the ever-changing earth
Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra are a geologist's paradise. Colleges and universities far and wide bring earth sciences students on field trips here. Few buildings or trees obscure the dramatic forces that have shaped the area: massive sedimentation and erosion, volcanism and seismic upheaval both gradual and violent, fracturing and twisting, and the slow, mighty power of glaciation.
Geologic forces have made part of Death Valley almost unbelievably colorful. In the Eastern Sierra it has lifted mountains and dropped the land between to form the "deepest valley", and cause an explosion that sent ash halfway across the continent.
The route descriptions give a glimpse into these forces. If your family has an especially strong interest, be sure to bring along one or more of the fine guide books that describe the geology of each location in depth. It's okay to collect rock samples on most routes, except in Death Valley National Park and the Ancient Bristlecone Forest where all natural materials are protected.
It doesn't matter what kind of weather you're trying to escape - you can find an alternative here. From the sun-baked bottom of Death Valley to the snowy crest of the White Mountains, the routes in this on-line guide cover an elevation range of nearly 12,000 feet!
One thing desert and mountain weather have in common: unpredictable changes at any time of the year. Wherever you go, outfit yourself and your car for hot and cold, wet and dry conditions. See the Driving Tips checklist (Text Only Version). You'll be glad for your 4WD when snow suddenly covers the pavement or a cloudburst washes out part of a dirt road. But don't drive into anything your SUV can't handle - many surfaces are impassable for any passenger vehicle. Remember, it's illegal and destructive to drive off of established roads!
Ten thousand years unbroken: native cultures
People first came to the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley at least ten thousand years ago. Archaeologists are piecing together the story of how they met the challenges of an often harsh environment. Stone tools, projectile points and milling implements show a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Drive fences remain where pronghorn antelope were herded into corrals by swift runners. Rock rings give the locations of brush or willow house foundations, hunting blinds and pine nut caches. Petroglyphs - symbols chipped into the surface of rock formations - portray animals, hand prints, and shapes and patterns whose meaning has yet to be deciphered. Some family groups traveled almost constantly to find needed resources, while others were quite settled; in the Owens Valley and Benton Hot Springs incipient agriculture is shown by irrigation used to enhance growth within patches of native food plants.
While many native Californian cultures were decimated or entirely acculturated by the onslaught of Spanish and Euro-American settlers, the Shoshone and Paiute peoples of Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra were not as hard hit. Here Native American communities still carry on many ancestral traditions like pine nut gathering and fine basketry, and elders recall practices such as a rabbit drive that provided furs for warm blankets.
Museums and books share details of their indigenous arts and technologies. BLM Bishop Field Office has a map of petroglyph sites.
Keep an eye on the ground to find traces of their ancestors' fascinating story in the form of petroglyph sites, rock rings, projectile points and other artifacts. All are protected by federal and state laws and must not be disturbed. Even a scattering of obsidian flakes left in the process of making a spear point can tell an archaeologist where the stone came from and how and when the point was made. Removing an artifact is like ripping a chapter from your favorite novel. So much better to touch an object for a respectful moment, imagine its maker from perhaps thousands of years ago, and leave it exactly where it lies! Take only drawings, pictures and memories, leaving the past for future generations to enjoy.
Stay on the Road
All of the wonders of the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley depend upon you to stay on existing roads. The geological, archaeological and historical records are awesome because they are unmarred. The wild animals need safe, quiet places where they can feed, shelter and raise their young undisturbed. The plant communities, many are rare and fragile, are all slow-growing and take decades to recover from careless crushing by tire treads. Inconsiderate 4WD-ers exploring or short-cutting off-road have made tracks that are followed by others and scar the scenery for future generations. Don't let that be you!
Crowns of the plant kingdom
With so many geological forces at work and such a range of elevations, it follows that there will be a huge variety of rocks, soils and micro-climates. What follows from that? Plants! Here are plant communities adapted to life at the glacier-carved tree line, and others thriving on steaming alkaline valley floors. The world's oldest known living trees are on Route 11 (Adobe PDF) (Text Only Version). A little, sprawling legume with big inflated seed pods is found nowhere on earth but Route 13 (Adobe PDF) (Text Only Version).
