Eastern California Road Trip: The Mountains
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Date: 28 November - 1 December, 2020
Location: Alabama Hills, Whitney Portal, Horseshoe Meadows (California, USA)
Highlights: Clear blue skies, towering granite mountains, panoramic views, frozen waterfalls
Summary: Dramatic mountains emerging from the valley floor gave rise to some incredible views.
I planned to travel home to California for Christmas, but my parents are at-risk for COVID-19 and didn’t want me to self-quarantine with them. The solution? My sister, Siena, would join me for a one week road trip throughout Eastern California in complete self-isolation. We would get two birds with one stone: self-quarantine and adventure.
Eastern California is known for its huge amount of geographical diversity in a relatively small region: the highest and lowest points in the US are only a couple hours drive from one another. The towering eastern Sierra mountains feature alpine meadows, waterfalls, lakes, and even glaciers. An hour east from the Sierra mountains is the expansive Mohave desert, an arid, expansive region with little human activity, containing places like Death Valley National Park. Both of these settings were ideal for a week-long trip where distance from others was critical.
This trip report is split into 2 parts: (1) the mountains, and (2) the deserts.
Siena and I wanted to camp in a region that had access to both the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Owens Valley to the east. We also wanted a place where the December night temperatures would not dip too much below freezing. We decided the Alabama Hills, a land of strange rock formations, was perfect. During the nights, the full moon illuminated our explorations for rocks, wildlife, and photographic opportunities. Further into the night, the movement of the stars proved to be an excellent clock, ticking away to the horizon. When Mars came into view, we knew the sun wasn’t far behind. We woke up to scenes like this:
During the day we explored the nearby mountains, starting with the steep, canyon trail that leads up Mt Whitney. On our hike we found a frozen lake which stopped us in our tracks. As the sun rose and peered over the canyon walls, the lake ice crackled as it began to melt in the heat of the sun. The sound resembled a rockfall, leading to some alarm at first!
The next day, you could find us at Cottonwood Lakes, a high, yet flat part of the Sierra Nevada. Although there is normally snow, we found the region to be completely dry, save for a few meandering streams, half-frozen in the bright sunlight. It made for a leisurely hike—as leisurely as can be expected at 3000 metres (10000 ft). We traversed Horseshoe Meadows where, at this time of year, the most interesting things to be found were the dried cow pies and the elusive salamanders in the creek.
Our third and final day in the Sierra Nevada was spent in Owens Valley. Siena and I were mineral hunting in the old, abandoned mines of the 19th and 20th centuries. We didn’t find anything spectacular, but enjoyed exploring places well off the beaten-path and around the corner. It’s hard to convey the sense of scale and emptiness of this place with writing, but pictures can help.
On this final afternoon, we drove to Death Valley National Park to begin our exploration of the desert, to places even more remote and even harder to comprehend why they should exist. We approached the park with some trepidation. The sun fell behind the mountains , great dunes revealed themselves in the distance, and the lake bed where we would camp came into view.
In part two of this report, we detail our time in the deserts.
Detailed topographic maps: https://tomharrisonmaps.com/
Current highway conditions: https://roads.dot.ca.gov/
Guide to the Alabama Hills: https://leavenotracy.com/camping-in-alabama-hills-where-to-camp-and-what-to-do/
List of places we considered: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1sIFm5rg6B2oZh7N3ubv_Rdsct1iPMjAB&ll=36.824505002868406%2C-117.75088034999999&z=8