Inyo County. Home to the lowest and highest point in the contiguous United States. Home to Death Valley, the White Mountains and parts of the Eastern Sierra. When I think about Inyo County, I think of a certain sense of exploration, of all-day, or week-long excursions into the unknown. I think of the very thing that motivates myself and many others to drop everything, pack up the truck, and just go.
This sense of exploration has fueled so much of the content of this website over the years and when I look at just last year’s best stories, most came from Inyo County. From our Triple Header out of Lone Pine to the Prospector’s Pack Mule bikepacking trip, and countless other stories from the region, this beautiful place has inspired me, and others, hopefully, to take full advantage of our beautiful public lands.
All this goes without saying, but there is an obvious underlying message in much of this content; be smart, be safe, and be kind, to the animals, the land, and other humans.
I don’t know what it was about that sign but any time I usually see “OHV,” I move right past it. It’s nothing personal. I love public lands! But something about the idea of sharing a zone on my bicycle, as dirt bikes, side by sides, and Jeeps buzz past in a cloud of exhaust and dust that doesn’t exactly motivate me to embark on a journey of exploration. Part of being in the vast openness is about being alone and while I love 4×4 and other off-road recreation, when I’m on my bicycle, I want to be either with other cyclists or completely alone. That sign, however, that sign evoked a sense of mystery and the unknown. I had to know more.
At the tail end of our Prospector’s Bikepacking Trip, I was planning on tacking on another day into Papoose Flat. We’d dump our baggage, both in terms of emotions and equipment, head in on unloaded bikes and enjoy, what appeared to be, a casual loop in some of the beautiful plains and vistas the area is known for. Then came the craving. An insatiable urge to drink a milkshake and eat a burger at Country Kitchen down in Big Pine. Like many times in my life, the craving for food quickly trumps any other, conflicting motivations. As we drove away from highway 168, I thought to myself, “next time.”
Well, next time came and went a few times and it wasn’t until I started to look at the weather in Los Angeles, which had already spiked past 95º, that I realized I need some more Big Country exploration in the Inyo.
There was a trip planned to the Napa and Sonoma area on my calendar, so on the drive up, I took the long, scenic route and scheduled some solo time on Papoose Flat.
Papoose Flat History, Geology, and Geography
Located just a few miles east from the town of Big Pine, nestled amidst the White Mountains, off of Death Valley Road, is Papoose Flat. The Paiute occupied this area and most of the White Mountains into the 1930’s. They called this region Tovo-Wa-Ha and spent the warmer months gathering Tuva (Piñon nuts) to help the tribe survive the harsh winter. While it is a popular 4×4 OHV zone, it’s a crushing MTB ride with rocks, ruts, and deep sand. The steep grades are punishing but the vistas are an ultimate reward with high Sierra views and beautiful granite magma formations, unique to this pluton.
“Papoose Flat pluton is one of several granitic plutons in the White-Inyo Range of eastern California that is generally regarded as satellites of the great Sierra Nevada batholith, which lies 20 km to the west. The granitic compositions and Jurassic-Cretaceous ages of the White-Inyo plutons are closely similar to those in the Sierra. The fundamental difference is that the White-Inyo plutons are largely encased in sedimentary country rocks whose ages and former stratigraphic geometry are known or confidently inferred; only a few screens and pendants of former country rocks are found in the Sierra. Their plutons intruded each other in most instances, so it is hard to know how any given pluton made room for itself. Thus it is possible to infer the damage the White-Inyo plutons did to the country rocks more confidently than for the Sierran plutons.”
The layman’s translation of this, and bear with me, is that these granite mountains, or batholiths, are a large mass of intrusive igneous rock (volcanic), larger than 60 square miles in area, that are formed from cooled magma deep in the Earth’s crust. This formation is usually made from rocks such as granite, quartz monzonite, or diorite. Think Halfdome in Yosemite. While Owen’s Valley separates the Sierra Nevada from the White Mountains, they are very similar in appearance, geology and even age. While the bulk of these mountains are covered in Piñon and Juniper, along with other low-laying scrubs, the higher plains located within the Western region of the Papoose Plutons are different in terms of composition and construction from the Eastern region.
If you ride Papoose counter-clockwise, which is what I suggest, you’ll note this quite easily as the road intercepts these massive, somewhat alien – in terms of appearance and presence – outcroppings. It literally looks like they were jettisoned from a volcano and landed there, amidst the plains, when in fact, they were forced upwards from the crust. It’s very “neat.”
