Owens Valley, California

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

The Owens Valley is the type symmetrical graben on earth. In the map above, red lines denote faults. With 14,000 foot peaks on both sides, the trench (which is what "graben" means in German) is two miles deep.

Above is a generalized geologic map of the valley. Pink rocks are granitic, green are late Paleozoic and Mesozoic eugeosynclinal rocks (island arc, trench and continental rise). Yellow and orange are Tertiary and Quaternary volcanic rocks and blue and purple are Paleozoic shallow marine rocks. Upper Precambrian metamorphic rocks are indicated with Z, Tertiary continental sediments with Tc and Quaternary alluvium with Q.

The valley coincides roughly with the eastern margin of continuous Sierra Nevada batholithic rocks, although scattered Jurassic plutons dot the White and Inyo Mountains and ranges to the east. Roof pendants and inclusions of Mesozoic and Paleozoic arc rocks are scattered throughout the Sierra Nevada and patches of Tertiary volcanic rocks cover parts of the range, especially to the north of the map area.

The Owens Valley is the western margin of the Basin and Range Province, and from the east front of the Sierra Nevada all the way to Utah the terrain consists of alternating horsts and grabens. Many workers have suggested that uplift preceded faulting and that the crests of the ranges in the Basin and Range preserve a relic of a North American Altiplano.

Mount Whitney Area

From a bit south of Mount Whitney. Mount Whitney is the high ribbed peak on the left.
Below: The Sierra Nevada fault is not a single fault but consists of several strands. The Alabama hills, the low range of hills in front of the mountains, are a small horst between two strands of the fault.

The hills were named for the Confederate raider. Settlers here were pro-Confederacy but too far away to contribute to the war effort, so they showed their support by naming the hills after the famous Confederate ship. About as non-maritime a setting as you're ever likely to see.

Looking north along the valley. From Mount Whitney in the Sierra, or White Mountain Peak in the White Mountains, the graben here is 10,000 feet deep.
Left and below: The Alabama hillsand Mount Whitney.


Above: The Inyo Mountains east of the valley. The Inyo and White Mountains are basically the same fault block but separated by some low passes. Below: The Sierra Nevada front.

Mount Whitney

Left: View southeast from the summit of Mount Whitney. Olancha Peak is the peak on the left, with Owens Lake on the valley floor beyond.

Below: East front of Mount Whitney. Mount Whitney has been described as a very democratic mountain. The 2000 foot east face is daunting but a trail a six-year old can climb zigzags up a talus cone, through a saddle, and along the gently-sloping backside. He'd better be a very strong six-year old - the elevation gain is about 7000 feet. The little pond below the face is one of the claimants to the title of highest lake in the U. S.

Below: panorama of the southern Sierra Nevada front. In the winter, especially, U.S. 395 is one of the most spectacular drives on the planet. The Sierra Nevada form a snow-covered wall from horizon to horizon.

Owens Valley Water

There's a saying in the West: "Whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting over."

The man who made Los Angeles possible was William Mulholland (namesake of Mulholland Drive) who realized that water was the limiting factor in Los Angeles' growth. Even before World War I, faucets were going dry in the city.

Mulholland convinced the city to buy water rights in the Owens Valley and pipe the water south to Los Angeles. Here US 395 crosses the Los Angeles Aqueduct. All that snow on the Sierra Nevada to the left melts and runs through aqueducts to Los Angeles.

Looking northeast across the aqueduct to the Inyo Mountains.

Below: Owens Lake was always a seasonally dry lake but now is dry almost all the time, and salt blown off the lake is a health hazard. Below are salt flats with the Inyo Mountains beyond.


Manzanar was an internment camp for Japanese during World War Ii and is now a National Historical landmark.
Left: plaque on the former guard post.

Below: memorial to people who dies here while interned.

Left and below: grave sites and offerings

Looking north from south of Big Pine. The Sierra Nevada is at left, White Mountain Peak just visible on the far skyline right of the highway.

Bishop Area

Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley from near Papoose Flat in the Inyo Mountains south of Bishop. Note the contrast between the dark roof pendant rocks on the skyline at center and the light granodiorite below.
View of the valley floor. Small cinder cones erupted along the scarp during the Holocene.
Left and below: views of the mountain front from Lone Pine.
Left and below: Winter views from Bishop. The asymmetrical peak in the center of the photo at left is Mount Tom (13652 feet or 4161 meters), a prominent landmark around Bishop.
Left and below: Owens Valley and Sierra Nevada from the White Mountains. Mount Tom is visible at left center in the photo at left.
Mountain front south of Bishop.

Below: White Mountains from near Bishop.

Sierra Nevada and Mount Tom.
Looking west along U.S. 395 west of Bishop. One fault segment terminates at the end of the nearer mountain front and a second begins several kilometers to the west.
Looking south along U.S. 395. Between the two fault segments the crust slopes gently upward as a tectonic ramp.
Left and below: Sierra Nevada front northwest of Bishop.
View northeast to the White Mountains. White Mountain Peak (14,246 feet; 4342m) is a little left of center.

Below: Panorama from Big Pine. The isolated hill is a small horst, not a volcanic cone.

Aerial Views

Looking east near Bishop, with the Sierra Nevada in the foreground, and the White Mountains beyond
View across the Owens Valley with the Sierra Nevada in the foreground and the Inyo Mountains beyond the valley. Horsts and grabens of the Basin and Range are visible in the distance.
Views crossing the Owens Valley by plane, from a bit north of Bishop. There's no snow to outline the mountains but both the White Mountains (left) and Sierra Nevada (right) are capped by orographic clouds. The rightward jog in the Sierra front in the middle distance is the en echelon fault step and tectonic ramp west of Bishop.

Below: panorama of the White Mountains with Crowley Lake in the foreground. Boundary Peak is the isolated summit at far left and Montgomery Peak is the long ridge left of the saddle. White Mountain Peak is about 2/3 of the way across the panorama.

The White Mountains

Left: plane-table mapping at 10,000 feet.

Below: views of White Mountain Peak. The peak is not a difficult climb but defeats many hikers because it requires a long hike at high elevations.

Note the trees on the east side of the range. The few glaciers in the White Mountains were on the east side, apparently fed by snow blowing over the ridge and protected from afternoon sun.

Above: bristlecone pines. Some have been dated at 4,000 years old.

Left: bristlecone pine cones.

Below: views of the White Mountains from the south end of the range. The high elevations are not visible from this vantage point.

Deep Springs Valley

Technically part of the Basin and Range but included here because the Owens Valley and Sierra Nevada are visible in the distance. The straight front of the foreground mountain range is a fault. The little playa lake is Deep Springs Lake.
Schematic cross-section across Owens and Deep Springs Valleys.

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Created 7 April 2003, Last Update 08 June 2020