Buttermilk Road



Elevation: 4,150 feet


Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

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    Head to Front Street to see Bishop’s most controversial mural. Drain shows a lush rendering of the Owens Valley with a drain pipe representing the Los Angeles Aqueduct that is sucking away the picture’s color and life.

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    Drive west on SR 168 to the Buttermilks to see the heart of the Sierra’s bouldering scene. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for good views of the Volcanic Tablelands, which were created eons ago when the Long Valley Caldera sent its lava spewing.

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    Hike in some of the Sierra’s prettiest alpine splendor in Rock Creek Canyon, near Tom’s Place. The parking lot is one of the highest-elevation points in the Sierra that you can reach by auto because Mosquito Flat is the highest designated trailhead in the range.

A North-South Divide

Coming down Highway 395 from points further north, Bishop is where it starts to feel more like Southern California. Past the Sherwin Summit, the landscape changes. The Volcanic Tablelands come into view, a strangely colored landscape of pink, white and tan created during the massive volcanic eruption that created the Long Valley Caldera by Mammoth Lakes. (The famed Bishop Tuff was made from the lava, ash and pumice it sent forth.)

The road then curves eastward to head into Bishop’s downtown, and the weather starts to feel warmer. In the winter, Mammoth Lakes is often buried in white, but a little over 40 miles to the south in Bishop, the chilly season is typically far milder.

Broken Road to Fresno or Straight Shot to Massachusetts

Just outside Bishop, two major highways veer off of 395 for points west and east. Highway 168 is the thwarted trans-Sierra route to Fresno, envisioned as a mountain pass, but interrupted by a Sierra crest that proved too harsh to be conquered by the California Department of Transportation. On both sides of the mountains, it dead-ends at a backcountry lake: Sabrina on the east and Huntington on the west.

Highway 6 strikes off the other way from 395, and the road sign near the turn-off notes that it is just 3,205 miles to Provincetown, MA. For some time — 1936 to 1964 — this used to be the longest transcontinental highway in the country. It lost the title when its western terminus became Bishop instead of Long Beach.

As a cross-country route, it’s unusual because it passes through few major cities: Denver, Omaha, Des Moines and Cleveland are the largest. Writer and historian George R. Stewart famously described Highway 6 as running “uncertainly from nowhere to nowhere, scarcely to be followed from one end to the other, except by some devoted eccentric.”

Highway 6: Kerouac’s Cross-Country Dream

Jack Kerouac was almost one of those eccentrics. Highway 6 was the route he had envisioned for the cross-country trip he made famous in On the Road. In the novel, Sal Paradise (who is Kerouac) describes the romantic visions in his mind as he plots a hitchhiking route to the West Coast, even reading up on pioneers who had made the journey before him. Studying maps, he settles on Highway 6 as his path, deciding he would follow “the long red line” they showed all the way to Ely, NV, where he would then divert for his ultimate destination of San Francisco.

Impatient as he ventures north from New York City to reach the road that will take him to the West he longs for, he sees it at last and discovers that it likely can’t take him anywhere. He’s in a wilderness with no traffic in sight. And when the rain greets him, he cries. Paradise/Kerouac would eventually return to New York and find a bus for Chicago to get his trip Out West underway, and Highway 6 would lose its opportunity to be immortalized in a classic American novel. As such, it has remained fairly quiet while other roads — notably Route 66 — have drawn the travelers looking cross the United States.

Had Kerouac found in Massachusetts what lies along the California stretch of Highway 6 — and a driver willing to pick him up — he likely would have been ecstatic to travel the route. Those 41 miles before it crosses into Nevada offer a thrilling path that shows the Sierra’s long view — one that can’t be seen from Highway 395 because you need more distance between you and the mountains to take it all in.

It also offers an opportunity to better appreciate the White Mountains that lie across the desert. They’re massive themselves but often overshadowed by the Sierra. White Mountain Peak is in fact the third tallest in California. Its elevation of 14,242 feet puts it behind only the Sierra’s Mounts Whitney and Williamson.

Whitney vs. White: Climb vs. Study

While Mount Whitney receives thousands of climbers, backpackers and ambitious tourists plodding up the Whitney Trail to its summit, White Mountain mostly draws researchers. The White Mountain Research Station conducts a variety of studies from four field stations located at different elevations, including the small Summit Hut atop White Mountain Peak.

The site has been a mecca for high-altitude research since 1950 when the University of California took over operations from the US Navy. Besides the effects of altitude (including altitude sickness from low-oxygen air), researchers have also studied astronomy, climate change, the nearby ancient bristlecone pine trees, the Sierra’s endangered bighorn sheep and a host of other subjects.


Bishop’s major alpine feature is the Buttermilks in the Sierra foothills east of town, an area named for the days in the late 1800s when there was once a dairy here and it was possible to stop in for a tangy drink.

