Coyote Flats, White Mountains & Bristlecone Pines
By: Jay Lawrence
We had a group of seasoned travelers on this year’s White Mountains trip so we took the opportunity to change things up and expand the trip to include Coyote Flats and possibly a new-to-us route out of Royal Gorge to Crooked Creek. The intrepid explorers included Mal Roode, Stan Sholik, Amelia and Garrett Montgomery with their son Corbin plus dog Chewy, Sue and Bob Jaussaud, Jay Lawrence and dog Squinky. Everybody had a slightly different schedule, so folks joined in when and where they could.
Things got rolling on Wednesday. Mal had a couple of spare days, so he explored a bit of the Owens Valley then headed to a creekside campground west of Big Pine called Glacier Lodge. Lodge is long gone, but a great campground is there now. When I reached Big Pine I gave Mal a shout on the 2-meter ham band from down in the flats. Lo and behold, he answered immediately that he was up the hill about ten miles and there was room to camp. I headed up the road and joined him, knowing temperatures and surroundings would be much better than down in the flats.
Thursday morning we made our way down to 395 then north a couple miles to check with the ranger station in Bishop and meet Stan, Amelia, Garrett, Corbin and Chewy at the Bishop City Park. Our ranger visit proved disappointing, with little information available between the three rangers on staff. We did pick up a couple of good maps though.
Everybody was ready to go and off we went, west of Bishop a couple of miles then off across the desert toward the Coyote Creek drainage. We aired down for the rocks, then proceeded to head up the switchbacks, which took us from 4000’ to 8500’ in a few very short and steep miles. Once up to the Coyote Creek crossing the climb became more gentle but a bit more rocky.
Since I had not been up here for several decades and the crew had never been here it would be a couple of days of real exploration. We started by finding the headframe and entrance to the Peterson mine. Tailings included lots of garnet matrix and some smallish gold ore bearing rock plus plenty of highly mineralized specimens we couldn’t identify. No geologists in our crowd this time.
Next, we stopped at the Schober mine a couple of rocky miles to our west, up to 11,000’ then down to overlook the valley near Lake Sabrina. The views were spectacular from the high saddle we crested and everybody had a photo stop. After making our way down the steep trail to the mine site, we stopped to see what time had left us. The entry and shaft had been dynamited shut, buildings flattened and junk scattered. Mal discovered a small bottle which when opened yielded two small notes. The first was from August 15, 1996 from W. A. Schober stating that the “Assement worked completed for 1996” with Kevin Cooper. Not sure what he meant by “Assement”, perhaps “assessment”? The second note was from July 1992 saying “The original Notice has been vandalized so if you are interested check the records at Independence or see John Schober in West Bishop.” Mal returned the notes to their original location. We guessed that was the last real activity for that site.
We backtracked to the high saddle and made our way to a very dry Coyote Lake for a lunch break, then set off in search of Funnel Lake and a place to camp for the evening. It started with a few rocks, then more rocks, then boulder fields. The final two or three miles had multiple stretches of basketball sized boulders to creep over with segments with a hundred or two yards of dirt and grass. As soon as it looked good it got bad. Hours later we arrived at Funnel Lake, a fine looking place to camp and a good place for a ‘safe arrival’ beverage. It was a fairly quiet and early evening since everybody was thoroughly beat.
Morning looked much better. Mal and I hiked over a couple of small ridges to see if we could see Rocky Bottom Lake. We found one very small dry lake but Rocky Bottom eluded us. This was an impromptu exploration so of course we had no map with us and we were boulder hopping in the general direction we thought it must be. It wasn’t, but the hike was nice anyhow.
Morning also brought a family of deer with one buck, several does and a couple of fawns down to the lake to drink, fifty feet from Mal’s camper. And also some bowhunters on ATVs, fully decked out in every piece of camouflage gear you can buy from Cabella’s. The hunters didn’t know where they were, had no maps and no GPS. They might have been a bit inexperienced. We figured the deer were pretty safe. Once camp was packed up, we headed out the trail that Mal’s map said was the “Good Trail”, as opposed to the “Bad Trail” we came in on. Turned out that the good trail was just as rocky and twisted as the one we came in on. Dang.
Into the meadowland at last! Coyote Flats is a really large alpine meadow with spectacular views of the White Mountains, Inyo Mountains, the Sierras and the Palisades Glacier. Many photos were taken. The formerly paved high altitude airstrip from the 50’s has been broken up and fenced off to be reclaimed by nature, and there was no sign of the corrugated steel building that was there in the 80’s. Time and the U.S. Forest Service keep marching on.