On Solo Outings
Not that I’m some old man, shaking a stick at you, but I cannot emphasize the importance of safety in this zone. Whether you’re alone or with a group, these commonsense things need to be included here. In short, pack layers, as the weather can change abruptly. I always carry a lightweight emergency bivvy sack in my pack, along with a rain jacket, proper tools – including a substantial knife with a flint, food, a map of the area, extra water and this piece of technology (below). My bike choice was a hardtail, over a cross bike, because the roads can be deep with sand and very rocky. I’d rather have fun descending than having to worry about picking a line at speed or, you know, walk my bike through sand. I know this route might look easy, but once you’re in the valley, a 2,000′ mountaintop separates you from your vehicle and the weather on either side can be completely different. Plus, this is big cat country.
This piece of technology gives me and my loved ones peace of mind. The Garmin Inreach allows you to two-way text, get weather reports and other important data, literally in the middle of nowhere. You pay a monthly subscription and can communicate worldwide.
Routing and Navigation
Papoose Flat is a simple route, with maps available at the National Forest office in Bishop and Big Pine. There is one way I would personally ride it; counter-clockwise. That way you’re descending through the deep sand, rather than climbing out of it. It also puts the brunt of the climbing at the beginning, with a long, winding descent after. Plus, the last descent back to the start is a total ripper, with undulating, rocky lines making for ample booters and hops. I use MTB Project, a free app that not only shows you where you are on the route’s map, but also on the elevation profile. While rides like this are so much about being disconnected from the modern world, when you’re on your own, technology like this supplies confidence, allowing you to really soak in your surroundings.
It was damn near high noon when I rolled up to the start of this ride which means damn bright desert light. Not great for photos, but I didn’t want to push it and be finishing this ride at night. Once the sun dips in this region, it gets cold, and while I like to think I’m a pretty capable rider, with a lot of experience in these mountains, being cold and being alone in the dark can be scary. At any rate, I began pedaling, with sore legs from the 5+ hour drive from Los Angeles, and a full belly from some snacks I scarfed down while getting ready. At the onset, the climbing begins, straight up. I joked to myself “typical Inyo…” As I pedaled towards this lumbering juggernaut of a climb. The jokes quickly stopped.
Reaching the top, there was no doubt where I was. Even if I was dropped unexpectedly from a helicopter, this zone is so familiar to me, with the High Sierra as a backdrop to loose shale ground material. I took my time, stopping to take photos, snack and just listen to nature. People call this act “forest bathing” and it had been a while since I’ve had a good Inyo Shower. Moving along the road, I realized this route would snake its way through canyons, in between towering igneous formations and alongside a forest of 4′ sagebrush. It smelled amazing, having just rained the day before.
Then, the scent of sage was overcome by the strong scent of cat spray. Now, for those of you who have come across this, it ain’t exactly a pleasant experience. Dread is the word I’d use and while I know no animals want to tangle with a human, there’s still that innate fear of something that could kill you if it wanted to and the craziest part is, you’d never know. All of a sudden, the back of your neck would get hit with the force of a sledgehammer and it’d be over. A peaceful, yet sudden death. Hell, I’d rather go this way than on the hood of a Prius. It’d make for a good story anyway.
Not wanting to scare myself, I hooped and hollered along the route, making noise and not stopping, aside for a few moments to investigate some rather large paw prints in the freshly dried sand. Oh, and to note the half-eaten deer carcass stashed in a neighboring outcropping. Now I was a bit scared. So much so that my urge to stop, take out my camera and snap a few shots was outweighed by self-preservation. I booked it out of there.
Moments later, of out-of-saddle sprinting and I was out of the rock wall zone and into a snaking plain, where an ass-kicking climb awaited. Spend enough time in the Inyo and views like this will be the norm.
Grunting, pushing, cussing ensued. Why do I take enjoyment out of this? There’s a cathartic release achieved on climbs like this. Anger comes out, frustrations, stress. It’s all emotional exhaust from my engine of self-motivation and growth. It is necessary. After stopping to document the valley from whence I came, the summit breeze cooled my hot core and I knew a ripper of a descent awaited.
Not more than a mile down the road, mining tailings were scattered across the trail. That’s when I realized something; these roads are all here for mining purposes. Bottom line. We wouldn’t have recreation on many of these routes without a dark history; man likes digging in the ground for shiny stuff. It’s a sad reality and I’m not justifying mining, just pointing it out. Tailings can be a beautiful feature when juxtaposed by the natural world, but there’s a darkness in that beauty. Like a creature exposing its entrails, the mortality of the earth is left apparent.
Just as quickly as my ride had begun, it was over, although four hours had passed. Of which both of my bottles were empty, along with the third I packed in my camera bag. All my snacks were exhausted as well, which might feel efficient, but it caused me to note that if something had happened out there, like if I fell and broke my leg, it would have been a long time to spend without food and water. Needless to say, I was relieved to see my truck’s roof rack poking out on my left as I thought about the food sitting inside the cooler and long drive to Napa Valley that awaited.
Then the blizzard hit high above Owens Valley… It was an interesting way to end the day.
See my 23 mile and 3,500′ route on Strava.