Into the Inyo Mountains: Disconnecting in Cerro Gordo

Owens Valley, the Mojave, and Death Valley have been the backdrop for many stories here on the Radavist, but there is one region in particular that has interested me in regards to both the terrain and the history. The Inyo Mountains are ripe for adventure-seekers looking to get off the beaten path of Death Valley National Park or the Eastern Sierra. It can be a very isolating place: the roads are rough, rugged, with little to no cell reception or provisions. If you can, however, access this zone safely, you will be rewarded with unsurpassed views of the Eastern Sierra as the backdrop and colorful geological features abound.

I spend my free time exploring this region for routes that are suitable for travel by bicycle and to be honest, very few have proven to be fruitful in such endeavors. The area is plagued by roads so steep that even an equipped 4×4 can overheat, or miles upon miles of rock gardens, and sand traps. Not to mention the complete absence of water. To ride in this zone, you have to be prepared, both mentally and physically. It’s a region that challenged the native tribes as well as the prospectors who were driven by the desire to strike it rich. There’s a bigger tale here before we dive into our story, that needs to be told. One that hits close to home for us at the Radavist.

A Quest for Water

The great sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles County would not exist in its current form if it had not been for Owens Valley. In many ways, water is a catalyst for growth. Civilizations have long been founded alongside rivers and streams as this made both food and water acquisition easy. For Los Angeles, existing in the High Desert of Southern California, in a Mediterranean climate, its few rivers would not be able to supply its inhabitants alone. This prompted William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant turned self-taught hydraulic engineer, to try his hardest to educate Los Angele’s ever-growing population to conserve water, but in short time, Los Angeles had sucked its only river dry. In his quest for water, he turned to Owens Valley, just 230 miles outside the city limits.

Between 1911 and 1923, Mulholland and his Los Angeles Department of Water and Power agents purchased 95% of the Owens River’s water rights in secret, prompting a 233-mile long aqueduct which spanned across the Mojave Desert and into Downtown LA. It was only a matter of time until the Owens River-fed Owens Lake dried up, prompting the local farmers and ranchers to sabotage the aqueduct numerous times with dynamite. These people were the original eco-warriors, fighting to save the land from Mulholland and his cronies, who in 1927, declared war, using the only way possible to seize the water, by brute force.

This is the history of Owens Valley, Owens Lake, and in many ways, the history of Colonization of the Great American West. For those interested in this topic, you can read all about it in Cadillac Desert, the book by Marc Reisner.

Payahuunadü

There is a sign on US Highway 395 as you enter Owens Valley that reads “Reimagine Payahuunadü,” or the indigenous tribes’ word for “Land of the Flowing Water.” Unfortunately, the rivers are hardly flowing and Owens Lake is now dry, exposing its bed to the sun and wind, creating the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States. Elders in the local tribes feel as though the LADWP is sucking the color and life from this valley. Payahuunadü is the homelands of the Paiute and Shoshone, which still inhabit this area.

The Great Angelino Guilt

When I moved to Los Angeles in 2015, I was already aware of this history. I read Cadillac Desert while I was in college, studying architecture. I was interested in urbanism, the writings of the great modern architectural theorists, and sustainability as a whole. Nothing could prepare me for what I would see as I began to explore Owens Valley, the Mojave Desert, and Death Valley National Park. If you spend enough time in this unique region, you’ll quickly learn that when someone asks you where you’re from, you avoid those two words, Los Angeles, as much as you can. For many inhabitants of Ownes Valley, LA is responsible for deaths associated with Valley Fever, blinding dust storms, and the dried up bed that was once Owens Lake. As someone who is far from an Angelino, or a Californian for that matter, I couldn’t help but feel immense guilt for recreating in this area, at not only the expense of LA’s water but also the Indigenous tribes of the region. I wasn’t around 100 years ago as these events unfolded, but was my existence in Los Angeles somehow contributing to this mess? It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot while camping, off-roading, and cycling through the valleys and mountains surrounding Owens Valley.

It’s important as journalists and photographers that we share this history, to give it context and pay our respects to the people who once called this land home.


Cerro Gordo, 1915, via Owens Valley History

The Tale of Cerro Gordo

Like water, Los Angeles has a long history of mineral extraction from Owens Valley: from borax and salt from Death Valley and the famous 20 Mule Team, to gold in the Eastern Sierra. In 1862, a Mexican prospector named Pablo Flores struck silver in what is now known as Cerro Gordo, a mine on the western slope of the Inyo Mountains, roughly 30 miles, or 50 kilometers southeast of Independence, California. It was the first major silver strike in Owens Valley and it was the beginning of a massive operation that would last until 1877.

