Alta California Guide: Owens Valley

Journey into our prehistoric past—and hike to one of the oldest living things on the planet.

alta california guides
Michael Schwab

Southern California’s water wars have greatly shaped the Owens Valley—the birth of Los Angeles as a mega-metropolis came in part at the cost of draining Owens Lake. What was once a geologically diverse and populated part of the state along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada has, in the past half century, become a low-density gem where open space meets the open road on Highway 395. One of the world’s oldest living things, a gnarled bristlecone pine, hides here, as do many odd geological formations shaped by the area’s volcanic past.

1 Methuselah Tree
methuselah tree
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By most scientific accounts, Methuselah is more than 4,850 years old, though finding it is (by design) a challenge. The singular tree’s location is a closely guarded secret, but that shouldn’t deter day hikers from sneaking a general glimpse along the gorgeous ridgeline where it resides. Curious peekers can gawk at a whole grove of similarly aged bristlecone pines via a four-mile loop trail through the White Mountains, stopping halfway to speculate which one may be Methuselah.

2 Manzanar National Historic Site
manzanar national historic site
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Manzanar stands as a reminder of one of California history’s ugliest moments: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. A gridded walking path is all that remains of the blocks of camp barracks, but the land still bears its memories. The visitor center offers detailed histories of those who were incarcerated and re-creations of their living quarters. The site is isolated and often quiet even during peak hours, making for an unforgettable, haunting stop.

3 Crowley Lake Stone Columns
crowley lake stone columns
Alamy

A collection of tall, eroded natural columns that seem to hold up the surrounding landscape at the edge of Crowley Lake reservoir, these rough pillars date back more than 750,000 (!) years, to when water met with hot ash to create small fractal supports inside the columns. Modern-day erosion has made them visible by way of a bumpy dirt-road drive (or boat ride across the reservoir). It’s likely that more columns still exist underground in the area.

4 Alabama Hills
alabama hills, owens valley
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Tall boulders and wind-rounded sandstone clutter the Alabama Hills area, west of Lone Pine, like a bag of loose marbles strewn about a sandy floor. The result is an endless warren of cutouts and small, protected campsites used informally by families, weekend climbers, and anyone looking to pull in and get out of the sun for a few hours. There’s plenty of fun exploring to be done by daylight, including peeks at some famous movie locations, and lots of room for campfires and hot chocolate sipping at night.

5 Olancha Sculpture Garden
olancha sculpture garden
california curiosities

Artist Jael Hoffmann has found a home for her intriguing sculptures in the open desert of the greater Owens Valley. Hoffmann’s Olancha sculpture garden, an ongoing project, is handmade and free to visit, a literal wilderness of rusting iron and fading colors right off Highway 395. From a towering hitchhiker with a briefcase in hand to smaller groups of works that play on the human form, this is a one-stop wonderland for rural American art. • 

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