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US 395, Part 3: Inyo County (Little Lake to Manzanar)

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Inyo and Mono counties represent probably the largest county-specific portions of this photoessay (minus specific city focuses such as Carson City, Reno and Spokane). This is due in no small portion to the large amount of US 395 that runs in these two counties alone, almost 250 miles worth (realigned).

Inyo county was first created as Coso county in 1864, named for the famous local mountain range, but changed to Inyo in 1866. Like Kern county, it was another cast-off portion of Tulare county, but also took a small piece from Mono county to the north. "Inyo" refers to a local Indian name for the fabulous peaks between which the highway nestles, translated roughly as "dwelling place of the great spirit," as identified by Chief George of the Paiutes when asked by white settlers what the mountains were called. Despite being the second largest county in the continental United States (San Bernardino county being #1), its population numbers a faint 18,250, practically desolate given its surface area. US 395 acts as the string in this small pearl necklace of towns and settlements, holding the county's spread-out population together, a theme repeated in Mono county to its north.

Almost all of US 395 in Inyo and Mono counties from CA 14 north is part of the old Sierra Highway, also known as El Camino Sierra, originally trekked by the great Jedediah Smith and later promulgated by prospectors from the south. Advocated in the motor age as a connector from El Camino Real (US 101) to Yosemite, it was best known during its US 6 days. Today the Sierra Hwy name is little used outside of southern California, where it retains importance as a regional alternative through the Antelope Valley. The Sierra Hwy designation does not disappear until just before the Nevada state line, at the CA 89 junction in Part 9.

Much of US 395 in Inyo county is now on realigned mileage, although a great deal of this was done before the 1964 Renumbering and so is not marked on the PMs as such. In addition to a 1966 bypass of Little Lake, there is old alignment marked on the NAVTEQ plots west of Olancha and some scattered old pieces of alignment north of Lone Pine which were apparently bypassed sometime in the 1940s. Most of these old pieces do not even appear on most plots and are difficult to reconcile with maps from the time. More pieces to follow.


The Pearsonville playground and, of course, the Hubcap Capital of the World. (If you missed why, go back to the end of Part 2.)

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Turnoff for Nine Mile Canyon Rd and the Kennedy Meadows as we leave Pearsonville. Designated as InyoCo J41 and TulareCo J41 but apparently not signed as such in Inyo county, this difficult road sharply ascends to 6,500' and the eponymous meadow region named for landowner Andrew L. Kennedy who first opened the meadowland for cattle in 1886. From the Meadows where J41 ends, the roadway continues as National Forest Rd NF-22S05/Sherman Pass Rd over the Sierras through the Sherman Pass at 9,170', and then a harrowing and treacherous descent into the Kern River valley and either the back way into Sequoia National Monument or south to Kernville and Lake Isabella at CA 155.

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Distance signage.

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Entering into the southern end of the Owens Valley. Owens Valley was named for its most significant geologic feature, Owens Lake, in turn named for Richard Owens, a member of Gen. John C. Fremont's 1845 survey and exploration party. These almost honeycombed rock faces bordering US 395 act as the southern inlet, and are volcanic in origin.

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This portion of US 395 (between here and the Nevada border, in fact) is designated a national scenic byway. The Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway designation appears signed in multiple places to indicate local points of historical or geologic significance.

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The left turn ahead is the old alignment of US 395 through Little Lake before it was bypassed in 1966. This is a old section of road with some history, so we'll look at it briefly.

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Fork 1: Old US 395

As we turn off the highway, the most noticible feature is the striking basalt columns which are both here and around Little Lake's namesake which we will get to in a minute. These were formed similarly to the much larger columns of the Devils Postpile (briefly discussed in Part 7), in which hot volcanic material shrunk as it cooled and separated into the distinct spires seen here.

