By Lee Foster
The vast spaces of California’s Eastern Sierra along the Highway 395 corridor in Inyo County contain some blockbuster attractions that are among the top attractions in Northern California.
Two in particular stand out. Fall Color of the aspen trees all along Highway 395 in early October is outstanding, especially the Bishop Creek road to three Sierra lakes, west from Bishop.
Also, the Bristlecone Pine trees in the White Mountains, south and east of Bishop, are a tour de force, the oldest living things on Earth, well worth encountering.
However, beyond these blockbusters, a cluster of stops in Inyo County can be grouped as Eastern Sierra Vignettes, worth inclusion on an informed traveler’s to-do list.
A Vista Point on Highway 395, north of Bishop, looking out at Mt. Tom and the John Muir Wilderness, introduces this immense and lonesome area. Major wildernesses stretch as far as the eye can see. To the geologist these mountainous east sides of the Sierra Nevada are glacial sculptures, carved over eons by many advancing and retreating glaciers. The mountains are ranges of subtle light, especially lovely at dawn and in the hours just before and after sunset.
Bishop offers a good base for exploration of the area, with restaurants, lodgings, and a visitor center (with a website, see below) that is the main organizer of travel here. There are only 18,000 people in all of Inyo County, 4,000 in Bishop. A day trip from Bishop may warrant picnic flexibility, and the place to stock up is Erick Schat’s “destination” Bakery, where his landmark Sheepherder Bread and other culinary delights can be procured.
As you drive south from Bishop on Highway 395 toward the town of Independence, absorb the scenery and imagine the world of the Paiute and Shoshone Native Americans who inhabited this terrain from time immemorial. While the terrain looks arid, there was and is a substantial water source, the Owens River, with which these Indians irrigated their crops. Stop in Independence at the Eastern California Museum, where you can see about 400 Paiute “fancy” baskets, woven for collectors 1890-1930. Besides the baskets, the museum has photographer A. A. Forbes’ ethnographic image collection of Paiute life 1904-1916. The museum also presents a moving and personalized historic photo display of the Shiro Nomura Japanese family and friends, all of whom experienced internment during World War II at Manzanar, your next stop driving south on Highway 395.
Manzanar National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service, recalls the emotional period after the Pearl Harbor attack in WWII when all people of Japanese ancestry, including those who were full U.S. citizens, were forcibly relocated to remote inland locations. All Japanese were profiled and classified as potential threats. Their required removal from their homes and businesses in San Francisco and elsewhere destroyed their wealth and upset the fabric of their lives. The hysteria and fear of the time and its erosive effect on the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens is difficult but sobering to comprehend today. At Manzanar, you can see a film in which Japanese Americans speak about their experience in ironic and puzzled tones. There were about 10,000 Japanese Americans at Manzanar, mostly U.S. citizens. Their question: Why was this happening to us, law abiding U.S. citizens? Walk through this elaborate internment site to see a re-created barracks, mess hall, and guard tower.
Continuing south on Highway 395, your next stop is Lone Pine and an examination of its critical role in the development of the movie industry in America. Lone Pine and the scenic boulder-and-mountain-vista area to its west, known as the Alabama Hills (named after Southern sympathizers in the Civil War era), was an auspicious place to make movies. Lone Pine/Alabama Hills was near Los Angeles/Hollywood, had dependable sunny weather and light, presented immense undeveloped spaces, and offered a scenic backdrop of huge boulders and romantic mountain vistas. The site was a classic could-be-anywhere landscape. Directors set up their cameras on railroad tracks and recorded epic scenes of horseman galloping along, through the sagebrush, with mountains in the background.
Stop first at the Lone Pine Film History Museum to experience all the memorabilia and see an orientation video about the 700 movies made here. The films ranged from classic cowboy movies of the 1930s, such as Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, to recent sci-fi thrillers and dramas, including Ironman, Tremors, and Django Unchained. One of the first significant movies made here was The Round-Up, a 1920 silent film starring Fatty Arbuckle. The area’s film heritage celebrates annually, each Columbus Day, at the Lone Pine Film Festival.
Drive west from Lone Pine to the Alabama Hills filming area, aided by a good map from the museum. The setting may have a déjà vu familiarity, partly because you may have indeed seen it before, in films. Turn down the dirt road known as Movie Road and see where one of the most ambitious epics of all time, Gunga Din, a tale of British India, was filmed. A cast of thousands participated in this 1939 extravaganza.
The Alabama Hills also offers an extraordinary nature experience, showing in its arid boulder roundness a few select “windows” or “arches.” There are about 200 of these wind-and-water-carved holes in the rocks. Admittedly, this is a lesser California version of Arches National Park in Utah. The two most spectacular arches are visible on a hike at a turnoff near Movie Road, all explained in an “Easy Hiking Trails” brochure from the Bishop Visitors Center (see website below). From the parking lot, make an easy walk to the two arches, known as Lathe Arch and Mobius Arch. At these arches, sprawl out on the ground and capture an image of the arch framing the undisputed dominant physical feature of the region, Mt. Whitney, highest peak in the contiguous U.S. at 14,494 feet, or slightly higher, depending on surveyor nuances.
Proceed now to the most glorious natural geological feature on the region, Mt. Whitney, at 14,494 official feet. Your opportunity here for visual joy is to drive toward Mt. Whitney on the road to Whitney Portal, the final trailhead for climbers. Pause a few times, possibly with lupin or Indian paintbrush wildflowers before you, and enjoy perspectives on Mt. Whitney, the spiky peak on the right among the four spires in your view. At Whitney Portal, enjoy a stunning waterfall, a trout-filled pond, a hearty burger, and conversation with the climbers coming and going from this highest peak.
Eastern Sierra Vignettes: If You Go
The primary information source for visitors to the region is the Bishop Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Bureau at http://www.bishopvisitor.com.