Quick Ride: Remote loop at 7000 feet in the high desert Eastern Sierra
The must-ride detour
We all want something different from our rides. Some want endless curve; some want the thrill of a knee touching the road surface while smoothly arcing around delicious corners. Some want no speed limits that tracks offer, others want dirt trails with amazing scenery involving mountain tops. For yours truly, I want the middle of nowhere. As far from anything as I can get. The metric is if I break down or crash out here, no one will ever find me. Let’s go there.
Can you show me a place where I can ride at speed for an hour, and not see another soul, or at least very few other people? The middle of nowhere has some common themes, few people, no cities, no gas, no cops, no commercial ventures of any kind. Remove the tourists, the homeowners, the grind, and you’ve got yourself the perfect motorcycle ride. A temporary respite from the daily obligations of our lives. Can you show me such a place?
I think maybe I can. But to find such a place, you have to come with me to the Eastern High Sierra.
Benton Crossing Rd is a 30-mile diagonal stretch of high desert from Highway 395 near Mammoth to the old west mining town of Benton near the Nevada border. It’s out there, it’s remote, it has all the above, and you have no reason to be out here. There’s no people, and you’ll see few other vehicles, if any.
However, with all that being true, it’s exactly what you’re looking for. Riding along Highway 395, which stretches from Mexico to the Canadian border, one asks what else do you have around here? Ride all the out-and-back spider roads headed into the Sierra Range such as Whitney Portal Rd at Lone Pine, Onion Valley Rd at Independence, then visit Manzanar War Internment Camp. You should also ride up Highway 168 through the whoops to the Bristlecone Pine Forest on White Mountain Rd, then ride the shunpike of Lower Rock Creek Rd.
But it's not over. While headed north along Highway 395, next on the list of diversions off 395 is Benton Crossing Rd, a 50-mile loop that rejoins 395 only a few miles away from where you started. Won’t get you there faster, rather the opposite, it’ll add well over an hour to your journey. You can find this loop approaching the Mammoth Ski Area, instead of heading west towards Mammoth Lakes, turn east via a well-marked turn-off from Highway 395 at the Little Green Church.
Nearby at the summit 14 miles away is Mammoth Geothermal Complex power station harnessing geothermal activity beneath this ride. The power station sits near the center of the Long Valley Caldera, said to be one of the world’s largest calderas.
Animation of how a volcanic caldera forms, Long Valley Caldera is 20 miles wide
A caldera is similar to a sinkhole, essentially a giant hole or depression that results from a volcanic eruption, but on a much larger scale. Magma chambers are large pools of liquid rock beneath the earth’s surface. Calderas like the one we’re riding across are formed by the inward collapse of a volcano. Long Valley Caldera is considered one of the earth’s largest calderas, running 20 miles long and 11 miles wide, creating this broad valley that Benton Crossing Rd flows across. Ash from this eruption 760,000 years ago blanketed much of the western regions of the United States.
The Long Valley Caldera sits at 6,500–8,500 feet and extends across present day Lake Crowley, created in 1941 with the damming of the Owens River adjacent to Tom’s Place. The Long Valley Caldera was once filled with water and overflowed its rim 3000 feet high until the Owens River eventually cut a channel into the wall and emptied the caldera.
On the southwest corner of the caldera, a large lava dome formed, known today as Mammoth Mountain ski area, which reaches 11,059 feet. Mammoth Mountain is still considered volcanically active, out gassing CO2 on the southern flank near Horseshoe Lake, which has resulted in tree kills totaling 170 acres.
The most recent volcanic activity consisted of eruptions in the Mono-Inyo Craters along a 25-mile-long volcanic chain running north-south to Mono Lake. Highway 395 parallels this low range and many dual-sport trails penetrate throughout this volcanic range with a delightful array of dual sport destinations.
The Benton Crossing Loop circles around this ridgeline, although there are no paved roads into the range. However, the Mono-Inyo Craters includes a chain of at least 27 volcanic domes. The last volcanic activity was in 1980 when a series of earthquakes produced uplift in the area.
And here you are riding your motorcycle across this flat expanse, 760,000 years after the last major volcanic activity in the area, and you keep seeing signs for hot springs. What the nearby geothermal plant is tapping into is the magma chamber that still rests dormant beneath this region. The term is literal, referring to a large pool of molten rock estimated to be only 3 miles beneath the earth’s surface.
Long Valley Caldera- Benton Crossing Rd rides across the middle of it.
This entire ride circles around Glass Mountain Ridge, not to be confused with the other Glass Mountain in northeast California near the Oregon border. Although both sites refer to the same thing, a mountain of glass, more specifically obsidian rock. Mono County’s Glass Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in Mono County at 11,128 feet and found 20 miles southeast of Mono Lake. It can be reached by dual sports or UTVs.
