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Great Hike: The Owens River Gorge

April 27, 2012

The Owens River is that big river out east of Mammoth that cuts a fine, green line through the sage and rabbit brush foothills of the Eastern Sierra, rolling along the feet of the mountains like a blue and silver snake.

Most of the time, the river stays close to the surface of the two big valleys that drain it; Long Valley near Mammoth, and the Owens Valley, where Bishop lies. It’s always there, this river, across the way, over there; a thin ribbon of cottonwood and willow and sedge offset by sage and bitterbrush and peach tuff and eagles. 

It’s a mild river, as rivers go—no rapids or waterfalls or big pools or big drama.

In one place, though, the river goes a bit crazy. It disappears from sight and plunges for 19 miles right through the hundreds-feet thick pink Bishop tuff before coming once again to ground to rest. You can see the line of the river driving the Sherwin Grade on U.S. 395—a hard, dark slash of deep brown to the east, roughly paralleling the highway.

Down at the bottom of this hard dark line of cliffs and boulders, the river crashes and clamors and rumbles over endless waterfalls, cutting its way through almost 3,000 feet of elevation as it drops from Crowley Lake (6,900 feet) to Bishop (4,100 feet).

Down there, in the bottom of this deep and narrow gorge, the river runs clear as light between soft, pink walls that tower hundreds of feet above it. 

The world down there is of another time and place from the colder, higher, drier desert high above. Down there, it is warm, humid. The sound of canyon wrens and swifts skitters up and down the pink walls. The incense smell of cottonwoods and wet sandy beaches is a balm to the high desert dweller. The wild roses begin to bloom in May. The water in the river gets warm enough to swim in. The sun gets high and long and the shadows deep and the river is calling, calling.

Go on.

Get out there.

 

The Hike

 

Begin hiking down the paved road that drops past the chained gate. The drop is easy, though steep, with the wide road offering no obstacles. To the south, toward Bishop, the whole of the Sierra Nevada stretches, disappearing into the pale blue sky near Big Pine. 

To the east, the White Mountains, home to the second highest peak in the state, hold spring snow like a blanket against a deep blue sky. 

To the west, lush, green, Round Valley rolls at the base of massive, triangular Mt. Tom, stream-fed fields bursting with green, tippled by new foals and calves. 

To the south of Tom, some of the range’s highest peaks, 13,986-foot Mt. Humphrey and Mt. Darwin and Mt. Powell and Mt. Lamarck hold the sky up. 

To the north, toward Mammoth, the pinyon-covered Casa Diablo range guards the gorge and the Sierra crest swings to west past Tom’s Place into the distant blue.

Keep walking, dropping steadily on the good paved road. Watch for City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power trucks here. They’re the only vehicles allowed on this road. They come by infrequently and keep an eye on the river and road and are used to the many climbers that use it to access the world class climbing in the gorge. 

The river is below you now, though the walls that cradle it are so steep, sometimes you cannot see it. Keep walking down the road, taking time to peer over the rim and down into the tight gorge. When you do see it, it’s thin blue and silver line weaving through the tumbled boulders and thick underbrush.

Once, this river ran wild, raging at spring melt with hundreds of gallons per second, crashing through the tight gorge, tearing out beaches and cottonwoods and doing the spring cleaning thing that rivers always have done. But then, mid-century, the city of Los Angeles began diverting the water in the Gorge into the city aqueduct, leaving behind a devastated fishery and a dying river. 

The river ghosted into nothing, the channel became choked with weeds, and the fish and dragonflies, coyotes and night-hawks, the owls and the clear-voiced swifts, disappeared. It almost died, this river—almost died in the big, sharp, white bowl of the now-dry Owens Lake south of Lone Pine.

But today is alive once more, after locals fought for it and after a court order forced Los Angeles to restore enough water to maintain a viable fishery, even though it has changed dramatically. It’s no longer like it was then old-timers that still congregate at Tom’s Place bar would say to anyone who would listen, “Back in the day, I could catch 50 trout in an hour and walk across the river on their bare backs.” 

It doesn’t run at 200-cubic feet per second anymore, tearing though this narrow gorge, ripping out cottonwoods and boulders and dropping sand for new beaches. It’s not like that and maybe, it never will be again.

But it is alive. It is deep and green and cool and wet on a hot summer day in the desert and for now, that’s enough.

Continue on down the road, closing in on the green ribbon below you. The sparkle of the water invites, the smell of wild rose and river drifts up on the breeze.

The road reaches river grade at about one mile, near a big cottonwood tree and some smaller ones, some of the only mature trees you will see in this gorge. The river is warm enough to take a swim this time of year and this is one of the best places to do so, under these trees. Walk into the water and climb up the little waterfall above the trees. On a hot day in Bishop, the water temperature is perfect for a prolonged soak in this mountain Jacuzzi, although in early spring, the mountain snowmelt might still make the river a bit too cold to linger.

Downstream, the river heads toward Bishop and the Lower Owens River. Turn left, or upstream, and head upriver on the road. It’s an enchanted world down here—warm, balmy, green, smelling of water and warm rock and roses. Continue walking upstream, clothes drying on your body as you walk. Listen for the nine cascading notes of the canyon wren, each note descending like birdsong made waterfall.

Tall-standing yellow Prince’s plume, wild pink roses, and orange globe mallow line the river. Stinging nettle, too—be careful—lines sections of the river, evidence of a disturbed river system that can no longer flush its banks clean with the spring floods that once roared through the gorge.

Keep walking upstream on a good road as the gorge walls rise and tighten and close in. Since hiking this road for the sheer beauty of it is inexplicably uncommon, the only people you are likely to see are rock climbers and boulderers, often on a lycra-clad, single-minded mission that has nothing to do with you or anything else.

As the gorge narrows, you will begin to see signs of an old power plant that used to set here, now long gone. 

Keep walking as far as you can, before the road turns into a trail and the trail turns into a wading, climbing adventure; another adventure for another day. 

Stay a while on a warm rock, listening to the swifts swirl overhead, the flit of a blue-eyed dragon fly, the call of the canyon wren. Fall asleep in the warm shade, and hike out after the sun drops over the rim or wait for the stars to come out and hike out then. 

It’s impossible to get lost down here. The walls hold you safe.

Retrace your steps aback to the car. 

Head north toward Toms Place and ask for the best chocolate milkshake in the region.

 

Getting There

 

 

Drive south on U.S. 395 from Mammoth until you almost reach the Gorge Road exit about 35 miles from Mammoth at a four-way junction right at the bottom of where the Sherwin Grade begins. Take the Gorge Road east and at the T, go left, following the big LADWP pipeline on the rim of the Gorge. Follow this road until you see a group of cars parked in a rough, rocky parking area on the rim of the Gorge, with a chained gate seen just behind the parking area. Park there and walk toward the Gorge. The road will be under a closed gate. Begin your hike here.

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