Heading a bit south, we made our way to Sanger Meadow and the Baker Creek area. Lunch was in a beautiful spot overlooking Baker Creek and the many springs that feed it. This would make a nice place to camp on a future visit. Today (Friday) we needed to head back across the flat toward the Coyote Creek crossing on the north end of the plateau. Mal and I overnighted there. The Sholik/Montgomery clan headed down the hill to overnight in Bishop to meet up for the White Mountains leg in the morning.
In the meantime, Mal and I decided we needed to find the Salty Peterson Mill site, since it was supposed to be very close. Turns out it was. We walked up the road about five hundred yards looking for telltale signs. Found some big steel pieces, then an overturned old wood stove across the creek, but no sign of a mill or machinery until we turned around. It was right behind us just across and above the road and we had gone right by it. Access was hindered by lots of overgrowth and we were running out of daylight. Waypoints were marked and we’ll poke around on a future trip.
Saturday morning everybody was fed, gassed up and ready to go at our meeting place in Big Pine. Bob and Sue found us. Well, almost everybody. Jean and Sunny Hansen had a wheel shear off its lugs and send them down the road skidding on the brake rotor. They had left voicemail that they were OK but wouldn’t be able to join us. I’m sure it was a pretty exciting ride. Everybody thanked their appropriate deity. We’re all looking forward to seeing them along on future trips. After a head count, we checked radios and headed east on 168 to the Wyman Canyon trail near Deep Springs and the ruins of White Mountain City.
We stopped at the old smelter chimney ruins to poke around, look for petroglyphs (found some!) and speculate on what White Mountain City must have looked like in its heyday during the Civil War. It was a center for mining at that time and was visited by Mark Twain. Its major claim to historical fame is a bit checkered. Turns out it was used for some major election fraud in gubernatorial race in the fall of 1861. Somehow the sparsely populated settlement mysteriously gained 521 voters whose names were culled from the passenger list of a steamship that had recently arrived in San Francisco. They figured since the town was so remote nobody would notice… oops.
We headed up canyon, crossed Wyman Creek several times then stopped for lunch near a small waterfall. Quite a beautiful trail. On up the canyon toward Royal Gorge we looked for our turnoff toward Dead Horse Meadow. We found it. The first quarter mile was OK, if a bit tight with growth and rockfall. Then things went a bit south, and not in a cardinal direction kind of way. The road ascended and we were suddenly faced with a very broken, very off camber road with a boulder sized rock fall on one side and a severely eroded rut on the other. It would have been a sizable challenge for a purpose-built rockcrawling buggy and it was all but impassable to us. Even had we been able to scale it, we would have not been able to get back down it if the trail petered out further on, so back we went. After several twenty point Y turns everybody was headed back downhill to the original track.
We headed back up Wyman Creek toward the Bristlecone Pine Forest by the “normal” route, stopping by Roberts Ranch and arriving at the Patriarch Grove mid-afternoon for some hiking and photos. The trees, terrain and views never fail to amaze. We had all visited there before and were glad for another taste.
Our destination for the evening was the Grandview Campground, downhill a few miles past the Schulman Grove ranger station. Found it, and Stan found a great spot we could all fit in, complete with fire ring and picnic table. Bob and Mal had elected to go on ahead and find the Grandview Mine. What they found was somebody in a passenger car who had decided he could off-road with the best of them and was being winched back up a slope he should have known better than to attempt. They had plenty of help so Mal, Bob and Sue headed back to camp.
We had a grand evening, Sue made some great hot dogs with all the trimmings for Bob, Mal and I and Stan and company cooked up a small feast. There were stars galore, we had mild temperatures, folks swapped lies and ate chips and dip and the world seemed pretty OK. Later (much later, like 3:00 a.m.) Stan dragged his photo gear back up the hill to Patriarch Grove to get some slightly spectacular shots of the Milky Way bordered by Bristlecone Pines.
Sunday Bob and Sue headed back to Needles to handle a home plumbing emergency and Mal headed back so he could get to work on Monday. The rest of us headed to Grandview Mine, then to Schulman Grove to see the rebuilt ranger station and visitor center. It’s even nicer than the one some lunatic burnt down several years ago after the voices in his head told him that was what he needed to do. Later, Squinky and I headed home but Stan and family stayed through Tuesday to soak up the mountains and do some photography.
It was a great trip. We expanded our territory a bit, saw some new places and had a great group to travel with. With any luck, there will be a bit more rain for the plants and trees by the time we plan our next trip there. Several of us have been doing this trip for more than twenty-five years and we keep coming back. It must be something in the air.