First thing’s first, however; mining crews needed to get through the canyon to begin digging. Previous attempts to erect the mine had been thwarted with natives kidnapping five Mexican prospectors, killing three of them, and releasing two only because they promised to never return. Promises didn’t hold weight back then, not when compared to the value of silver. The natives had won the battle, but the war for Cerro Gordo was far from over. When Fort Independence opened in 1862, the US Army sent troops into Cerro Gordo to eradicate the native population, allowing the mine to open.  Much like Mulholland and his cronies taking the Los Angeles Aqueduct by force, the US Army had just secured the area, forcing the natives further back into the mountains and into what we now call Death Valley National Park. The cost of this displacement on subsequent generations is undoubtedly immeasurable.

Like many mines in the area, Cerro Gordo was boom or bust, with the value of silver dropping drastically, forcing it to close for good in 1877. However, for the years it was open, there was a steady stream of mule teams transporting silver ore from Keeler, the town that was established at the base of Cerro Gordo to run the smelters, to Los Angeles, 275 miles away, with many of the loads yielding $300 per ton.

In early 1872 the Los Angeles News stated, “To this city, Cerro Gordo trade is invaluable. What Los Angeles now is, is mainly due to it. It is the silver cord that binds our present existence. Should it be unfortunately severed, we would inevitably collapse.” Much like the water from Owens River, Los Angeles owes its very existence to the silver pulled from the Inyo Mountains and the mining town known as Cerro Gordo.

In the early 1900s, high-grade zinc was found in Cerro Gordo, rejuvenating a mine that had all but exhausted the silver supply. The facilities were run until 1938. In the years since, Cerro Gordo has been a ghost town, with very few inhabitants other than caretakers who were present only to ward off vandals. The site includes a number of buildings, which are still present today, including remnants of the original Union Mine. Up until recently, a few of its buildings could be rented by overnight guests including the 1870 Belshaw House, the Bunkhouse, built in 1904, and the old American Hotel, built in 1871. Recently, new owners purchased Cerro Gordo, where they hope to preserve the history and offer getaways for people looking for solitude.

Ride Reportage: An Inyo Ascent

Typically, on rides like this, I’ll camp in the Lone Pine area, but with hotels aplenty, there are also options for less rugged means of R&R. It is, as you may have guessed, a big day to undertake this ride, so a good night’s sleep is of the utmost importance. Breakfast is served early at the Alabama Hills Cafe, so get a breakfast burrito and a cup of coffee to go for under $10. The drive from Lone Pine to Keeler as the sun rises is one out of a Western movie – and probably was, given Hollywood has shot many movies in the area since the 1920s. Horses run through neighboring fields, kitfox dive from the roadside into their burrows beneath rabbitbrush, and redtail hawks circle overhead looking for their first meal. Once you reach the sleepy town of Keeler, you turn off onto Cerro Gordo Road where a small parking area makes for excellent staging grounds. Sip your coffee and watch the sun cast its light across the valley onto the Eastern Sierra and over what little remains of Owens Lake.

At an elevation of 8,300 feet, Cerro Gordo is anything but easy to get to. The climb itself begins just outside the town of Keeler, California (3,602′) and with little to no warm up, climbs straight up a cut road through alluvium deposits. Upon entering the first of several canyons, it quickly becomes apparent that you’re in for a long one. What’s most striking to me is the geological formations along the road, crust upheaval towering sometimes hundreds of feet above your head. It’s both awe-inspiring and somewhat disorienting at the same time. With visual distractions enveloping you on all sides, all it takes is a rock or a hole to jar you back to reality. Or in this particular instance, ice.

Which brings me to a very important point, dress for massive temperature fluctuations. Depending on the time of year, it can be sunny and 60º in the valley  and snowing and 25º at the top. Mother Nature’s temper tantrums are legendary in the Inyo Mountains and it’s always best to be prepared for the worst of them. It is highly recommended to carry a rain shell, an emergency blanket, and apparel that will handle these aberrant temperature fluctuations. We’ll go over more equipment protocols later in this story…

After approximately 8 miles, you’ll reach the Ghost Town of Cerro Gordo where all that awaits you are textures in the form of high desert patina. There is no potable water here, so be sure you pack all you’ll need for the ride. Take a break, eat lunch, and poke around the abandoned buildings. Please obey the Leave No Trace principles at all times and obey any posted signage. On the eastern side of the slope, the “road” continues down through juniper and piñon trees, around boulders, through washes and down to White Mountain Talc Road, a long, false-flat climb that used to be yet another mining route in Death Valley National Park to an old talc mine. Look closely and you’ll see talc scattered in the drainage in white and red chunks. Once you enter Death Valley National Park, you know you’re almost done with this climb.

