Owens Valley

Quick note: this journal is a compilation of four different day trips to the Owens: June 27, 2009, January 17, 2010, June 12, 2010, and June 7, 2011. Dates are included wherever possible. That is, whenever we remember to.

Ah, the Owens Valley. What can we say? It is the most beautiful region on Earth, with the possible exception of the Utah canyon country. Stretching from its south end near the former community of Little Lake to its north end at Mono Lake just east of Yosemite, the Owens is accessible by a number of good (and bad) roads and traversed its entire length by Highway 395, a road you don't want to miss. If you can go only one place in the Mojave, go to the Owens. It lies at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada, with that magnificent granite massif dominating the view its entire length. It marks the transition from the Sierra mountain country to the ranges and troughs of the Great Basin. Bordered on the west by the highest point in the continental U.S., Mount Whitney at 14,495 feet, and the Inyo and White Mountains on the east (with Boundary Peak topping 13,000 feet), it is simply amazing country. We could spend every day there for the next ten years and not see and do everything, and we'd have a ten page journal entry every one of those days. Unfortunately we have jobs and bills to pay, so we get there only now and then, but when we do, you will read about it and see new pictures. We took a trip there in June, 2009 (and only now posting the journal. See what we mean by having jobs?). The pictures aren't what we really want for this journal, as they were taken in harsh noontime sunlight, but hey, when we get there we have to take what we can get. Here is the best of the lot, and we hope to have some other up after a trip we've tentatively planned for October.

Well, we didn't make the October trip but we finally got there on January 17, 2010. We got some really spectacular pictures, so please continue past these summertime pics and you'll see the most recent wintertime shots. We think they are pics of the Owens Valley at its finest.

(Above) At the southern end of the Owens near Brady's mini-mart on Highway 395. Looking west toward the southern Sierra Nevada. That is Owens Peak in the center.

(Above) Who says the desert isn't green, and in summer, no less? Looking west from Olancha at Olancha Peak. Take a look at your Crystal Geyser water bottle. This is the "source" from where the water is bottled. The bottling plant is behind us and about a half mile north.

(Above) Looking for a place to stay? This is for real, folks, and it indeed was open. The Rustic Motel, Olancha, California.


Though you'll get many definitions of where the Owens Valley begins and ends, we tend to think of its southern end as being near the former town of Little Lake, California (see our Fossil Falls journal). We say "former" in regard to Little Lake because there is nothing there now but a little lake, and it's not open to the public (thank the Los Angeles department of Water and Power for that, and if you're wondering what their grubby hands are doing way up here, read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner). There's not even a restroom, nor a bush to serve as one, so don't exit Highway 395 at Little Lake. However, Little Lake marks the southern boundary, border, terminus, beginning, whatever you want to call it, (and we know that we're going to lose you if you click on this link, but it's worth it for you if you're looking for a great road trip, and we hope you'll come back) of the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway. This is the portion of Highway 395 between Little Lake, California, and Topaz, Nevada. So, for our purposes, we're going to say the Owens "starts," or at least has its southern beginning, at Little Lake, California.

You know you've reached the Owens Valley, however, when Owens Lake comes into view. This is a fossil lake that dried up when the water of the Owens River was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Though encompassing a large surface area and ten to fifteen miles across, Owens Lake was never more than about thirty feet deep (at least post-Pleistocene), and today would be nothing but a massive dust flat providing a launch pad for wind-borne selenium and other toxic dust (which it was for a hundred years), if it were not for the large dust-control hydration project you can see from the highway. That's not natural lake water from the Owens River, but a thin covering of moisture to keep the dust down and the folks downwind healthy.


(Above) Looking just east of north, Owens Lake as seen from south of Olancha on North Haiwee (pronounced "HAY-wee") Road. You can see some of the dust-control project as a thin strip of water on the left. Those are the Inyo Mountains which form the eastern wall of the Owens Valley, and are about 10,000 feet high.


(Above) Looking north at the Owens Valley. Eastern Sierra Nevada range on the left, Inyo Mountains on the right. The peak in the center, barely visible, is fifty miles away and part of the White Mountains, which reach over 13,000 feet. See what dust control does for the visibility? Don't let the greenery and buildings in the foreground fool you: this is a very sparsely populated area and what you're looking at are the two very small towns of Olancha and Cartago, and it's 20 miles to the next sign of civilization. You can, however, get groceries, gas, and a good meal in these two towns, so feel free to stop.