Arborglyph

June Lake

LITTLE SWITZERLAND

Elevation: 7,621 feet

On the Other Side of the Sierra: Yosemite Valley

WHAT TO DO IN JUNE LAKE

Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

  • Connector.

    Take a picture with the slot machine at the Oh Ridge vista and gaze at Carson Peak.

  • Connector.

    Hike by Parker Lake and look for arborglyphs on the Aspen trees. Real ones, not the lame graffiti irresponsible vandals have carved in more modern times. This is also a good place to take in the yellows, golds, oranges and reds of a Sierra autumn.

Uniquely Alpine

Unlike the landscape to the east of Highway 395, June Lake has a more traditional alpine look. That includes a string of lakes, meadows, pines and leafy aspen trees, making it a popular destination for seeing the somewhat rare autumnal color in California.

June Lake actually has four lakes, its others being Gull, Silver and Grant. Yet it could be argued that one of June Lake’s best-known features is a road. The June Lake Loop (SR 158) passes all four and provides access to the many resorts that lie among them.

A Surprising Sierra Vista: The Oh Ridge

One of June Lake’s most picturesque spots is the Oh Ridge, which offers a spectacular view that comes suddenly after a sharp turn along the main road. That vista combines the area’s eponymous lake and striking mountains, especially Carson Peak, which rises more than 10,000 feet. The surprise of it all causes many to exclaim in awe, hence the name.

Early Road Trip Destination

June Lake was quite secluded until 1915, popular with hunters and fishermen but not broadly accessible because it lacked a true road. What brought one was the start of the Rush Creek Hydroelectric Project to supply renewable energy produced by running water. The route in for its workers came at the perfect time. The same year, just a bit further north, the Tioga Pass opened as an East Side link to Yosemite, and the stage was set for June Lake to become a resort destination that could serve as a base for park visitors.

The first was Carson’s Camp, which provided lodging in tents before eventually adding cabins. One of those later became part of Silver Lake Resort, which opened in 1916. Still in operation, it bills itself as “The Oldest Resort in the Eastern Sierra.”

Once cars became more affordable in the 1920s, road-tripping took off — though it was called “auto touring” at the time. June Lake became a popular stopping point for Southern Californians making the trip to Yosemite via the Sierra Nevada’s East Side. (Yosemite Valley is in fact due west of June Lake, just over those giant mountains.) With the new flow of vacationers, more lodging options soon followed in June Lake, cementing tourism as its primary industry.

Favored Vacation Destination for Classic Hollywood Stars

June Lake also drew the attention of Hollywood not long after. June Lake Lodge (completed in 1928 and now a time-share called Heidelberg Inn Resort) was a fashionable destination that in the 1930s hosted major stars like Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and Betty Grable. Other showbiz types, like director Frank Capra, kept summer homes in the area.

June Lake also appeared onscreen. The 1946 movie Road to Utopia starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour was filmed here — as was the much more recent Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion (released in 2013).

Woody Woodpecker Was Born Here

Another distinguished June Lake guest was cartoonist Walter Lantz. While honeymooning here, the story goes that he became irritated by a woodpecker that persistently pecked at the roof. His new wife Gracie had a different reaction and suggested that the bird become a new character.

The result was Woody, and Gracie eventually was the one who performed his lines (and iconic laugh) after Mel Blanc gave up the gig to devote his energy to voicing Bugs Bunny and others.

June Mountain: Mammoth’s Smaller Ski Sibling

Though summer and early fall are the high season at June Lake, tourism is a year-round enterprise. June Mountain has been attracting skiers for more than 50 years.

Yet flashier Mammoth (in fact June Mountain’s owner since 1986) has taken more of the spotlight over time. Financial troubles in Mammoth Lakes during the 2012/2013 ski season also brought challenges. While the neighboring town dealt with the aftermath of a development deal gone wrong, June Mountain closed for the first time in its history. Since reopening for winter 2013/2014, it has promoted itself as a family-friendly destination to create some differentiation.

Glacial Oddities

Like most areas of the Sierra Nevada, June Lake shows several traces of its glacial history.Geologically inclined visitors can find three different phenomena.

The Balancing Boulder

One lies at the entrance to June Lake Village — a giant erratic boulder some 18 feet tall and weighing more than 150 tons. It’s a well-known June Lake landmark and a testament to the power of the glacier that carried it here to land where there are no other rocks of its kind. It perches balanced atop a rock formation by the June Lake Fire Station.

The Horseshoe Canyon

The shape of the canyon in which the June Lake Loop lies is another relic. It’s a horseshoe and illustrates how the glacier that formed it split in two directions when it reached the mountain that is now called Reversed Peak. It now stands in the middle of the two deep clefts that the glacier carved around it.

The Backwards Creek

The most peculiar of June Lake’s glacial features is Reverse Creek, which runs from Gull Lake into Silver Lake with the water flowing essentially backwards. The shape of the canyon is again the reason. What lies between the two lakes is the curved “bottom” of the horseshoe-shaped canyon and the mountain standing within it still acts as a barrier. Now it forces Reverse Creek on an unnatural path that takes the water toward the Sierra’s crest versus away. It is the only stream in the Eastern Sierra that flows this way.

Arborglyphs: Basque Messages Told in the Trees

Like the Oh Ridge, another of June Lake’s attractions that could be described as hidden are its arborglyphs. These years-old messages were carved into the trees by Basques who left the Pyrenees for work as shepherds in the western United States. (June Lake was a summer grazing ground for the sheep.)

Using the trees as a canvas became customary for them because work as a shepherd was largely solitary. Etching their names, pictures and other messages into the aspens became a way for them to express themselves or communicate with others. What started as gentle, barely visible carvings in the white bark over time became more prominent markings as the trees scarred.

The result has been a remarkable piece of visible history — but a temporary one. Aspen trees live roughly 100 years, so eventually these traces of the past will disappear from the landscape. For a timeline reference as to when they’ll be gone, sheepfarming had its heyday from the early 1900s through post-World War Two.

Besides June Lake, Basque arborglyphs are visible in other parts of the Sierra Nevada (e.g., Lake Tahoe) as well as other mountainous areas in the western part of the country.

Gambling Relics: Underwater Slot Machines?

June Lake wasn’t always as tranquil as it is today. In the 1930s, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was extending its aqueduct work that transferred water to Los Angeles. It was already siphoning from the Owens River further south, but Los Angeles was growing and so was its need for water.

The streams feeding nearby Mono Lake were chosen as an additional source. June Lake served as a home base for the Mono Basin Project’s workers, and gambling became prominent to entertain them. Many bars and restaurants in the area installed (illegal) slot machines to attract their business.

But after work on the project was done and the workers left, slots held little appeal for the remaining June Lake dwellers and visitors. Most of the machines were removed, and it is rumored that the last of them were dumped into June Lake ahead of an expected raid by state revenue agents. None have yet been found, but divers continue to look. At the south end of June Lake, a viewpoint at Garbage Pit Road has an E Clampus Vitus monument that tells of these events and includes a replica slot machine.

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