The Lonesome Miner Trail
By: Erik Siering
The "Lonesome Miner Trail" is a route that traverses the rugged Inyo Mountains from Saline Valley to the Owens Valley, connecting historic, unmaintained foot paths built by miners to access remote mines and millsites. Customarily and more realistically done as a weeklong backpack, Bob Sumner and I condensed it into a very strenuous weekend. The longer timetable is advised, due to the effort and the route finding involved. A relaxed pace also allows for more exploration of the interesting abandoned mining sites. It was a memorable wilderness experience for us. The rugged scenery and solitude are remarkable. It made us appreciate the hardships that the isolated hardrock miners had endured, as we visualized their laden burro teams tracing the precipitous mountainsides.
This faint circuit rarely resembles a defined trail, and is often difficult to find and follow. Rock cairns and cut tree limbs are really the only markers; just seven nondescript BLM stakes are placed en route. It is essential to have foreknowledge of the approximate trail alignment, as the route is indistinct due to the brush, erosion, rockslides, and infrequent traffic. Planning with respect to the few water sources is also vital. The Inyos are a harsh desert mountain range, exhibiting temperature extremes in a largely dry habitat.
There is significant elevation gain and loss throughout. The south and north trailheads are at 1800 ft and 4000 ft, respectively. The route climbs steep ridges and drops sharply into canyons, fluctuating between 5100 and 9500 feet in elevation. From south to north, the Craig, Hunter, Beveridge, Keynot, and McElvoy Ridges and Pat Keyes Pass are crossed. Reliable spring water is found low at Bighorn Spring, Frenchy's Cabin, McElvoy Canyon, Keynot Well, and Pat Keyes Canyon. The water sources are usually heavily overgrown with willows, thistles, and thorn bushes.
We tread cautiously after encountering a fat, red rattlesnake (The Mojave Red?) at the Bighorn mill site. Coveys of quail also crossed our path. Pinyon pines at the higher elevations, above 7000 ft, provided pleasant terrain and shady relief. There are mining artifacts and ruins along the way, in particular at the Bighorn Spring and Mine, Beveridge, Keynot, McElvoy, and Pat Keyes Canyons. Scavengers have unfortunately removed many items from the most accessible site, at Beveridge. Primitive cabins are located at the Bighorn Mine, Frenchy's, Beveridge Ridge, and Keynot Mine. Uncertain of their current state and availability, we did not plan to rely on the lodging amenities. Visitors can sign in at the register boxes in the cabins and at major trail milestones.
Our trip began Saturday morning from Little Hunter Canyon in Saline Valley, and finished Sunday evening at Reward in Owens Valley. We had rescheduled repeatedly for more than a year as the weather and trail conditions, specifically heat and snow, made it difficult to coordinate our fast and lightweight outing. But after recent difficult day climbs, Bob and I were poised and felt this might even be a respite of sorts (!). The weekend was then uncomfortably warm when the forecast cloudy weather failed to materialize.
We set up the long car shuttle the prior evening, leaving Bob's truck at the Reward trailhead and driving south to Hunter Canyon Road, a mile north of the Saline Valley salt marsh. High-clearance vehicles are necessary for the rough dirt roads to both trailheads. The south trailhead abuts a flowing creek amid thick brush, featuring burros, loud amphibians and birds, and no-see-ums. Better to camp elsewhere overnight.
At a gap in the riparian vegetation, a large wooden BLM sign designates the trailhead. Currently there is no marker at Reward. As we learned, it is best to start in daylight since the trail climbing out of Little Hunter Canyon is difficult to discern in the predawn dark. We crossed the creek and followed the canyon west for about 0.5 mile, eventually ignoring a pair of errant mining spurs to the south. The correct path turns sharply up the ridge at a distinctive dry, white rock waterfall. The trail is then well trodden for three miles to a set of scenic tent platforms (3700'). Mining excavations are to the left. The sun had now risen, and we pressed on higher to beat the heat. The trail continues above, crosses Craig Ridge (6100') and shortly drops to the Bighorn Spring, where we arrived at 10:00.
