THE GREAT WALL, GLACIERS & GALAXIES
Elevation: 3,989 feet
WHAT TO DO IN BIG PINE
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Drive out to the Sierra Vista see one of the most expansive views of the Sierra crest. If you want pictures to remember it by, go in the morning when the light is more forgiving to novice photographers. If you want to see some of the oldest living things on earth, visit the Ancient Bristlecone Forest before you head down.
Go to Big Pine Canyon to get a closer view of Sierra glaciers. Then lace up your boots and get on the North Fork Trail to see where Lon Chaney spent his down time fishing. If you’re in the mood for a big hike and good at boulder-hopping, press on to Palisade Glacier.
The Palisades: Mecca for Sierra Fourteeners
Considering the Sierra Nevada from north to south, Big Pine marks the beginning of its highest mountains.
This small town serves as a gateway to the Palisades — the sub-range that is considered one of the most beautiful stretches along the Sierra. It’s mostly hidden from the mountain views along Highway 395; seeing it involves hiking or venturing further east. One of the best places to see it on full display is from high up in the White Mountains at the Sierra Vista east of town.
The Palisades are also renowned for climbing. For those looking to conquer a “fourteener” — the mountaineering term for peaks extending above 14,000 feet — there are seven here to choose from: Thunderbolt Peak, Starlight Peak, North Palisade, Polemonium Peak, Mount Sill, Middle Palisade and Split Mountain.
What’s more, they’re surrounded by several other mountains that reach at least 13,000 feet. The heights here help make Big Pine the start of the great wall. Thunderbolt is the northernmost fourteener in the Sierra.
Though it may seem peculiar given that most of California has a reputation for warm, sunny weather, it is one of eight western states where glaciers can still be found. (The others are Washington, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada.)
Most of California’s glaciers are in the Sierra Nevada, where roughly 100 remain active at high elevations in a span stretching from the Palisades north to Matterhorn Peak near Bridgeport — roughly between Sequoia National Park and Yosemite. (The other major California glaciers are found on Mount Shasta, which is part of the Cascades.)
Thirteen of the Sierra’s glaciers have been given names by the US Geological Survey: Conness, Darwin, Goethe, Lilliput, Lyell, Maclure, Matthes, Middle Palisade, Mount Fiske, Mount Warlow, Norman Clyde, Palisade and Powell.
Two within the Palisades are particularly noteworthy. The Palisade Glacier is the Sierra’s largest (spanning roughly half a square mile) and Middle Palisade Glacier is its southernmost (which also makes it the southernmost glacier in the entire western hemisphere). There is also a smaller one named for mountaineer Norman Clyde. It lies beneath the Palisade Crest, a jagged collection of 12 pinnacles that have been unofficially named for characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
The Phantom’s Getaway: Lon Chaney’s Cabin
Actor Lon Chaney, likely most famous for his portrayal of monstrous characters like the Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame in silent films, was another who considered the Sierra an important refuge. Growing up in the mountains of Colorado and an avid fisherman, he built a summer home in nearby Big Pine Canyon that he was only able to use for a short time before his untimely death due to cancer.
The stone cabin is the work of famed architect Paul Revere Williams, who designed landmark hotels and homes for many celebrities — this being the only one in such a remote and rustic locale. Chaney owned the cabin, but leased the government land under a special permit. Today, the structure is owned by the US Forest Service and still stands, but it is unmarked and not open to the public. The cabin has always been inaccessible by vehicle even though the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces depicts it as reachable by car.
Seeing the cabin involves hiking. It sits along the Big Pine Creek North Fork trail — a challenging, but beautiful route that winds uphill into the John Muir Wilderness to the chain of Big Pine Lakes.
Norman Clyde’s Civilization
Norman Clyde was a legend and still is. His name would be the first in over 100 summit registers, and he conquered those peaks with a heavy burden. His necessities included a cast-iron frying pan and foreign language books. (Because he was a voracious reader, he favored foreign texts that would slow him down some. Running out of reading material would necessitate a trip back to civilization, and he felt much more at home in the mountains.)
When he couldn’t be climbing, Norman Clyde spent much of his time near Big Pine, serving as winter caretaker for Glacier Lodge near Big Pine Creek. (The lodge has since burned, but cabins remain.) Later in life, he lived in a ranchhouse in the area.
Years earlier, Clyde also spent time in nearby Independence, in fact serving as the principle of Independence High School for a time. He worked there from 1924 until 1928, but resigned his post after firing a gun to shoo off students who had come to vandalize the school on a Halloween night. It was after this that he took to a more solitary life in the high country before eventually resettling in Big Pine as he got older.
Big Ears Listening to the Cosmos: Owens Valley Radio Observatory
Far removed from the lights of large cities, much of the Sierra is perfect for star-gazing and watching meteor showers. (A lack of light pollution is why many observatories are located atop mountains.) But astronomers also listen to the universe. More specifically, radio astronomy uses massive radio telescopes to detect — or “listen” — for radio waves from space.
Because these signals are weak, this type of research requires a setting with minimal interference from radio and television stations as well as things like cellphones and wireless Internet networks. This is why these types of observatories are often located in remote valleys — surrounding mountains help to shield this “noise” even more.
Such isolation is why a spot north of Big Pine was chosen as the site for the Owens Valley Radio Observatory. Known as “The Big Ears,” it has more than a dozen massive radio telescopes resembling satellite dishes. They monitor radio waves from celestial bodies such as the sun and blazars — the extremely bright cores of far-off galaxies with supermassive black holes that emit jets of energy toward the Earth.
The Tree That Didn’t Inspire the Name
At the edge of town where Highways 395 and 168 meet, a sequoia stands on its own. But it has nothing to do with Big Pine’s name. This is the Roosevelt Tree, and its ties are to Highway 168, specifically the stretch called Westgard Pass between the Inyo and White Mountains to the east. When it was opened to auto traffic in 1913, the tree was planted to commemorate the occasion, and it was named for Theodore Roosevelt.
This junction also marks the turn-off to reach the Ancient Bristlecone Forest. Its trees are the oldest in the world, with some dating back nearly 5,000 years. The Sierra Vista is along the way.
Almost a Pass
One other side note related to mountain passes and Highway 168: this is another failed attempt at a trans-Sierra route. It was supposed to cross the range just like it does the Inyo and White mountains as it goes east, but the crest proved too rugged for a major road. So instead, 168 runs to Fresno in two segments that aren’t connected, ending at Lake Sabrina before resuming on the western side of the range at Lake Huntington. And they can’t ever be connected even if California’s Department of Transportation wanted to attempt it again because now it would be illegal. Since the road was built, much of the gap in between became designated wilderness area.
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