By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
In Brief: The east side of California’s Sierra mountain range, with treasures like Mono Lake and the Owens River Valley, is a delight to explore. Underlying the beauty, however, is the unending struggle over California water. About 75 percent of the state’s water originates in Northern California, but about 75 percent of the water used is in Southern California. The north has ecological concerns. The survival of nesting birds at Mono Lake, for example, is due only to judicial intervention that required the Los Angeles Water District to keep Mono Lake water levels high enough to prevent predators from crossing to the bird-nesting islands in the lake.
Aside from the water issue, Mammoth Lakes is a world-class winter sports destination, and nearby Bishop, to the south, boasts the oldest living things on earth, the Bristlecone pines, east in the White Mountains, and some of the loveliest October Fall Color in California, west in the Bishop Creek watershed.
The Historic Story: Partisans of California’s Mammoth Lakes region in the Eastern Sierra can argue persuasively that it competes for the honor of most diverse outdoor summer region of the Golden State. Ski entrepreneur Dave McCoy propelled the winter ski operations at Mammoth to world-class fame, especially for skiers from Southern California. All this started with modest rope tows powered by a discarded Ford Model A engine on Mammoth Mountain. Summer blossomed as hikers entered the Pacific Crest and other major Sierra trails, and as the average summer visitor focused on the striking basalt columns of Devils Postpile National Monument.
However, behind the scenery is the long and bitter struggle over California resources, for both water and real estate. And, before the era of white dominance, came the enduring and patient story of the Paiute and Shoshone people who populated the region, and who tell their story eloquently today in Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center in Bishop.
Some important dates in the recent story begin in the early 1900s when the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power built the Los Angeles Aqueduct and began to wrestle away the water rights from the Owens River Valley. In 1941 they bought most of the Mono Basin and began siphoning off the streams. Major populations of gulls, eared grebes, and red-necked phalaropes were endangered as their nesting areas diminished and became accessible to predators. In 1994 a California judicial decision ordered Los Angeles to maintain the water level in Mono Lake at 6,377 feet before diverting further water.
Efforts to save Mono Lake, articulated well today at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center in Lee Vining, prevented the lake from being totally drained by the thirsty Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The case became one of the major environmental issues in California. Judicial intervention required restoration of inbound streams and stabilization of the surface level of the lake. A higher lake level does more than give protection from predators to birds nesting on the islands. High lake levels also insure that the salinity of the water, which has already doubled, will not change further, endangering the underlying brine fly and brine shrimp ecosystem on which all creatures in the area depend. When the water level dropped, it also exposed enigmatic tufa formations, vertical structures composed of calcium carbonate, which had bubbled up and calcified from underground.
The best place to see the tufa formations is at the South Tufa site. Rangers on duty lead periodic hikes there. You’ll be amazed at the density of the non-biting flies, called brine flies, which make up the base of the animal food chain here, allowing for abundant bird life. Brine flies and brine shrimp attain explosive populations at Mono Lake. The Native Americans of the area, called the Kuzedika Paiute, ate the pupae of the flies. More than 70 species of migratory birds also feed on the flies. The populations of the migrating bird species here are huge, including about 150,000 phalaropes in July-August and 800,000 eared grebes in August-October.
The main political controversy in the Mammoth Lakes region was, is, and always will be over water and the rights to control its use. However, beyond water, the beauty of nature here is astonishing.
You will want to get out and explore this vast region to appreciate the historic story and its natural beauty.
North of Mono Lake, allow a half day for a visit to Bodie, one of the best preserved historic gold mining ghost towns in the West. Bodie produced a fabulous amount of gold for the owners of its mines. The technology was deep rock mining, requiring huge capital, as opposed to the pick-a-nugget-from-a-stream world of small-scale entrepreneurs along California’s historic Highway 49, the official “Gold Country.” Bodie had a sustained large population of miners and mine owners. The owners were in charge and kept their cost of labor to $4 a day. In Bodie you can gaze at the tailings and see the church, a typical house, a film on Bodie, and a museum with a lot of artifacts and area literature, including a vintage stagecoach. Bodie flourished into the 1930s, a detail apparent visually when you see the rusted early cars now overwhelmed by dry desert wind and dust.
South from Mono Lake, in Mammoth, the Devils Postpile National Monument was established in 1911, partly to prevent developers from blowing up the terrain and bottling up the San Joaquin River source into yet another dam. Devils Postpile is a stunning set of basalt columns. You take a shuttle into the monument from the Mammoth Mountain Main Lodge in the ski area to Stop 6 for the quarter-mile walk into Postpile. View the Postpile from the bottom, preferably in afternoon when full sunlight falls on it. Then also walk around the left side, up a steep grade, to the top to see the hexagonal columns, as scraped flat here by the crushing weight of glaciers. You will see clearly the hexagonal tops that formed as the oozing lava cooled. This hexagonal appearance of the columns is one of the more mystical aspects of nature that you will ever encounter. Why did nature choose this six-sided shape?
Beyond Postpile, the next most popular walk in the monument is to Rainbow Falls, a waterfall near the start of the San Joaquin River, where mist creates rainbows. However, the Rainbow Falls walk is longer and steeper, and you are at altitude, so pace yourself and weigh the exertion your body can tolerate. Keep hydrated with plenty of water.
Day hikes, ambitious backpacking, and horse trips from Mammoth Lakes can easily take a visitor into the backcountry. Backpackers seek out the John Muir or Pacific Crest trails. In few places will a traveler find so many accessible trails.
