Eastern Sierra, California

Inyo County, California

Lower Rock Creek Rd

RIDE IT on a PASHNIT TOUR

13 Miles - Length
Inyo- COUNTY

Good, tar snakes in some portions - PAVEMENT
several hairpins, decreasing radius - CURVES

Bishop - GAS

CLICK FOR MORE INFO

Quick Ride: Short side road running alongside Highway 395 in Inyo County

It's not a shortcut, it's a shunpike.

Admittedly, I didn’t know what the word shunpike even meant; riders don’t talk like that. Hey, I know this shunpike, follow me. You got it Bill, let’s ride! A shunpike is a side road used to avoid the toll on or the speed and traffic of a superhighway. No tolls out here in the high desert, but you may want to know about any road that can be used to avoid traffic on a superhighway.

Lower Rock Creek Rd is a 13-mile diversion north of Bishop that parallels the main highway. Won’t get you there faster, but it will add some fun curves to your otherwise bland ride up Highway 395. While 395 is intensely scenic, especially when there is snow on the nearby peaks, it’s hand on hip long and often bone straight running the width of the nation from Mexico to Canada.

You can find Lower Rock Creek Rd 8 miles north of Bishop when headed northbound. You’ll need to be watching for it as the road is labeled Pine Creek Rd and requires crossing the southbound lane of the highway to reach the west side of 395. Sign here (3 Miles) for Rovana, a small subdivision several miles to the west that used to be a company town for the nearby mine.

 

Rovana was built in 1947 when the US Vanadium corporation acquired the Foreman Ranch near the base of Pine Creek Canyon and built a company town to house those who worked at the nearby Union Carbide mine. By the early 1950s, 135 homes had been built all on streets that were the names of states matching the letters of Vanadium. Virginia, Arizona, Nevada, Alabama, Dakota, Idaho, Utah and Montana round out the street names. The town name comes from "Ro" for Round Valley and "vana" for US Vanadium.

Cutting hay turn of the century, Round Valley Watterson Ranch near Bishop, CA

Pine Creek Rd is paved for 10 miles to an abandoned Tungsten mine at the base of the Sierra Range at the 8000 ft level. The Union Carbide Tungsten Mine began operation in 1937 and operated through 1990. Tungsten is a heavy metal used to make things harder, it is super dense and almost impossible to melt.  Tungsten is used in hardening drill bits, munitions and heavily used in light bulb filaments since its melting point is well above 6000 degrees.

S-curves near Sherwin Summit on Lower Rock Creek Rd

More than 400 people once worked at this mine and were housed at Rovana and Bishop. The Union Carbide Tungsten mine was known as an upside down mine. Tunnels at the base of the Sierra Nevada went 2-1/2 miles straight level into the mountain range and then extended upwards. Elevators lifted the miners up 2700 feet, literally into the center of the mountain, then pulling the ore down, rather than tunneling deep into the earth like most gold mines in the Sierra Foothill Mother Lode regions.

 

Ore was then dropped into vertical shafts over 1400 feet high where the rock tumbled down a hole deeper than the Empire State Building is tall. The ore was then processed to extract the tungsten which resembles a white sugary substance when refined.

1960s film made about Tungsten mining at Pine Creek Mine

Pine Creek Tungsten mine was built inside this mountain

By1942, The Pine Creek Mine was the largest producer of tungsten in the United States. Currently, the Pine Creek Mine is attempting to reinvent itself as a hydroelectric source, generating power from the water that accumulates inside the mine and has been battling the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for 20 years.

The dual sports will use Pine Creek Rd as an access point to the Sierra Range. However, to stay on pavement, and the shunpike, make an immediate turn north onto Lower Rock Creek Rd / Old Sherwin Grade. The 13-mile length of Lower Rock Creek Rd is also a favorite with bicyclists so expect them along this route. It’s flat and straight at first although there are homes along this stretch and some small ranchettes.

 

Ranchers arrived to Round Valley in the 1860s, some of the original buckboard wagon roads still exist and are slowly being reclaimed by nature. After this stretch of Highway 395 was completed in the 1970s, it replaced Lower Rock Creek Rd, thus the shunpike. Several mountain streams converge here, and join at Round Valley Ranch. The Round Valley Watterson Ranch was a ranch active during the turn of the century with cattle and sheep. As the mountain streams converged, they provided a green fertile plain juxtaposed against the high desert pinyon-juniper-sagebrush that surrounds at this 4600 ft level. The original fences built a century ago made of stone for the livestock are all still there.

Round Valley, S-curves on Sherwin Grade

This relatively straight section lasts for 5 miles until the road reaches the tiny community of Paradise, not be confused with the Paradise that the Camp Fire burned down (in six hours) in 2018 in the Sierra Foothills above Chico. This Paradise is a tiny community of 150 with the historic Paradise Resort restaurant that was built over the top of Rock Creek straddling over the top of the rushing water. Diners could eat their meals while listening to the rushing water beneath their feet.

 

Paradise Resort was originally a grouping of 17 stream side cabins along Lower Rock Creek. This mountain creek eventually joins with the Owens River. Originally built in the 1920s, the Paradise Resort restaurant was extended over the creek long before building inspectors figured out, yah, nope, you can't build stuff like that. The resort lasted over 80 years but has since closed while the current owner squabbles with the county to renovate the cabins into private homes.

This sweeping hairpin also contains a small parking area on the northwest side of the stream. This is the trailhead for the Lower Rock Creek mountain biking trail. A hiking trail that heads up this canyon for 9 miles along the canyon through aspen trees and has an elevation gain of 1300 feet. The trail does not follow along the edge of the full length of the creek however and at times climbs up the canyon wall. Ride 9 miles up the trail, then ride 9 miles back downhill. Note the north end of the trail is found one mile south of Tom’s Place.  Note hikers, mountain bikes and even horses may use this hiking trail.

