We arrived into the nondescript town of Bishop at night after a long day of driving. The entire town seemed to be strung out along a long main street lined with motels, fast food restaurants and gas stations. To say it was uninspiring is an understatement, but we were happy to find a bed for the night and a good restaurant for dinner. The morning brought a stunning revelation, Bishop is surrounded by beautiful countryside.
Somewhere I’d read about an area near Bishop which contains a treasure trove of Native American art, rock-carved petroglyphs scattered amidst this vast region of plains and mountains. This forbidding landscape lies in the Owens Valley, a once lush agricultural area that supported a sizeable Native American population. Hundreds of petroglyphs, all that remain of that civilisation, are scattered around the area.
Finding them, however, is an entirely different matter. To protect them from vandalism and theft, and in 2012 someone actually stole four sets of petroglyphs, their location remains obscured. The road is barely sign-posted and even if you do find it, the sites of the petroglyphs are no longer marked. I tried to find some accurate information in Bishop, but drew a blank.
Undeterred, I headed into the vastness hoping to find something, anything of these artworks. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. There are millions of rocks and all of them may hide a petroglyph. I spent a couple of hours driving around and eventually got lucky, but I know I missed out on seeing the most famous petroglyphs. If that’s the price of preventing theft, so be it.
Back in Bishop we packed the car and bought provisions for the next part of our journey, a drive to Big Pine and then miles of unpaved roads towards Death Valley. It was going to be an adventure taking several hours, including a picnic lunch at a truly unbelievable place: the Eureka Dunes. Once we left the main highway we barely saw another person until arriving at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.
California’s highest sand dunes are an extraordinary sight, reached along a dozen miles of dirt road branching off the Death Valley Road. Set against a backdrop of the Last Chance Mountains, the white sand stands out like a floating, surreal beacon amidst the brown landscape. At around 700 feet (210m) high, these are the highest dunes in the state, some say in the United States, but that isn’t their real claim to fame: these are singing dunes.
Under the right weather conditions, when the sand avalanches down the dune it makes a deep droning noise. We didn’t hear it, but just walking amongst the dunes was reward enough for making the journey to these 10,000 year-old piles of sand. There is a dry camp (no water or flush toilets) near the base of the dunes, and the (very smelly) toilet has to be one of the remotest I’ve come across.
We had our lunch under a ferociously hot sun admiring our surroundings with only the sound of the wind for company. We repacked the car, took one last look at the dunes and headed back the way we came, bracing ourselves for 50 miles of bone-rattling washboard dirt roads as we headed to Death Valley.