From the top, it’s all downhill, with literally 40 miles of downward-trending roads left to tackle, 20 of which being pavement back to the car. Here’s where the scenery shifts yet again, from evergreen trees to fields of Joshua Trees, a yucca native to the Mojave, as far as the eye can see. The roads here can vary with recent rain, but if it’s been dry you can expect a ripping descent all the way to Highway 190 and the staging area where you parked. 54 miles and over 6,000′ later, you’re right back where you started. Hopefully, there’s still daylight left!

Cerro Gordo’s mining operations may be closed for good, but as modern-day prospectors, we can mine for memories, photos, and stories. These experiences might not fund a city as silver once did, but not all roads need to be silver or gold to solidify the feeling of a true adventure.

Equipment

Rides like this create an interesting dialog when it comes to equipment. Is it a road ride? Or a mountain bike ride? With everything we do over here at the Radavist, this discussion is relevant when it comes to selecting the right bike from your stable. Looking at this ride, it raises a few concerns, mainly being the steepness of the Inyo Mountain’s western slopes. With an average grade of 9.3% and sections that sustain over 18%, a standard or compact road gearing is out of the question for us mere mortals, especially considering the need for clothing, food, water, and other provisions. The descent down from Cerro Gordo is very rocky and rugged as well. I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller than a 1.75″ or 2″ tire. Overall, a mountain bike seems more than appropriate, with a wider range of gears and bigger tire clearances, but then what about the 40 miles of road riding on the other side of the mountain?

Drop bar mountain bikes, or monster cross bikes are such capable vehicles for rides like this. They allow for multiple hand positions, varied riding positions, bigger tires, and extended gearing. The problem is, getting road shifters to work with mountain bike derailleurs has always been tricky.

Check back tomorrow and we’ll look at the bike I built with Moots and SRAM’s new AXS group

Rides like this continue to move and to motivate me, so much that stories like this take a lot of physical and emotional energy. Thank you for following along. I wouldn’t have been able to share it without the help of those listed below…

This project was created with support from SRAM. Thanks to James Adamson of Drop Media for the video work, Moots for loaning their Baxter frame for this project and Brent Underwood from Cerro Gordo for the help!

____

Follow SRAM on Instagram, follow James on Instagram, and follow Moots on Instagram.

  • Great set. That road up to Cerro Gordo doesn’t look steep but its a climb. My FZJ80 with 33’s was not happy on the way up.

    • It’s such a grunt. I want to go back and do the ride again without the snow.

  • Great read, love the backstory. Another tidbit of inane history: U2’s famous joshua tree is right off your route.

    • The history of this area (hell, ALL of the American West) is heavy.

      Yeppppp! We were also right around the corner and dropped down Saline Valley Rd on our ride.

      • As an Aussie who lived in the US (Texas) and who has roadtripped throughout the country quite a bit, I can attest to two things wholeheartedly:

        1) America is indeed steeped in history. Even growing up in Oz we learned about significant historical events in the US. So many authors/film-makers/musician/creatives the world has had the opportunity to experience were Americans, and I was often struck by the significance of locations my wife and I visited that were directly the result of, or tied to, an experience we’d had from one of these creative people.

        2) We spent a good while in the Californian desert and New Mexico, as well as Arizona, Utah, and of course Texas. I was never enamoured with the desert landscape, preferring the northern corners of the country, but my first trip to Terlingua, Texas completely changed that. There was something magical about being surrounded by such a large, flat area of seemingly nothing, then enormous mountain ranges in the distance. I think you are right about the vast stillness and silence those landscapes seem to have. Awesome in the true sense of the word.

        I really enjoyed the video. I hope to get back to ride some of those landscapes again.

  • Medium Rick

    Really enjoy your stories/pics from this region. I’ve lived in the Eastern Sierra since 2005. Having grown up in Southern California I can relate to that remote sense of guilt you’ve described. Resentment towards the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is still quite strong in this area. Law suits over water are still being litigated to this day, the most recent over LADWP’s dewatering of Long Valley.

    But I can’t help but think of what it might be like had the LADWP never entered the fray way back when. My mind always wanders to the Western Sierra where industrial scale agriculture, private properties and locked gates are ubiquitous. LADWP has enormous land holdings throughout Inyo and Mono counties. Hate them or not, for most part, the LADWP allows public access to their undeveloped lands. If these lands were in the hands of private owners I can’t help but think access would be very limited and the Owens Valley/Eastern Sierra regions would likely look very different than they do today. I guess I see LADWP as the lesser of two evils.

