Sierra Nevada just North of Bishop, California
Photo courtesy Lloyd L. Chambers
[Copyright 2005 Lloyd L. Chambers All rights reserved - ]

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bodie car
Ghost of the Past in Bodie

us 395
Page 1

Unless otherwise noted, all black & white Foto Cards are Frasher Foto Cards.

Dedication of the El Camino Sierra in 1910
(Photocard courtesy of Rich McCutchan)
el camino sierra el camino sierra

History of the El Camino Sierra

The modern highway system coursing north and south along the base of the eastern Sierras through Owens Valley and the Indian Wells Valley (IWV) has a rich and varied history. It was, as its origin, a trade route over the ages for resident and itinerant Native Americans and the confluence with the nearby Walker Pass route enabling trade with their brethren in the San Joaquin Valley and coastal regions.

The first Anglo-American to travel in this region may have been the famous mountain man Jedediah Smith in 1826. However the first recorded passage was by Joseph Walker in 1834 when he traversed Walker Pass from west to east, then turned north through the Owens Valley to rejoin his exploration party on the Humboldt River. Walker made additional crossings of the Pass in 1843 and 1845. The 1848 Mexican-American War, the 1849 gold rush, statehood for California in 1850 and the Comstock lode discoveries in 1859 in Nevada generated a flood

Jedediah Smith
1799 - 1831

Joseph R. Walker
198 - 1876

 owens valley
Southern end of Owens Valley - 1924.

owens valley

Southern end of Owens Valley - 1924.
flood of prospectors into the desert areas east of the Sierra Nevada mountains. By 1860 a wagon and stage road wound its way up from Los Angeles to Inyo country, crossing the IWV along the base of the Sierras, following the ancient trail.

The 1860's and 70's saw the passing of many prospectors through the Indian Wells Valley. Major silver and gold mines were established at Coso, Cerro Gordo, Panamint, Darwin plus others in the Inyo and Argus mountains. The north - south Los Angeles to Inyo road in western IWV was a principal "thoroughfare". The great silver mines at Cerro Gordo, high up in the Inyos, were having difficulty moving their bullion output to the major market in Los Angeles. In 1873 the freighter Remi Nadeau came to their rescue. He improved the roads and way-stations and moved the bullion down from Cerro Gordo, around Owens Lake to Olancha, then south on the Los Angeles-Inyo road through Little Lake, the Indian Wells Valley and Mojave to Los Angeles. This route became known as the historic

gas pumps
Sentinels of days gone by.
"Bullion Road". In reverse, he carried up a great volume and diversity of supplies from Los Angeles to the Inyo mines. This trade: bullion down, supplies up, was of enormous economic value in transforming Los Angeles from a dusty pueblo to a thriving, growing city.

The next big boost to the "Bullion Road" was the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 1908 - 1913. The line of the aqueduct down from the Owens Valley generally followed the route of the Bullion Road, which served as the principal route for movement of material and personnel. Improvements were made to the road (but still dirt and dusty) and the construction of a railroad from Mojave up to Owens Valley greatly helped the logistic efforts. At the same time came the automobile!

el camino sierra
Along the El Camino Sierra in Independence - 1911.

nadeau mule team
Remi Nadeau moving freight along the Bullion Road, as this section of the El Camino Sierra was aptly referred to for a brief period of time, from Cerro Gordo to Mojave and Los Angeles.
[Photo - Mrs. Jack Gunn]

flying a

casa diablo
El Camino Sierra at Casa Diablo Hot Springs.
In response to pressures from automobile owners for better roads, the State of California floated a bond issue in 1919 for highway construction. This included improvements of the route from Los Angeles to Bishop. The Lancaster to Mojave segment was paved in 1922. Other segments north in IWV to the Inyo County line were paved in 1927 and 1929. The final segment, through Red Rock Canyon, was paved in 1931. This stretch from Los Angeles to the IWV where it merged into U.S. Highway 395 near the Inyo County line was designated State Highway 23. It generally followed the old Bullion Road, with some realignment in the IWV to more favorable terrain. In this same time frame, highway improvements were continuing on U.S. 395 up into the Owens Valley to Bishop. There the road split; Highway 395 to the northwest, U.S. Highway 6 starting and continuing north into Nevada and points beyond. In 1937 U.S. 6 was extended south from Bishop to Los Angeles and cosigned with Highways 395 and 23. With these highways now paved, traffic through the IWV increased. Further improvements were made to deal with heavy rain runoffs from cloudbursts in the Sierra canyons. The flood from Indian Wells and Sand
Canyons in 1945 had severely damaged the Freeman Wash bridge and sections of the roadway. The establishment of the U.S. Navy's major research and development center at China

el camino sierra
The El Camino Sierra along the east face of the
Sierra Nevada - 1927.
Lake in 1943 and growth of Ridgecrest generated more traffic. In 1958 and 1960 highway improvements included a new bridge and culverts in Red Rock Canyon culminating in a 4-lane roadway and elimination of all creaked crossings.

In 1963: changes in signage. U.S. 6 was shortened back to Bishop. U.S. 395 stayed the same. State Hwy. 23 was redesignated as State Hwy. 14 which now starts at its connection point with Hwy. 395 at Brady's Station just NW of Inyokern and runs 117 miles south to its junction with Interstate 5 in Los Angeles County. Further highway improvements were made in the ensuing years to where the present line of Hwys. 395/14 through the IWV is a mixture of 4-lane expressway and 2-lane road.

What does the future hold? The 2-lane segment of Hwy. 14 in the IWV starts at the north end of Red Rock Canyon where it transitions into a 2-lane road and runs 16 miles north to one mile beyond the Hwy. 178 Inyokern turnoff and becomes a 4-lane expressway again. CalTrans proposes to upgrade this 16 mile 2-lane segment into a 4-lane expressway. Engineering, archaeological and historic surveys are underway, some completed.

The El Camino Sierra south of Bishop - 1927.

Presumably money is in the pipeline. When will construction start? Answer: When we see the exhaust from bulldozers and the dirt flying.

by John Di Pol

Ref: SR 14 Improvements, Kern County - Historic Resources Evaluation Report. CalTrans, 2002.
Archaeological Evaluation, SR 14 Project, CalTrans, 2006.
Silver Seekers, Remi Nadeau, 1999

lone pine
Lone Pine, California - 1928.

keeler road
Winter in Owens Valley. Road north towards Keeler on east side of Owens Valley.

Points of Interest in Owens Valley

sherwin grade
Sherwin Grade leaving Owens Valley - 1927

sherwin grade
The El Camino Sierra ascending Sherwin Grade leaving
Owens Valley - 1927

rock creek inn
Rock Creek Inn, Owens Valley - 1931


tom's place cafe
Tom's Place Cafe & Store at the summit of Sherwin Grade

Whitmore Plunge
Whitmore Plunge just outside of Bishop on the
El Camino Sierra - 1937

Paradise Camp
Paradise Camp, Bishop, California


U.S. 395
Eastern Sierra Nevada along U.S. 395 from Owens Valley
[Photo courtesy David Henderson - copyright David Henderson]


Keough Radium Hot Springs  

Allie Robinson Pack Trains  

More El Camino Sierra


Aparejo Packing in the Sierra Nevada


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This page was last updated on 20 July 2016