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[Little Lake, 1950s, 126K.] Little Lake was originally most famous for its hotel, shown at right in a 1950s picture postcard (click for a 126K larger image). Despite the evapouration of the mining trade to the south, it still was an important railroad stop as well until the railroad stopped coming in 1982. Sadly, the hotel was ravaged by fire in 1989, and over a period of four years most of the other local buildings were razed or abandoned, including the post office in 1997. This is a nice, if poignant, memorial of Little Lake.

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The short alignment is very ill-maintained, but quickly pulls up and around to rejoin the highway.

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We turn right to cover the very short portion which is now expressway.

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Fork 2: Modern US 395

There isn't much to this, but I like to be thorough.

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Rejoining our fork.

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Distance signage heading north.

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This is the Little Lake itself, for which the town was named. It really is quite little, although in this picture the water level is a bit lower than normal. Hints of the basalt columns we saw before can also be seen here.

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As we pass by the Little Lake recreation area, the terrain becomes a little less rugged.

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Wind warning leaving Little Lake.

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Expressway alignment continues NB at this BLM turn off for Fossil Falls, another volcanic formation down a somewhat slippery canyon trail.

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The hills in the valley are much more gentle and rolling now.

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Advance signage for Coso Junction and the rest area.

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Coso Junction, also named for the mountains (in front of us). It is also the site of this convenient off-expressway rest stop and service station. The Cosos' highest peak is, naturally, Coso Pk (8,160'). There are some hot springs known to the Indians in ancient times to the east.

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Re-entering US 395 from the rest area.

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Distance signage.

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This segment of US 395 carries a memorial for CHP Officer Paul H. Pino, a 23-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol who was struck by a speeding driver and dealt fatal injury while writing a traffic ticket along this stretch on the shoulder in 2003. Pino, a native of Holland, was a longtime denizen of US 395, originally based in Los Angeles but later transferring to the Bishop region. Remembered as a solid career officer on a lonely beat, his death was mourned by his partners and his four children.

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Inyo county receives considerable support from Los Angeles county to the far southwest, in return for access to the water supply (such as Owens Lake, now dry) and hydroelectric plant placement along the bodies of water in the Owens River valley. These agreements and water right claimage have existed in some form or another since the early 20th century; Los Angeles first asserted water rights in 1905 (see Part 5 for the marker), and the Los Angeles Aqueduct was dedicated in 1913 with expansion well into the 1940s. When William Mulholland started the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct at the dawn of the 20th century, paved highways eventually followed to service the massive project, along with service centres, lodging and restaurants. One of these towns was Dunmovin, west of the highway.

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Dunmovin is abandoned now, and apparently for sale, but during the 1950s and 1960s was a roadside resort. Hitting hard times during the 1970s, it became a residence for various desert dwellers until they, too, looked for greener vales and the property so far remains fallow. The derivation of the name should be pretty obvious.

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One of the plant turn-offs (here for the Haiwee Power Plant operated by the Department of Water and Power, named for the Paiute term haiwai, or dove). The hydroelectric plants are ingenious in that the Los Angeles aqueduct system was built to require no pumping, using only gravity to faciliate flow. A series of penstocks inside the aqueduct system bleed off water to power plants in the valley gorge and are used to turn turbines.

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Realigned and temporary postmiles appearing together instead of the usual ahead-back pair. These occur several places along US 395.

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And then, shortly afterwards, back to non-realigned miles.

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This doesn't mean that LADWP's usage of the Owens Valley has been all good. Indeed, Wm. Mulholland's name is execrated in some local quarters as the destroyer of Owens Lake, diverting most of the Owens River's flow south to the Haiwee Reservoirs (shown here in the distance, although they are difficult to see from the highway) and ending the viability of the Owens Valley for large-scale farming.

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(singing) "All the way to Reno .../You're gonna be a star"

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End divided highway as we enter Olancha (unsigned from NB). Caltrans has been trying for years to find a bypass route around Olancha. Although community opposition to a shifted US 395 has not been as pitched as it was in, say, Independence (Part 5), local businesses are still concerned about losing the mainline through the town. It is unlikely that a bypass routing will be chosen in the near future, let alone built.

