AN ANCESTRAL SENTINEL, CLIMBERS & COWBOYS
Elevation: 3,700 feet
WHAT TO DO IN LONE PINE
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Drive up to the Whitney Portal to see the trailhead that takes hikers to the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 without any climbing equipment. Or, if you want a long Whitney walk and didn’t get a permit for the Mount Whitney Trail, turn off on Horseshoe Meadow Road for a hike that starts at 10,000 feet and put your legs to work striding toward Cottonwood Pass. Driving back down from either destination on Whitney Portal Road, keep your eyes peeled for an expansive view of the huge dried-out flat that was once Owens Lake.
Revisit the golden age of cowboy movies at the Lone Pine Film Museum. Once you’ve had your fill of that, investigate the memorabilia celebrating other genres. Fans of Patrick Swayze, television miniseries and the Civil War should not miss the corner celebrating North & South.
Take the Picture Rocks Circle drive in the Alabama Hills to see rock formations shaped like polar bears, rhino feet, eagles, dinosaurs, spooks and Hannibal the Cannibal.
A few miles north of Lone Pine along Highway 395, keep your eyes peeled for the Alabama Gates Spillway beside the southbound lanes. It looks like some sort of small cottage over a small, dry canal, but it’s the site of some of the most dramatic Water Wars moments.
If you’re staying overnight in town and like Hollywood history and rooms with a theme, choose the historic hotel at the Dow Villa over the motel on the same property. (If you like more modern amenities, go for the motel.)
Lone Pine Claims to Fame: Whitney & Westerns
Two things dominate the character of Lone Pine. It’s the gateway to Mount Whitney — the tallest Sierra peak and highest point in the contiguous US — and it served as the backdrop for many Hollywood westerns. The most dramatic effects of the Water Wars can also be seen to the south of Lone Pine at the now-dry Owens Lake.
Mount Whitney — The Very Old Man
Mount Whitney has long had transcendent qualities given its towering position in the Sierra. The Paiute Indians called Mount Whitney Too-Man-Go-Yah, meaning “the very old man,” and their legends held that a spirit who dictated their destinies lived inside and kept watch over them from above.
Which One’s Mount Whitney?
Though Mount Whitney is the Sierra’s tallest mountain, it can be difficult to pick out. It isn’t visible from the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks that lie across the range to the west because it is obscured by the Great Western Divide. And even from Lone Pine’s prime East Side vantage point where the Mount Whitney view is essentially straight on, the High Sierra is more of a sky-scraping rocky plateau here than singular peaks rising significantly above others.
The easiest way to find Whitney is to first find a group of jagged needles. Two big ones stand out particularly prominently. Crooks Peak is the one on the left, Keeler Needle is to the right, and Whitney is the pointy mountain next in line. Another sharp peak over to the left looks bigger (and closer) from here, but that’s Lone Pine Peak, which tops out just shy of 13,000 feet.
Mount Whitney’s “hidden” quality even led to confusion over its name. When a California Geological Survey (CGS) party came to this part of the Sierra in 1864 during their efforts to map the mountains, they named the highest peak that they saw in honor of CGS leader and California state geologist Josiah Whitney. A few years later, a member of that party — Clarence King — returned to climb and measure it. But he was unable to correctly discern the tallest mountain from the others and made his ascent up a different peak — Mount Langley. In the meantime, a group of three fishermen from Owens Valley successfully made the first summit on the actual Mount Whitney, and it was almost renamed Fishermen’s Peak.
A Feasible Fourteener: Hiking Mount Whitney
Extending to a height of 14,505 feet, it seems inconceivable that it is possible to reach the top without special climbing equipment, but that is indeed the case via the Mount Whitney Trail during warm-weather months. (Two other “feasible fourteeners” that don’t necessarily require mountaineering expertise, ice axes and crampons are Mount Langley and White Mountain Peak in the White Mountains to the east of the Sierra.)
The fact that it can be summited without ropes and the like makes Mount Whitney the most frequently climbed Sierra mountain; the Mount Whitney Trail alone draws more than 20,000 people annually, and there are several other routes for more skilled climbers. Though mountaineering tools aren’t necessary for the Mount Whitney Trail, permits are and rangers will ask to see them. There’s also a lottery system to obtain them. Only 160 people are allowed on the trail per day, and of those, only 60 can spend the night. The rest must complete the trek as a day trip and will likely start well before sunrise.