Each aspect of the travel picture here has its historic story. Mammoth Camp Pack Outfit, started in 1915, was the first packer business in the Eastern Sierra and one of the earliest businesses in Mammoth. Packers carried in mining supplies to the gold miners in the region before the pleasure traveler came onto the scene. Today several companies provide day horseback trail rides and more elaborate multi-day back country outings. Riding on a horse can remove the huff and puff from traversing this granite terrain, between 7,000-12,000 feet. A full-day horse trip, for example, can take you six miles into the wilderness to Duck Lake, revealing a backcountry that only a hiker in superb condition could experience.
One recent aspect in the historical recreation story is how mountain bikers delight in the region. What attracts them are the numerous biking roads and trails, and because the great mountain, Mammoth, noted for its ski runs in winter, becomes a mountain-biking park in summer. Riders take a gondola to the top and then bike down the switchbacks, through the trees, to the bottom. Mammoth’s new zip line and climbing wall will attract more summer visitors. In winter, the elaborate gondola and chair system can accommodate 50,000 skiers per day. Only Breckenridge and Vail in Colorado surpass Mammoth in total capacity for skiers.
A traveler will find the requisite tourism infrastructure in this modern, little, mountain town of Mammoth Lakes, population of about 8,000 people.
All considered, Mammoth’s appeal equals its famous competitors, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. Both those regions are better known than Mammoth, partly because they are more accessible. But Mammoth, already popular as a winter ski destination, especially for Southern Californians, now attracts more summer visitors. Bishop, immediately south, adds it own attractions, especially the Bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, east from Bishop, and the Fall Color in the Bishop Creek drainage, west of Bishop, brilliant usually in the first week of October.
The Eastern Sierra has some charming small history museums and historic sites, related to the dreams of gold mining and then the more sustainable goal of tourism and preservation of natural beauty. In Mammoth, visit first the outdoor rusted remnants and rustic dilapidated buildings of the Mammoth Consolidated Mine, a major gold mining vision. Then proceed to The Gallery at Twin Lakes, literally in the 1930s house and studio of the great photographer, Stephen Willard, whose images helped inspire creation of several national parks and monuments in California. Finally, visit the Mammoth Museum in the Emmett and Margaret Hayden Cabin, a 1937 effort to nurture tourism in Mammoth.
In Bishop, make a pleasant level walk to the Cardinal Mine, west of Bishop, then return to the town and peruse the outstanding Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center. When venturing east to the White Mountains, the Bristlecone Pine Visitor Center is engaging, especially if interpreter Dave Hardin is present. South from Bishop are several further enticements. Visit Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp from WWII. The Eastern California Museum in Independence has a strong Native American basketry collection. The Alabama Hills region west of Lone Pine was the site for many western movies, all immortalized in the Lone Pine Film History Museum. And finally, gaze at Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal for a glimpse at the tallest mountain peak in the contiguous lower 48 states.
Getting There: The most direct and delightful route in summer from the San Francisco Bay Area is Highway 120, east from Manteca and over the Yosemite High Country to Highway 395, then south. Reach Highway 120 by taking Interstates 580-205 east from the Bay Area to Manteca. The all-year route, also a pleasant drive back in summer, is farther north, taking Interstate 80 to Sacramento, Highway 50 to Tahoe, then Highway 89 south and east to Highway 395.
Be Sure to See: Don’t miss Mono Lake, with its excellent interagency Visitor Center. Bodie is a well-preserved mining ghost town, one of the best in the West. In Mammoth, see Devils Postpile, the basaltic columned national monument, followed by visits to the Consolidated Mine, The Gallery at Twin Lakes, and the Emmett and Margaret Hayden Cabin. The summer gondola ride to the top of Mammoth Mountain shows a stunning display of Eastern Sierra real estate. For Bishop, see the Bristlecone pines to the east, oldest living things on earth, with its excellent Visitor Center. Then drive west for a level walk at the Cardinal Mine, returning to look at the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center museum in Bishop.
Best Time of Year: Winter sports at Mammoth is a world unto itself. Snow can be intense November-March. Late spring, all summer, and early fall reveals the entire region. Summer is the glorious and accessible time, when everything is available, especially July-September. Fall Color is special, roughly early October, especially for the Bishop Creek watershed and three lakes with abundant aspens west of Bishop. Other Fall Color outings focus on the June Lakes loop, all the little roads from Highway 395 west into the mountains, such as to Lundy Lake, and the glorious panoramic promontory north of Mono Lake known as Conway Summit, looking west to the mountains.
Lodging: Dependable and comfortable lodgings include the Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth Lakes and the Best Western Bishop Lodge or Creekside Inn in Bishop.
Dining: For Mammoth Lakes, try Petra’s Bistro & Wine Bar for pork loin and 53 Kitchen & Cocktails (recalling the year Mammoth Mountain skiing started in a big way) for short ribs. For Bishop, consider the Bowling Alley (yes, the Bowling Alley!) for prime rib and Sage restaurant for white-tablecloth fine dining and a filet mignon. Two other culinary destinations in Bishop are Schat’s Bakery, known for its classic Sheepherder bread, and Holy Smoke smoked meats, celebrating a taste profile that you may not yet have savored sufficiently.
Four Charming Videos: If planning a trip to the region, you might enjoy four charming and informative videos of the area.
Mammoth Lakes’ snazzy new 360 cluster of videos, showing latest technology portrayals of the destination.
A 1919 silent movie, portraying Paiute Indians on horseback and white settlers in Model A’s welcoming development.
A 1960’s Bishop Boosters promotional video, with the Forest Service stepping in, at midpoint, celebrating its new Bristlecone Forest creation. The video shows a young couple in a newsreel portrayal, riding a now-historic vehicle to the Bristlecone forest, evoking a nostalgic and carefree era.
Dave Hardin, the legendary explainer of the Bristlecones, informs in detail about these oldest living things on earth. If Dave is not at the Visitor Center during your trip, see him on YouTube.