Eastern California – Spring 2016 Road Trip – Day 5 – Mono Lake, Lake Tahoe & Chico

Waking up in the Eastern Sierra’s to a cold morning, we continued north on U.S. 395, stopping first about 25 miles north of Bishop at a vista point to look at Crowley Lake near the Long Valley Caldera.   Long Valley Caldera is a depression that is adjacent to Mammoth Mountain.

The valley is one of the Earth’s largest calderas, measuring about 20 miles long and 11 miles wide and up to 3,000 ft deep. Crowley Lake is a reservoir on the upper Owens River. The lake was created in 1941 by the L.A. Department of Water and Power, as storage for the Los Angeles Aqueduct and for flood control, with a 126′ high dam.

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Upon completion of the reservoir in 1941, strange columnar formations, some of which reached heights of as much as 20 feet, were spotted along the reservoir’s eastern shore. Some described them as stone cylinders connected by fortified stone arches that had been completely covered and obscured for millions of years but which had been gradually unmasked by the constant pounding of powerful waves that eroded the more soft rock at the base of the cliffs encasing these pillars.

The pillars were simply regarded as oddities until 2015, when geologists realized that they were the result of frigid water from melting snow seeping down into volcanic ash (the result of a catastrophic explosion more than 700,000 years prior), creating tiny holes in the hot ash, the byproduct being boiling water and steam, which then rose up and out of these same holes. Unfortunately to get close you need a 4 wheel drive vehicle, and from across the lake they were difficult to see.

Not far away, a rainbow appeared along the slope of the mountain. The rainbow seemed to end at the road so it seemed as if we drove through the rainbow and its moisture dropped onto our windshield. We saw the full arc of the rainbow from end to end with mountains flanked on each side of us at heights of 12,000 feet.

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The landscape changed once again within ten minutes of driving from the desert at Crowley Lake at 4000 feet to a forest at 5000 feet along US Highway 395. Micro-climate changes occurred throughout our trip. Soon we reached the 8300 foot summit to a snowy setting but clear roads. Five minutes later the snow disappeared and we drove through a green forest as we dropped in elevation. We moved into a semi-desert area while still able to see the snow-capped mountains to our left.

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We stopped at Mono Lake to see the eerie setting. When I first looked at this scenery, it struck me as an alien environment because it is nothing like anything I had ever seen. The white solid structures on land and in the lake were unusually shaped. We learned that in 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting Mono Lake’s streams south to meet the growing water demands of Los Angeles.  Depriving the lake of its freshwater sources, the volume of Mono Lake was cut in half while its salinity doubled. Mono Lake became 2.5 times saltier and the lake dropped 40 feet.

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The most unique feature of this area is the tufa towers. When the spring water meets the alkaline lake water, calcium and carbonate salts react to form insoluble calcium carbonate (limestone), which precipitates out, settling in mineral deposits around the spring. Over centuries, these deposits gradually grow into towering columns which can reach heights of up to 30 feet.

Tufa can only form underwater, so it is only if lakes are drained or dry out over many years that the towers are exposed. We walked among the tufa towers on the lakeshore when Dave recalled that a Pink Floyd album featured these tufa towers of Mono Lake on their album cover. The tufa towers were hard as rock and were irregular shapes and heights.

Mono Lake has its own ecosystem of gulls and grebes, thrush and plover that eat the brine shrimp. Brine shrimp that eat the alkali flies which eat the algae. Native tribes once lived in the Mono Basin and collected the fly larvae that they used in trade and also ate.

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We wanted to explore Mono Basin a bit more so we ventured into a dirt path aiming for a look at the young Panum Crater. Our first attempt ended when we reached a road hollowed out from deep potholes so we tried a gravel road that was more direct. Once we made it to Panum Crater, we hiked the rim trail up to the top of the crater to see the center of the volcanic eruption.

