While the Sierra Nevada’s western flank is a forested, gradual rise of foothills, the East Side is all about visual drama. Facing the range from this vantage point, the mountains show off their impressive might by presenting panoramic views of a massive wall of jagged granite that seems to explode from the ground.
The Sierra’s Dramatic Face: A Seemingly Impenetrable Rocky Divide
Imagine what early settlers must have thought upon being confronted with a barrier in their journey that extended thousands of feet into the sky. The East Side is High Sierra country. The tallest peaks exceed 14,000 feet, and for almost 200 miles between the Tioga and Sherman passes, no roads are able to cross the crest’s rugged terrain entirely. And though you can make the journey over on the Sherman, it isn’t a popular choice. Though we count it as a bonus pass in our coverage, it’s a remote route that combines a seasonal forest service road with mountain highways.
Even today, the range serves as a prominent obstacle to east-west travel in California. Across its entire length, only 10 paved roads (besides the Sherman) are able to cross the mountains completely and three — the Ebbetts, Sonora and Tioga Passes — close for the season once the snow begins to fall. As a result, the opposing sides become even more removed from one another for a large portion of the year.
The Great Basin: Welcome to the Sierra’s Desert
The sense of divide and disparity between the eastern and western Sierra truly is stark. Less developed and more remote, the East Side is the lesser-known Sierra and really an entirely different world. That giant, rocky wall that serves as its isolator casts the East Side in a “rain shadow,” meaning that most of the moisture in weather systems coming from the west gets trapped before it can fall here. As a result, much of the landscape beyond the mountains is desert-like, and the smell of its sagebrush lingers in the air.
The Great Basin lies here — the largest desert in the United States — and one created by the Sierra Nevada rain shadow (as well as that of the Cascades to the north). Also spanning much of Nevada, roughly half of Utah and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Oregon, The Great Basin is an arid 200,000-mile stretch of mountain ranges and valleys. Both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States are here — Mount Whitney and Death Valley’s Badwater Basin. The two are roughly 75 miles apart.
What little precipitation reaches here drains internally because the terrain leaves no available escape to the ocean. The Great Basin has been described as a place “where rivers die.” Streams that manage to form end in temporary lakes that soon dry up or permanent ones where salt builds as the moisture evaporates. The Great Basin has few lakes, but of them, many are saline (saltwater). Great Salt Lake is the largest and surely the most well-known, but the East Side also has a famous one in Mono Lake — as well as a dead one in Owens Lake.
Beyond the conflict between geology and Mother Nature, another factor keeps things dry on the East Side. This is where the California Water Wars erupted in the early 1900s, and the Owens Valley to the south transitioned from fertile farmland to being barren and dusty as the Los Angeles Aqueduct drained its water to supply Los Angeles. Some very contentious events stemmed from the aqueduct, especially in the early days.
As brisk population growth in Los Angeles outpaced the available water supply, a plan was devised by Frederick Eaton and William Mulholland to bring in water from the Owens Valley. Eaton had earlier served as head of the Los Angeles City Water Company, a private enterprise that had managed the Los Angeles water supply. Mulholland worked for him there before taking over as superintendent, while Eaton would go on to become mayor of Los Angeles. Some years later in 1902 when the city assumed management of L.A.’s water, Mulholland was named head of that agency, which would eventually become the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
It was soon after that he and Eaton laid the groundwork for the aqueduct. Eaton had visited the Owens Valley years earlier and recognized the Owens River as a possible water source for Los Angeles. After leaving his post as mayor, he made a trip there with Mulholland to explore the idea further, and the stage was set for them to begin transporting water from the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles.
At the same time, Owens Valley farmers were seeking a government-funded irrigation project to support their ranches, orchards and farms. The effort would require use of some of their land, and Eaton used this to his advantage. He starting buying up Owens Valley acreage so that Los Angeles could acquire the associated water rights. As he was doing so, many residents believed it was to be used for the irrigation project, not a system of canals and pipelines that would instead drain water away from the area. By 1907 the irrigation project was canceled and the Owens Valley’s changed fate was sealed. Construction on the aqueduct began in 1908. When the first water reached Los Angeles in 1913, Mulholland famously exclaimed, “There it is! Take It!” Some of this is depicted in the 1974 Roman Polanski/Jack Nicholson/Faye Dunaway film Chinatown.
One of the starkest examples is Owens Lake. Once a vast freshwater lake, its bed became dry and salt-crusted after the Owens River that once fed it was diverted to the aqueduct. Today, toxic dust from the peculiar-looking flat that remains is a source of air pollution. The Owens Valley, which includes Bishop, Big Pine, Independence and Lone Pine, can get violent dust storms given the dry conditions in the Eastern Sierra. They are at times severe enough to close Highway 395 — the major US highway through the East Side. The dust also creeps into homes and other buildings, a phenomenon that locals call “Keeler Fog.”
An Awe-Some Ride: Highway 395
Highway 395 is one of the greatest paths for a road trip to be found anywhere. It runs from the Mojave Desert to the Canadian border and skirts much of the Sierra Nevada’s length along what was once the El Camino Sierra, an Indian trail that eventually became a route for explorers like Jedediah Smith (credited as the first white man to cross the Sierra) and later speculators in search of gold. It was as this last group traversed it in droves that the trail became a road (though a very rough one). The wagons loaded with their possessions created a track of deep ruts with their wheels. And things didn’t improve substantially until years later. Highway 395 wouldn’t be paved until the 1930s.
Views along 395 face off over the hood of your vehicle from both sides. Look one way and you have Mount Whitney, Mammoth Mountain and the Minarets, the Matterhorn and Sawtooth Ridge, the Dana Plateau and other Sierra highlights. Turn your head the other way and you see the Inyo and White Mountains, the Mono-Inyo Craters and the Owens Valley (the deepest valley in the country).
Compared to the adjacent peaks, the “flatland” on the East Side is actually high elevation in many points. From Mammoth Lakes north to Bridgeport, multiple towns along the range’s base lie at elevations of 6,000 feet and above. (That means thinner air, even after “coming down” from the Sierra. The effects may be felt — shortness of breath, headaches, loss of appetite, insomnia, etc., — and it can take some time to acclimate.)
Another testament that this is high country is that 395 crosses four summits by the High Sierra: Sherwin, Deadman and Conway as well as Devil’s Gate Pass. The highest is Conway, with an elevation of 8,138 feet. This is the highest point along a US highway in all of California and along the length of 395.
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