Crags, Couloirs & Crock Pots
Owens Valley, Gateway to Backcountry Paradiseby Alex Sepulveda
At last, you reach the top of the north couloir, and gaze from 13,000 feet at a dry Owens Valley floor.
Photo: Andrew Cattaneo
The ensuing descent of a 900-foot rock-walled couloir yields some of the finest corn snow you’ve ever harvested. You etch confident, controlled turns, the chute’s granite walls whizzing by in the eye’s periphery like frames of a movie. It’s exhilarating.
And famishing. Next stop: pizza in Bishop. Then, bouldering at the Buttermilks. The evening will bring a dip in some nearby natural hot tubs.
Spring in Owens Valley is a beautiful thing.
Where is Owen's Valley?
The East side of the Sierras is a land of extremes. Herein lie the highest point in the lower 48 States, Mt. Whitney, as well as the so-called deepest valley, Owens Valley. This swathe of land, transected by Highway 395, lies between the Sierras to the west and the White Mountains to the east.
From the towns of Lone Pine in the south to Lee Vining in the north, Owens Valley represents a veritable playground for backcountry enthusiasts with incredible access to crags, couloirs and campsites galore. Or if you prefer, mountain biking, hiking and fishing opportunities abound.
And it’s quiet. Owens Valley remains unbeknownst to many as a recreational paradise.
Skiing in Owens Valley
This, in part, makes the Eastern Sierra an amazing place to ski. Since there's only one main road, 395, and few east-west passes open during winter, it's not heavily visited. 395 does serve as the thoroughfare to Mammoth Mountain from Los Angeles, but most visitors pass by everything south of the resort where the heart of Owens Valley lies.
If dawn patrol couloir skiing and long approaches aren’t your thing, drive instead. Head north on 395 for less than an hour and turn left on either Tioga Road (toward Yosemite) or farther up on Virginia Lakes Road. Both offer easy access to a number of touring spots in the Mt. Dana area, including the popular Ellery Bowl.
Climbing in Owens Valley
You’ll have plenty of time for afternoon bouldering in the Sierra sun.
Fast becoming a bouldering mecca, the town of Bishop also represents the unofficial capital of Owens Valley recreation, with brilliant access to skiable chutes, gullies and meadows in the Eastern Sierra.
The area’s crown jewel are some fine granite boulders just west of town appropriately called the Buttermilks, serving up some of the sweetest, creamiest bouldering in the country.
The Happy and Sad Boulders, also near Bishop, have gained notoriety in recent years with plenty of problems to keep a climber crimping. The Happys have more variety, but the Sad are less crowded.
A great place to set up base camp is a giant, circular dirt lot just outside of Bishop affectionately known as The Pit. It’s free, but a small donation to pay for the outhouses is appreciated. You’ll be in the company of dedicated dirt bags, weekend warriors from L.A. and S.F., and backcountry brethren of every variety. Although not the most attractive place to camp, what’s lost in beauty is more than made up for in camaraderie and enticing views of the steep Sierra crag and intermittent couloirs.
The Pit is a stone’s throw from the Buttermilk, Happy and Sad Boulders, located on BLM land off Pleasant Valley Dam Road. It’s easy to find; inquire locally.
Owens Valley Hot Springs
Owens Valley is riddled with natural hot springs that at the end of an adventurous day ease weary muscles and soothe the soul with steam. Those near Mammoth are most popular, but the Keough Hot Springs are more central to the valley. Travel 8.5 miles south on 395 from Bishop and turn right on Keough Hot Springs Road. Turn right onto the second dirt road you reach, and you’ll see hot springs run-off to the left, just beyond the cold stream crossing.
The backcountry splendor and small town culture of Owens Valley are a far cry from the hustle and bustle of coastal California sprawl—but not a far drive. It’s just 4 hours northeast of L.A. via I-5 to Highway 14, through Mojave and to the 395 junction near Ridgecrest. From the north, there are several options, but heading south from Reno is the easiest way.
Pack up your gear, and head to Owens Valley. You won’t be disappointed. Here are some excellent resources for beta:
Skiing – Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada: East of the Sierra by Marcus Libkind covers 78 tours in the Eastern Sierra-Owens Valley area from Bridgeport (north of Mono Lake) south to Bishop Creek.
For hardcore chute skiing in the Eastern Sierra, accessible via Owens Valley, check an excellent site called www.395.com (General Info > Extreme Skiing).
Climbing – Bishop Area Rock Climbs by John Moynier