The seeds of many desert wildflowers wait for years in the dry sand until winter snows and spring rains bring enough moisture for them to germinate. Then a carpet of every color is unrolled across the land. In a good wildflower year you can follow the season of bloom from Death Valley in early March into the High Sierra in late July. Agency Contacts can help you plan.
Several route descriptions point out plant communities and interesting species along the way. You could bring a plant press: you may collect specimens almost anywhere except Death Valley National Park and the Ancient Bristlecone Forest, where nothing but pictures may be taken. Elsewhere remember the rule of sampling only what is common in any area. Better yet, bring colored pencils and a sketchbook or a field guide like Jaeger's Desert Wildflowers with line drawings that you can color to match the flowers you identify.
What walks here -
or slithers, gallops, swims or flies
The wildlife here is wonderful and thoroughly wild. The endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep lives only in the Eastern High Sierra. There are also two flashy little endangered fish unique to the Owens Valley. Tule elk, native to California's Central Valley, were brought here in the 1930s to recover from near-extinction. Mule deer and various small game can be hunted and trout fishing is popular; the Department of Fish and Game (Agency Contacts) has information on permits and seasons. Birds are abundant and diverse, especially near water and during migration. To really get to know them, learn their songs and calls. And the lizards are incredible.
Bring one of the natural history guides available. Binoculars are a must. A camera is good but don't get carried away trying to get a close-up; professional wildlife photographers have huge lenses and phenomenal patience, and know that causing a wild animal to flee could deprive it of essential resources or its last stores of energy.
Dangerous animals? Look out for mule deer and tule elk crossing the highway - a collision could injure you and destroy your SUV! They travel in groups so if you see one, watch for others. If you hike in the high country you may be lucky enough to see a bear or a mountain lion. Keep your distance, and remember cubs will be fiercely protected by adults. Protect your own little ones by keeping them close to you. Where bears are common there are trailhead signs with more information. Rattlesnakes can be anywhere. Watch where you put your hands and feet, and steer clear - most snakebite victims were intentionally harassing the snake! Small furry animals may carry diseases transmittable to humans. Hospitals and health departments are listed; call if you get sick after contact with a dead or live animal or its droppings. For your sake and theirs, don't approach, touch or feed any wild animal - and please don't let dogs run free.
Window to the wild West
Our earliest trace of the historical era is the Old Spanish Trail (Route 16 Adobe PDF) (Text Only Version), the trade route between the pueblos of Santa Fe and Los Angeles which cut across a corner of Inyo County. The route was established in 1830, with trapper Jedediah Smith pioneering parts of it a few years earlier. The California gold rush brought more passers-through, including the 1849 party (Route 17 Adobe PDF) (Text Only Version), whose fate gave Death Valley its name. During the 1850's and 60's prospectors began finding gold and silver on the eastern side of the Sierra. Boom towns like Cerro Gordo (Route 1 Adobe PDF) (Text Only Version), needed services and supplies, so stage routes, railroads, livestock and farms soon followed. Farms, ranches and orchards thrived in the Owens Valley until the early 1900's when Los Angeles acquired rights to most of the valley's water. Today, while there are still active mines and ranches, the grandeur of nature dominates the region and visitors who come to enjoy it are the economic mainstay.
Change has come slowly to small towns established over a hundred years ago and many historical buildings still stand. Out in the desert the trappings of abandoned enterprises have decayed so gradually in the dry climate that some evidence can always be found. Historical artifacts are also protected by law - anything older than 50 years is an archaeological resource - even a pile of rusted old cans has a story to tell.
Every route in this on-line guide includes a bit of history. Some, like the lost settlements on Route 5 (Adobe PDF) (Text Only Version), - including a WW11 internment camp - tell tales of betrayal and abandonment. Others, like wild West movie making on Route 2 (Adobe PDF) (Text Only Version), have lively stories that reach back into the past and continue today. Visit the books and museums links for more information.