It's hard to miss the town of Independence when taking a road trip on scenic Highway 395 that runs from Los Angles to Reno, Nevada on the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains because the highway goes right through downtown Independence. Independence is a fantastic place to be on the 4th of July. The entire town celebrates in a massive festivity.
The Winnedumah Hotel is now a cozy bed and breakfast with an absolutely gorgeous view of the Inyo Mountains that are on the western side of the Owens Valley. This country inn has been serving visitors since 1927 and has many beautiful period pieces displayed in the lobby. A bronze plaque above the fireplace in the lobby tells the tale of the Winnedumah Monument that this hotel is named after.
This is a very zoomed in picture of the famous Winnedumah Paiute Monument that I took from the steps of the Eastern California Museum in Independence. The monument is a granite monolith that impressively stands 60 feet high and 40 feet in diameter on the top of a ridge on the Inyo Mountains just above Independence.
The legend is that the Paiute Indians were overcome by an enemy Indian tribe with a much larger force and they were forced to flee into the Inyo Mountains. The Paiute medicine man, Winnedumah, went to the top of the mountain and prayed to Taupee, the God of the Paiutes, for the safety of his people. The Great Spirit responded by causing a giant thunderstorm to appear out of nowhere. When the mountain was struck with lightening, the medicine man was turned into the giant stone monolith. When the enemy tribe had seen this result, they fled the Owens Valley and never returned.
Serious hikers can visit the monument up close but it is a good day's hike through some very rough and steep terrain.
The historic Inyo County Courthouse is another notable building right on the highway that has an interesting history behind it too.
Inyo County was formed in 1866 and the first county building was the home of a prominent Independence citizen, W. A. Greely. This historic Courthouse that stands today is actually the fourth building that has been used as a Courthouse. The first Courthouse, built in 1868 was reduced to a pile of rubble by the 1872 earthquake. The second Courthouse was destroyed by a fire in 1886. The third Courthouse, built in 1887, became too small for county business.
The beautiful and stately Inyo County Courthouse that stands today was built in 1921. A public library inside the Courthouse is free to the public and has an impressive array of books on the Owens Valley.
Mary Austin, author of book "The Land of Little Rain", was a famous Independence resident. This book is perhaps the best descriptive work of the California desert land ever to be written. The Owens Valley sits in a rain shadow cast by the Sierra Nevada. Water wars between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley that have been going on since the early 1900s have completely drained the Owens Lake and intensified the natural water shortage. Mary Austin's house is preserved today near the Eastern California Museum.
Owens Valley is a geologic graben: a block of land between two vertical faults. The 1872 Lone Pine earthquake was one of the largest to ever strike California. The exact magnitude is unknown, but damage reports and the geologic evidence leads researchers to believe that the earthquake was roughly a 8.0 magnitude or greater. A fault scarp from this earthquake can be seen off of the road where the land takes a dip of more than 15 feet.
Violent volcanic activity left its mark too. Big Pine Volcanic Field has impressive cinder cones like this one, called Red Mountain, as well as miles of black basaltic lava flows.
The high mineral content of the soil paints the Inyo Mountains pretty pastel colors.
The diversity of the land, the interesting historical stories behind the settlements, and the magnificent mountains surrounding the Owens Valley, make Highway 395 an ideal location for a road trip in any season.