, just beyond the Inyo Mountains). Along with the low humidity, wind-whipped dust makes the air irritating to breathe and hazy. It’s hard to believe that at the beginning of the 20th century the Owens Valley was lush and fertile farmland. To meet a growing need for water, the City of Los Angeles bought up most of the land in the valley and built a system of aqueducts spanning 400 kilometers, an engineering marvel of its time. The system began diverting almost all the valley’s water in 1913, allowing the semi-desert of Los Angeles to bloom with urban sprawl. By 1924 the Owens Valley was a dust bowl.

Picture of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine The first substantial town you’ll reach is Lone Pine. Its main attraction is Mount Whitney, whose 4417-meter summit is the highest point in the continental United States. The Whitney Portal Road twists and turns for 21 kilometers from Lone Pine to the 2550-meter-high Whitney Portal trailhead. From there a 17.1 kilometer trail leads to the summit. The trail is so popular that the Forest Service requires permits for all hikers, limited to a daily quota. A hiker in excellent physical condition who gets an early start can make the round trip to the top in one day, but most who make the complete trip camp overnight on the mountain. Many more people take a short hike that doesn’t require a permit, so the lower section of the trail can have a human traffic jam even during the off season.

Pictures of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine The Whitney Portal Road offers another attraction that doesn’t require any hiking at all. You may not have heard of the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine, but you’ve probably seen them many times. To early moviemakers the rocky desert setting invoked the “Old West,” so the Alabama Hills have been a prominent feature of western films ever since. More recently the hills have served as a terrestrial stand-in for alien landscapes in science-fiction films and television programs, and as the background for numerous commercials. The road through the hills is called, appropriately enough, Movie Road. It’s a dirt road, but quite passable in a car if you take your time.

Photograph of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine Photo of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine Arriving during the Civil War, miners sympathetic to the Confederacy named their claims in the hills for the battleship Alabama that had harassed northern shipping. The name eventually stuck to the entire area. The low, rounded hills were originally part of the towering craggy white Sierras in the background of these pictures. Faulting separated them from the mountains, and the combination of earthquakes and weather eroded them down to rock piles. The landscape reminds me very much of Joshua Tree National Park, which also owes its cracked rock formations to earthquakes. Although both places are high desert, the Alabama Hills are at a much higher elevation and colder, so there aren’t any Joshua trees.

Picture of view from Glacier Lodge picnic area One of the delights of Highway 395 is exploring the many side roads into the mountains, following a creek or leading to a lake or cabins. From Big Pine, 72 kilometers north of Lone Pine, Glacier Lodge Road winds its way to the Glacier Lodge “resort” complex of cabins and campsites. At the entrance to Glacier Lodge is a trout pond and picnic area that provides a surprising view.

Picture of fall color in Bishop Creek Canyon At the north end of the Owens Valley, Bishop (population 3600) is the metropolis of the eastern Sierra. The Bishop area offers year-round recreational opportunities, but it’s particularly renowned among autumn “leaf peepers” for its colorful aspen displays. While Bishop lacks the stereotypical red barns, hay bales, and white churches that enhance innumerable autumn pictures of New England, the Sierras surely provide more than adequate compensation.

Photographs of fall color in Bishop Creek Canyon Highway 168 (“West Line Road”) heads west from Bishop and rapidly gains elevation as it enters Bishop Creek Canyon. The first notable scenic point is a lake with the romantic and evocative name of Intake 2. The name is a pointed reminder that Bishop Creek is a source of hydroelectric power for the region, and that some of the most scenic lakes are artificial or “managed.” A small campground next to the lake has prime campsites right on the creek.

Picture of Aspens at Cardinal Creek Resort Picture of fallen leaves at Cardinal Creek Resort Highway 168 continues along Bishop Creek, past the hamlet of Aspendell. Secluded amid aspen stands at an elevation of 2590 meters, Aspendell really lives up to its name (although I suspect it’s somewhat less attractive in February). Past Aspendell near the end of the road is Cardinal Village, one of a number of “resorts” in the Sierras that rent cabins for fishermen and hikers. At Cardinal Village I saw a tranquil pond that was covered with floating fallen leaves.

Image of fall color in Bishop Creek Canyon 24 kilometers west of Bishop, South Lake Road branches off Highway 168 to follow the south fork of Bishop Creek.

Picture of fall foliage in Bishop Creek Canyon Pictures of fall foliage in Bishop Creek Canyon A fall foliage trip is necessarily a gamble. Planning involves researching historical information about when leaves typically change color. But as with weather, forecasting autumn color based on historical data doesn’t always work out. The “peak of color” in Bishop Creek Canyon is usually at the end of September. I couldn’t get there until mid-October, but I had good luck because unusually warm weather had delayed the color change.

Picture of South Lake on Bishop Creek At the end of South Lake Road is, not surprisingly, South Lake. Viewed from the side away from the dam, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the lake is artificial. Besides providing a source of hydroelectric power, the lake is popular for boating and fishing. It’s also a trailhead for hikes to remote, completely natural lakes that don’t generate any electricity.

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