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[US 395 south of Olancha from High Sierra, 1941, 31K.] Our postmile realignment ends and we return to non-realigned miles.

Compare this view to this 1941 screen grab at right from High Sierra (see US 395 In Popular Culture); click for a 31K enlargement. Although this particular scene in the movie plot is ostensibly taken north of Lone Pine, at the end of this Part, the lie and terrain of the foothills give the true location away. The view is northward, looking at Humphrey Bogart's car traveling south.

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Entering Olancha. Olancha has a population of 134 [2000] and derives its name from the nearby peak (12,123') near it, which also gave its name to the nearby creek. The creek is noteworthy because the water sources in this area is good enough to be bottled (as Crystal Geyser brand; there's a plant north of town which we'll snap on the way out) and brewed (by Anheuser-Busch, which uses local wells as one of many water sources for their beers). Where the peak got its name from is less clear, but probably came from a corruption of Olanches, the Shoshone name for the region in pre-colonial times. West of this point, barely visible here, a very disused old alignment of US 395 branches off (see Google Maps) marked as Old State Highway. More on that in a moment.

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Advance signage for the CA 190 junction to Death Valley.

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Slow down! (Officer, I was stopped when I took this picture. The 56mph was the one-armed man driving the Bugatti Veyron.)

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In the last picture, on the left, is an anonymous dirt road rejoining the mainline. This is the end of the Old State Highway alignment, shown here, which is now just dirt and otherwise unmarked; based on the postmiles, it had to have occurred before 1964 and probably was around the 1950s.

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Here's that jerky they were talking about in Johannesburg (Part 1), btw -- wanna stop for some? No? Okay then.

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Marker for Farley's Olancha Mill, constructed by Minnard Farley along the Olancha Creek around 1862 while looking for silver. Specifically, he was looking for the "Lost Gunsight Lode," yet another miner tall tale, supposedly indicating a legendary silver strike where a settler lost his gunsight near Death Valley and replaced it with some soft metal he found lying around, which was, of course, silver. Naturally Farley didn't find the mythical lode, but he did find enough silver other places nearby to make him a very rich man. This all came to a halt, however, when the Indians burned his eight-stamp mill to the ground in 1867, but by then the stage lines were already running regularly into nearby Cerro Gordo ("fat hill") and the newly renamed Olancha became a stage stop -- becoming "official" with its own post office in 1870. After the mining died down, Olancha faded somewhat but remains a local agricultural and ranching centre due to the ample water supply and good soil.

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[CA 190 routing changes.] Junction CA 190. This is the later alignment of CA 190 after 1964. Originally, CA 190 proceeded to Death Valley much further north, routed along what is now CA 136 today (we'll see that shortly), as you can see in the comparison maps on the inset. CA 190 is split here; it remains unconstructed in the present day between Quaking Aspen (on the other side of the Sierras) and US 395, with its western terminus at CA 99 (old US 99).

[Olancha realignment plans.] Further plans for another minor realignment in Olancha seem to be in the works, as shown in the 2003 official state highway map at left; this likely represents Caltrans' wishful thinking about the Olancha bypass. Note also the purple dotted line extending down from CA 190 along the currently proposed routing over the mountains.

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North Olancha.

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Distance signage as we leave Olancha "proper."

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Just north of Olancha is this moderately sized industrial complex ...

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... which is the aforementioned plant for Crystal Geyser. And yes, it is in operation; I've seen bottles passing through even late at night.

