Eastern Sierra Nevada

The Alluring Eastern Sierra Nevada: A Natural Barrier and Inspiration for Pioneers and Conservationists

“Between every two pine trees, there is a door leading to a new way of life.” – John Muir

The 400-mile (645 kilometers) long mountain range running along the east side of California is called the Sierra Nevada, which in Spanish means snow-covered mountains, a name given by the original Spanish explorers. Its magnificent skyline and spectacular landscapes make it one of the most beautiful physical features of the United States. It is the home of the giant sequoias, an essential water and power source, and was the epicenter of the gold rush period.

Geographically it sits between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the high desert to the east. The peaks range from 11,000 to 14,000 feet (3,350 to 4,270 meters), with Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet (4,421 meters), the highest peak in the United States, excluding Alaska’s higher mountains.

When I drive on Highway 395, along the east side of the Sierra, I imagine the caravans of pioneers in the 1850s coming through the high desert to face the daunting task of crossing this natural barrier on their long journey to California. What a scary hurdle! A testament to their stamina and spirit, this is the stuff that makes myths and legends. Was it like a voyage to a promised land? 

I also think about John Muir, a man that hiked these mountains most of his life and penned his experiences, which inspired the creation of the conservation movement. He was the founder of the Sierra Club (1892). He also helped inspire President Teddy Roosevelt to create Yosemite National Park. I think of him as a great example of a man using the power of words to move and shape history for the better.

2021: Exploring the Sierra Mountains on Highway 395

“In the desert, don’t stray away from the trail; it’s always smarter.” – Bedouin Proverb

The disturbing COVID cloud is fading, and it is time to take a breath of fresh air and do more than just a morning walks outdoors, so we went. Our week-long exploration was along Highway 395. This road runs east of and parallels the Sierra Mountains; it’s a spectacular drive.

On one side are the stunning peaks of the Sierras, and on the other, the desert. The Sierra Mountains contain hundreds of gem-like lakes, many miles of fishing streams, and enough hiking trails for a lifetime of walking. It’s a vast and diverse empire of the wild, filled with potential adventures. 

Day 1 – Exploring Red Rocks and Fossil Falls at Big Pine Canyon

“When you sleep in a house, your thoughts are as high as the ceiling; when you sleep outside, they are as high as the stars.” – Bedouin Proverb

We stopped for a quick visit at the Red Rock Canyon, where Danna demonstrated a Half-Moon pose. This park’s landscape is a feels-like Bryce Canyon in Utah, with eroding red sandstone in vivid colors. Then we stopped at Fossil Falls for a short walk.

Thousands of years ago, when the Owens River flowed through this creek, it sculpted and polished these black and brown volcanic rocks. The river is long gone and dry. What’s left is to Imagine the sound of the waterfall. 

We arrived at our rustic cabin at Glacier Lodge in Big Pine Canyon with a panoramic backdrop of the Sierra Mountains in the early evening hours. The lodge’s glory days are long gone. In the 1940s, it used to be the jewel of the Sierra, offering a European-style retreat, but times have changed.

The new owners, a couple from Orange County, bought the place recently and are planning to rebuild the dining hall and upgrade the old cabins. We had a great time staying at the big and comfortable cabin.  

Day 2 – Meeting Jim along the North Fork Big Pine Creek Trail

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir

The North Fork Big Pine Creek Trail rises to Palisade Glacier, the southernmost glacier in the United States. It sits above a series of lakes, named First Lake through Seventh Lake. We promised ourselves to reach the lakes on our next trip; this time, we turned around at Chaney’s cabin. It is named after a famous silent film actor, Lon Chaney. The cabin is also significant because it was designed by the renowned African American architect Paul Revere Williams.

It’s ironic to step out from a bustling city like Los Angeles, filled with strangers cheek to cheek, and on hiking in the vast wilderness, upon saying hello to a fellow hiker, deep conversations occur. Sometimes developing into a friendship — fleeting or lasting, but always memorable. As the saying goes, “It’s not about the hike, but it’s about the people you meet.”

We met Jim, a retired Navy Seal captain working hard to stay trim so that he could fit into his Navy Class A uniform for his son’s graduation from the Coast Guard Academy. It turned out that he has another son who serves in a Navy submarine. I love those kinds of people – filled with a sense of pride and a deep commitment to military service. A couple of weeks later, Jim sent us a photo from his son’s graduation. He looks dapper and proud next to his son and the President.

