Elevation: 6,463 feet feet
WHAT TO DO IN BRIDGEPORT
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Take a warm dip in the Travertine Hot Springs while looking at the Matterhorn.
Pretend you’re a Dharma Bum. Follow in the footsteps of Ray Smith & company and have a raving great dinner in town after climbing the Matterhorn. Reaching the summit not required, obviously.
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Plan to be in town at the top of the hour so you can hear the symphony of bells that play from the courthouse.
A Modern Frontier in the High Sierra
Though it was once a busy and important supply center during the mining boom in nearby Bodie, modern Bridgeport remains something of a frontier given its position beyond the most popular East Side destinations. Bodie was deserted after mining dried up, and though Bridgeport persevered, it is now a much quieter community than it was during the Gold Rush because it is more removed from the rest of the Eastern Sierra. Lee Vining to the south is a cut-off in many ways, being the point where most travelers will either turn west to take the Tioga Pass into Yosemite or go south to major attractions like Mammoth Lakes or Mount Whitney.
Bridgeport does boast a busy tourism season from summer into early fall, well-known for good fishing in the Walker River, Twin Lakes and Bridgeport Reservoir, and also recognized as a prime location to see California’s autumnal colors. But it is further off the beaten path than other East Side towns, and once the snow comes, it becomes much more isolated. When the Sierra’s passes close for the winter, there is no nearby point to cross the mountains, and there are likely few East Side visitors who venture as far north as Lee Vining and Bridgeport. Most drawn to Eastern Sierra winter sport instead gravitate to Mammoth Lakes and June Lake’s June Mountain.
The quiet of Bridgeport’s winter makes it on some level a seasonal ghost town. It should be noted, though, that cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and other winter sports do draw tourists who are able to reach Bridgeport in the snowy months.
One who was familiar with the daunting winter terrain that separates Bridgeport from the west side of the Sierra was explorer John C. Fremont. His unplanned passage came about during a search for the mythical Buenaventura River. It had been drawn on early maps, but never actually seen and was thought to flow from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean.
Fremont had been sure that he would eventually come across the Buenaventura if he traveled the length of the Sierra Nevada. He set forth from Oregon, and some two months later, running low on supplies and with no sign of the river in sight, it was where Bridgeport now stands that he decided to abandon the search and cross the Sierra at the height of winter. The arduous trip across to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento — following what is now the Carson Pass — took his party nearly six weeks in the deep snow, from late January into March.
It would ultimately be learned that the Buenaventura didn’t exist. During his trek to find it, Fremont became one of the first to suspect that the Sierra prevented any rivers from flowing to the sea. In other words, he was the first to understand that the land between the Rockies and the Sierra — the Great Basin — was a closed basin. It was also during this trip that Fremont became the first westerner to discover Lake Tahoe.
Start of the High Sierra
What makes Fremont’s winter Sierra crossing so impressive is that Bridgeport is commonly considered the start of the High Sierra. Nearby Matterhorn Peak is the northernmost major mountain in the range.
Part of the Sawtooth Ridge, the Sierra’s Matterhorn measures more than 12,000 feet and also serves as a boundary for Yosemite National Park. The line that marks the park’s northeast edge runs right along its summit. Thinking of that while in Bridgeport is a good reminder that Yosemite extends far beyond its iconic valley.
A Glimpse of What Was in the Owens Valley?
Bridgeport may have a lower profile than the rest of the Eastern Sierra, but it has some captivating sights. Besides the Matterhorn, the Bridgeport Valley is a world apart from the East Side’s desert with its beautiful, vibrant farmland. Bridgeport was once called Big Meadows, and ranching was big business in the Bridgeport Valley.
In recent years, some of the largest remaining ranches here have secured conservancy protection so that their land continues to be used for agriculture and does not become developed for other purposes. These actions have preserved thousands of acres to remain a vast pastoral grazing land for livestock — and an enduring glimpse of what the Owens Valley to the south was like before construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
The Matterhorn, Kerouac & Bridgeport in The Dharma Bums
Bridgeport makes an importance appearance in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. The semi-autographical novel contrasts simpler life in the outdoors versus a more hedonistic existence in the city and includes a depiction of a trip to the Sierra by Kerouac, fellow Beat Generation writer Gary Snyder and a friend. A pivotal moment comes when the three attempt to climb the Matterhorn. This was Kerouac’s first taste of mountaineering, and it compelled him to spend the following summer alone in the mountains (this time the Cascades) working as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak.
Bridgeport is also described in the book. It’s the base from where they set out for their trek to the Matterhorn and where they return for dinner after, debating between a more upscale restaurant and a “workingman-looking” eatery favored by Snyder. It’s believed that the Bridgeport Inn is the fancier choice that ultimately won out in the book.
Bridgeport with Film Noir Treatment: Out of the Past
To perhaps get a better sense of how Bridgeport’s downtown appeared when Kerouac made his visit, the 1947 Robert Mitchum-Jane Greer-Kirk Douglas movie Out of the Past is an accessible visible depiction from around the same era. The film noir was set in Bridgeport, and several scenes were filmed there.
Visitors to Bridgeport will soon notice that the vehicles along its main drag are all backed into their spaces. That’s because Bridgeport’s Main Street is a stretch of Highway 395, and though there were once five lanes for traffic, they were reduced to three (one in each direction of travel and a turning lane). This resulted in a great deal of extra space on the street, and the back-in policy was implemented in 2012 as an experiment to utilize it.
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