Benton Crossing Rd begins at the Little Green Church located at the south end of the Mammoth Airport runway. The church doesn’t appear to have an active congregation, but is used for meetings and gatherings. As the Mammoth Airport eyeballs its future expansion plans, the Little Green Church is ‘in the way’, and so time will tell what will happen to the Little Green Church in the coming years. The airport spans 230 acres with a 7000 ft runway at an elevation of 7135 feet.
The Whitmore Recreation Area built in 2012 is located seven miles from the town of Mammoth and less than 1 mile from Highway 395. There is a polyurethane running track here, football/soccer field, one baseball and two softball fields. Across Benton Crossing Rd is the public Whitmore Swimming Pool, which is open to lap swimmers in summer months.
There are many hot springs along this ride such as Hilltop Hop Spring
The magma chamber heats the groundwater, causing it to boil and converting it to steam. The nearby geothermal plant uses this heat to power binary cycle power generators. Heat from the geothermal fluid causes the secondary fluid to flash to vapor, which in turn powers a turbine connected to a generator. Binary cycle power generators emit nothing into the atmosphere except water vapor and are known as a closed-loop system.
This magma also heats groundwater, causing it to boil, creating hot springs from the beginning to the end of Benton Crossing Rd. At the northeast terminus of Benton Crossing Rd is the tiny town of Benton, which is anchored by the Benton Crossing Lodge and the hot springs at the lodging facility. Steam escaping from the ground can also be viewed in Fumarole Valley and along Hot Creek. This site is east of the Mammoth Airport. There is a road on the north side of the runway. Hot Creek can also be accessed from Benton Crossing Rd. However, this route is dirt and suitable for the dual sports, or adventurous street bikes who don’t mind a bit of dust on the rims.
Whitmore Tubbs Rd is one mile east of the public pool. This gravel road connects to Owens River Rd at Hot Creek Crossing. Owens River Rd is a gravel road that circles north around Lookout Mountain all the way back to Highway 395 near Crestview. It also provides access to the Hot Creek Geological Site in the Inyo National Forest.
You can also access the Hot Creek Geological Site from the Mammoth Airport via Hot Creek Hatchery Rd (north end) which is paved for the first 2 miles, then the remaining 3 miles are gravel.
The magma chamber 3 miles below the surface powers this creek, which is boiling. Ground water percolates deep underground, become superheated and pressurized, then rises back up to the earth’s surface. Hot Creek is known for geysering or water occasionally shooting up from the ground as high as six feet.
Hot Creek Recreation Site
This shooting water can be intermittent, unpredictable, and sometime produces an audible popping sound. Hot Creek Geological Site has been closed in previous years when the site became too geologically active and unpredictable. After 2016, the activity relaxed and visitors were allowed back to view the site. If you’re busy zipping up and down Highway 395, you’d likely never know this volcanically active site is even here, a few miles off the main highway.
Benton Crossing Rd after the turnoff for Owens River Rd heads past the town dump into a smoothly arced turn over the Owens River past Brown’s Owens River Campground. The Owens River, which has a length of 183 miles, is fed by Sierra Nevada snow melt and flows south running parallel to the Sierra Range all the way to Bishop, on through Lone Pine and to Owens Lake where virtually all of this water is siphoned off and piped to Los Angeles providing 30% of the water Los Angeles needs.
Hot Creek Recreation Site
As Benton Crossing Rd circles around Crowley Lake, the road performs nearly a complete circle headed first northeast, then southeast, then due south and my brain becomes confused as the sun is in the wrong place in the sky above, this rotation always disorientates me every time I ride this distance along the lake. These are wide open stretches of road here with mountain peaks to the east to accompany the ride. Several dirt feeder roads run down to the edge of Lake Crowley.
Long Valley at the edge of Crowley Lake
At Layton Spring Rd, the ride turns due east, the sun returns to the right place in the sky, and the ride begins a steady climb in elevation through 7000, then 7200, then through the 7400 feet level into a narrow canyon along with some welcome curves that beg for speed.
The giveaway to the elevation change is pines begin to appear along with Owens Gorge Rd at the top of this low rise. A small sign for the Waterson Divide marks the summit of 7525 ft. Owens Gorge Rd at the summit connects due south to the dam (built in 1941) over Owens Gorge that dams the Owens River and created Crowley Lake. Owens Gorge Rd also connects back to Tom’s Place to Lower Rock Creek Rd. Too bad it’s not paved; it would save 10 miles of having to ride all the way around Crowley Lake to reach this ridge top.
