Exploring the western slopes of the Inyo Mountain Range

Lately the idea of writing has sounded more like a form of torture that I’d rather avoid than embrace. I’ve felt scatterbrained, and unable to concentrate. The idea of being on a trail sounds far more intriguing than sitting down and trying to put my thoughts into written word. I’m sure my struggle is a common problem among others that live a similar nomadic lifestyle. I’m going to attempt to break this uncomfortable silence with a quick story about a recent jaunt on the western slopes of the Inyo Mountains.

On a brisk November morning I met up with my friend Rose, a Owens Valley native.  Three of her biggest passions in life are the Manzanar National Historic Site, where she is a National Park Ranger, saving lives as a Search and Rescue volunteer for INYO SAR, and the 11,000 foot towering Inyo Mountain Range. She sees the Inyo Mountains as most people see the Sierra Nevada Mountains; beautiful, challenging, unforgiving, and full of possible adventures. I have to say, that I completely agree.

The Inyo Mountains are however almost always overshadowed by their neighbor, the Sierra Nevadas. Most people travel to this region to climb Mount Whitney, not the dirty desert peeks of the Inyos.  If they didn’t have the Sierra Nevada Range to contend with, their towering splendor would receive the recognition that they are due, but it is because of this that the Inyo Mountains have recently been declared to, “not have scenic value,” opening up the possibilities of “greed” energy projects along their western base.

This mountain range has felt like a home to me for the past several years, but with all of my exposure being along the slopes and canyons on the eastern, Saline Valley side. I’ve covered many of those canyons in the past, including Craig Canyon, Hunter Canyon, Beveridge Canyon, and McElvoy Canyon. My experiences on the western, Owens Valley side has been minimal. This is where Rose and I make a good match, because our experiences are the complete opposite.

Being that we only had a single day, my exposure to Rose’s world was going to be minimal.  I asked her to put together some fun little jaunts, enough for me to get my feet wet until I had more time to come back and play. We loaded up the vehicle, picked up Rowdy, the neighborhood dog, and disappeared into the desert. From Independence, we shot straight out Mazourka Canyon Road, passing the ghostly ruins of the Kearsarge Station, along the old Carson & Colorado Railroad, along with a handful of old forgotten mines.

 

Vaughn Gulch- Inyo Mountains

Vaughn Gulch – Inyo Mountains

 

Our first stop of the day was Vaughn Gulch,  an unmaintained road led to the craggy opening in the mountain.  I was very curious about this side of the Inyos, everything that I had previously experienced on the Saline Valley side was rough, steep terrain, with an abundance of springs and gushing waterfalls. Rose and I talked a bit about this on our hike up Vaughn. She expressed that this side of the Inyos were for the most part dry.

Just a short distance into the gulch, and we came upon a beautiful geologic feature of folded and bent stone known as a chevron fold.

Due to my lack of geological knowledge, I will allow Wikipedia to explain:

“Chevron folds are a structural feature characterized by repeated well behaved folded beds with straight limbs and sharp hinges. Well developed, these folds develop repeated set of v-shaped beds. They develop in response to regional or local compressive stress. Inter-limb angles are generally 60 degrees or less. Chevron folding preferentially occurs when the bedding regularly alternates between contrasting competences. Turbidites, characterized by alternating high-competence sandstones and low-competence shales, provide the typical geological setting for chevron folds to occurs.”

Chevron Folds

Chevron Folds

 

Up close and personal with a chevron fold.

Up close and personal with a chevron fold.

Just past the chevron folds, we encountered our first wildlife of the day, a tarantula. Only it wasn’t so wild, for it was dead, because it still had some bend to it, we estimated it to be a pretty fresh death. It didn’t appear to have been eaten upon, likely a victim of  the cold weather that had recently blown through.

Geologically, Vaughn Gulch is every bit as fascinating as the canyons on the east side of the range, with colorful walls, and formations that cause you to scratch your head. Reaching about a half mile into the gulch, we encountered a rock fall, which Rose had forgotten about, with Rowdy the dog in tow, we were prevented from traveling further up canyon. The hike back down the gulch was rewarding with glimpses of the snow-capped Sierras.

 

Granite bedrock showing in Vaughn Gulch.

Granite bedrock showing in Vaughn Gulch.

 

Jagged, uplifted rock along the canyon walls.

Jagged, uplifted rock along the canyon walls.

 

Our sad little victim of the elements.

Our sad little victim of the elements.

 

Rose and Rowdy approach the rock jam, and the end of our journey up Vaughn Gulch.

Rose and Rowdy approach the rock jam, and the end of our journey up Vaughn Gulch.

 

Looking back at Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada Range.

Looking back at Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada Range.

 

Back in the vehicle we drove just a short distance north on Mazourka Canyon Road, looking for a canyon with promise. We decided on one that Rose hadn’t previously traversed, and were delighted from the start with our decision. Just inside of the unnamed canyon we found the ruins of an old stone building in the wash, we joked about the old-timer that had built it, and his terrible choice of locations to build a structure. One good flash flood would have sent the stone shack tumbling over, and it is very likely that that is just what had happened. One the slopes of both sides of the canyon we found a total of three adits. The two adits that we decided to check out, didn’t venture back very far, likely because the quartz veins that had been followed were weak from the get-go. These adits don’t appear on topographic maps of the region, but it is possible with their close proximity to the Whiteside Mine that there may have been some connection.

