Lonesome Miner Trail (20h20)

Bighorn cabin

The Lonesome Miner Trail (LMT) is a route through the Inyo Mountains near Lone Pine, traveling between the range’s crest and eastern base. The Inyos are a desert range made mostly of garbage rock, and the route does not go over or even particularly near any peaks, so it is a strange place to find Yours Truly. However, the Inyos have their own grandeur, rising almost 10,000 feet from the Saline Valley on one side and over 6,000 from the Owens on the other. Their eastern side is also both hospitable and mind-bendingly remote: while most canyons have year-round springs, these are mostly at elevations between five and six thousand feet, separated from the inhospitable and uninhabited desert valley below by a vertical mile of brushy slot canyons and loose ridges. The springs are no easier to reach from the barely-inhabited Owens Valley to the west, from which one must climb a vertical mile to the crest before descending several thousand feet. Nevertheless, a brief mining boom occurred around these water sources around 1900, and the LMT links some of the water sources and mines via their old roads and pack trails.

A lonesome miner must eat
Ever since first hearing of it in 2018, and backpacking it around that winter’s solstice, I had a vague idea that the LMT might be doable in a single day. With trails that span elevations ranging from 4000 to 9500 feet and are difficult to follow at night, timing is difficult for a fast trip. The best time might be in October or November, between when daytime temperatures are bearable and when the first significant snow coats north slopes. However it can also be doable in March or April with some tolerance for snow and/or heat. The official route crosses the range from Hunter Canyon on the Saline to Pat Keyes Pass on the Owens side. However this involves a hundred-mile car shuttle on annoying dirt roads, so I prefer to come in from Long John Canyon on the Owens side, requiring slightly more climbing but only a ten-mile shuttle.

Dawn from above Long John
I had not planned to attempt the LMT on this trip, but when my circumstances thrust it upon me I shoved about 5500 calories into a daypack, drove as far as I dared up Long John Canyon road, and set my alarm for 2:30 AM. I was not sure I had the fitness or desire to do the whole thing, but an early exit via Forgotten Pass would leave me only a few miles from the starting trailhead. I took longer than usual preparing in the morning, then started out around 3:20, hiking and occasionally jogging the road as it decayed into the wash. I been this way twice in the past, so although the trail is often faint to nonexistent, I had little trouble following the general route to the crest, where I saw dawn on the barely-drivable road north from Cerro Gordo. I sent a few final text messages, then began jogging down the other side, committing myself to at least a very long day.

Postholing begins
Conditions soon reminded me of my previous December trip, with snow filling in the switchbacks on some of the east-facing switchbacks. The road was easy to follow, but the snow was punchy and deep enough to force me onto its edges, making running difficult. Snow-line seemed to be somewhere between six and seven thousand feet on the wooded north slopes, foreboding a frustrating day. The south-facing climb back to the Hunter saddle was dry, however, and I climbed comfortably in a t-shirt as the sun finally hit me.

Lower Hunter Canyon
The descent into Hunter was again snowy, but the trail was easy to follow, as was the dry trail along the wash’s bottom. I paused at the camp spot before Bighorn Spring, where we had slept on my 2018 backpack, and noted that only one party had signed the register since then. Continuing past the spring and nearby rusting machinery, I climbed up the bank to the left, admiring the view down-canyon from above a fork, then plugged in my poor cold phone to charge before contouring into the north tributary in search of the trail up to Bighorn Mine.

Bighorn cabin and Saline
I wasted some time finding the route, as the original trail followed the wash and has therefore been consumed by rubble and brush. After a bit of exploration, I proceeded left and spotted some cairns along the right bank. The line of cairns followed the edge of a collapsing rubble cliff, which made me doubt that this was the original route, before following old rockwork as it switchbacked up the right side of the valley. I stopped to take some photos of old tools and a broken bowl at the mine, then continued to the Bighorn Cabin. Perched on a narrow spur ridge near 7000 feet, the cabin is close to the ore vein, and has an incredible view of the Saline Valley below. However living there must have been arduous, requiring frequent trips to the spring 1500 feet below for water. The cabin is in good shape and well-equipped with tools, cots, and a stove, but I doubt any of the handful of people who now visit each year stay the night. I took some photos of the cabin and commemorative plaque, then kept moving.

Frenchy’s from above
The route is again somewhat unclear here, traversing along a rusty pipe and continuing up-canyon for awhile before switchbacking past some more prospects to the ridge above 8000 feet. From this crossing, a difficult trail descends 2500 feet to Frenchy’s Cabin in Beveridge Canyon. This section is faint, and has been obliterated partway down in a talus field, but cairns and careful attention make it possible to follow by daylight, even in snow. Unfortunately said snow was piled calf- to knee-deep on parts of the trail, with a crust only beginning to soften as the morning warmed, turning potential running terrain into laborious hiking. My friend Kim had proposed doing the route in the other direction for precisely this reason — you might as well be going uphill if you have to walk — but plowing uphill would have been much more tiring.

Thanks, Kim!
I reached Frenchy’s before noon, around eight hours into the day, and paused to refill my water and pillage the two sandwiches Kim had left in the cooler for passers-by. This was the only point on the route at which I could bail, climbing about 3000 feet to Forgotten Pass and returning to the Owens Valley near my car. Pleased with my progress, and believing myself almost halfway through the LMT, I decided to continue to the end, expecting to reach the top of Pat Keyes Pass around dark. This would allow me to do the last climbing, and most of the tricky route-finding, before headlamp time.