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Cartago, named for the ancient Mediterranean sea port Carthage (Cartago being its Latin rendering from the Phoenician words for "new city"). Carthage was an important city-state in classical times, traditionally founded in the 9th century BC by Dido of Tyre and pulverized by Roman invader Scipio Africanus Minor in the Third Punic War of 149-146 BC. Cartago barely carries this proud name today as a ghost town with only a few hardy inhabitants left, but when Owens Lake still had water in it, it was a major port on those shores for the mining trade. Cerro Gordo (on the other side of the lake) started as a small Mexican silver mining operation, but the secret didn't stay hidden long and soon prospectors were invading the area to set up their own stakes. A clever entrepreneur named Mortimer Belshaw, already present in the area as part-owner of the Union silver mine, realized that transport would eventually become the rate limiting step and by July 1868 Belshaw was extracting tolls from all traffic along his road between the mines and Los Angeles (the "Yellow Grade"). In a fit of foresight, Belshaw had placed his toll house in such a way along a natural pinchpoint that no competing road could go by it and bypass him completely. For this purpose, Belshaw hired Frenchman Remi Nadeau in 1869 to do the hauling, which cost Belshaw nothing on his own road, of course. However, disagreements between the two and concerns over the cost of maintaining the road (not to mention its increasingly disadvantageous length) caused Nadeau and Belshaw to part ways. Instead, Belshaw hired James Brady, working for the competing Owens Lake Co., who established a steamboat operation across Owens Lake in 1872. The steamer, the Bessie Brady, went across the lake to Cartago, shaving off several days of travel time.

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Despite Brady's innovation, the weak link was still the wagons carrying the silver out from Cartago as their aggregate carrying capacity still proved inadequate for the volumes Belshaw wanted to handle. Firing Brady and rehiring Nadeau didn't help his fortunes any, and the mining operations in the area finally slowed in the late 1870s. A short-lived competing boat, the Molly Stevens, persisted for only a few months of 1877. In 1882, the Bessie Brady exploded and burned to the waterline, and the steamboat operation was abandoned for good. A legend persists about the bullion it was carrying; I'll just let this fascinating story of the Owens Lake steamers explain the whole tale.

Little of Cartago survives now, of course, except these ruins.

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Ascending out of the Olancha Creek valley. Notice the speed flasher pointing the other way as we resume 65mph.

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BLM marker as we approach the expressway.

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Back to (realigned) divided highway.

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Along this route we come to a turnoff for the Cottonwood Kilns.

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[Cottonwood Kilns postcard, 69K.] In 1873, Colonel Sherman Stevens built a sawmill in this region to harvest nearby wood after the miners down south around Cerro Gordo had already denuded their own forest supply. Not only was the wood needed for fuel, cooking and building, but charcoal was an important fuel for the smelters; Stevens' flume down nearby Cottonwood Creek loaded the wood into the sawmill where it was cut to size and reduced in the kilns, and the resulting coals were sent south to the ore processors. Sadly, Stevens' kilns have greatly deteriorated and the road to them is difficult, so I have simply reproduced the postcard at right. This marker is at the turnoff.

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Some of the old stations and pumps can be seen overlooking Owens Lake. Most of them are no longer in operation.

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Owens Lake, mostly dry bed now.

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At the north end, the median shrinks down to double-double lines instead.

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NB 395.

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Widening slightly before Diaz Lake. This was a very late upgrade, done in 2000, with the southbound lanes representing the original road which narrowed to one-lane-per-direction at this portion.

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Diaz Lake recreation area (from SB). Diaz Lake was one of the geologic consequences of the horrific 1872 Lone Pine earthquake, which took place at 2:35am on 26 March 1872 and measured an estimated 8.3 on the Richter scale. The severity of this earthquake was such that the ground was literally ripped open, some seams and scarps of which can still be seen today. Diaz Lake itself came from a graben (that is, a down-dropped block of the earth's crust resulting from extension or pulling of the crust; compare with "horst," which is a lifting resulting from a similar process) formed between the Owens Valley fault itself and a smaller fault now east of the lake that filled in with water over time.

While the Lone Pine quake's true magnitude remains disputed, it is still believed by many to be the most powerful earthquake in California within the last two centuries. Its fury leveled almost the entire town (north of us which we will enter) and twenty-seven people died, subsequently buried in a mass grave north of the settlement. By comparison, the much more infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake was "only" estimated at around 7.8, but its horrors come from its location in a much more populated area. Diaz was the name of the Diaz brothers, who owned the rancho on which the lake today lies.

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End divided highway as we start to enter Lone Pine.

