Bishop, California, just might be the ultimate base camp. Situated between the Sierra Nevada range to the west and the White Mountains to the east, Bishop’s locale on the floor of the Owens Valley allows the town to largely escape winter’s snows, thus providing a year-round exploration epicenter.
Still the only incorporated community in Inyo County, Bishop has been a “real” city since 1903. Gas, groceries, lodging, a police force, and a hospital are all available within city limits. Explore the rugged backcountry by day, and return to civilization after dark.
Late last November, over Thanksgiving weekend, we did just that. Time was limited, as it always seems to be. What do you do when time’s limited? You go with a guide, or at least a guidebook. We had two books along for the ride, and Roger Mitchell’s Inyo-Mono SUV Trails took the helm on our first day. Mitchell’s book highlights 40 backcountry adventures in this pristine land that ply trails ranging from unpaved to unruly, but nothing on the order of the Hammer Trails in Johnson Valley.
Of all the offerings in Mitchell’s book, adventure No. 16 called our name the loudest. What automotive enthusiast wouldn’t be a bit intrigued by “The Champion Spark Plug Mine”?
Officially called the Black Eagle Mine during its operating years between 1920 and 1945, the mine produced a rare aluminum silicate mineral called andalusite. Why does andalusite matter? It can be made into a ceramic that’s an ideal spark plug insulator. Eventually, a synthetic ceramic was developed that made andalusite unnecessary, but for 25 years, Champion Spark Plugs had a direct connection to a remote mine high up in the White Mountains.
Getting to the Champion Spark Plug Mine takes a combo of tire and boot prints, and this has always been the case. When the mine was active, ore was taken down the mountain via mule train. Each mule bore four 95-pound sacks of ore, a testament to how tough these critters are. You won’t need, or see, mules at the Champion Spark Plug Mine these days, but you will need your transfer case’s low-range gears. A four-wheel drive route takes you to one of two trailheads, and it’s a short, steep hike from there.
The mine has two camps: upper and lower. The upper camp sits next to the mine workings, but there’s not much left after a fire destroyed most of the buildings in 1987. The lower camp has several cabins and a central cookhouse. Once you get to the lower camp, it’s a two-mile huff (and another 1,500 feet up) to the upper camp. We settled for the lower camp this time, determined to come back another day and experience the whole thing.
Once at the lower camp, you’re rewarded with a glimpse into the past. Several buildings still stand in the camp, and are maintained by volunteer labor. Everyone who visits is encouraged to pitch in and contribute to the upkeep. In fact, one building has been designated as a storehouse for tools and supplies. There’s a list of projects and needed supplies next to the door.
Our project? We found a faded sign that needed refreshing. Black ink was fading almost as quickly as the white paint underneath. We were fresh out of white paint (there might have been some in the storehouse but we didn’t check) but we were well-supplied with black ink. In this case, writing on a sign with a Sharpie marker was a random act of kindness.
There are a lot more things to see and do in and around Bishop, but mule paths, spark plugs, and a Sharpie made for a full day.
Inyo-Mono SUV Trails
By Roger Mitchell
Track & Trail Publications