    Thanks for the enjoyable and thoughtful piece.

  • Mike Smith

    Great story and video. Now to continue my search for something with bigger tires….

  • Forrest Guy

    A-MAZING. Is this the first official Radavist video?

  • James Walton

    Well done!

  • Robin Hepher

    Enjoyed the video. Beautiful terrain, thoughtful commentary. Caught a quick glimpse of your cool-looking boots at 1:51. If you’d be willing to share, may I ask what they are?

  • Jon B.

    Great piece, also super geeked to hear about AXS. Hope you got time with the app as well.

  • Gus

    Man. Fascinating. Riding bikes is one thing, but riding in beautiful places with interesting/sad/exciting/thought-provoking history is another. Here in British Columbia mountain biking is tied directly to our history of natural resource development. Logging roads, gold mines, ghost towns (Silverton near the Retallack operation, for example), valleys and communities changed forever by hydroelectric dams. Amazing how much the quest for water has influenced our landscapes. My goal for this summer is to ride though the Bridge River area (near Lillooet, BC).

  • CTDSAC

    John, you sure are dreamy.

  • Rad Pitted Inc

    Fantastic journalism both in pictures and in words. It speaks good of the world that someone can have a platform this successful that understands the cares and opinions of the indigenous folk and the locals. Keep it up.

  • Jared Jerome

    #38 goin’ on my desktop wallpaper.

  • stateofnonreturn

    That video was too short!

  • Alex

    Great piece, love the photos and the historical background. Do you think the 650bx47 tires like the Teravail Cannonballs or WTB Ventures would be okay for this ride or would you go bigger?

    • They’d be ok for 75% of it but the road down gets super messed up with any amount of rain so you might be walking through some rock gardens. Everything else from Talc road back is good to go though!

  • J Dos Adios Santos

    Hey John, awesome story! Thanks for sharing. Really enjoyed the in-depth article. I’ve even recommended Cadillac Desert in previous comments on your site. Enlightening book, to say the least. This is a region I’ve sadly neglected during my wanderings. Must rectify this immediately.

    • Wait for the snow to melt a bit! The road is pretty icy! haha

  • Terry Dean

    amazing trip. bought Cadillac Desert based off this article just now, it sounds like my kind of read

    • It’s so depressing but not as bad as Sapiens – my girlfriend was so sad after reading that.

      • Terry Dean

        i’ll queue that one up as well!

  • owmurphy

    This article is why the Radavist is so rad. Introspective, historical, deeply personal, and conscience-raising for the rest of us who like to explore by bike. Thanks for keeping the bar high.

  • Trevor Anderson

    Killer article. I’ve spent my whole life camping up in this beautiful zone, looking to get a ride like this going very soon!

  • Nick

    A lifetime of exploring around this zone, and wish I could have another. Great piece.

  • The way you capture the desert is truly amazing.

  • spencer harding

    I was just having a discussion about water, california, and the eastern sierra last night. It is one I’ve had many times with people not from the western united states. Its absolutely insane the infrastructure that has been created to transport water. That impact, socially and environmentally is definitely something we all need to consider in these landscapes. I felt that same guilt as I grew up and learned the history of Mulholland as I also spent a good chunk of my childhood visiting the eastern sierras. I really appreciate the scope and context of this story, it can be exhausting and anxiety-riddled to try and fit all that in for a story about a day ride. My hat is off to you.

  • I read this yesterday and was thinking about it this morning again. I really enjoyed the themes in this a lot and it was remarkable how similar some of them are to where I’ve been going with my riding in the past couple of years. We’ve been exploring deeper into The Rockies, trying to fill in blank sections of the map of our state and we keep finding ourselves on old abandoned mining roads and back roads. The more I look at the areas on maps or Google Earth the more obsessed I get with going back for more despite the harshness of these areas. I start following links and reading back stories and start discovering stories similar to yours: First Nations people living in harmony with the land, moving around as nomads. In comes the white man, various treaties are signed. Without fail the natives are cheated out of their land bit by painful bit – and huddled into semi useless leftover pieces of land in the margins. Miners move in to the void driven by the quest for gold and silver. Claims are stuck. Entire cities and fortunes rise and fall. The veins run out, the mines close. Ghost towns. Then a hundred years later I’m finding the leftovers on a bike, with friends, marveling about how much history has already transpired in a place I feel like I’m somehow discovering. I can’t stop reading history books now. I feel like an old man. History books seem like an old man thing to do in the evenings. Now that I know more about the history, the people, and the mines we’re planning our return again this summer after the snows melt and the high mountain passes reopen. We’re gathering material to outline a film this year, to try to tell the story of these mountains – as seen on two wheels. If you’re interested in coming to Colorado in late August you’re welcome to along. I think you would find it slightly different but very familiar.