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Lone Pine received its name from a single towering Jeffrey pine tree found alone on a local mesa by the McGee brothers who first settled along the local creek in 1861. That tree is long lost, but a facsimile landmark is on the north end of town. Lone Pine is the major hub for the southern Owens Valley and Inyo's second largest town with a 2000 population of 1,655 (today over 2,000), chiefly offering services to people working in the local Los Angeles Department of Water and Power operations as well as to travelers for the local parks and especially Mt Whitney, the highest point in California at 14,494', and for that matter the highest point in the continental United States as well. The mountain was named after Josiah Whitney, a chief geologist of the state of California, and first climbed in 1873. In an interesting irony, Death Valley's Badwater, the lowest point in the United States at -282', is a mere 90 miles away and an "ultramarathon" runs between Badwater and the Mount Whitney trailhead at Whitney Portal today (covering 135 miles and over 8,400' change in elevation). Mt Whitney is flanked by the Alabama Hills, named by prospectors with Confederate sympathies after the Southern battleship that confounded Union shipping routes during the US Civil War, a name which then stuck.

Lone Pine appears in the hit movie Back to the Future, sort of. Actually, Lone Pine is quite frequently used for location shots, especially in Westerns and action films. A local tourist museum even capitalizes on that fact.

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CA 190 again?

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Well, not quite. This is actually CA 136, CA 190's old routing along the northern shore of (dry) Owens Lake. It was created in 1964 as part of the changes of the Great Renumbering, as we mentioned when we met CA 190 in Olancha (see above for that, and for comparison maps). Note, however, that CA 190 is "cosigned" with CA 136 on this distance sign, despite being CA 136. We also see one of the Scenic Byway markers (all numbered; this one is the local visitor's centre #20).

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As proof, here's END CA 136, and a beautiful vista of the mountains, which still had a little snow on them even in early summer (when this was taken).

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Weird US 395 sign after the CA 136 junction.

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Many of the towns in Inyo county are associated with local Indian reservations. In particular, many of the towns here have significant Paiute affiliations, particularly Bishop (where inevitably a casino has sprung up on the north end of town; we talk about this in Part 6). The Paiutes were crushed after a war of attrition starting in 1861, two years after white settlers had started to establish claims in the Owens Valley. Blood was spilled after a hard winter in which the Paiutes had little of their own food sources left and went after the ranchers' cattle instead. By the end of the winter of early 1862, the Paiutes capitulated after what remained of their food supply was destroyed by the settlers and were banished by the United States Army to reservations near Tehachapi. Some have returned to their ancestral home and inhabit these reservations today.

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Municipal limit. US 395 becomes Main Street through Lone Pine.

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Local LADWP office in Lone Pine.

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Here's that film museum, by the way. No small operation, this.

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[US 395 and US 6 shields in Lone Pine, 1941, 43K.] [Downtown Lone Pine, 1941, 38K.] Downtown on Main St/US 395. Much is made about the frontier quality of the town for the tourists' benefit. Compare this photograph with the 1941 views at right taken from High Sierra as well (again, see US 395 In Popular Culture), including a nice view of Lone Pine's old downtown (38K) and US 395 and US 6 shields posted on a lamppost. As we saw in Part 1, the shields are indeed authentic, and in fact the scene itself was filmed right here on the highway. Remember that until 1964, we were signed with US 6 all the way into Bishop.

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Turnoff to Mount Whitney via the Whitney Portal Road. Whitney Portal Rd is largely paved, but frequently closed in winter, and snow is not removed from all of it. It is best driven in summer and fall, and affords outstanding views of the Owens Valley.

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North Lone Pine.

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Inyo's relationship with LADWP has not been one-sided. To preserve their operations and local support, LADWP has made a point of donating or leasing their assets to the local communities and municipalities for civic works such as this.

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Leaving town, becoming divided highway again.

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Distance signage.

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Pumping station ...

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... and spillway, named for the Alabama hills as well.

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Another beautiful vista of the Sierras.

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Into Manzanar.

Continue to Part 4

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