A short distance further up-canyon we had our second wildlife encounter, this time a very dead baby chuckwalla. So far it had been a grim day for local wildlife sightings, this being my first time out with Rose, I kidded her about her ‘death like’ presence.

 

Ruins of a stone cabin built in the unnamed canyon.

Ruins of a stone cabin built in the unnamed canyon.

 

Tailings from one of the adits.

Tailings from one of the adits.

 

Proof that Rose is badass.

Proof that Rose is badass.

 

Inside one of the short adits.

Inside one of the short adits.

 

The third adit, which we didn't bother checking out. Its small tailing pile suggested that it didn't go far.

The third adit, which we didn’t bother checking out. Its small tailing pile suggested that it didn’t go far.

 

This canyon, like Vaughn Gulch choked out with another rockfall, but at its base, beautifully water carved, granite bedrock slabs. This was definitely proof that at one time this canyon looked similar to the canyons on the eastern side of the range, with a heavy, and persistent spring or stream that flowed through it. When and why did it dry up? Both great questions, but ones that I don’t have concrete answers to, but can assume that the cause was a form of natural climate change, probably some many thousands of years ago.

 

Rowdy leads the way!

Rowdy leads the way!

 

A large boulder wedged between the canyon walls.

A large boulder wedged between the canyon walls.

 

Water carved granite bedrock.

Water carved granite bedrock.

 

Back in the vehicle we traveled further north up Mazourka, passing numerous abandoned mines, springs, and even a functioning homestead. Our next stop was a cabin at the Blue Stone Talc Mine near Johnson Spring. Pulling up to the old cabin I was impressed with its rustic charm, constructed entirely of lumber, the years of weathering giving it a classic western appeal. Wind chimes made of rusty antiques hung from the pine tree in front. It was downright perfect, the kind of place that you wouldn’t mind hanging your hat for a night or two, maybe even a lifetime if you didn’t mind the lack of modern conveniences.

I learned that a gentleman named Russell Fleming had refurbished the old cabin prior to his death in 2006. It has since been dedicated to him. A group of locals now take regular care of the cabin, even  stocking it with canned food, and bottled water for the weary traveler. A functioning wood burning stove sits inside of the front door for those blustery Owens Valley winter nights, along with a cot, table and chairs, and an array of other household goods.

 

The Blue Stone Talc Mine cabin, aka. The Russell Fleming Cabin.

The Blue Stone Talc Mine cabin, aka. The Russell Fleming Cabin.

 

The cabin is kept neat and tidy by a group of locals.

The cabin is kept neat and tidy by a group of locals.

 

Artistic wind chimes made of historic trash hang in the pine tree, in front of the cabin.

Artistic wind chimes made of historic trash hang in the pine tree, in front of the cabin.

 

Rose climbing up to one of the Blue Stone Talc adits.

Rose climbing up to one of the Blue Stone Talc adits.

 

The Blue Stone Talc Mine.

The Blue Stone Talc Mine.

 

A stunning geological feature across the canyon from the Blue Stone.

A stunning geological feature across the canyon from the Blue Stone.

 

In the canyon behind the cabin is where the Blue Stone Talc Mine is located, we checked out one of the adits, which only went a few feet back. Scattered lumber, and miscellaneous rusty material lay scattered about the wash.

We left the Blue Stone Talc Mine, and headed for Santa Rita Flat, a stunning boulder strung flat above Crystal Ridge. From Santa Rite Flat there were commanding views of both the Owens Valley, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  We spent the last remaining hour of daylight climbing up and down the Alabama Hills like stacks of granite boulders. Among the boulders there was evidence of Native American usage. We found large areas of ground, and even rock shelters covered with lithic scatters (chippings or flakes from the creation of stone tools), along with a single metate. We searching high and low for signs of petroglyphs or pictographs, but came up empty-handed, but with such limited amount of daylight, we were only able to explore a minuscule amount of the boulders before the sun dropped behind the Sierras.

Our day complete, we returned to civilization, ending our day with a tasty dinner at The Grill in Lone Pine. I’m positive that you will again in the near future see Rose and myself teaming up for more adventure in the Inyo Mountains.

 

Overlooking Santa Rose Flats.

Overlooking Santa Rose Flats.

 

Looking toward Owens Valley, and the Sierra Nevada Range.

Looking toward Owens Valley, and the Sierra Nevada Range.

 

One of several rock shelters with evidence of human habitation.

One of several rock shelters with evidence of human habitation.

 

The lower left rock contains a metate, due to glare the image is washed out.

The lower left rock contains a metate, due to glare the image is washed out.

 

Santa Rosa Flats

Santa Rosa Flats

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

  • Don J. Heinemann

    Thanks for writing this – and the great pics!

  • Douglas Williams

    I just love reading about your adventures, Jim. There’s something really magic about the Inyos, those high open flats and all the mysterious canyons that lace down their sides. I hope to get out there again this spring.