Buttermilk and the Tungsten Hills

            One thing about visiting Bishop,California is there is no lack of recreational opportunities, whatever they may be, in every direction out of town. Not only are there excellent places to hike, but the area is popular with climbers, equestrians, Off Highway Vehicle lovers, mountain bikers, hunters and fishermen, photographers, research people and many more.

            Two areas that have become well known in recent years with climbers and OHV enthusiasts are the Tungsten Hills and the Buttermilk country.  I lump these two recreation areas together, because they adjoin each other.  The Tungsten Hills is a premier off road and motorcycle playground, and Buttermilk is the home territory of the young Boulderer, who comes from all over the world to climb there.  Buttermilk and the Chalk Bluffs on the Volcanic Tableland are the two most frequented places to climb for the past fifteen years. These two areas are totally separate from the Sierra Crest and have their own ecosystems that are high desert and fragile.

            The Tungsten Hills was an area where cowboys, sheepherders and miners roamed before the steel hardener called Tungsten was discovered and heavily mined during WWI. Not much is left of the small mining district except rusty cans, old mill foundations and broken shards of glass.  Some of the deposits that were removed created huge holes in the earth which dot the hills. 

            Near the entrance to theTungsten City Rd.is a housing area called Rocking K ranch.  This area was developed back in the 60s, and is where the elite of Bishop meet the fleet.  Such notables as Dave Mc Coy, the creator of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, and Bob Tanner, the owner of Reds Meadow resort, built their homes there.  It is a beautiful place that they made an oasis out of in the high desert of  Bishop.

            Dave McCoy was an all around man and still is with his photography adventures and his photo blog.  One of Dave’s loves when he wasn’t busy working up on the ski hill was to ride dirt bikes with his buddies.  They would go right out of his house and actually made most of the motorcycle trails that exist in the Tungsten Hills today.  Now in his nineties, Dave and his wife Roma still venture out in the Hills in their Rhino.

            As things began to tighten down because of more riders and resource damage, BLM specified a trail system in the Tungsten Hills that includes all OHV users and all levels of ability.

            For the most part the OHV trails are sandy and travel through areas of boulders and fantastic granite rock formations.  There are few trees in that area, and it is rocky and stark with deeply cut washes.  There are small stream crossings and numerous mining sites accessed by a network of roads. Most of the really dangerous mine shafts have been fenced for public safety, but there are still some that cannot be seen until one is right on top of them. Those are the super dangerous shafts that you do not want to approach to look down or dare to let your dog near.

            From every vantage point and from on top of a knob like Tungsten Peak, elevation 5,951, the Sierra Crest looms large in the background. Mt.Tom at 13,652 feet and Basin Mt. at 13,181 feet dominate the horizon.

            All mining activity has ceased and much of it has been cleaned up by the Forest Service and BLM.  In between the maze of roads and trails one can walk for miles through strange and wonderful natural areas.

            Although the Buttermilk area off Hwy 168, not far out of Bishop, adjoins the Tungsten Hills, it is totally different and has beautiful granitic rock formations and huge boulders left over from the glaciers.  The Pinyon and Jeffrey trees with the interesting rock formations, orange and white sand, and majestic views of the Sierra all combine to make the place seem enchanted.

            Naturally, it would become one of the most popular areas in the country, if not the world, to climb boulders.  It wasn’t always so and thirty five years ago, nobody was out there, except the last stockmen and miners.  Logging had gone on in locations above Buttermilk as far back as the 1890s, and they, along with the Nevada Power Company, made the old roads.  When bulldozers were invented in the 1920s, the roads that we use today were constructed.  Before that it was horse drawn graders in places where there was no rock.  Otherwise, all the rock had to be removed by hand, and some of the old wagon roads are still intact near the housing area called Starlight.  They are really fun to follow and look for the old purple glass and cans.

            When the local Bishop climbers started writing and posting on the internet about the wonders of Bishop and what a great new area it is to climb, people came from all over like it was the new Haight Ashbury of the rock climbing world.  Many of them stayed, started climbing schools and guide services, and raised families. More climbers continue to come each year, and the place is more popular than ever with the young adults.

            What is really nice about the whole deal is that all the camping is dispersed and free.  There are numerous side roads along creeks and near meadows, like Sharps Meadow that have excellent camp sites.  It is a mix of Forest Service land, BLM, and Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power, and unless it says no camping, it’s okay.  All that is needed is a California Campfire Permit which can be obtained at any forestry office and is good for a year.  Since Buttermilk is in the foothills of the Sierra, it snows less and is warmer.  People climb out there most of the winter, but summer is just too hot. At that point everyone has to retreat up high into the mountains.

            For the hiker these areas offer many places to explore far from any of the other user activities.  Many spots have burned in the last thirty years, but in between, are dense patches of brush that are difficult to walk through.

            The area has many springs and sloping meadows where cattle grazing once dominated.  Creeks cut through deep canyons filled with immense Jeffrey trees and Cottonwoods.

            Evidence of Native Americans is everywhere to be seen in the form of obsidian flakes left over from ancient hunting forays. 

            Small pockets of hard rock mining are tucked away and hidden in odd places one would never expect.  Some mining sites they packed mules up to and blasted to create a shaft.  Other sites were accessed by bulldozer from the 30s until the 70s, when mining on the Inyo National Forest began to become more restrictive.

            When one looks up at the Sierra Crest from Buttermilk, old mining roads that the bulldozer operators made are visible in incredibly steep places.  Those men were truly fearless, but accidents did happen, and some lost their lives.

            Next time you are cruising Hwy 395 through Bishop, drive upWest Line St.about 8 miles to the Buttermilk turnoff.  The Tungsten Hills can be reached off Ed Powers Rd, about 5 miles north of Bishop.

            Every now and then the residents of Bishop are treated to a spectacular show during storms when the Buttermilks are lit up with sunlight and a rainbow, while everything around them is dark and foreboding.

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2 Responses to “Buttermilk and the Tungsten Hills”

  1. tony Says:

    benn in bishop since 1976 but I have never seen that hard rock hole. Care to divulge its location?
    Thanks for the website

    • windyscotty Says:

      Tony, That mine hole is up the Buttermilk Rd. and all the way around to the south in a separate canyon. A dirt road goes near it, but you have to hike up to it a little way. Try looking on a sat map for mine works. Good luck!

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