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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the California Sierra Nevada

By Mark Grossi

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California Sierra Nevada > Eastern Sierra > The Lee Vining Canyon Scenic Byway

The Lee Vining Canyon Scenic Byway

[Fig. 41(5)] Visitors can travel 12 miles from alpine meadows and tarns to sagebrush and pumice along the Lee Vining Canyon Scenic Byway. If someone is driving through Yosemite National Park on Tioga Road or Highway 120 to the east side of the park, it is not a long detour to see this glacial canyon. The drive is a breathtaking descent from the 9,945 feet at Tioga Pass to the 6,000-foot-elevation Mono Lake in the Great Basin.

The last glacier passed through Lee Vining Canyon about 13,000 years ago. Glacial scientists estimate its depth was 2,500 feet of ice. Lee Vining Creek, Mono Lake's largest tributary, cuts through this canyon, but it is clear from the evidence that the glacier had more to do with the current shape of the canyon than the creek. The canyon is U-shaped, much like Yosemite Valley. If the creek was the only influence, the canyon would be V-shaped.

On the drive down the canyon, visitors will get a clear view of Mono Lake and the line of Mono Craters. If the day is clear, people will be able see the White Mountains, a range to the east of the desert floor. The rocks in the White Mountains are thought to date back to the Mesozoic Era, ranging from 135 million to 200 million years old.

About 3 miles before Highway 120 reaches the bottom of the canyon, visitors can turn right on Power House Road and drive about 0.2 mile to Lee Vining Diversion Dam. Water was diverted at one time from the creek into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The water is no longer exported to Los Angeles because of an agreement to restore Mono Lake.

Higher up the canyon, the glacier carved a cliff and suspended Lee Vining Creek, cutting the canyon into upper and lower halves. The water drops almost 1,700 feet through a penstock into a powerhouse that generates hydroelectricity.

When visitors reach Owens Valley below, they will most likely see low sagebrush (Artemisia arbuscula), common rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus), and antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata). All are quite common in this part of eastern California. Less common shrubs include cottonthorn (Tetradymia axilleris), hopsage (Grayia spinosa), and littleleaf horsebrush (Tetradymia glabrata).

The canyon and the small town on the edge of Mono Lake are named after LeRoy Vining and some companions who scouted the area after gold was discovered here in 1852. Vining built a sawmill on the creek in the 1860s. He sold lumber in Nevada. Vining died several years later in Nevada when his own pistol accidentally went off in his pocket, and he bled to death.

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