As the crow flies, it is only about a hundred miles from the place with the lowest elevation in the continental US – Badwater Basin in Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level to the highest point – Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at 14,505 feet.
We have been striking a delicate balance in terms of our travels between these two extremes. Death Valley even in May can become excruciatingly hot – the record high for May is 122 degrees F. But in May there can be snow and cold in the Sierras, and especially across highway 120 across the top of Yosemite National Park which we aren’t about to miss on our full timing adventure. Tioga Pass in Yosemite just opened on May 2 and has had some subsequent temporary closures since because of high elevation snowfalls. Even some of the hikes we were planning to take have been unattainable because of the Winter snow pack even though the snow pack this year is at very historic lows. So we are biding our time a bit, trying not to move too slowly through the areas that could become very hot and not move too quickly into the high altitudes.
Right now, the Owens Valley floor at about 4,000 feet above sea level is working for us. You likely haven’t heard as much about Owens Valley as you have the other great agricultural valleys of California like the Central Valley, the Imperial Valley, the Salinas Valley and others. And there is one big reason for that – water. The Owens Valley runs for several hundred miles between the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west and the Inyo and White Mountains to the east. There is actually a ton of snow melt that flows off of these mountains and into the Owens Valley. We have observed huge snowfalls occurring in the tops of these mountains even as we have stayed dry on the valley floor. But the water does not stay in Owens Valley. The water largely flows to the City of Los Angeles.
In the early 1900s, the city of Los Angeles was at the maximum population that its then water supplies could support. Without additional water, the city could not grow. The city came up with a plan to buy up huge tracts of ranch land in the Owens Valley and divert the water via an aqueduct from the Valley to the city. And when there isn’t sufficient runoff from the mountains, Los Angeles pumps the ground water out of the Valley to quench their thirsty residents. Because of this, there is only limited agriculture in the Owens Valley and the residents have to live largely off the tourist trade of Southern Californians. We have been somewhat saddened to think that when we have seen a mountain stream such as this one, the water is not flowing for the use of the residents of this valley, but is instead siphoned off to the big city.