Is Inyo County the Greatest Place in California for Adventure?

The Mt. Whitney Wilderness is just one (of many) reasons why Inyo County is a hiker's dream.
The Mt. Whitney Wilderness is just one (of many) reasons why Inyo County is a hiker's dream. Ben Kucinski
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If saying that Inyo County is the greatest county in California—and possibly the world—is wrong, then we don’t want to be right. The 10,227 square mile county is home to the highest point in the contiguous United States, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, and the oldest living tree in the world. The dramatic landscape is defined by undulating desert valleys walled by snow-capped mountains that rise so high above the earth you might think their jagged summits graze the sky. It’s a place that can only be described in hyperboles.

Yet when travelers plan trips to California, Inyo County is often overlooked in favor of its more famous neighbors like Mono County to the north (home to Yosemite National Park) and Los Angeles County to the south (home to, well, you know).

But if you’re looking for a part of California where you can hike year round, camp at the base of 14,000 foot mountains, and truly feel like you’re in the wilderness, it’s time to lace up your boots and find out for yourself why “The Other Side of California,” is really the best side of California. Here’s what makes it great:

Epic Summits

Sunrise at Mt. Whitney.
Sunrise at Mt. Whitney. Hayden Irwin

Mt. Whitney is the crown jewel of Inyo County for a reason. At 14,505 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. Whether you choose to climb it over the course of one day or two, the summit can be reached by either an 11 mile trail or via several off trail routes. It’s hard to say what’s better: the views from the top or the feeling of accomplishment that you’ll get from climbing the highest point in the lower 48.

Fortunately, if you aren’t able to secure a permit, there are plenty of other equally spectacular summits in Inyo County that don’t require one. Nearby Mt. Langley is almost as tall at 14,026 feet and is considered one of the easiest 14er’s in the state. The most common route is partially off trail but an easy walk-up.

About 100 miles down the road in Death Valley National Park, you can beat the heat in the hottest place in the world with a hike to the top of 11,043 Telescope Peak. As its name implies, the mountain offers sweeping views of the otherworldly salt flats of Badwater Basin that glisten on the valley floor below. If you’re up for it, you can trek through alpine meadows and bag 9,994 foot Rogers Peak and 9,980 foot Bennett Peak along the way.

A World of Canyons

Death Valley National Park's Golden Canyon.
Death Valley National Park's Golden Canyon. John Fowler

When fall’s cooler temperatures set in, come down from the mountains and spend the winter season exploring the valley floor. From October through May, Death Valley’s scorching summer heat softens and allows for ample opportunities to hike through canyons.

The classic Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch loop is a great jumping off point and can be extended to include a trip up to Zabriskie Point. Do it early in the day or later in the afternoon and be dazzled by the shifting desert light across the badlands.

If small spaces are your thing, you’ll find a wealth of slot canyons. Trek across an alluvial fan to Sidewinder Canyon and you’ll be treated to narrows so tight you’ll consider turning on your headlamp. Prefer colorful rocks to cave-like features? The aptly named Red Wall Canyon will not disappoint. In addition to polished, crimson walls, you’ll find a real desert oddity: a ladder and a rope mysteriously placed deep in the canyon to aid with getting over a dry fall.

But for arguably the best desert canyon experience of all, backpack through Surprise Canyon (the surprise is that you’ll be hiking through a desert spring, so plan on getting wet) and camp overnight in the eerie, wonderful, and well-preserved ghost town of Panamint City.

Ancient Trees

Ancient Bristlecone pine forest in Inyo County, California.
Ancient Bristlecone pine forest in Inyo County, California. David Fulmer

Feeling old? A hike through the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains just outside of Big Pine should put things in perspective. Walk amongst these massive, gnarled trees and you might find yourself standing next to Methuselah, the oldest living tree in the world.

At the ripe old age of 4,848 years old, Methuselah is literally a living legend. The forest service keeps the tree’s exact location a secret, so you probably won’t be able to snap a selfie with the ultimate elder, but you’ll still get a chance to meet some of its friends. Bristlecone pines grow between 9,800 and 11,000 feet, so if the sight of the ancient forest along the Bristlecone Cabin Trail or Methuselah Trail doesn’t take your breath away, the elevation definitely will.

Towering Sand Dunes

Death Valley's Eureka Dunes.
Death Valley's Eureka Dunes. Peretz Partensky

If the desert is a sacred place to you, then it’s in your best interest to find your spirit sand dunes. Luckily, Inyo County has plenty to choose from in Death Valley National Park. If you’re short on time, the Mesquite Dunes are easily accessible (they’re literally right on the side of Highway 190). The climb to the top of the tallest dune may be only about 100 feet, but the views of the Grapevine Mountains are rewarding all the same.

For a more challenging hike, trek three miles across the Panamint Valley to the seldom-visited Panamint Dunes. Because these are only accessible by foot, it’s very likely that you’ll have the pristine, star-shaped dunes all to yourself.

If you like your sand dunes with a dose of mining history, head to the Ibex Dunes and explore the long-abandoned talc mine at their base. And if you’d prefer to go big or go home, climb to the top of the Eureka Dunes. Situated against the ominously named Last Chance Range, these dunes are the tallest sand dunes in California at 680 feet. Listen closely and you just might hear the mysterious singing sand phenomenon that makes them so special.

The Biggest Glacier in the Sierra Nevada

The Palisade Glacier and Palisade Crest.
The Palisade Glacier and Palisade Crest. Tim Berger

You wouldn’t think that a place characterized by so much desert would also be home to a massive glacier, but such is the glory of Inyo County. You can see Palisade Glacier via an 18 mile round-trip hike through the breathtaking northern Palisades, a group of mountains that accounts for about half of the 14ers in California. The glacier itself is 2.5 miles long, one mile wide and is the southernmost glacier in the entire Western Hemisphere. Even if you can’t make it all the way, a hike to any one of the turquoise hued glacial lakes along the trail will still amaze you.

Pre-Hike Grub and Post-Hike Beer

If you’re going to climb a 14,000 foot mountain, you’re going to want to fuel the hike. The Whitney Portal Store is located right next to the Mt. Whitney Trailhead and serves eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and pancakes so big they can’t be contained by paper plates. Think of them fondly when you’re making your way up Mt. Whitney’s infamous 99 switchbacks.

If your hiking adventures have you situated near Bishop, head to Erick Schat's Bakery for a to-go sandwich on fresh baked bread that we’re pretty sure is scientifically engineered to taste best when consumed on the trail.

And if your backpacking trip in Death Valley has left you with a thirst that can only be cured by hops and barley, prepare yourself for the incomprehensibly massive beer selection at Panamint Springs Resort. Locally brewed Indian Wells Orange Blossom Amber is a standout, but no matter what your tastes are, there’s nothing like drinking a cold beer on a porch with a view of the mountain you just climbed.

Cheers to Inyo County!

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