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ADV Rides14 Must-See Sites on a Ride Through California’s Eastern Sierra

14 Must-See Sites on a Ride Through California’s Eastern Sierra

See what's waiting to be discovered in this land of ever-changing landscapes.

Published on 09.27.2021
Eastern Sierras California Adventure Ride Guide

Maps tell stories. Lines and paths can be traced along folds on paper or through the glow of a screen, and replaced with the tales of those who either created or found them. Some of these stories are easier reads than others. As the third largest state in the U.S., California arguably contains the widest collection of diverse terrain and environments of any state in the nation. Directly in the heart of the state, the area around the Eastern Sierra, Owens Valley and White Mountains perhaps holds the distinction of being the most diverse region in California. Packed into roughly 2,000 square miles, the landscapes around Owens Valley have something for everyone — from the casual traveler to the most adrenaline-hungry adventure seeker.

Much of the valley’s history stems from its rich natural resources, primarily in the form of minerals and water. Numerous mining operations led to boom-and-bust communities throughout the valley beginning in the 1800s, the remnants of which can be explored today. Extensive farming waned as water resources were pulled from the valley to supply the rapidly expanding population of Los Angeles in the early 1900s.

Today, conservation efforts are taking huge strides to restore the ecosystems of Owens Valley to its former state. In spite of infrastructure missteps, the overabundance of natural beauty and quirky history in this central portion of California allows it to remain a top-tier destination for any adventure bike rider.


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We spent significant time exploring the Eastern Sierra coming up with an epic adventure bike route that showcases some of the most unique points of interest. We also put together all the information you need to plan your own Adventure Ride in the region, including an interactive map, GPS tracks with top destinations, intriguing natural wonders, scenic camp spots, and more.  Read on to discover 14 sites that are well worth a visit on a ride in the Eastern Sierra!

1. Coso Volcanic Range

Red Hill Eastern Sierra Owens Valley

Highway 395 begins a gradual ascent up an ancient lava flow as it enters the Owens Valley from the south. Once the road levels out, travelers are greeted by Little Lake and Red Hill in the Fossil Falls area. Aptly named, Red Hill is a distinct cinder dome adjacent to the highway. The oddly fresh appearance of this large feature is due to its status as the youngest volcano in the region, having been active as recently as 10,000 years ago. 

Fossil Falls Owens Valley

A series of lakes were created in the Owens Valley by melting glaciers from the last ice age. Little Lake is a remnant of the Owens River, which flowed through the area roughly 2,500 years ago and slowly drained the melting glaciers. Volcanic activity diverting the course of this river over the lava flows smoothed out the basalt rock into a series of interesting forms, now known as Fossil Falls.

2. Olancha

Olancha Dunes Owens Valley

Almost immediately adjacent to the Coso Volcanic Range’s sea of rock, is a sea of sand. The Olancha Dunes OHV area is a relatively small riding area, consisting of just under two square miles of small, gently-sloped sand dunes. With sparse crowds and the single main dune peaking out around 75 feet, this OHV spot is a good choice for newer riders looking to practice their sand riding techniques. 

Olancha Sculpture Garden in the Owens Valley corridor.

For riders just interested in looking at things, Olancha offers one of the quirkiest feasts for the eyes in the Owens Valley corridor – the Olancha Sculpture Garden. In the midst of natural beauty on a grand scale, desert artist Joel Hoffmann planted a statuary of whimsical metal sculptures as high as 15 feet. While standing in stark contrast to the surrounding environment, the sculptures seem at home in the already eclectic environment of new and old structures dotting the area, both abandoned and still in use.

3. Buckhorn Boxcar Cabin

Buckhorn Boxcar Cabin

More than a stone’s throw from an already remote section of Saline Valley road, a modern mystery is parked by itself. No railroad tracks are found anywhere in the area, yet a two-room boxcar is perched atop a low grade. Mining prospects started digging up this area of Owens Valley in the 1930s, and Federal mining claims can still be seen posted to the present day.

Buckhorn Boxcar Cabin

William Buckhorn filed the Buckhorn claims in 1958, and some believe that is when the boxcar was planted here to use as a home base. Details on how exactly it got to its present location remain the subject of theory and guesswork. To the present day, volunteer travelers maintain the cabin, preserving it for future travelers to enjoy.

4. Cerro Gordo

“Rough and tumble” would perhaps be the best phrase to sum up Cerro Gordo. From its distinction of having once been the most violent town in the United States, to the challenging terrain on the eastern approach, difficulty seems to go hand-in-hand with Cerro Gordo. Like much of this history of the early Western U.S., details are sketchy about Cerro Gordo’s appearance on the map. 

Cerro Gordo Inyo National Forest

Silver discoveries by Mexican miners in 1865 are the primary theory surrounding the town’s origin. It took a year before the first store was opened, and three years more before Mortimer Belshaw arrived and began turning Cerro Gordo into a boom town with the formation of the Union Mining Company. The impressive American Hotel was built in 1871, and stood for 149 years until it burned down in June of 2020. 

