Salt, Silver, and Water
Last month, we took a look at Owens Valley's role in growing life as we know it in Los Angeles and southern California. Water hijacked from Owens Valley and delivered to L.A. made it possible to grow a city where chaparral and scrub normally rule. By extension, Owens Valley water helped grow the off-road industry as we know it. If there's no water, how can you be somewhere long enough to explore it? You can't.
This time, our foray into the Owens Valley area took us high into the Inyo Mountains. The Inyos are home to some incredibly remote terrain and are the site of some equally incredible mining and engineering feats of years past.
Shifting into 4-Low to keep the tranny from overheating, we pointed our 4Runner up the Yellow Grade road toward Cerro Gordo. Cerro Gordo, Spanish for "fat hill," was first discovered in the 1850s by Mexican prospectors. While searching out and finding mineral wealth, the first prospectors managed to infuriate a local Native American tribe. Three of the five Mexican prospectors were killed, and the remaining two were allowed to go free on the condition that they not disclose their find. Time and loose lips eventually got the word out, and the rush was on. Treasure seekers of several origins converged on Cerro Gordo and its rich silver ore.
Today, Cerro Gordo is privately owned. You can pass through on the road, but if you want to explore the town you need to schedule a tour. Mike Patterson, the owner, was holding court on the porch of the Belshaw House when we motored up, and we arranged to meet him the next day for a tour.
With our tour scheduled, we cracked open our copy of California Trails: Desert Region and followed Tour #48: Swansea-Cerro Gordo Road. California Trails includes turn-by-turn directions that can be followed in either direction. Since we were starting in Cerro Gordo instead of Swansea, the 'either-or' style directions were especially helpful.
The route describes the scenic value as a "10" and the difficulty rating a "5." Winding our way above Cerro Gordo on a narrow shelf road, we could see the Owens Lake bed in its entirety, bordered by the towering Sierras. Pinyon, juniper, and scrubby sage dominated the landscape. The route bared a few fangs along the way. Steep climbs littered with talus and scree put our Mickey Thompson Baja ATZ's and Toyota's electronic traction control to the test.