Day 3 – Hiking to Loch Leven Lake

“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” – John Muir

The Piute Canyon Trail to Loch Leven Lake at 10,700 feet (3,261 meters) is a steep hike through a series of switchbacks. We reached the lake early afternoon when the sun was right above us. The dark blue water and the white snow colors were bright and light-filled. The lake’s size is of a football field, surrounded by snow-covered cliffs. We celebrated with a culinary delight, smoked salmon from Trader Joe’s paired with grapefruit. It was delicious!

Days 4 and 5 – The Healing Waters of Keough and Benton Hot Springs

In the old days, the locations of natural hot springs used to be a little local secret, but times changed, and most are well known. We spent a couple of days soaking in these hot, mineral-rich waters. First, at Keough Hot Springs, located between Big Pine and Bishop. It’s a large swimming pool with a waterfall cooling system that felt like the Culver City Plunge, my local swimming pool.

Second, Benton Hot Springs, which is remote, funky, and luxurious, located in a homey and rustic inn that offers various accommodation styles, including ten campsites with a private hot springs tub, each one is different architecturally. All with very hot water; unless cooled, it was too warm for my liking.  

Benton is about 45 minutes northeast of Bishop. Its heyday was from 1862 to 1889 as a supply center for the nearby silver mines. At the end of the 19th century, the town declined. It made me think about all the little towns that went up with mining discoveries when a frenzy of adventurers headed west seeking their fortunes. But once the prize ran out, they were abanded and became ghost towns, like Tecopa Hot Springs, CA, and Kennecott, Alaska. In a best-case scenario, they became a museum of a long-forgotten way of life. 

We connected with Dave, a retired high school history teacher and a basketball coach traveling with his mother. In my mind, I could hear him saying, “Mom, you were locked down all year long; let’s go somewhere.” He and his family were born and raised in central California; most had teaching careers. I was impressed by the depth of Dave’s connection to this piece of land, its history, and its jewels.

Day 6 – The Fight for Mono Lake: Protecting California’s Ecosystem

Since Mono Lake doesn’t have an outlet, the water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack that enters the lake evaporates, leaving a concentration of salts and minerals. The lake’s water is highly alkaline and 2.5 times saltier than the ocean (pH 10). (See this link: What Differentiates Alkaline Water?) Millions of migrating and breeding birds are drawn to the lake’s diverse ecosystem, which includes many algae, alkali flies, and microscopic brine shrimp. In order to protect its beauty and natural resources for future generations, the Mono Basin has been designated as a National Forest Scenic Area.

The history of Mono Lake over the past century serves as a classic example of the struggle that developed due to the necessity to sustain California’s ecosystem and supply water to the state’s expanding population.

One Last Oasis

Four of the six mountain streams that feed Mono Lake were diverted into the Mono Basin when the City of Los Angeles expanded its aqueduct system there in 1941. The lake lost more to evaporation without the freshwater from the streams than it gained from the inflow. Over the following forty years, the salinity of Mono Lake increased, its volume decreased by half, and it nearly fell fifty vertical feet. In the windswept Basin, miles of newly exposed lake bottom caused deadly and ugly dust storms. These abrupt shifts influenced migratory birds, local fauna, and fisheries, as well as human health and the ecosystem health of the lake.

Searching for a solution

A combination of citizen organizations under the direction of the Mono Lake Committee started looking for ways to save Mono Lake in 1978. They questioned the legality of the City’s water diversions in light of the lake’s beauty and biological values. Then in 1983, the State Court ruled that the Public Trust Doctrine (protecting navigable bodies of water for all citizens) applied to Mono Lake. According to this law, “the human and environmental uses of Mono Lake… deserve to be taken into account. Such uses should not be destroyed because the state mistakenly thought itself powerless to protect them.” California Supreme Court, 1983

Ten years after the ruling by the California Supreme Court, on September 28, 1994, the Mono Basin was made a National Forest Scenic Area. The Board determined that Mono Lake needed to be elevated, which they estimated would take 20 years, to a height of 6392 feet.

The Future

The lake’s water level is only 6381 as of 2021, 27 years after the anticipated declaration. Although it is 11 feet below the target, it is 19 feet taller than in 1994. This occurs due to a few drought years and changes in weather patterns brought on by global climate change. It is challenging to forecast when the lake’s water level will reach the desired level of 6392 feet because the impacts of global warming are yet not fully understood.