Starting from the Whitney Portal (roughly 13 miles west of Lone Pine), the trail starts at an elevation of 8,360 feet and rises up for almost 11 miles. The elevation gain from start to summit is more than 6,000 feet, making for an extremely challenging hike that features an infamous set of 99 switchbacks along a stretch nearing the summit. At the top is the Smithsonian Institute Shelter, also called the Summit Hut. The stone structure was built in 1909 as a place for Smithsonian astronomers to conduct their studies of the heavens and has since become a shelter for climbers.
Besides fatigue, altitude sickness is a very real possibility and prevents many from reaching the top. Just like a traditional mountain climb, it is strongly advised to spend a couple days acclimating to the elevation before beginning — and to be vigilant for signs of Acute Mountain Sickness. Besides its physical symptoms, the affliction can also cause mental confusion, and the only remedy is to move to a lower elevation.
Mount Whitney also once held the distinction of being home to the highest outhouse in the lower 48 states, but gave that particular title up. The last of them were removed in 2007 because of the difficulties in maintaining them. (i.e., using helicopters to haul thousands of pounds of waste from a mountain top). As is becoming common in other heavily traveled mountain areas, visitors to the high elevations are now required to “Leave No Trace” and must carry waste out with them using special kits called Wag Bags. They include toilet paper and hand sanitizer, have odor-neutralizers and are biodegradable.
The Changing Heights
Mount Whitney’s height has been revised several times, owing not to any meaningful changes for the mountain, but to how the techniques to measure it change over time. The survey disk at the top of the summit reads 14,494 feet, and in recent years the accepted height has been 14,505 feet (though in 2013 new estimates suggested that Mount Whitney as 14,500 feet tall).
The Alabama Hills: Same Rock, Different World
Leading up to the Sierra from Lone Pine are the Alabama Hills. They’re actually part of the Sierra Nevada and made of granite just like the mountains above, but the landscape here is brown and dusty, and the rocks are rounded versus craggy.
There are arches similar to what you’d see in the Moab Desert’s Arches National Park as well as several other lumpen formations. A loop of roads called Picture Rocks Circle features dozens said to resemble owls, polar bears, eagles, ghosts, the feet of a rhinoceros and even Batman.
The contrast between the Alabama Hills and the rest of the Sierra comes down to climate. The Alabama Hills show the effects of erosion in a desert, while the peaks above illustrate the results of the same process in an alpine environment.
The chemical weathering that shaped the Alabama Hills while they were still covered with soil caused the granite to disintegrate as ground water seeped into its cracks. In the colder mountain areas above the tree line, the rock was more resilient, but a different type of erosion called mechanical weathering caused it to be scraped by ice and broken apart from the pressure caused by freezing and thawing water.
A Devastating Quake: The Other Big One
San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake is referred to as “The Big One” but 34 years earlier, a similarly powerful one struck Lone Pine. Just after 2 a.m. on March 26, 1872, a quake with a 7.4 magnitude on the Owens Valley fault that runs east of the Alabama Hills was felt as far as San Diego (where it stopped clocks) and Salt Lake City.
For comparison, the quake that reduced San Francisco to ashes measured only a bit higher on the Richter scale at 7.8 — and some estimates make the two equals. Regardless, the Lone Pine quake is recognized as the third-largest in recorded California history.
As in San Francisco, the effects in Lone Pine were devastating. In 1872, the East Side wasn’t an unsettled frontier. This was well after the Gold Rush began, and there were between 250 and 300 people living here at the time; 27 were killed. A well-marked mass gravesite holds the remains of 16 of them. In addition, nearly all of Lone Pine’s homes — being built of adobe — were destroyed.
The tremors also left behind a massive scarp. The ruptured land caused by movement along the fault is still visible west of Lone Pine and to the north near Big Pine.
The quake caused a great deal of fear in Yosemite because state geologist Josiah Whitney had believed that Yosemite Valley resulted from its floor dropping during an ancient quake. As Yosemite also rattled, some who were experiencing it became worried that the ground beneath them was poised to plummet further.
