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California: High Sierra’s Armstrong Canyon

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© Tony Huegel/Backcountry Byways

Sierra Nevada’s

Armstrong Canyon

LOCATION: At the eastern edge of California’s John Muir Wilderness in Inyo National Forest, about 13 miles northwest of Independence. Inyo County.

GOOGLE MAP: Sierra Nevada’s Armstrong Canyon

HIGHLIGHTS: Following Division Creek Road from the floor of the Owens Valley, you will zigzag up the dramatic eastern wall of the highest mountain range in the Lower 48: the Sierra Nevada.

The route follows a narrow shelf road, an old mining road that leads past the sites of two bygone mines. It ends at the remains of an old mine trolley, complete with a rusting ore car, in piney Armstrong Canyon.

In addition to sweeping views of the Owens Valley, the Inyo Mountains and the Great Basin, you will travel through a landscape of glacial canyons and ancient lava flows, evidence of the region’s fire-and-ice past.

DIFFICULTY: Moderate, on a narrow old single-lane shelf road carved into the steep side of the mountains. It is a bit off-camber in places, which can be disconcerting. Here and there, especially at one point as it enters Armstrong Canyon, the road is pinched between boulders on one side and long drop-offs on the other. Watch for on-coming vehicles, and places to pass. Uphill traffic has the right of way, although that might not be practical in every case. Be prepared to back up if you encounter another vehicle, or a boulder that’s fallen from the mountain and blocked the road.

TIME & DISTANCE: About 5 hours and 18 miles round-trip from the start of Division Creek Road [N36°56.065′ W118°15.408′].

MAPS: Benchmark Maps’ California Road & Recreation Atlas, p. 79 (G, 9–10). Inyo National Forest (south half: J, 11).

INFORMATION: Inyo National Forest, Mt. Whitney Ranger District.

GETTING THERE: From the south: From U.S. 395 a little more than 8 miles north of Independence, exit onto Black Rock Springs Road (a.k.a Sawmill Creek Road) [N36.91689 W118.24149]. Zero your odometer. Drive west 0.8 mile, then turn right (north) on Tinnemaha Road, following the U.S. Forest Service sign for the Sawmill Pass trailhead. At about mile 1.9, turn left (northwest) onto Division Creek Road [N36°56.062′ W118°15.415′], toward a power plant, and zero your odometer again.

From the north: Take U.S. 395 south from Big Pine for about 16.4 miles, then exit at Goodale Creek Road (a.k.a. Goodale Road) [N36°58.698′ W118°14.164′]. Zero your odometer. Take Goodale Creek Road west a mile to Tinnemaha Road. Turn left (southwest) on Tinnemaha Road, and follow it southwest 1.9 miles, and turn right (southwest) onto Upper Division Creek Road, which connect shortly with Division Creek Road. Zero your odometer.

THE DRIVE: The pavement ends at mile 1.5, where you will see the small Division Creek hydroelectric powerhouse on the left. From here the dirt road continues its steady climb toward the Sierra’s steep granite escarpment and peaks that exceed 13,000 feet. At mile 2 the Sawmill Pass trailhead is on the left (south) side of the road. This hiking trail (a wilderness permit is required for overnight stays, but not for day hikes) ascends via Sawmill Lake (about 7.4 miles) to the trail’s namesake on the boundary of the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park (1.5 miles or so beyond the lake), then continues into the park. North of the road is the vast lava flow, which you’ll edge along farther up.

The road, No. 12S01 in Inyo National Forest, bends sharply to the right (north) at mile 4.2. Here, the left branch continues to a primitive campsite. At this junction, you’re right at the base of the Sierra escarpment. Your route continues through brush, and ascends along the mountainside. While the roadbed is good, at mile 4.5 it may be a bit off-camber, meaning the vehicle will tilt toward the downhill side. Less than a mile farther the drive brings you to the edge of a huge lava flow. A good pullout to take in the view is just up ahead, at a switchback.

From here you’ll just continue to climb. At mile 7 [N36°56.508′ W118°20.302′], on the left, are the diggings of the Valley View Mine. The shelf driving ends (temporarily) a half-mile farther, and the road bends southwest into the mountains. From here you will have terrific views into Armstrong Canyon, your destination.

Mile 8.1 [N36°56.705′ W118°20.552′] should bring you to the site of Sierra View Mine and a three-way junction. The right branch goes to a knoll with a fabulous view from just over 8,000 feet. The little-used left goes to some diggings. Take the middle road, clearly the most heavily used branch. It continues directly into Armstrong Canyon.

By mile 8.5 you will be back on a shelf road again. You may encounter a particularly tight spot where boulders may be taking up a portion of the road. (My 4Runner and a friend’s Land Cruiser-based Lexus LX450 squeezed through.) The road ends at mile 9 [N36°56.789′ W118°21.219′], at a primitive campsite sheltered by tall pines. You’ll see an old ore car and other relics of the mine workings here.