Hiking in the Chalk Bluffs

One of the most beautiful things about living in the Eastern Sierra is that the hiking never stops. When the snow closes out the mountains to all but skiers and snowshoers, the hikers move out onto the desert expanse. The Chamber of Commerce always likes to say that a visitor to the Mammoth-Bishop area can fish, golf and ski all in one day. For example, a person can get up early to go fishing along the Owens River and follow that up by playing a round of golf at the Bishop Country Club. Then drive up to Mammoth before 1p.m. to get an afternoon lift ticket. There are so many other possibilities of things to do from hiking to riding dirt bikes to galloping horses. So how cool is that? Where else can you do all these fun activities and then some?

The Chalk Bluffs are located ten miles north of Bishop at the Pleasant Valley Reservoir turnoff on U.S. 395. This is where the huge hot ash flow roared down from the Mammoth caldera and ended up ten miles north of Bishop. Then, the Owens River cut a deep gorge down through the Volcanic Tableland to Pleasant Valley, where it became a flood plain at the base of the Chalk Bluffs.

This ash flow covered the old sea bed up to hundreds of feet thick and can be seen in profile in the Gorge. The chalk is way down on the bottom by the river. The Owens River meanders for about five miles at the base of the Bluffs and many trails go up to the rim from spots all along the road. Some go to climbing areas and some do not.

The drive along the river goes through an archeological treasure trove. Numerous petroglyphs, food grinding areas, rock shelters and hunting blinds attest to the fact that many thousands of people lived there in ancient times. There are probably more archeological sites in this area than most places in the nation. The same situation exists six or seven hundred feet up from the river on the rim of the Chalk Bluffs. The entire area is like one gigantic prehistoric food processing plant. And Sky Rock, the giant petroglyph panel that faces the heavens, is its center of the universe.

Things get really wild on the rim, and the area goes for miles through faulted rock cliffs, sand and pumice. The sharp rock can wear down a pair of boots in no time. It didn’t seem to bother the original inhabitants, who walked barefoot. The soles of their feet were as hard as leather. The Tablelands can be hell on a dog’s feet too, whether they are used to it or not. The sharp volcanic rock and heat can wear down a dog’s footpads quickly and cause a limp. It is always a relief to reach the sandy areas where it is similar to the beach at the ocean. It is so soft that you sink deep with every step.

For me, walking in the pure, buffed out sandy areas in the desert is like making first tracks in powder snow. It is a free feeling to become one with nature in that way. The repetitive and often monotonous nature of walking on tortuous rock for miles can be maddening. I like to zone out and run a song through my head over and over again. It can become like a meditation while walking.

The Volcanic Tableland that leads down to the Chalk Bluffs is one big drainage system. The stream beds that run through the solid Bishop Tuff rock are colorful in purple and lavender with strange formations and a sprinkling of petroglyphs. Just a little reminder that we walk in the footprints of the ancestors.

There are two temperatures in this high desert elevation of 4500-6000 feet: hot and cold. You can be sweating during the day and shivering at night. All the Paiute people had to keep them warm was a rabbit skin robe and a small fire in a rock shelter. Yet, they managed to survive the coldest temperatures, fiercest winds and snow. One winter it snowed so heavily in Bishop that it stayed on the ground for six weeks. When it finally warmed up enough to melt, the water formed small streams and cascaded over the Chalk Bluff cliffs. That is a most amazing sight to see in the desert, where it has been going on since the birth of the Volcanic Tableland so many hundreds of thousands of years ago. The only other time that this could happen would be during a flash flood in summer. Climate change is nothing new to this area, where it has been repeated throughout history.

Every once in awhile wildlife is spotted on the Chalk Bluffs, but most animals roam at night out there. I have seen hawks, eagles, ravens, deer, bobcats, coyotes, many lizards, a few rattlesnakes and the comical roadrunner. Roadrunners actually hunt for food up in the cliffs, and when startled, can soar like a grouse for hundreds of feet to the river below. No wonder Wiley Coyote has such a hard time trying to catch them.

Before I leave you here are a few desert driving tips that I have had to learn the hard way. Over and above all the regular maintenance and standard equipment on your vehicle such as a good jack: 1. Carry electrical tape in case of a hose leak. Tape the leak, crack the radiator cap and limp back under 35 mph. A spare fan belt can be a must. 2. Carry extra water to refill the radiator. 3. Make sure the spare tire has enough air in it. One small mistake like that could be your downfall. 4. Try to park on an incline facing downhill for standard transmissions, so you can roll down and pop the clutch, if the battery dies. 5. Always do the right thing in nature, have fun and stay happy along the highway of life.


3 Responses to “Hiking in the Chalk Bluffs”

  1. sharon Says:

    Great article! I, too, love wandering in the tablelands. Always an adventure, always some nuance to capture my eyes/ears.

    Please tell me the access point(s) to get to the ridge holding the magnificent Sky Panel? What is the most advantageous spot along Chalk Bluff Rd.? Can I get closer to the ridge on a road access?

    I would truly appreciate your guidance.

    Sharon Giacomazzi

  2. Motor Touring Round Valley - Bishop Visitor Information Center Says:

    […] flourished between 1910 and 1915. Looking to the northeast, you can see the Volcanic Tablelands and Chalk Bluffs, made up of Bishop Tuff and deposited there by a catastrophic event about 760,000 years ago when […]

  3. coffee later Says:

    coffee later

    Hiking in the Chalk Bluffs | Windyscotty's Blog

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