Published: October 2009
Next Weekend: Wild Roads
Sierra Waterworks
Text by David Hanson

Wedged between two of California’s great ranges (to the west, the Sierra Nevada; to the east, the Inyo Mountains), the Owens Valley is a lush catchment basin buttressed by the tallest peaks in the lower 48. It’s also a high desert oasis—or at least it was until Los Angeles began diverting the valley’s water almost a century ago. (The ensuing California Water Wars inspired movies like Chinatown and books like Cadillac Desert.) But recently, thanks to a long-overdue water restoration program, the Valley has started to look a lot like its old self, and the fall colors offer reason enough to get reacquainted. Try fly-fishing the clear-running Owens River or sport climbing a sunny crag, then soak in natural hot springs near Mammoth Lakes—the best are just off Warm Springs Road—while basking in the alpenglow of the big peaks.

Day 1

Mount Whitney looms over the tiny town of Lone Pine, a favorite location for Hollywood Westerns (most famously, the Lone Ranger series). Check out the schedule for the Old West film fest (Oct. 9–11; before heading to the Alabama Hills for a hike—bouldering routes and big vistas included. Pick up a trail map and get debriefed at Lone Pine’s gear shop, Elevation ( At day’s end, check in to a cabin at the Glacier Lodge in Big Pine (from $110; The flowery curtains and vinyl seats will take you back at least half a century. All that’s missing, Kemo Sabe, is Tonto.

Day 2

Meet Sierra Mountain Guides’ Neil Satterfield at the Black Sheep Espresso Bar in Bishop ( and follow him 20 minutes to the Owens River Gorge. The canyon boasts big features on volcanic tuff—great for any climber, with 5.6 routes all the way up to nasty 5.13d overhangs (full day, $175; Post-climb, rest weary tendons in Mammoth’s hot springs.

Day 3

"The fall is my favorite time to fish: fewer crowds, not as hot, and you have a great chance to see beautiful colors,” says Gary Gunsolley, owner of Brock’s Flyfishing Specialists. Spend the morning dropping flies for Owens River browns and rainbows with Gary’s outfit, thankful for that small ribbon of clear flow left by L.A. city officials (half day, $300; Your night’s lodging: the Old House at Benton Hot Springs (doubles from $99; Relax in one of the spring-fed redwood hot tubs and watch the moon rise over the White Mountains.