Beyond the ruins, there is an opening in the brush to reach water. The trail to Hunter Ridge (8700') was faint, steep and hot. The clouds remained stubbornly absent as we ascended the slope. We continually drank water to keep hydrated. Bighorn Mine is situated midway (7400'), with extensive diggings and superb views. The one-room cabin, built in the 1930's, has been rehabilitated and features a concrete floor, a nice cast iron stove, and two bedsprings.
Descending from Hunter Ridge, we lost the trail to Frenchy's Cabin in a rockslide (6400'). We made our own way the last two hundred feet to the canyon floor. The trail proper contours westward to Frenchy's, which adjoins a lush, vigorously flowing spring. After filling up there on water, we headed down the narrow canyon to the Beveridge town site, squeezing through and above stands of dense brush. We paused by the enormous stamp mill for a well-earned break before our final uphill push of the day. The excellent, direct trail to the ridge begins west of the ore tram. We were at Beveridge Ridge Cabin (8350') by 19:30. The large, albeit disconcertingly leaning, cabin has a great reworked fireplace. We enjoyed our dinner in front of a roaring fire, as the full moon rose in the east. A plump mouse darted inquisitively across the mantelpiece into the woodpile.
Early Sunday morning, we passed through the Keynot Mine. The press, ore carts and an intact Allis-Chalmers bulldozer stand idled in place. We crossed the Keynot Ridge (7800') at an obscure trail junction. The view here of Saline Valley is panoramic. The holiday weekend campers were enjoying their morning soak au naturale at the Warm Springs.
The long, descending traverse to McElvoy Canyon crossed a number of confusing and irritating rockslides. We dropped from the trail early after rounding a prominent cliff band. This minimized our struggle with the brush down canyon, which is best averted on the right. Water is plentiful in McElvoy Canyon. There are numerous shafts and adits near the mill site, with colorful ore samples strewn about. We soon passed "The Beekeeper's" mine tunnel, which contained a stash of his bee-keeping equipment.
It was another steep and hot midday climb up McElvoy Ridge (7800'). Turning west, the mostly level ridge is nicely shaded by pinyon. The route to Pat Keyes Canyon winds north below Mt Inyo for two miles, dropping to cross the canyon at Pat Keyes Arrastres. Fortunately, there was still a trickle of creek water at a tight passage through the thicket.
This mill site supported ore extraction for the mine on the ridge above. The trail to the ridge begins just east of the ruins. It is occasionally ducked on the sandy lower slope, and becomes more pronounced on high. Pat Keyes Pass (9450') was attained at 18:00. The beautiful Sierra sunset faded as we rapidly descended to Reward. Bob had scouted this trailhead months earlier and was familiar with the terrain. This was useful, as it would have been hard to follow the faint track in the dark. We made it to Bob's truck and the many lovely, cold Tequiza beers awaiting us without resorting to our headlamps.
Our thanks to Steve Smith, the BLM Wilderness Staff Chief in the Ridgecrest office, who provided us with helpful maps and his trail description [The Desert Sage, January 19971. Further appreciation goes to Steve, Tom Budlong, the late Wendell Moyer, and all of the "Friends of the Inyos WSA," for their efforts to trace the route and to restore and maintain the cabins. Wendell explored the Inyos and the Saline Valley at length. After Wendell sadly perished climbing Ojos del Salado in Chile, his friends placed loving memorial plaques along the route in 1996; some of his personal effects grace the Bighorn Cabin.
Statistics: Approximately 40 miles and 17,500 feet gain total, class 1-2. Bob and I pursued a deliberate pace for 28 hours over two days, slowed up somewhat by the heat.
Day One: 16 miles and 10,900 feet, 13.5 hours to the Beveridge Ridge Cabin.
Day Two: 24 miles and 6,600 feet, 14.5 hours to the Reward trailhead.
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