Hiking trail through Rock Creek Canyon parallels this ride for 9 miles

The Sherwin Grade portion climbs in elevation through 10 delightful s-curves. Leading a tour group through this section one season we came in hot to a tight right hander. Leaning it deeper and sweeping round the turn, I glanced in my mirror and watched the rider behind me blow the corner and ride straight into the other lane unable to hold their line. This resulting in a quick Dad-talk with the rider later in the day, watch those decreasing radius corners. That same rider since went on to participate in many track days and their riding skill-level soon far-exceeded my own.

As the ride levels out, it reaches Swall Meadows Rd, a feeder road for another tiny high desert community of Swall Meadows. With an elevation of 6-7000 ft and half-way between Mammoth to the north, and Bishop to the south, this small grouping of 128 homes has no commercial development. The Round Fire in 2015 burned down 30% of the homes in the community.

Wagon tracks carved into ground between Paradise and Swall Meadows

At the top of the ride is the 6427 ft Sherwin Summit although it’s almost imperceptible save for a small dirt parking area on the west side of the road and a round top hill on the east. At the summit, Lower Rock Creek Rd descends into the Rock Creek Canyon to cross over the creek to the other side of the canyon switching sides and also crossing the aforementioned Rock Creek hiking trail along with another small parking area for hikers and mountain bikers.

 

Here the road switches gears sticking to the edge of the creek in the canyon for another 3 miles when it unceremoniously pops out of the canyon and rejoins Highway 395 at Whisky Canyon. (Wouldn’t you like to know how that canyon got its name?)

However, don’t give up so easy and join the hurried flow of traffic.

Hop on Highway 395 and exit 1 mile later. Tom’s Place is 1 mile north. Tom's Place Resort was originally built in 1917 by Hans Lof, originally operating as a gas station. A cookhouse, store and horse corrals were then added. Tom Yernby, purchased the rustic resort in 1923 and built the main lodge in 1924. The rustic resort features 1930s cabins, lodge rooms, a general store, cafe and bar, but no TV’s or wi-fi. Tom's Place is a popular spot for fisherman, campers, skiers, and folks just passing through. Open year round, seven days a week, the cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

 

Have the time, explore one of many spider roads into the Sierra Range like Rock Creek Rd which flows 10 miles up to Rock Creek Lake and a bit further up the road is the Little Lakes Valley Trailhead.

From Tom’s Place, stay on Crowley Rd for another 15-mile stretch of road through Aspen Springs to keep you off the main highway. This ride tops out at over 7200 feet riding out of Little Round Valley along with a drop in temperature compared to back in Bishop. At the north end of Crowley Rd, you’ll rejoin Highway 395.

So, if you’re ever in the area of Bishop, now you can say to your ride buddy, hey Bill, I know this shunpike, follow me.

Many bicycles along Lower Rock Creek - Crowley Lake Rd

Where to next?

At the north end of Crowley Lake Rd, Benton Crossing Rd is 2 miles north and another fun loop to make Highway 395 more interesting. It circles around Crowley Lake, then rejoins with Highway 120 near Benton Crossing. There are a lot of hot springs along this stretch of Benton Crossing Rd. (There is a geothermal plant over by Mammoth along 395.) You can return to Highway 395 only miles from where you started via Highway 120 East although this loop is 50 miles. Five miles north from Crowley Lake Rd is the entrance to Mammoth and Devils Postpile. A few more miles north and you’ll reach the east entrance to Yosemite NP over Highway 120 Tioga Pass.

Southbound on Lower Rock Creek Rd places you 10 miles from Bishop and 36 miles from Big Pine. The highlight in these parts is ride the roller coaster that is Highway 168 and run up to the top of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest to see 4000-year-old trees on a remote mountaintop. White Mountain Rd is also the highest paved road in California bumping over 10,000 feet as you approach the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Oldest tree here is 4852 years old which predates the Egyptian Pyramids by several hundred years and considered the world’s oldest known and confirmed living non-clonal organism.

 

Manzanar War Internment Camp is in-between Independence and Big Pine. You must visit if in the area.

 

Lower Rock Creek Rd - Photo Gallery

MORE INFO: Lower Rock Creek Rd

RIDE IT on a PASHNIT TOUR
13 Miles - LENGTH


Very good, tar snakes on the northern half - PAVEMENT
 several s-curves, decreasing radius, super-fun - CURVES

Bishop - GAS

Bishop, 1930s cabins at Tom's Place - LODGING

 7200 ft on Crowley Lake Rd - PEAK ELEVATION
 


GPS LOCATION
 37°21′49″N 118°23′42″W - Bishop
 37°33′41″N 118°40′52″W - Tom's Place

LISTED CONNECTING SIDEROADS:
Pine Creek Rd
Rock Creek Rd

MORE INFO:
Big Creek Tungsten Mine
Book: Mine in the Sky by Joe Kurtak
Pine Creek Hydroelectric Power Plan Application
Video:  Big Creek Tungsten Mine
Owens Valley History

Topo Maps

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Tim Mayhew has devoted nearly 30 years to photographing and writing about California roads riding 300,000 miles across North America. His tireless efforts on the California Motorcycle Roads web site have spread across the globe becoming the encyclopedic guidebook for motorcycle travel in California. As of 2021, Tim has been designing & leading professional motorcycle tours across California, Oregon & Nevada for 18 years.
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