The black shiny rock, obsidian, was strewn throughout the crater’s center. Sheaths of rock towered the area as we heard a guide talk about the history of the area to a group of school students. The Panum Crater is only one of a volcanic chain of craters, domes and lava flows in Mono County. The chain stretches 25 miles from the northwest shore of Mono Lake to the south of Mammoth Mountain.

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Further north a 12 mile road up a mountain that ended up as a dirt road lead to the town of Bodie, which is now an authentic Wild West ghost town. The town was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and in 1962 it became Bodie State Historic Park. A total of 170 buildings remain. Bodie began as a mining camp following the discovery of gold in 1859 by a group of prospectors, including W. S. Bodey. Bodey perished in a blizzard the following November while making a supply trip to Monoville.

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We decided not to enter the ghost town park since it was muddy and a chance of getting the car stuck, resulting in a posted $300 tow, so we made our way back to the main road with beautiful views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

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We rolled into Bridgeport, California for lunch. Roast beef sandwiches and fries at Rhino’s satisfied our hunger but I suspected that Rhino’s might be more of a tough bar scene establishment. It was just a hunch on my part but there are slim pickin’s of restaurants roaming the small towns out West.

As our route continued up  U.S. 395 it started raining making our plans for Lake Tahoe damp. Having been at Lake Tahoe many years ago where I remember seeing the bluest water of my life, it was disappointing that the view was obscured.

As we continued around the lake it continued to be overcast, cold, and crowded with tourist when we arrived at Inspiration Point.

Fortunately our route up the west side of the lake allowed us to pop out of the rain, and by the time we reached a marina the rain had stopped. Finally we had a beautiful setting with a mountainous backdrop for some photos.

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A visit to Squaw Valley, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, was our next stop. While it is radically different than 55 years ago, some of the original buildings still stand. The California Olympic Center was built in the Googie architecture style which is a form of modern architecture, influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age. Unfortunately it is now a Mexican restaurant so it bears little resemblance to its original form.

Being a hockey fan, I really wanted to see the open air hockey arena, but its roof collapsed in 1980 and the Squaw Valley Lodge stands in its place. In addition we were disappointed to find that it was too late in the day for us to ride the tram to the top of the mountain to see the Olympic Museum as the the tram stopped service before we arrived.

Arriving in Truckee about 4 PM, we wanted to see the Donner Pass Museum in Truckee but it was about to close so we moved on. All have heard the story of the Donner family and the other families that set off through the Sierra Nevada Mountains unprepared for the winter and stalled out in the deep snow. Only 48 of the 87 pioneers survived. Their story spoke of cannibalism of the dead to endure.

A statue went up at the site of the Donner camp in 1918. The stone pedestal is 22 feet high, the same depth as the snow that caused their demise. We skipped the museum and the park and drove on via I-80.

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On our way back down the mountains our route took us through Grass Valley to see the Historical Mill at Empire State Park. Our luck ran out again when we arrived to find the park closed a half hour before we got there so we moved onward along California Highway 20; once again we continued. The next town was Oroville, where there is a 700′ high dam, but again to stick with the challenging day we couldn’t find it. Finally after passing some rice fields (in dry California???) our day ended in Chico. For a day that started out so great at Mono Lake, the rest of the day was challenging, but still the views of the drive made up for everything closing just before we arrived.

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Sierra Nevada Mountains, California – Spring 2016 Road Trip – Day 4 – Sherman Pass & The Eastern Sierras

Our 4th day started out by heading back into the Central Valley, where we once again stopped at a farm market, this time for fresh picked cherries, strawberries and apples for snacks while we drove through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Immediately after leaving Porterville we started back up into the mountains, spending the 40 miles winding our way along California 190 until we came to the junction for Sherman Pass, where the highway crosses the Kern River.

There was a parking lot for people to go fishing, so we stopped for a break, asking one of the locals if they knew if the pass was open (it is normally closed all winter). Assured that it was we decided to go through the pass, as opposed the much longer route around the southern end of the mountains.