Beveridge Ridge cabin
Passing the “town” of Beveridge, I climbed past the trail east to the Saline Valley, ascending mostly easy-to-follow switchbacks along the spur ridge to Beveridge Canyon. The thermometer at Frenchy’s had read 65 degrees, and it was hot on the south-facing slope, but I was still moving well enough. Stopping at the Beveridge Ridge Cabin, I signed the register and took a few photos. I also took a packet of beef ramen, licking the noodles, sprinkling the flavor packet on top, and shoving them into my mouth as I turned the corner to posthole through more snow on the way to the bulldozer and other remains of the Keynot Mine. With no obvious road leading to this spot around 8000 feet, I am not sure how the equipment reached this remote spot. Perhaps it was helicoptered in to the dirt helipad at the cabin, then driven around the corner.

Keynot machinery
On my previous trip, we had made the mistake of continuing along the mine to its other end, following more evidence of mining until the level road disappeared into the hillside, then sidehilling miserably for several hours across loose terrain to reach the next ridge. This time, I followed a line of cairns and a faint trail back and uphill from just before the dozer, eventually finding bits and pieces of old trail leading to a collapsed cabin. I suspect that the LMT route follows a path that predates the mechanized Keynot Mine, connecting Beveridge to a more primitive prospect and the hermitage of McElvoy Canyon. This trail frustratingly gains and loses elevation, but is preferable to and far faster than cross-country travel across the steep hillside.

Bleeding bighorn
After the high traverse, the trail into McElvoy Canyon is one of the faintest and most confusing parts of the route. After descending along a hardpack dirt ridge, where the faint trailbed has almost completely disappeared, it weaves around complex crags on the canyon’s steep south side. In several places, it crosses unstable talus-fields that have obliterated whatever trail once existed. Looking for sporadic cairns and rockwork on either side of these slopes, I was able to follow its general path, though not its every detail, on the long descent, finally losing it in game trails and brush just above the stream, near where it flows in a cascade over smooth slabs.

McElvoy stonework
Here the correct route follows the southern bank downstream, eventually crossing near some well-built stone cabins. However I had neglected to bring the route description, and in my haste forgot the route. I wasted perhaps half an hour here, first looking upstream, then following a wash with a giant cairn just upstream of the McElvoy Mine buildings. Finally, I remembered that the correct route starts in the ravine immediately behind the cabins. Though it starts out well-built and clear, it soon fades and splits, with branches leading to multiple small digs. I initially went too far left, then contoured right to find the correct route, which climbs a hillside near the eastern edge of the prospecting, then switchbacks up a dirt ridge out of the canyon’s north side.

Here I remembered the trail well, and followed it easily as it returns west along a ridge toward the Inyo Crest, then contours north through woods to reach Pat Keyes Canyon. I had lost too much time crossing McElvoy, and was both frustrated and cold plowing through the slushy snow on this high traverse. Fortunately the trail crosses the canyon relatively high, as it must climb to 9500 feet on the other side to cross back to the Owens Valley via Pat Keyes Pass. Unfortunately the sun had set, I was out of water, and the stream was small and muddy where the trail crosses it. I eventually filled my water bladder with cold hands, then lost the trail on its way downstream toward a supposed ruin.

The trail probably climbs behind this old cabin, but I had run out of light, and decided to simply claw my way directly up to the ridge and find the trail when I reached it. I had counted on reaching this part, which is cold and difficult to follow, with at least some daylight left, and was annoyed and discouraged to once again be doing it in the dark. After a bit of cross-country wandering I picked up the faint Pat Keyes Pass trail, which for once follows the line on the USGS topo. There are enough cairns that the trail would probably be easy to follow at a jog by daylight with fresh legs, but I was dark and fatigue forced me to proceed at a walk.

After traversing around a couple of bumps on the south side of the ridge, the trail crosses to the north for the final half-mile to the pass. Here the misery began, with shin-deep powder and uneven rocks covered by a crust now hard enough to hurt my shins through my pants. I wallowed and cursed in the dark for what felt like an hour to finally reach the saddle, crossing at a point with no trail or markings. I had lost quite a bit of time here wandering last time, so failing to at least start on the trail boded ill. It was almost 9:00 PM — well after dark, but fortunately early enough for Leonie to still be awake. I told her that I would be coming out Pat Keyes, then texted Kim to see if she had a GPX track for the descent.

Unfortunately the cold drained my phone’s aging batter in the few minutes I had it out, knocking out both my communication and navigation. I knew the trail trended left, and did not follow the line on the map, so I headed in that general direction, looking around carefully for cairns above and erosion below the snow. I luckily found the line, following it slowly until my phone revived and I was able to not only see a map, but swap in fresh headlamp batteries. The cairned route, which fades in a couple of places, seems to stay right of the line on the topo, descending closer to a faint drainage before rejoining it where the overall slope steepens. I lost trail a couple of times, and there may be another route closer to the line, but my path was not too onerous.

The trail became easier to follow as I approached the level of the Owens Valley’s lights: Independence, Lone Pine, and some smaller settlements whose names I forget, connected by the cars crawling between on Highway 395. I was pleased to be able to jog the final switchbacks, which are smooth and easy to follow, but maddeningly horizontal compared to most of the trails I had visited. Reaching the trail register, I took a couple of experimental selfies, signed out, and started the two-mile walk to the car. It had taken me about 20h20 from where I had parked on the road up Long John Canyon. With better conditions and no major route-finding errors, I could have done the Lonesome Miner Trail in under 20 hours, and probably under 19; a faster runner somewhat familiar with the route could easily go under 18. I had doubted that I could complete it in a single push, but math works even in the Inyos: 50-55 miles with 15-20 thousand feet of climbing are still doable in a single push.

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