Inyo Mountains Wilderness

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Looking north along the crest of the Inyo Mountains
Inyo Mountains at a Glance
Location : Inyo County; 5 miles east of Lone Pine, California, and east of Death Valley National Park
Size : 205,020 acres
Elevation range : 1,000 to 11,125 feet
Administration : BLM Bishop Area Resource Area Office, Inyo National Forest
Maps : Desert Access Guide Eureka/Saline #1; AAA East Side of Sierra Nevada, Inyo National Forest

Inyo Mountains Wilderness is sandwiched between Death Valley National Park, which lies to the east, and Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada, which lie to the west. Views of the Sierra Nevada from the wilderness, particularly at sunrise, are impressive. The northern third of the range is administered by the Inyo National Forest, whereas the southern two thirds is under BLM administration.

Inyo Mountains Wilderness, at 205,000 acres, is one of the largest wilderness areas designated in the California Desert Bill. Although, with a few minor road closures, a wilderness of more than 300,000 acres could be established. An even more ambitious goal is the closure of Saline Valley Road, and the creation of a million-acre-plus desert wilderness stretching from the Inyos to the Last Chance Range in the northern portion of Death Valley National Park.

This wilderness is one of the most dramatic in the California desert. Rising from 1,000 feet in the dry, hot Saline Valley on the east, the fault-block Inyo Mountains soar to more than 11,000 feet in less than 6.5 miles, creating one of the most spectacular desert ranges in the state. Waucoba Mountain, at 11,125 feet, is the highest point in the wilderness. Several other mountains reach above 11,000 feet, including Keynot Peak and Mount Inyo. Most of the mountains consist of sedimentary rock like limestone, with occasional granitic outcrops. These mountains are steep, with spectacular cliffs and rock exposures, and deep, nearly inaccessible canyons. However, once you gain the crest of the range, the terrain is relatively gentle and rolling.

Lower elevations are cloaked in creosote bush, shadscale, and big sagebrush, whereas the higher elevations have limited forest cover of juniper, pinyon pine, and limber pine. Some of the densest and most extensive forests of the rare bristlecone pine in California grow along the mountain crest.

Outcrops of limestone support a number of rare plant assemblages. Rare plants noted for the Inyos include Caulostraminia jageri, Eriogonum microtecum var. panamintense, Erigonum eremicola, Perityle inyoensis, and Phacelia amabilis.

Due to their height, winter snows provide a source of water for a number of perennial streams that cascade down narrow, steep canyons to the valleys on either side of the range. Some of these streams have a limited amount of riparian vegetation, including cottonwood trees and willows, particularly on the eastside canyons. Ironically, the water often poses a problem for canyon explorers, creating insurmountable waterfalls that form barriers to upstream travel.

The Inyos harbor herds of bighorn sheep and mule deer, plus coyote and mountain lion. An unexpected species found here is the Inyo Mountain salamander, a rare species associated with the riparian zones of some of the canyons including Willow, McElvoy, Hunter, Beverage, Keynot, and Craig.

Evidence of old mining efforts are visible throughout the wilderness. Deposits of gold, silver, lead, zinc, copper, tungsten, molybdenum, and talc are all known to occur in the range. Many of the dirt roads that penetrate the range lead to abandoned mining sites. One of the most spectacular remnants of this era is a tram in the southern part of the wilderness that was built in 1913 to haul salt from the Saline Valley over the Inyo Mountains to Owens Valley. Considered the steepest in the world, the tram went up Daisy Canyon near Salt Lake in the Saline Valley, and over to Swansea near Owens Lake. The salt was harvested from Salt Lake and was so pure that it required no further refining before sale.

Due to its ruggedness, access is extremely limited. Solitude is easily obtained. Although the lower elevations are accessible year round, travel at higher elevations is restricted in the winter due to snow. The snow, however, does open up many overnight camping possibilities, particularly later in the spring. By melting snow as a water source, unlimited possibilities exist for longer trips among the higher elevation basins or rolling crest of the range.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 12 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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