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The top of the world

July 6, 2012

The road to Coyote Ridge.

High up in a big, rock-strewn Sierra basin, below a little-known ridge that overlooks everything, a little turquoise lake disappears into a big hole in the ground, water rushing down, sounding like nothing so much as a bathroom shower drain.

Another lake—rockbound and swimming-warm even in late June—lies teal and clean down the road a ways and another—dark blue and icy—lies a bit farther on.

At the edge of this 10,000-foot-high ridge, looking west, the whole of the central Sierra range stretches in front of you—peaks Humphrey and Wallace, Thompson and Table, Haeckel and Powell and Darwin and Johnson and others too numerous to name.

Below you, thousands of feet down, Bishop Creek crashes like a mad child off the snow-covered slopes of the Bishop Pass country and slams into Sabrina Lake, which lies slumbering blue in the hot, afternoon sun.
To the south, the glacier-rich Palisades rise like thunder, black crags pushing back blue sky.

To the east, the White Mountains guard the Owens Valley and beyond them range after range of mountains stretch to Nevada and below it all, little green Bishop swelters in the summer heat.

To the north, the grand country around Toms Place—Wheeler Ridge and the Casa Diablo range—tumble down from Mammoth.

There are a few other such views in the Sierra—but only a few. And here’s the catch—almost always, you have to hike to get to them.

This time, you can drive.

A road meanders to this place, climbing from the hot, bone-dry plains near Bishop, clambering up the steep and rocky slopes like the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep that have been seen here.

This road jars and scrambles and chugs and rolls and it’s about as much fun to drive as anything can be.

When it gets to the top of where it’s going, up here on Coyote Flat, the road takes a breather. It slows and settles and ambles for a while and the truck will narrowly miss hitting the pinyon pine branches that swipe at its paint job. Ground squirrels and marmots will chew the chugging truck out with much satisfaction.

The road crashes across streams and springs and then heads up to wild and high ridges where the whitebark pine doesn’t know the meaning of the word straight. Too much wind, and everything in sight is bent to the rising sun, sculpted by the west winds coming off the Sierra crest.

This is Coyote Ridge and it’s one of the premier 4WD roads in the state. It starts just west of Bishop and in seven short, steep, time-consuming miles, climbs thousands of feet to Coyote Flat, then traverses more gently another several miles to Coyote Ridge.

Along the way, it passes exquisite campsites of aspens and lodgepole and whitebark pine and odd little lakes like Funnel Lake with its big, whooshing outlet that takes the lake’s water deep underground—only to surface a half-mile later down the road in a creek that comes up out of the ground. Along the way, it passes Rocky Bottom Lake with its snow-fed ice water and Coyote Lake, which disappears some dry summers altogether when the snow melts.

It passes old mines and spring-fed ruins that provided cold-storage for old cabins and forgotten roads and discarded equipment that showed how much speculators thought gold was once worth, given the work it took to get a road up here.

It’s some of the wildest country you’ll find anywhere, some of the cleanest and biggest and prettiest and the views alone should make it a national treasure—yet it is still accessible by a decent (in most places) 4WD road.

So go on.

Get out there.

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