Fall in Owens Valley and the eastern Sierra is enchanting. It can be warm enough for summer activities and it can be cold enough to wear down jackets and mittens, both within the span of twenty-four hours. The changing colors of the aspens, the cottonwoods, the willows and the rosebushes are flamboyant. The more subtle hues and forms of many bushes and grasses are intriguing to anyone interested in native plants, although others might dismiss them as boring. Along with these changes, the crest of the Sierra—the peaks and valleys etched along the skyline—and the beauty of the pine forest continue to satisfy the yearnings deep within anyone who has spent time wandering up and down Highway 395.
We were invited to join our son Martin and his girlfriend Connie on their annual camping trip to Dunderberg Meadow at a site Martin and our son Tom had found four years ago when they were wandering around in the dark looking for a place to camp. They followed several dirt roads and finally entered a narrow two track that ended in an aspen grove next to a gurgling creek. There was an old wooden table under the trees, a large circle of rocks for a campfire and enough level land to pitch a tent. Best of all, there were no neighboring campsites. The site was sheltered at the upper end of the meadow at about 9000 feet elevation. The trip sounded interesting, and Darlene thought that camping with Martin and Connie would be her preferred way of celebrating her 70th birthday. She didn’t really want to turn 70, but doing so in the Sierra made it more agreeable.
We left San Diego on Thursday, October 14, after Jim’s morning class at Palomar College. Traffic was dense on I-15 through Rancho Cucamonga and over Cajon Pass, but there was less on U.S. 395. We passed through Kramer Junction, noting that there are additional solar panels in the group mounted on the desert to capture energy from the sun. Other landmarks were ticked off: the shacks of Red Mountain, the picnic area in Johannesburg, the long hill where Jim had to install the switch to change fuel tanks in the International many years ago when the boys were young, and the turn into Owens Valley where Highway 14 terminates at U.S. 395. Then we passed the long ridge of lava that encompasses Fossil Falls, the volcanic cinder cone, and Little Lake, where we noticed the old structure (hotel?) has been removed. We stopped at the Coso Junction rest area for a supper of soup, and we observed that the Chevron station there had fuel for less than the $2.559 we paid at Kramer Junction. (Fuel in Bishop and Bridgeport was $2.999.)
The small establishments appeared in succession as we continued north: Olancha, Cartago, Lone Pine, Manzanar Relocation Center and Independence. Finally we found the sign to Aberdeen and turned west to the BLM campground on Goodale Creek. Although there were some RVs there, we found a level site without any close neighbors. Each site had its own cottonwood tree with a little pool of water supplied by a bubbler. Apparently water was pumped from the creek. We had never been to this campground, but we are very likely to return. Not only is the campground free, but it is appealing in its layout and cleanliness. The Sierra mountains above were lovely to look at, and we saw our first colorful aspen grove on a slope in the distance. Darkness fell quickly, and the stars and the Milky Way were brilliant.
The next morning, Darlene’s birthday, we continued through Big Pine to Bishop, where we visited the Forest Service for a fire permit, the bakery for some day-old bagels, the used bookstore for a few books and the Mountain Light Gallery, featuring Galen Rowell’s photography and a special David Muench exhibit. The gallery has made creative use of an old bank building, retaining the huge safe on one wall. Viewing Galen Rowell’s impressive images made us feel once more how much we lost when Galen and his wife were killed in a small airplane accident.
After eating a sandwich on our tailgate, we left Bishop and climbed Sherwin Grade. The rabbit brush is in full bloom around Bishop, lining the roads with a bright yellow that matches the fall cottonwoods. We passed Lake Crowley, Mammoth Lakes, the Crestview Rest Area, Deadman Summit, the June Lake Loop, Mono Lake, Lee Vining and Conway Summit before turning west onto the Virginia Lakes Road. Here the rabbit brush had finished blooming, leaving tufts of tan where yellow flowers had once blazed. Some aspens still had yellow leaves, but most of them above Conway Summit were bare. The gray branches have a beauty of their own, hinting at the winter that would soon arrive.
We turned to the north on Dunderberg Meadow Road, which is a smooth dirt road. We were surprised that our route climbed high, contouring around a mountain before dipping to the meadow. We were unsure of the location of the campsite, so we waited for Martin to arrive. A friendly burro came up to us when we got out of the truck. Then a young Spanish-speaking sheepherder appeared with two dogs. We tried to communicate as we exchanged smiles, but didn’t succeed very well. He had his dogs herd the burro away. Tom later commented that Basque sheepherders have apparently used this area for years. He had been interested in the Basque carvings on the aspen trees. I noticed initials on some of the trees, but neglected to look for dates.
Martin and Connie arrived about 5 P.M. We had been very close to the campsite, but didn’t realize it. We found a level spot for the truck “upstairs” while Martin pitched their tent near the creek. Riley, Connie’s dog, moved right in. Martin heated some delicious tortilla soup that Connie had made, and we sat around the campfire for a while before retiring early. We expected to be cold at this elevation, but we were actually too warm in our down bags after we initially warmed them up.