    • Great comment, Stephen! Thank you for sharing.

  • I just finished, and loved, Dessert Solitaire after a cycling based trip with some friends through Colorado and Utah. This story strikes me as very Edward Abbey-esque in all the best ways. An excellent combination of history, introspection and personal anecdote. The accompanying video was also a very welcome addition. Killer content, more like this!

    • Dude it’s thick in there throughout his books.

  • aaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh

    Nice work! Beautiful pics and write up!

    • Thanks man! Hope to see you out in the Verdugos soon!

  • Adam Leddin

    New truck looks sick! Also, incredible and video thank you.

    • Ah that’s a loaner. Mine was getting its injection pump rebuilt so my buddy that imports Cruisers loaned me his personal HJ61. Thanks dude!

  • Edward Hewitt

    The story and the video show no one around on this epic ride. Last Wednesday, our friends from Lone Pine ,who stayed with us In Ventura till the road got plowed, told me a little more about Cerro Gordo . Just so happens that our best friends son just bought the town with others. So Cerro Gordo is trending …hope they all don’t mess with it.

    • I spoke with Brent Underwood, one of the buyers. He plans to leave it as is, but wants to renovate the hotel and some of the cabins to rent them out / artist live+work spaces.

  • hopeyglass

    What a wonderful write up – I also read “Cadillac Desert” but in grad school (urban planning, so, yeaah) and would definitely recommend “Colossus” about the Hoover Dam/Mullholand/Western water and development stuff to anyone interesetd in the subjects. This was definitely something I’d love to read more of (thematically, stylistically, etc.) Glad it is here.

    • Colossus has been on my list. Thanks for the nudge!

  • Robert

    Great article and thank you for the detailed ride report. I know it’s important for people to do their own exploring, to find their own routes, and to keep certain areas from turning into overcrowded destinations–but it can be frustrating to read about and see photos/video of something such as this and then basically be told “good luck finding it”. It’s a fine line but I think The Radavist does a good job of walking it. So thank you. A question for you: at one point in the article you write, “with literally 40 miles of downward-trending roads left to tackle, 20 of which being pavement back to the car” and shortly after “but then what about the 40 miles of road riding on the other side of the mountain?”. Perhaps I’m just not connecting some of the earlier dots but I was wondering how much road riding(pavement) there is on the route? I’ll be in the area for 10 days in March with a hardtail 29er and am considering adding this to my list.

  • Jake Riehle

    Who’s strumming that lonely, verby guitar in the video?

    • It’s a band called Barn Owl, “Lost in the Glare”

      • Jake Riehle

        Thanks John, the video is great, the song choice just makes it even better! Off topic, while I can totally understand using the term “silence” to describe what we experience in places like the one you feature in the video. As a sound professional, I wish there was another way to convey what we actually hear out there. It’s not the complete absence of sound, which is the definition of “silence”, because we hear wind through branches, we hear animals vocals we wouldn’t hear in the city, we hear every noise the bike makes or the rubber comes in contact with. Our sense of sound is heightened and focused and not because of silence, but because we are able to hear every little detail we don’t get to when the noise floor is raised. Anyway, sorry for the nerdy, sound tangent, and make more videos!

        • For sure. We recorded the voice-over after the ride, so the video we shot came first. It would have been nice to record some of the noises, especially as the sun was setting and the animals began to move about.

  • The picture story is so cinematic because of the presence of you so often…I absolutely love that. I hope to see more of this kind of collaboration with other photographers and videographers in the future.

  • Mitch

    Really great content John. I’ve been following along since the fixed days and seeing you develop into reviews like this is really inspiring. Looking forward to more content like this. It makes you want to get in the saddle and ride!
    -Mitch

  • Ryan

    Great video, images and writing. Total package. Thanks!

  • Justin Kee

    hey John what face mask is that you’re wearing? i am always looking for one with a good fit that doesn’t cover my mouth but never seem to find them

    incredible photos and story

    • It’s an Outdoor Research one with Polartec.

      • Justin Kee

        cool. thanks john

        • Yeeeee

          • Marc R

            While we are on the subject, what was your pants, gloves and jacket combo? Finding pants that are comfortable to pedal in for a long time is tough.

          • I wore the Mission Workshop Signal stretchy pants (they’re expensive but I have had them for 4 years with no issues whatsoever), OR Polartech gloves, and a merino longsleeve base with a Mission Workshop Faroe hoodie.