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Gorden - Inyo Saddlebag 1

From Mount Whitney to Owens Lake, Inyo National Forest is a hikers paradise

Freshly fallen snow outlined the rigid peaks and sharply descending canyons of the Inyo National Forest in view from California Hwy. 395 in the Owens Valley. Yes, I will admit that my interest in and knowledge of the Inyo National Forest has a paternalistic flair and a bit of nepotism can be observed.

This is because my youngest daughter, Tammy Scholten, is now the forest engineer at the Inyo National Forest. With the primary office in Bishop, Calif., the NFS is responsible for a vast, 2.1-million-acre forest that stretches for 165 miles along the California/Nevada border. Portions of the White Mountain range and much of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range, including Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states as the centerpiece, are a part of the beautiful acreage.

There is an elevation difference of more than 10,500 feet from the 14,497 foot peak of Mount Whitney down to Owens Lake at 3900 feet. It has been my privilege to experience and enjoy several short hikes at elevations above 10,000 feet in the Inyo.

At the Saddlebags Lake we hiked completely around the lake and met a few other hikers along the trail. Earlier there were more than 100 hikers sharing the pleasure another trail. These hikes at higher elevations were a challenge for this 82-year-old writer because I have most recently been walking at or near sea level in the San Diego region.

Basic facts about Inyo National Forest are stated below, but they do not begin to tell the story of this magnificent paradise. The western border of the forest abuts Sequoia National Park, Sequoia National Forest, and Yosemite National Park. The eastern border intersects with Death Valley National Park. Anchored by the land of the expansive Owens Valley, on either side of Route 395, are resources managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Los Angeles Water District and local counties and towns.

Gorden - Inyo 1Visiting within the forest service boundaries are more than 4 million visitors annually who stop to see the following entities within the Inyo Forest:

  • 2.1 million acres of forest land.
  • Nine separate wilderness areas.
  • Seven research natural areas.
  • Four wild and scenic Rivers.
  • More than 4900 Heritage resource sites.
  • More than 2300 miles of designated motor roads.
  • More than 1200 miles of hiking trails.
  • 100 buildings, many with water systems ranging from 50 to 80 years old.
  • 92 campgrounds, most of which can support RVs, with water and sewage available.
  • Five visitors centers.
  • Three scenic byways.
  • Two Alpine ski areas.
  • One Nordic ski area.
  • One Mono Lake with unique formations called Tufa.
  • Dozens to hundreds of small lakes and ponds spread across the acreage.
  • Untold numbers of majestic scenic views located at all elevations within the entire expanse of the forest.

For each of you who have yet to travel and absorb the beauty of the Inyo National Forest, I urge you to add this area to your travel bucket list and do it now.

It is interesting to note that the Inyo National Forest offers diverse ecosystems and varied wildlife habitats. Within the boundaries of the forest there are high, dry deserts; canyons with lush vegetation; low hills covered with trees and shrubs; high monoliths; deep canyons and valleys; large lakes, including the very salty Mono Lake; unique tufas; and dozens of cold mountain streams, which were flowing with vigor in mid-July, as a result of the recent snowfall in the high mountains.

Different components of the forest are the responsibility of different supervisors. For example, the campgrounds are operated by one or more concession companies, but it is the responsibility of the forest engineer,  my daughter, and her small crew to repair and maintain the ancient water and sewage system.

Parts of the access road to trailheads and campgrounds are repaired, graded and maintained by the National Forest Service, and the remainder by the counties and towns that share responsibility. Of course, as in most federal government systems, the funding is less than adequate to keep all components in good condition. There are always challenges and rewards for those working for the National Forest Service and the National Park Service.

For those RVers who enjoy staying at remote, forested campgrounds and taking day trips into the majestic peaks or deep canyons, then Inyo NF is a great place to absorb a bit of both.

Gorden - Inyo 2

RV and tent campgrounds

Nestled in forested groves, canyons and in the shadows of towering, granite mountains the numerous campgrounds beckon tent campers and RVers. Backpacking into the canyons and peaks above 10,000 feet is easily accessible and exciting.

At Saddlebags Lake we saw the shuttle boat make numerous trips across the lake from the trailhead to a dock at the far end of the lake where a trail leads into the mountains. The use of the pontoon shuttle reduces the hike by 2.5 miles and placed hikers and backpackers in a lovely grove of pines before they begin their hikes with determination.

Of particular interest at this location is a small cabin perched in the grove of pine trees. This cabin had been a residence for fire lookout personnel in this remote, but exceedingly peaceful and isolated, scenic wonderland. Fire lookout personnel no longer use this cabin.

The steps of the cabin served as an ideal spot for a lunch break. We ate, talked and gazed in awe through the trees, across the lake and into the mountains beyond. While there we imagined the pleasures of spending the summer at the cabin, drinking morning coffee, eating breakfast on the porch while searching the surrounding forest for any sign of smoke and fire.

Immediately my daughter and her friend, an archaeologist, were ready to abandon their stressful management jobs and retire to a minimal stress (and minimal pay) job in the midst of peace, quiet and lovely scenic views. It won’t happen in their working lifetimes, but it was fun to contemplate.

Gorden - Inyo Saddlebag 2

Day Trips

Descending to the valley near Bishop are two day trips that may appeal to RVers who have a sense of curiosity and history. Very near the center of Bishop is the historic Laws Railroad  Museum, so named because it is located on the site of the abandoned town of Laws. A wide variety of interesting railroad and pioneer artifacts may be observed at no cost, or for the requested five dollars per person donation.

South of Bishop, California and adjacent to CA 395 are the remnants of Manzanar.   Manzanar is one of the negative reminders of how the United States mistreated thousands of U.S. citizens during World War II. The site, blistering hot in the summer and extremely cold during winter months, was one of several prisons where U.S. citizens of Japanese descent and heritage were incarcerated for several years during World War II.


About Dr. Bob Gorden

Dr. Bob Gorden is an RVer, hiker and writer. He has a PhD in microbial ecology from the University of Georgia in Athens. He is a retired research scientist from the University of Illinois Natural History Survey. He has owned and operated more than 55 RVs of various types, and has visited every state, except Hawaii, in his RV. He also traveled by RV in New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. He currently owns and travels in a 1978 GMC 26-foot Class A and 2013 Thor ACE 30.1 Class A motorhome. He has a compelling desire to be “On the Road Again!”

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