It was 36 degrees when we got up at 7 in the morning. Martin and Connie were hiking to the top of the ridge, so we found the path and followed. Martin said he thought the trail was a packers’ trail from the Virginia Lakes to Green Creek. At the top we looked down into the Green Creek canyon and could see a small lake. To get there by road is a long way around, but we could have easily gone there on this trail. Instead we returned to camp for some of Martin’s gourmet oatmeal.
We left camp by crossing the creek and following a rough dirt road past a small lake clinging to the mountainside. We were near the old Dunderberg Mill site, but didn’t detour to it because our goal was to canoe on Mono Lake. Martin recently purchased a used lightweight canoe that is only about a year old. He borrowed another canoe and carried them both on top of his truck. We drove to the South Tufa area and walked the nature trail to learn that tufa or towers of calcium carbonate were formed by springs that brought the mineral-rich water to the surface and gradually the deposits piled up. Mono Lake is saltier than Salt Lake; therefore the birds, boats and swimmers all float high on the water. There are black flies along the shore that are eaten by the birds that come to the lake. We saw blackbirds and others flitting among the tufa, and there were many grebes swimming on the water. Seagulls come to the lake to breed in the spring and summer, then return to the seashore for the winter. We saw one old-looking gull that maybe couldn’t make the long migration and remained behind.
Canoes and kayaks are launched at Navy Beach, which is near the tufa. Martin let us use his new canoe, while he, Connie and Riley used Connie’s brother’s canoe. We paddled out to some tufa offshore to see the osprey nest on top. Since this is not the nesting season, the area was not restricted. In some areas we peered into the green water and saw many brine shrimp swimming and floating. We hoped to see bubbles from the underwater springs, but couldn’t find any. They are supposed to appear oily in the salty water. We tasted the water, which is said to be a combination of salt and bitter, but it mostly tasted fishy and bad. Perhaps the shrimp influence the flavor.
The weather was sunny and warm while we were canoeing, but the wind increased just as we were returning to Navy Beach. Although it caused us to paddle a little harder to land where we wanted, it would have been more of a problem if we had been later in returning. It was interesting to see how the soapy-feeling water dried white on our legs and sandals. The canoes and equipment will all have to be cleaned when Martin returns home.
Our next destination was Lundy Canyon, known for its fall colors. There were many photographers clustered at one particularly brilliant aspen grove along the road, but we passed by because we wanted to hike to the waterfall. We parked at the trailhead and started out on a trail which quickly degenerated. It followed along an old ditch flume that was gradually being overgrown with vegetation. Martin led us through some thickets and we found the main trail, which is very well-defined. It went along the side of the canyon and climbed to a view of the waterfall that cascades down a steep incline. We continued beyond the top of the falls to some beaver ponds, but then turned back because it was getting late. At one point we saw freshly-gnawed stumps of small trees and faint beaver slides going down to the water.
We returned to our camp at Dunderberg Meadow, where Martin once again cooked dinner in the dark. Doing so has become a tradition since it happens on so often on Martin’s trips. This time we had a tasty noodle dish with pieces of turkey sausage and broccoli. We ate around the campfire, and then Martin read a Jack London tale, “To Start a Fire.” The wind was erratic and the smoke kept shifting, a harbinger of the rain that was predicted during the night.
We wakened in the morning to find a thin layer of snow on the ground and more falling. The temperature was 32 degrees, again not as cold as we had expected. Martin had planned breakfast burritos, but we decided to drive to the Hays Street Café in Bridgeport. Obviously its fame for good food has spread, for there was a crowd of people. We looked back as we left Dunderberg Meadow and could see the snow line at about 8500 to 9000 feet. It was pretty to see the high slopes dusted with snow, with clouds covering the mountain tops.
After breakfast we drove out on the Twin Lakes Road, then turned north on a dirt road to Buckeye Hot Springs. There was only an occasional light sprinkling of rain. The Buckeye campground was closed for the season, but there were several RVs along the high banks of the stream. We were concluding that the hot springs were on private property that was posted “No trespassing” when a camper came out to tell us how to find them. We hiked a challenging ¼ mile trail downstream. The hot spring emerges about 25 feet above the stream and rolls down the face of a broad boulder. Several pools have been constructed with rocks at the base to catch the hot water and mingle it with stream water to make the temperature bearable. There were several people sitting in one of the pools. We hadn’t planned to go in ourselves. We climbed up the hillside above the hot spring and returned to our trucks by walking on the road. We then drove east to rejoin Highway 395.
We made one last stop by a small creek in a canyon filled with yellow aspens, yellow willows and reddish-brown rose bushes. Although it was early for lunch, we made sandwiches before going our separate ways. Martin and Connie headed north on 395 and we went south. From that point it was 423 miles to home.
The weather improved at the southern end of Owens Valley, but the clouds remained on the Sierra crest and it was predicted that the snow level would reach 7500 feet by night and 6500 on Monday. Jim decided he would rather drive all the way home than to camp and go home the next day. Darlene tried to share in the driving, but the wind buffeting the truck made her uneasy. Fortunately she has great confidence in Jim’s driving.
After the beauty of the Sierra, it is disagreeable to return to the traffic on Cajon Pass and I-15, but storing up another fond memory makes it worthwhile. We’re looking forward to sharing our next adventure with Martin, wherever that may be.