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The land of fire & ice
Garrison MacQueen snaps photos atop the flat summit of the 9,064-foot Wildrose Peak in Death Valley. Four mountain ranges are behind him including the Argus and the Sierra. - photo by DENNIS WYATT


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BIG PINE — Inyo County is a place of extremes.

u You can hike the highest point in the contiguous 48 states — Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet.

• You can walk the lowest point in Northern America — the salt flats of Death Valley’s Badwater at 282 feet below sea level.

• You can take in the world’s oldest single living thing — the Medusa bristlecone pine at 5,063 years.

• You can work your way across the largest glacier in the Sierra — the Palisades at 14,000 feet.

• You can experience the place of the consistently hottest air temperature in the world — Furnace Creek in Death Valley — that also recorded the world record of 134 degrees.

In between there are remote dunes, alpine meadows, glacier fed lakes, desert canyons, imposing mountain summits and some of the best hiking, fishing, backroad excursions, and hunting that California has to offer.

Inyo County has only 18,546 residents — about 1,000 residents less than Lathrop. With 10,227 square miles it has one of the lowest population densities for counties in California at one person per 1.8 square miles. If you like wide open spaces and not coming across a lot of people while you are out wandering, then this is the place for you.

Outdoorsmen sing the praises of Inyo whether it is for fishing, hunting or exploring backroads in high clearance of 4-wheel drive vehicles. There are also dozens upon dozens of ghost towns requiring 4-wheel drive or hiking to reach.

My love affair with Inyo started 27 years ago on a racing bicycle. I loved being able to pedal long distances often without a power pole or car in sight along roads that lead into the White Mountains, up into the Eastern Sierra and the ranges in and around Death Valley.

I recently completed my 20th visit to Inyo County. And while it was borderline nuts in the opinion of some — it included hiking Telescope Peak “The Roof of Death Valley” at 11,043 feet, hiking Wildrose Peak at 9,064 feet, hiking Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet, making my way up to below the Palisades Glacier just below 14,000 feet, night hiking to the remote Panamint Sand Dunes over a four-mile stretch of desert floor and hiking among the bristlecone pines all in six days — you don’t have to get as carried away.

Death Valley, for starters, isn’t a great place to go this time of year for obvious reasons. You are limited to what you can do in the heat. When it is 120 degrees, the valley floor temperature can often top 180 degrees. My trip concentrated on hiking the peaks in the Panamint Range that snow prevented me from doing during a November trip. I also tossed in the night hike making sure I was through by mid-morning as the thermometer hit 100 degrees. 

If you do opt to try the mountain hikes, it is a good time to do so. The temperature is three to five degrees lower with every thousand feet of gain meaning I never gets above 95 degrees on hikes to the top of Telescope or Wildrose. You also only have to worry about snow and ice. Much of Wildrose is in shade. The opposite is true of Telescope.

The views of Death Valley, the Great Basin, the Sierra, and Mt. Whitney are incredible.

I rough it at Stovepipe Wells Resort where a double bed room will set you back $165 a night. 


Big Pine offers central location

If you have three days and want to see a variation in scenery with only one “big” day of hiking, then you might want to book a room in Big Pine.

From there it is less than 50 minutes to the Whitney Portal. If you’re not used to long day hikes with a significant gain of elevation it is still do-able but takes between 12 and 16 hours. You will need a permit. Most were awarded during a lottery in the early spring but there are always a few left especially on Mondays through Thursdays. Go on to the forest service website for Mt. Whitney for details.

Sometimes the attitude will kick some people. My trip this time was a month earlier than the other three I have taken on Whitney. I’ve hit snow before but this time the issue was 45 mph gusts just above 12,000 feet as a weak storm front hit the Sierra. It was chilly.

That said the cool thing about Mt. Whitney is that no matter where you stop to catch your breath, the scenery is incredible. The drawback is the people. There’s way too many with about 300 allowed on any given day.

While it isn’t quite Yosemite, it is still a lot of people.

Glacier Lodge Road goes out of Big Pine. And while a hike to the namesake glaciers at 14,000 feet might be a bit too much, hikes to the seven glacier-fed lakes are do-able for most people. And if that isn’t your forte, a pack service offers horseback rides into areas near the glacier lakes.

The Bristlecone Pine Forest is also out of Big Pine but to the east. There is a visitors’ center and a short 20 minute loop for those who don’t want to go too far to see the world’s oldest single living things or a two to four hour route that will take you past Medusa — the oldest of them all.

You can take a dirt road to another marked trail that will lead you past the biggest bristlecone pine in the forest.

It is also the route to the trail head to the hiking trail that goes up White Mountain Peak — one of California’s “14s” as in mountains with summits 14,000 feet or higher.

By chance, 12 of the 16 “14s” are in Inyo County with three of the others in neighborhood Fresno County. The 16th is Mt. Shasta.

I booked a room at the Bristlecone Manor Motel. At $100 night it was more than reasonable as all rooms come with a kitchenette. It is also part of a general store and gas station.

The only drawback to Big Pine is if you want to dine out and don’t want BBQ you’ve got to drive some 20 minutes to Bishop.

Also if hiking all the time isn’t your thing, there is the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp historic site nine miles north of Lone Pine. There is also a cowboy movie museum in Lone Pine that also host a popular western movie festival every year. Dozens upon dozens of classic westerns were filmed in the Alabama Hills west of Lone Pine off the Mt. Whitney Portal Road

Inyo County is six to seven hours from the 209.