Hunter Canyon


By: Steve Smith


It was with anticipation that a group of six BLM volunteers from Friends of the Inyo WSA and Desert Survivors joined with me for a descent of Hunter canyon. After all, this would Be an end of an era for us - our final exploration of all eight major eastside Inyo canyons. Since 1989, the other seven unexplored canyons (Daisy, Craig, Beveridge, Keynot, McElvoy, Pat Keyes, Cougar) had been descended during BLM volunteer wilderness study area inventories and only Hunter remained. For this exploratory, I was joined by Morgan Irby (a stalwart veteran of all eight canyon descents), Wendell Moyer, Tom Budlong, Narc Smith, Matt Webb, and Brian Webb.

The upper half of Hunter canyon had been evaluated several times during previous trips since it is easily accessible on an old bulldozer road. The long abandoned dozer road leaves the Inyo crest near the Burgess mine at 9,400' and follows the bottom of Hunter canyon down to within 1/4-mile of the Bighorn spring at 5,200'. I have heard that this road was built in the early l960"s to provide better access to the isolated Bighorn mine at 6,700' on the Hunter ridgeline. A register at roads end showed that a few 4-wd groups had made it to the end as recently as 1991. The few notations described the difficult winching it took to drive the steep, loose road.

The Lonesome Minor Trail

We started our backpack from roads end at the mouth of Hunter Canyon in Saline Valley. As usual for our initial canyon reconocdescents, we had plenty of rope and anchors for the waterfalls we were sure we would encounter. A fairly good trail starts from 1,780' as shown on the Craig and New York Butte 7-1/2 maps and winds up along the south side of Hunter Canyon before dropping down to Bighorn spring. This is one of the few Inyo trail segments which is shown on the new 7-1/2 maps. Unfortunately, the trail has to climb an extra 1,600' to 6,808' to bypass a cliff face before dropping down to Bighorn spring at 5,200'.

Like moat Inyo trails, this trail was constructed for: burros carrying heavy loads up to mines and millsites so does not exceed a 15% grade which is great for backpacking. This is the southern end of our 40 mile Lonesome Miner trail which extends all the way north to Pat Keyes Pass and down to roads end at Reward. At several points along the trail we had good views down into the bottom of Hunter canyon and could see plenty of thick brush and obvious flowing waterfalls. Our first day was short and we camped at a beautiful location at 4,060' in an area of historic mining. The miners have three wooden tent platforms built on a ledge overlooking Saline Valley. What a great campsite - with numerous mining artifacts and even ancient bedsprings for those not content to camp on level wooden flooring.

Descent From Bighorn Spring

On day two, we reached Bighorn spring at midday and explored its interesting millsite equipment with steam powered arrastre. At this point, we left the Lonesome Miner trail and started the 3,600' descent through lower Hunter canyon. As usual with the eastside canyons, we immediately encountered riparian vegetation with some stretches of thick brush and lots of sign of Bighorn sheep. We walked through one strange stretch with a thick patch of bamboo like plant which extended above our heads. In several areas we hit marsh like areas of stagnant water and everyone took turns enjoying the opportunity to sink into deep muck - what a mess that made.

The first rappel was encountered at 3,200'. It was 125' high with lots of flowing water creating a beautiful cascading waterfall. A short distance further at 3,020' we encountered our second rappel which was 35' high. At 2,880' we reached a 100' rappel and decided to camp at the top of the falls with its spectacular views down canyon. There were not many open spots for camping and we scattered about to scrap out small spots among the brush and rocks.

That night for the only time in my backcountry camping experience, I had problems with small mice. All night long, I was awakened by their moving around, running over my gear, and on one occasion, running across my hand. The periodic disturbance by mice did not bother me but I wondered if the excess of rodents might also be a harbinger of an excess of snakes - fortunately, I did not encounter any that night.

Success In Canyon No. 8

On day three, we went down rappel No. 3 which was 100' high and in two stages. From there, the lower canyon went fairly easy with just one short area of dense brush. we did an optional 4th rappel at 1,800' where there was a steep and wet 30' embankment. From there, a use trail lead out to the roadhead at the mouth of Hunter canyon at 1,780'.

As it turned out, the brush and waterfalls in Hunter canyon were fairly mild compared to the other canyons and Hunter turned out to be the easiest canyon to descend after Daisy which has a trail its entire length. That ended our initial exploration of the spectacular eastside Inyo canyons. Of course, the volunteers are wanting to go back to each canyon for some more detailed inventorying. We also want to check our leads on other potential trails to add to our growing trail network in the proposed Inyo Wilderness area.

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