“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir.
The annals of history are full of the reminiscences of women and men who have sought and found solitude in the mountains. Many of these individuals also found inspiration there and much of our cultural heritage stems from the wanderings and writings of these individuals.
Finding solitude and inspiration in the wilds of nature is not the sole domain of the eternal wanderers and essayists. There are moments in life when we each need a retreat to where we can find solace and joy. For many of us the natural world holds the key to renewal.
There are opportunities for the daring and the circumspect in the Eastern Sierra and many activities are done with family and friends, but most can be done solo! It is in the mountains, along the waterways, out across the plains, and in the air where one can find calm for a restless soul or quiet for an agitated mind.
Bishop is perhaps best known as a destination for world-class fishing and it is not without reason. Those who venture out here come with a passion for fishing and a great love of the outdoors. Many also seek out the camaraderie of other anglers or a chance to teach a youngster the skills and instill in them the love of the sport. The reservoirs and rivers are teeming with trout, which are stocked on a regular basis by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fishing for warm water species in the miles of canals and ponds is fast becoming a popular winter activity. Summer, however, offers the opportunity for solitude and perfection in the art of fly-fishing. Numerous trails connect the roads from town to the higher altitude lakes and creeks where the sounds of city life give way to the sounds of the forest.
Bishop Creek Canyon, little more than a 20-minute drive west of Bishop on State Route 168, affords countless opportunities to find secluded spots with relatively easy access. Venture somewhat further afield into the canyon and one becomes keenly aware of the absence of people and the sense of oneness. This brings an ability to focus on the present and enjoy the essence of nature. It is then that the pursuit of happiness and the art fishing are in total harmony.
This is one of the more gentle and sublime activities to be enjoyed in the Owens Valley. The smooth-flowing, sinuous Owens River that runs down the center of this impressive valley can carry one along on a fulfilling journey of introspection. Floating the river on a tube or paddling a kayak between the 2.5 miles of straight-line distance between the put-in at the Laws Poleta road and exit at Warm Springs road yields almost 10 miles of river distance. A leisurely float takes about 3 hours. With more vigorous kayaking one could ‘ride the river’ in a much quicker time.
In summer this life-giving river creates a verdant path in a hot and arid landscape that nourishes the fauna and flora of the high desert. The birdlife along the river is abundant and quiet navigation along the sweeping curves of this waterway will afford sights, sounds and smells that are not otherwise noticeable.
Road Ride or Mountain Bike
There are miles of road and almost endless trails on which to cycle and much of it is lightly traveled. Research has shown that aside from the obvious physical benefits there are numerous cognitive benefits to cycling. It can relieve anxiety, increase stress resistance, elevate your mood, and even drive out despair. Combine this with the magnificent views of the Eastern Sierra landscape and you have a recipe for holistic rejuvenation. Whether you choose a leisurely ride alongside the river, a strenuous climb up a winding mountain pass, or a technical thrillride down a single-track trail you can find oneness with your bike, body and soul.
On a summer day in Bishop a road bike ride should coincide with sunrise – when the air is fresh and cool and the dawn of a new day reminds one of the renewal of life. A solitary early morning ride of a local favorite, the Pleasant Valley – Round Valley loop, provides the perfect balance of exercise and rhythmic meditation. This, combined with stunning views of this magnificent landscape and a closeness to nature will recharge your body and mind. The route is just over 16.5 miles of quiet country lanes and a pleasant (car free) ride along the shores of the reservoir. It has uphills and downhills, sharp corners and sweeping bends. It’s one of those rides that has a little of everything in just the right measure.
Perhaps you need to empty your mind of cluttered thinking with a high energy, technical mountain bike ride that commands your attention. The Big Buttermilk – Tungsten Loop will surely banish the blues and put a smile back on your face. At 11.4 miles long this route presents all sorts of road, trail, grade & terrain challenges. The faster you ride more technical it is, but at a slower pace the line will be less demanding. This is a loop ride so you can go it alone, but be prepared with sufficient water, snacks and repair gear for both body and bike. In summer this ride is best done at “Owens Valley” sunset – when the looming Sierra Nevada provides shade across the valley and daylight only turns to twilight hours later as the sun sinks into the Pacific many miles beyond.