Cerro Gordo Inyo National Forest

Cerro Gordo’s history took an interesting turn in 2018, when the ghost town was purchased by a group of investors, led by Brent Underwood and Jon Bier, who are in the process of restoring the town. While now privately owned, the caretakers are friendly to visitors and happy to give a tour of the premises. On site you’ll find a museum, which holds relic objects dug out of the mines, or check out the Assayer’s Office where miners received payment for their ore — conveniently located next to Lola’s Palace of Pleasure. There’s also an old mining Head Frame, remnants of the Cerro Gordo Tramway and other historic structures littered about.  Travelers are welcome to pass through, but should be mindful that while exploring the area, you’re literally walking around someone’s residence.

5. Owens Lake

Hiding in plain sight between the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountain ranges is a massive, discolored valley with a shallow lake at the center. At one time, this smallish body of water, Owens Lake, was among the largest inland lakes in the United States. Through a series of shrewd deals, water rights to the Owens Valley were captured by a burgeoning Los Angeles, and an aqueduct was completed in 1913, which began draining the valley in short order, and by the early 1920’s Owens Lake had become a dry lakebed. 

Owens Lake

Prior to the construction of the aqueduct, Owens Lake was so massive that it required days for freight wagons to circle the lake, delivering ingots from the various mining operations to the east. Home to less than 70 people today, the town of Keeler once had a 300-foot wharf, and a steamship that took three hours to cross the lake as an alternative to the land route. In 2013, the now dry Owens Lake held the distinction of being the largest source of dust pollution in the United States. Efforts are currently underway to restore the ecosystem of this portion of Owens Valley.

Keeler Talc Mine Processing Plant

6. Papoose Flat

Papoose Flat is a boon for those craving moderately technical riding coupled with stunning scenery. The western trailhead is the more technical path, with scattered sections of steep, rocky trail, coupled with some off-camber bits. Entering the high plateau from the northeast, the roads are much less technical, but not without their own challenges, depending on which option trails are used. 

Papoose Flat

Regardless of which route is taken, travelers are rewarded with stunning views of an empty valley, coupled with rock formations rivaling something one might expect to encounter in Joshua Tree, however at 7,000-9,500 feet up. Pinyon Pines dot the landscape, and provide a unique backdrop to some of the best primitive camping to be found in the Owens Valley.

7. White Mountains

While the Sierra Nevada range has the top two highest summits in California, the third highest is White Mountain Peak in the adjacent White Mountains range, at 14,252 feet. High altitude, and ease of accessibility made this peak the choice for the White Mountain Research Center. Operated by the University of California, this research station studies the effects of altitude on physiology. 

Bristlecone Pine in White Mountains

Likely the most unique distinction held by the White Mountains, are the bristlecone pines, and one in particular, named Methuselah. At nearly 5,000 years old, Methuselah is the oldest known living organism on earth. Estimates show this tree was germinated roughly around the time Sumerians first started working with metal. While the exact location of Methuselah is a secret held by the Forest Service, access to the forest is an easy paved drive to the interpretive center. 

Silver Canyon Road White Mountains

Beyond the bristlecone forest, the road turns to smooth, graded dirt all the way to the White Mountain Research Station. However, the station is only open to the public one day of the year on a Sunday during the Labor Day holiday weekend. For those wanting a more adventurous route up or down the mountain, the extremely steep and twisty path of Silver Canyon drops straight down to Bishop to the west. 

8. Fish Slough Petroglyphs

Veering off the highway at Five Bridges Road, more mystery can be found directly adjacent to Fish Slough Road. Travelers along the smooth, dusty path can take just a few steps off the road to view the Fish Slough Petroglyphs. While the style of glyphs have been given a name, both their age, and who created them remains largely guesswork. Ancestors of the Paiute-Shoshone people who still inhabit Owens Valley possibly created these petroglyphs, with wide-ranging date estimates of between 1,000 to 8,800 years ago.

Fish Slough Petroglyphs
Fish Slough Wetlands

Referring to a swamp, inlet, or side channel, the dry and dusty path of Fish Slough road doesn’t seem to merit its name until one pulls off the road, and makes a short jaunt to the east. Riding towards patches of green reveals a lush wetland teeming with tiny life chained along the eastern edge of the corridor, complete with sluice gates to control water flow. The Owens pupfish is endemic to the area and was believed to be extinct by 1948, but in 1964 a small population was re-discovered in Fish Slough. They grow to be about two inches long and the males turn bright blue during spawning. Stop by after visiting the Petroglyphs to cool off and see if you can spot one.

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Author: Jon Beck
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4 thoughts on “14 Must-See Sites on a Ride Through California’s Eastern Sierra

  1. This was a phenomenal write up and story. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Eastern Sierra and reading this makes me realize how little I’ve seen.

  2. Awesome write up! I’ve hit a few of these spots on the bike, super easy to zip to and from and hit many spots. The 395 is such a beautiful area with so much to explore.

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