For the last year I have had an affair with the Inyo Mountains. The Inyos are that mountain range, which separate Owens Valley and Saline Valley. They stand mighty, proud, and majestic. Along their base is an ocean of dry, and cracked desert lands – the devils playground. Along their ridge line, which peaks out at 11,102 ft on Keynot Peak, a forest of pinyon pines, and juniper.
The Inyo Mountains are probably most well know for the mid-1800’s era mining town of Cerro Gordo, and the Saline Valley Salt Tram, which travels from the floor of Saline Valley, up 8,720 feet in Daisey Canyon, and over the ridge to Swansea. There is of course also Beveridge, “California’s most remote ghost town,” which sits in difficult to access Beveridge Canyon. Overall the mountain range contains a vast array of old mining towns, camps, and prospects, many of which date back over a century.
While the historical aspect is there, even more importantly is the natural beauty of the landscape, the fauna, flora, and geology. Over the course of the last year, I have made a handful of journeys into Saline Valley with the purpose of visiting several the canyons which penetrate the eastern side of the range. What I have found in each of these canyons is a unique beauty in a harsh and inhospitable environment. Many of the routes are treacherous and life threatening, one wrong move could send you plummeting down twenty to thirty feet, sometimes more.
The nearest community with services is Lone Pine, but what lies in front of that is nearly 40 miles of dirt, and 25 miles of pavement. It is safe to assume that in a worst case scenario, making a mistake here, could cost you your life. Even the use of a satellite beacon may not help you, as the canyons are tight and the walls are high. I’ve attempted to send “ok” messages via my SPOT, which have never been delivered. If your “911” message did reach Search & Rescue, there is NO chance of an air rescue, and personnel would have to reach you via the same path you took to get there.
With that all said, I now introduce you to the “Canyons of the Inyos.”
Craig Canyon is the southern most canyon which I will be covering. It can be accessed relatively easily by driving to the Big Silver Mine. From the ruins of the Big Silver Mine, hike the alluvial fan north to the mouth of the canyon. Craig Canyon is a dry canyon, which contains several significant dry-falls, and a very rocky terrain. I managed several miles into Craig, but was eventually cut off by a forty-foot tall dry-fall, which I attempted to climb, but became paralyzed by fear three-quarters of the way up. It took me nearly twenty minutes just to talk my way back down.
It terms of geologic features, Craig Canyon contains a vast array of colors, and formations. I will allow the pictures to do the talking.
Hunter Canyon is located a couple of miles north of Craig Canyon. The canyon’s lush vegetation can be seen for miles around. The access road is highly overgrown, and follows the path of a perennial spring. High clearance is mandatory to drive to the end of the road. Along the way up, you will pass the Ko’onzi Village site, which contains several hundred petroglyphs, and “sleeping circles.” It is a must see, as much as the canyon itself.
Once you can drive no further, there is a short half-mile trek to the mouth of the canyon. Best advice is to cross the stream as quickly as possible, as the vegetation completely chokes out access to the north side of the stream (which is where you want to be). En route you will pass an extensive amount of trash from a mining operation, which operated here into the 1950’s.
Follow the primitive trail, which is mostly utilized by burros into the mouth of Hunter Canyon. Very quickly you approach the first waterfall, which stands at around thirty feet tall. This first fall can be bypassed by climbing the scree slope on the south side of the canyon.
Once around the first fall, a second forty-foot fall presents itself, and you find yourself in the thick of the canyons vegetation. Here is where I encountered a Panamint Alligator Lizard.
This second fall, while high, is a relatively easy climb. The secret is to climb where the water flows, utilizing the natural limestone footholds, which have been carved by the water.
After this, things get hairy with a fifty-footer.