John Muir was also in Yosemite, working as a winter caretaker, and wrote a detailed account of the Lone Pine temblor that is featured in his book Our National Parks. He described fear (that Sentinel Rock near his cabin might fall and crush him), but also excitement over the opportunity to study the quake’s effects. As he sprang outside to see what was happening, he was able to witness a noted geological formation called Eagle Rock violently collapse. For several weeks after, he also kept a bucket of water on a table to study the aftershocks.
Lone Pine Movie Magic: Cowboy History & the Sierra as Stand-In
Beyond the geologic uniqueness, the distinctive terrain of the Alabama Hills is perhaps more notable for a rich Hollywood history. Hundreds of movies — as well as television shows and scores of commercials — have been filmed here.
Fans of westerns in particular should recognize the scenery; from the 1920s into the 1950s and beyond, Gene Autry, William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Clint Eastwood, Robert Mitchum, Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger), Roy Rogers, John Wayne and others played cowboys and gunslingers on Alabama Hills film sets. Many stayed at the Dow Villa Motel in Lone Pine, which was built specifically to host visiting celebrities as Lone Pine became an increasingly popular shooting location.
In addition to its appearances in westerns, the Alabama Hills have masqueraded as varied far-away lands. They’ve served as a stand-in for Africa in two Tarzan movies, India in Gunga Din and Gary Cooper’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Afghanistan in the more recent Iron Man and even other planets, being a popular backdrop for several sci-fi films.
Besides Iron Man, other more contemporary movies shot near Lone Pine include two in the Star Trek series (The Final Frontier and Generations), Tremors, GI Jane, Gladiator, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Django Unchained. For a small town to have such an impressive silver-screen resume, it’s no surprise that there is a museum devoted to this part of Lone Pine’s history. The Beverly & Jim Rogers Lone Pine Film History Museum has exhibits, props, memorabilia and a theater that screens classic and contemporary movies and hosts an annual film festival.
Water Wars Ground Zero
Some of the most contentious events during the Water Wars have taken place near Lone Pine.
Nearby are the Alabama Gates, the Los Angeles Aqueduct spillway where water can be redirected back to Owens Lake in the event of an overflow. Many protests have been staged here. In 1924, a group of ranchers reached the brink in their anger over continuing Owens Valley land purchases by the city of Los Angeles as their own farmlands grew drier. So they opened the gates to effectively turn off the City of Angels’ water for five days and temporarily release it back to the Owens River.
More violent demonstrations have followed; various parts of the aqueduct — including the Alabama Gates — have been subjected to dynamite attacks.
Owens Lake: From Mighty Body of Water to Strange & Toxic Dust
What’s left of Owens Lake also lies to the south of Lone Pine. It’s one of the most visually arresting indicators of how the Los Angeles Aqueduct transformed the East Side. What had once been a vast freshwater lake — where steam-powered ferries traversed the surface — became a mostly dry bed of crusted, salty flats and shallow water, some of it red as bacteria was drawn to the salt. Besides its changed appearance, Owens Lake now produces a great deal of air pollution in the form of toxic dust. In the 1990s, the city of Los Angeles was tasked with better controlling it.
Trying to Repair: Owen Valley Restoration Efforts
In 1991, the Department of Water and Power also agreed to “re-water” the Owens Valley to help restore its ecosystem. The Lower Owens River Project now aims to bring water back to a 62-mile stretch of the river that once fed Owens Lake. The town of Aberdeen north of Lone Pine is the point where the aqueduct diverted the Owens River to begin its 230-mile downhill journey to Los Angeles.
In 2005 some modifications to the dam-like structure at the Aqueduct Intake there allowed for controlled release of water back into the river and by 2006, it was on its way to restoration — over a lengthy period of time. It’s one of the largest river restorations to ever be attempted, and today views are mixed on the progress/success.
China Lake: Top Guns in the Sierra
The first time you see a fighter jet on the East Side, it’s likely to be a surprise. But at the southern end of the range, there’s good odds that military aircraft might scream by overhead.
Further south of Lone Pine — not far from Ridgecrest at China Lake — there is a Naval Air Warfare Center, and pilots from several other military branches also use the air space as a training ground. Flyers from other parts of the world also come to hone their skills over the sparsely populated, dramatic topography.
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