One of my favorite outings as a child was to go with my dad for a ‘Sunday drive’. I did not grow up in the Eastern Sierra and so our choices were different than those I indulge in now. There was a large airport about an hours drive from my childhood home and we often went there where we could park and watch the airplanes take off and land. It was thrilling. As an adult I am still thrilled by the sight of an aircraft and I love to fly, but I am not a pilot. I have since learned to understand and appreciate the capability of a well-engineered vehicle and the opportunity to drive a car or ride a motorcycle for pure enjoyment is something that I relish.
Here in the Eastern Sierra there are so many options for putting a vehicle to the test, many of which are grueling off-road trials, that it’s probably best to attempt them with cohorts. However, if solitary endeavor with your machine is what you seek there are choices that are truly exhilarating.
One of the most beautiful roads that connects the Owens Valley with Fish Lake Valley in Nevada is State Route 168 east. It is a twisting, turning, undulating, 30-mile stretch of paved magnificence that is well suited for a ‘Sunday drive’. Whether you run on 4 wheels or 2 wheels this drive will focus your mind and energize your soul as you wind your way up and over the White Mountains. Add a side trip to this drive and go commune with ancients in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at 11,000 feet above sea level. Please observe all posted speed limit signs and watch for other road users – such as cyclists and animals.
Similarly an extensive network of over 2,200 miles of dirt road in the Inyo National Forest and access to an OHV open area on which to drive on either 4 or 2 wheels is exhilarating. Much of this, as mentioned above, may be best done with friends – principally for the sake of safety, but a less-than-epic route of a few hours alone could be just what’s needed to liberate the mind. One such route is Chidago Canyon between Chalfant, on US Highway 6 just north of Bishop, and Benton Crossing road east of Crowley Lake. The drive may not require 4×4 capability, but that does depend on seasonal conditions and recent rains. Out here it’s usually prudent to go for an off-road drive in a vehicle that’s designed for rugged conditions. If you’re headed out on two wheels then this road definitely warrants traveling on a dirt bike or dual-sport. Just note that getting to and from this canyon does require highway driving, so make sure that your vehicle is legal for whatever use you put it to.
Solo free flight is the ultimate expression of solitary human endeavor. The desire to fly has long been a quest of mankind. The history of hang gliding goes back far further than most people realize and is considered to be one of the oldest forms of human flight. Modern history has numerous records of successful aviators and pioneers of gliding as far back as the late 1800s, to the early attempts of Wilbur & Orville Wright, to the development of gliding as a sport after World War I, and NASA’s early space program in the late 1940s. Much of the research and success of early gliding became the basis on which powered flight was developed (as we know by the Wright brothers success at Kitty Hawk). It was not until the early 1960s that hang gliding saw a rebirth and became the ‘new’ free-flying sport that it is today. The sport still sees continued innovation with the development of paragliding in the mid-1980s and now thousands of pilots around the world participate for personal satisfaction and competitive goals.
In the 1970s the Owens Valley became the Mecca for the growing sport of hang gliding. Pilots came in search of longer flight times and greater distances and numerous cross-country records were set here. Now with the advent of flatland flying due to innovations in towing launches, the Owens Valley is the place where pilots convene to experience the thrill of big mountain foot launches and the ‘big air’ of this hot high desert valley.
This sport is definitely not for the uninitiated or faint-of-heart. “Flying the Owens” requires training and experience. Pilots seldom take to the skies alone. Launching a glider usually requires some assistance in getting to the mountain launch site, a helping hand to assist on launch if conditions are strong, and retrieval from landing. However, once you are airborne … you’re on your own. Even though pilots frequently fly in groups so that thermals can be ‘spotted’ and radio communications are maintained for awareness and safety, long stretches of flying are done in complete quiet.
This is the essence of solitude – human powered free flight.
Find out more!
Whether you just want a quiet, contemplative walk in the woods or a physical and emotional challenge it is important to be prepared. Especially if you intend to go alone! Plan your excursion so that you reap the rewards of your solitary experience and return safely to your family and friends with renewed spirits.
Stop by the Bishop Visitors center at 690 N. Main Street to find out more about these activities and where to go to find your solitude.