Benton Crossing Road circles around the north end of Crowley Lake across the Owens River
Chidago Canyon Petroglyphs
As Benton Crossing Rd turns due north, Chidago Canyon Rd is an 11-mile dirt road eastward (video left) through a narrow rock canyon to the other side of the range to the Chidago Canyon Petroglyphs. The Chidago site contains about 100 petroglyphs. These differ from pictographs as petroglyphs are chipped into the rock rather than painted on. Thought to be carved into the rock 8000 years ago, petroglyphs like these are found throughout the Southwestern Great Basin as far east as Arizona.
Some petroglyphs are recognizable as deer, bighorn sheep, human figures, and birds. Other symbols include lines, grids, and concentric circles in different configurations.
When settlers in the late 1800s found these Petroglyphs, they carved their own Petroglyphs with names and dates as early as 1894 into the rock.
If you are on a street bike, better planning would have you riding up Highway 6 from Bishop to Chidago Canyon Rd to get a much closer range to the petroglyphs. From Highway 6, you can reach the site 3.6 miles to the west and northwest of Chalfant Valley.
Running alongside Banner Ridge (8400 feet) on a dead run north, the Wildrose Summit at 7650 ft is barely perceptible as the ride flows over the summit and continues the northerly trek towards Benton, then peaks again at 7600 feet and abruptly drops into Wildrose Canyon dropping several hundred feet through a hairpin, then into a long straight 5 miles through Kelty Canyon to reach Benton Crossing Rd at the base of Benton Range.
Chidago Canyon Petroglyphs
At the Benton Crossing – Highway 120 East junction, Benton Hot Springs is 3 miles away, while Benton is another 4 to the east. Benton is tiny, maybe 250 people on a good day, but there is gas here and Benton Hot Springs will always provide a touristy element to this tiny ranching town that once held 5000. As with most mining towns, the run ended when the gold and silver played out by 1890. The railroad reached Benton in 1883 helping the town to survive instead of becoming a ghost town when the mining ended.
Wildrose Canyon from the summit
The Nevada state line is six miles away. Both Iron Butt rides I’ve done across Nevada included a pre-planned stop in Benton for gas as this is the only gas/food/lodging for a 30-mile radius. Bishop is 34 miles to the south from Benton, and Tonopah, Nevada is 81 miles to the east if headed into the wide-open spaces of Central Nevada.
Return to Highway 395 to complete your loop via Highway 120 East to Mono Lake, which is another of our all-time favorite stretches of road.
Overall, this detour off Highway 395 is 68 miles as a loop, with Benton Crossing Rd comprising 30 miles of that, but I plan it into my ride every time I’m running up or down Highway 395. If finding the middle of nowhere is what you seek, Benton Crossing Rd has that in spades.
Where to next:
Northbound along Highway 395, plan Benton Crossing into your day, well-worth the detour off 395. Headed into Nevada eastbound, connect with Highway 94 north or make for Tonopah to check out the Clown Motel, the scariest motel in America, for those afraid of clowns at least. Benton Crossing Rd ends at Highway 120 East. Connect over the range to Benton 6 miles away (gas) or ride back to Mono Lake via Highway 120 East.
Southbound on Benton Crossing Rd places you near Mammoth Lakes and Devils Postpile NM, and the Hot Creek Geologic site. Benton Crossing Rd when it reaches Highway 395 is two miles north of Crowley Lake Rd – Lower Rock Creek Rd, a shunpike detour to keep you off the main highway. Also note the aforementioned Casa Diablo Mine Rd (dirt) cuts out the Lake Crowley portion and heads due south to Bishop. Bring knobbies. Further south is Manzanar War Interment Camp near Independence and White Mountain Rd - Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
If hot springs are your thing, and that’s why you’re in the region, there are quite a few. Do some homework on Wild Willy’s AKA Crowley Hot Springs, Hilltop Hot Spring, Hot Tub Spring, Crab Cooker Hot Spring, and Shepard Hot Spring, all locally found along Benton Crossing Rd.
While Benton Crossing Rd is the only paved road in the region, this is dual sport heaven, with dirt roads spidering off into the hills in every direction.
Don't miss the June Lake Loop - Highway 158.
Riding Benton Crossing Rd through Kelty Canyon
Benton Crossing Rd - Photo Gallery
MORE INFO: Benton Crossing Rd
Very good, tar snakes in some stretches - PAVEMENT
Relaxed, few - CURVES
Bishop, Benton, Mammoth, Lee Vining- GAS
Benton, Mammoth Lakes- LODGING
7650 ft - PEAK ELEVATION
37°49′09″N 118°28′35″W - Benton
LISTED CONNECTING SIDEROADS:
Owens River Rd (dirt)
Owens Gorge Rd (dirt)
Casa Diablo Mine Rd (dirt)
Chidago Canyon Rd (dirt)