It was 9 am and the temperature was in the mid-90’s when we pulled off the highway at the start of the Swansea-Cerro Gordo Trail. The broad expanse of the Owens Lake lay to the south and the rugged slopes of the Inyo Mountains rose to the north.
Before the water wars of the early 1900’s, Owens Lake and the surrounding valley supported a thriving agriculture and mining population. As the Los Angles area grew, water was diverted from the eastern Sierra Nevada watershed and the Owens Valley to satisfy the thirsty population of the Los Angles Basin. Soon, the Owens Lake was reduced to a dry, dusty flatland. By the late 1990’s, a settlement was reached that reduced the diversion of water from the eastern Sierra Nevada and the Owens Valley. With water flows returned to the Owens River, pools of water were beginning to collect in the once dry lake. The once dry lake was now a patch-work of various colors in the morning sun.
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We aired down and headed up the dry, dusty trail leading up a rocky canyon into the Inyo Mountains. This canyon was an important part of the early history of the Owens Valley.
The Inyo Mountains separates the Saline Valley and Owens Valley. The Saline Valley was the source of salt that was mined and exported to market in the cities of southern California. The salt was transported by tram suspended by cables from near sea-level in the Saline Valley over the 9,200 foot ridge of the Inyo Mountains and down to waiting barges for a trip across the Owens Lake for further transportation to market.
Remnants of the elaborate engineering feat, last used in 1930, remain. The drive up the canyon passes a series of wooden towers that supported the cables and salt laden tram buckets. While some of the massive wooden towers remain standing, most have been reduced to piles of wood due to the harsh weather conditions.
The trail follows the canyon’s twists and turns as it steadily climbs in elevation. High clearance four wheel drive is required for travel on this trail. The trail provided a great opportunity to test my new transmission and transfer case combination. An NV-4500 and Rubicon 4:1 had replaced the stock tranny and T-case of my 1994 YJ, providing a wide range of gear selection.
One short, steep solid rock waterfall provided an opportunity to experience the 6.34 low gear with 4:1 reduction as the YJ idled up the slope. On other sections with steep climbs and loose rock, 2nd or 3rd gear provide plenty of torque with minimum engine RPM, making for an opportunity to enjoy the scenery.
And, I had the opportunity to experiment with the added feature of using the low range of the transfer case without having 4x4 engaged. As the ’94 YJ is within the series with the vacuum operated Central Axle Disconnect, when installing the Rubicon 4:1, another modification was required. In that upgrade, I installed a Posi-Lock manual cable to engage the 4x4 operation of the front Dana 30 axle as a replacement for the vacuum operated switch. This option provides a transfer case assisted gearing without full 4x4 drive engaged.
As the driver’s side of the front axle is always coupled to the transfer case, you have one down-side to this option. There is an irregular pull felt in the steering wheel under power. Over all, I found the wide range of gearing options a positive effect and the optimal solution was to engage the 4x4 lockup and use the full range of gears available through the three positions on the transfer case.
As the elevation increased, the temperature began to decrease and Pinion pines began to replace the desert scrub vegetation. The steady ascent leveled off at the 9,000 foot level into a broad sagebrush covered flat.
Once arriving at the high elevation flat, there are incomparable views to enjoy. To the west is the rugged Whitney Portal featuring Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. To the south is a grand view of the Owens Lake and surrounding Owens Valley. And, for an added treat, when parked at the ridge crest, to the east lies the Saline Valley.
The ridge crest point features views of the Saline Valley and the Whitney Portal. That was the lunch stop for the day. On other trips, it has been the overnight camping spot. No matter what time of day, the views from that spot are spectacular.
The ridge crest does feature the tram shifting station. At this point, salt laden tram buckets shifted from the cable system pulling them from the Saline Valley to a cable system lowering them to the shore of Owens Lake and waiting barges.
In 1974, the caretakers cabin was included on the list of National Historic Register Sites. Since that time, Bureau of Land Management has worked with volunteers to first stabilize the cabin and then the long process of restoring it to original condition. Now, work is progressing on the tram station to preserve a piece of the important history of the region.
After lunch and many photographs, it came time to move on; next stop was Cerro Gordo. An important point to note is the Swansea-Cerro Gordo Trail and the high elevation flats are surrounded by wilderness areas. This important recreation destination is part of an old mining district that was carved out of the California Desert Protection Act. Access to and through the area has been retained for motorized vehicles.
The area is rich in history and offers many views of the rugged desert mountains. It is a site worth visiting time after time.
For more information about Cerro Gordo, see “Where in the Hills is Cerro Gordo?”
Download GPS Track Logs for the Cerro Gordo-Swansea Trail: