The Owens Valley and its towns of Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop have been filming locations for many 21st century blockbusters such as Django Unchained, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Ironman and Gladiator. A significant number of Spaghetti Westerns were also filmed here. Beyond just movies, the Owens Valley holds a lifetime's worth of unique destinations and outdoor adventures.
|Lone Pine, California and the Owens Valley|
On the far side of the Sierras in Eastern California lies one of the deepest valleys in North America. The Owens Valley is a 10,000-ft valley flanked by 14,000 foot mountain ranges on both sides. These days "The Old West" is more of moniker for tourist traps and dude ranches across the Western United States but the frontier spirit lives on in this arid desert. I've always loved traveling to the Owens Valley because it seems like its one of those places that's just too rugged and too harsh to ever seriously populate. (Kind of the same reasons why I love living in my adoptive state of Maine).
Desert landscapes and snow-capped mountains with some legitimate frontier towns are probably some of the reasons why places like Lone Pine, Independence and Bishop have ended up being the backdrop for hundreds of Spaghetti westerns. More recently, Lone Pine has been the filming location for Django Unchained, G.I. Joe, Ironman and Gladiator. I recently saw Django Unchained and, as any climber would, instantly recognized the scenery and mountains.
|The Alabama Hills, where parts of Django Unchained were filmed|
Route 395 is the highway that runs through the Owens Valley and is a major thoroughfare for skiers/snowboarders heading to Mammoth Mountain and alpine climbers. Even if you just drive through the valley, you will not be disappointed; its abundant with natural beauty and landscape. People have a tendency to romanticize "The Old West" but I've always felt that this 100-mile stretch of land is where it lives on. So here's what you could see if you ever should find yourself on route 395.
Getting to Route 395 is difficult from any direction. If you're coming up from Los Angeles, it involves a drive across the Mojave Desert. From the North, it crosses several mountain ranges in the Great Basin and if you're coming from Sacramento or San Francisco, you have to cross the Sierras themselves. These are other reasons why this place has remained rural. But let's just assume you come from the South.
|You have to cross a bunch of empty space if you're coming from Los Angeles!|
I've made the drive from Los Angeles more times than I can count and yet I'm still left speechless when I come across 150 miles of desert to 10,000-ft mountains. Route 395 begins paralleling the Sierras just past Ridgecrest California and its difficult to keep one's eyes on the road. Heading North, you pass by a few mountains and then hit Red Hill which is actually a volcanic butte. Ancient lava flows appear here and there along the trip and allude to the volcanic history of the valley.
Just before entering Lone Pine, California, Owens Lake will be to the East. This was once a much larger lake but has been dry for quite some time with the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Thank goodness we still have Mono Lake!
|Owens Lake is just above the prominent mountain in the center of the picture. It used to be a lake!|
Past Owens-not-really-a-Lake is the town of Lone Pine
. Although its a tiny little town, there's not a climber in all of California who is not familiar with Lone Pine. Lone Pine's bread and butter are hotels and hostels for climbers and great pre- and post- climb food. On every Mt Whitney trip I've ever been on, we've always gotten up extremely early on our last day to make down to the Mt Whitney Cafe
. Its the kind of place that specializes in gigantic meals for starved mountaineers and gaunt thru-hikers. Beyond that, there are some great outfitters and a few pubs that I used to frequent when I came here more often.
The Whitney Portal Road heads west out of town and up to about 8,600-ft on the slopes of Mt Whitney. Its the entry point for everything from the hike up Mt Whitney to the intensive alpine routes of the country's highest point. Its also where you can get a bacon burger with 8 slices of bacon (not kidding).
Outside of town are the Alabama Hills
which are a perfect destination for a short hike. The Mobius Arch
is a natural rock arch which famously frames Mt Whitney. Its also the site of one of California's most difficult ultra-marathons, the Lone Pine Ultra
. Although its a smaller race, it tends to attract the who's-who of western Ultra-runners. Oh, did I mention that hundreds of movies have been filmed here?
|Classic Lone Pine Scenery.|
Past Lone Pine, the drive steadily travels through the arid valley dotted with cottonwood trees and scrubby bushes until a conspicuous guard tower appears. Manzanar National Historic Site
is a preserved Japanese-American Internment Camp where over 100,000 once were interned. This is a highly significant site with a very controversial history; I could not do this site any justice with just a paragraph so I'll simply recommend a visit.
|Soul Counseling Tower, Manzanar National Historic Site|
Route 395 continues onward through the towns of Independence and Big Pine and the views of the White Mountains become more magnificent. The White Mountains
are often overshadowed by their slightly taller neighboring Sierras but they are every bit as wild. White Mountain Peak is barely 300 feet shorter than Mt Whitney yet nobody has ever heard of it. What really makes a visit to the White Mountains special is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
which I gush about to anyone who listens. I'm still enthralled by pictures of them; to touch and see trees that are 3,000-4,000 years old is nothing short of a spiritual experience. Trees older than the majority of civilization, living organisms that pre-date the pyramids, one single tree that could represent and epoch of humanity... its a pretty groovy place, man.
This is probably the 5th or 6th time I've said it on this blog. So with apologies to any regular readers, you have to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest!
|Patriarch Grove, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest|
Past Big Pine, the road continues on to Bishop, California which is another climber hub in the Eastern Sierras. Two great entry points for the Sierra Nevada wilderness are Glacier Lodge Road and the end of Route 168, west of Bishop. Glacier Lodge road is plowed all year long and allows access to the Palisades of the Sierras which are some of the most difficult alpine climbs in the state. I once traveled through here on New Year's Day a few years ago and it was absolutely devoid of anything human. Scary and serene.
The trailhead at Lake Sabrina leads to Bishop Pass and Evolution Valley which I've written more about here
. I don't think I've ever been further away from civilization than I have when I was near Bishop Pass.
|Backpacking through the Palisades in the Winter, Sierra Nevada Mountains|
Back in the Valley, just past Bishop is the Owens River Gorge
which is a scenic hiking and epic climbing destination. I have not climbed there myself, but its on my list.
Bishop is essentially the northern end of the Owens Valley and after that, Route 395 ascends 4,000ft to the Mammoth Lakes area. Although technically outside of the valley, the area between Mammoth Lakes and Mono Lake is also worth your time as the scenery is less desertous and more alpine.
|Back in the Owens Valley|
It funny to me how places like Lone Pine, Independence, the Alabama Hills, Mt Whitney and the whole valley have popped up everywhere in cinematography. Its even more bizarre how this place is used as a backdrop in films about Afghanistan, Iraq, Spain and nameless towns in the Old West. With all the special effects and CGI, its easy to believe that such a place exists only in theater. However the Owens Valley is a real place and the actual location is much more majestic than any movie could ever make it out to be. Given its remoteness, it will probably always be that way. So, to borrow from a similar phrase, the real place is better than the movie!
Read. Plan. Get Out There!