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As soon as we turned onto this road we had to dodge boulders in the middle of the road, but that was short lived and our drive continued up the mountain. Eventually we peaked out at 9200 feet in elevation, the highest point of the pass, where the temperature had dropped from the 70oF in Fresno to 36oF, cold enough to retain much of the winter snow, giving me an opportunity to throw some late May snowballs.

The route across the pass and subsequent mountains is 137 miles, and after dropping down into the valley for the Eastern Sierra’s the temperature was back up to 77o F.

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Heading up the valley on U.S. 395 we soon arrived at Fossil Falls; a unique geological feature located in the Coso Range of California where volcanic activity in the mountain range, along with meltwater from glaciers in the nearby Sierra Nevada, played a role in the creation of the ‘falls’.

Walking along the path to Fossil Falls was across extremely uneven footing from the basaltic flows was challenging, but eventually we arrived at a sheer 50′ drop off into a ravine filled with similar rocks.

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The flows occurred between 400,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago. There are large, perfectly circular penetrations in the basalt that are erosional features called potholes. The black polished rock looked odd scattered over acres of desert but we climbed over rocks to stand along the edge and peer down into the deep ravine.

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Lone Pine was our next stop, going up into Alabama Hills to see the movie trail where TV and movie scenes were filmed. The desert and western scenes for films like Django, Gunga Din, Rawhide and How the West Was Won were all shot here, with a movie trail looped us through the specific sites for each. Also of interest is a natural stone arch that was situated directly on the movie trail.

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Further up the valley is Manzanar, California, now a National Historic Site, but was initially built in 1942 as an internment camp; where the United States government ordered more than 110,000 of men, women, and children who had been forced to leave their homes were detained them in remote, military-style camps. While a few were Japanese immigrants, most of the men, women and children were US citizens.

The Historic Site had a number of building from the 1940s, including the Block House, a building that provided living quarters for a family. The Block House had one coal heater, and a mattress which meant that the family had to fend for themselves if they wanted other items. We also saw the Barracks, originally a cluster of fifteen buildings. The barracks (shacks) were built of only pine planking covered with tarpaper, on concrete footings, with about two feet of open space between the floorboards and the ground. Knotholes gaped in the uncovered floor.

Despite the injustice of it all, and the poor conditions, these people made toys, furniture, and household items from leftover crates and trash left from supplies brought into the camp, as well as creating gardens for food and beauty.

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The camp required the Japanese ethnic detainees to hold jobs.  They served in jobs to help their captors, the US military, during WWII at the camp and sometimes the detained were sent out of camp to help alleviate the labor shortage, for instance, picking vegetables elsewhere.

In addition to the barracks and block house, our tour of the grounds showed us rubble of a Catholic church, and sites where a Buddhist temple, school, hospital and post office once stood.

At the back of the camp was a cemetery, with a tall white monument engraved in Japanese writing standing in the center of a fenced area. The fence was decorated with multi-colored paper chains that looked like lotus flowers.

We walked among the graves but we could only feel ashamed of how our country treated its own citizens.


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We left Manzanar and drove along the highway seeing rain in the distance with storm clouds that hung at the top of the mountains. The Sierra Nevada Mountains flanked the highway to our left with peaks between 11,000 and 14,000 feet in elevation.  We saw Mt. Whitney from a far with a snow blanketed peak. Mt. Whitney is the highest point in California at 14,494 feet.

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Our day ended at Bishop, California to stay the night. After dinner at a Japanese restaurant, we returned back to our hotel, the Creekside Inn.

The hotel served freshly made cookies as we walked in so we had some for our dessert while watching Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, where the Penguins tied the series at 3 games each; so final game seven will be played in Pittsburgh. During our entire trip we were able to either watch the game, or in a few instances, listen to it on the satellite radio that the Chrysler 300 Rental Car had.

While watching the hockey game, we were able to look out our hotel window to see a rainbow wedged between two mountain peaks. It was an unusual sight in the way it was situated between the peaks.

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