It’s accessed via a dusty, bumpy road and offers up-close, looming views of the Sierra (notably Mount Tom) as well as the barren Tungsten Hills. Now a popular destination for off-roading enthusiasts, Tungsten Hills was once a mining district that extracted its eponymous metal, which is used to make things ranging from lightbulbs to tools to bullets.

Smoke Blanchard: Climber, Truck Driver, Boulder Guide

The Buttermilks also launched Bishop as a climbing destination. One of the first was Smoke Blanchard, a climber for most of his life (in the Cascades, Sierra and Himalayas) and a Buddhist truck driver for some of it. He was also a lover of California wandering and walked across the state — from White Mountain to the Pacific — in 1967.

Blanchard got to know Buttermilk Country in the mid-fifties and developed a climbing course that scaled a variety of terrain. Smoke’s Rock Course is now legendary, not just for the experience of it, but because he was the only guide through this maze, and it was never formally recorded. Many still try to recreate it based on information passed on from people who were led by Blanchard, who called his excursions “buttermilking.”

Scaling rocks was part of it, but so too were telling stories, perhaps admiring the wildflowers that bloom in late spring and early summer and generally taking time to enjoy being in the mountains as opposed to being focused merely on the conquering aspect of climbing.

An important appeal of climbing in the Buttermilks is convenience. Not only is it easy to reach, but it affords an opportunity for short climbing sessions. When Blanchard was guiding people through his course, it was a day trip if they were really “buttermilking,” but it could also be enjoyed for an hour or two if that was all the time that was available. This made it a perfect place for practice climbs and may be one of the reasons Blanchard’s discovery also drew famed climbers like Doug Robinson.


Today, most are drawn to the Buttermilks’ boulders. In the last couple of decades, Bishop has taken off as a bouldering mecca.

Doug Robinson: From Big Walls to Bishop Boulders

Smoke Blanchard might have popularized scrambling among the Buttermilks’ boulders, but Doug Robinson was the first serious climber to really give them attention. Robinson was a leader in the “clean climbing” movement that took root in the Sierra in the early 1970s. (Royal Robbins and Yvonne Chouinard were also devotees of the idea.)

The heart of it was concern about the environmental damage pitons caused to the mountains, so different types of equipment and new climbing techniques that would minimize abuse to the rock became a primary goal. Most mountain climbers before had also been dreamers on some level, but this new generation would take those philosophies in new directions and incorporate not only environmental awareness, but action.

Robinson’s earth-conscious thinking and long hair made him an authentic hippie when he moved near Bishop in the late sixties — and likely a bit of a rarity on the East Side. (Other famed climbers would eventually follow, recognizing it as a prime location that offered proximity to the High Sierra, but also a respite from harsh winter weather. Peter Croft — who climbed El Capitan’s Nose and the northwest face of Half Dome in a single day — is still a Bishop resident.)

The Buttermilks were perfectly suited for Robinson’s clean climbing philosophy. He spent years there, pioneering the bouldering scene that was to come. (It would also eventually grow to include the Volcanic Tablelands, which hold popular boulders like the Happies and Sads.)

The Newer Class of Sierra Climbers

The younger cousin of traditional rock climbing replaces mountaintops with far more approachable summits and swaps ropes for crash pads in case of a fall. Because it requires less training, it’s gained a far broader following and become a sport in its own right, down to its own lingo. The routes, for example, are called “problems.”

Like mountain climbing, bouldering also has its own unique culture, and one of the hubs for Bishop bouldering enthusiasts is Pleasant Valley Pit Campground — also known as The Pit. In essence, this is to bouldering what Yosemite’s Camp 4 is to traditional climbing.

Cowboy Country — and Indian Country

In Bishop proper, you’re likely to see some cowboy hats. One signal that this is horse country is the red horse with penetrating eyes that serves as mascot for Allen Outdoor Products. Bishop’s cowboy roots become more obvious every Memorial Day during Mule Days. The multi-day festival started as a kick-off to packing season in the mountains. It features various mule, horse and cattle shows, a parade and country music — and it draws thousands.

Bishop also has a sizable Paiute-Shoshone Indian community. If you read the local paper, you’ll notice that the obituary listings will sometimes include references to the tribe’s cry dance, a mourning ceremony.

Petroglyphs from their ancestors can be found in the Volcanic Tablelands. They’ve survived thousands of years, but in 2012 some of these enduring images fell victim to shocking theft and vandalism that made worldwide headlines. A handful of the ancient images were stolen — cut from the rock using power saws and drills — and several more were damaged. Those taken were returned anonymously the following year and it’s still being determined if they can be restored to their original locations.

Bishop’s Murals: A Visual History

Bishop also has several murals painted on buildings around town that depict the area’s history. The scenes include the Basque shepherds who shared the secret to their crusty bread, mining, pack teams of horses and mules carrying supplies to Bishop and beyond in its early days, and much more. One of its more controversial pieces is the Drain Mural, which depicts the Owens Valley as its formerly lush self, with a drain pipe slowly sucking the water from it.

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