McElvoy Canyon, Union Wash
By: Steve Smith
For the 6th year in a row, Friends of the Inyo Wilderness conducted a spring BLM California Trails Day volunteer trail work and wilderness exploratory project. These annual spring projects in the BLM's Ridgecrest Resource Area have developed a lot of backcountry information on the features of the Inyo Mountains Wilderness and provided a means of doing some maintenance of the areas 122 miles of mapped trails.
The plan this year was to ascend a newly discovered trail out of Union Wash to Mt. Inyo and then descend down McElvoy Canyon to the Lonesome Miner Trail (LMT) at 5,400'. Here the group would split, with some heading south to maintain the LMT up to the Keynot Ridge trail while the others followed the LMT north back up onto the McElvoy Ridge to do an exploratory descent down the ridgeline to Saline Valley. We were also motivated to try and follow the probable route of the Beekeeper of McElvoy Canyon and put small commemorative plaques at his various shelters.
The project went well with a total of 12 volunteers joining with me for from two to fifteen days for a productive outing. Leaving the Union Wash trailhead at 5,500', we headed up a recently discovered trail on the ridge on the north side of Union Wash. We have named this the Grindstone Trail after the name of the Grindstone mine near the trails apparent end at a small cabin at 7,700'. It had definitely been used by the Beekeeper from several items that have been common at each of his shelters which includes a distinctive wood burning stove along with beekeeping literature and equipment.
Camping at his first cabin the first night, we installed one of our plaques and next morning headed up the canyon with Debbie Smith heading back down to the call of work at China Lake. Unfortunately the trail ended not very far above the cabin so we veered back over to the top of the northside Union Wash ridge and followed it up to Mt. Inyo. Lots of snow remained but it was broken up enough that we did not have any problems getting to the crest and benefited from having plenty of water. Camping in the small meadow just south of the summit, we installed our second Beekeeper plaque on the small shelter built between a rock face and tree right on the crest.
That night, a ferocious storm came through with winds blowing as hard as any I have every experienced. Then the snow started but fortunately only lasted a little while. Day three, Shane Smith headed down the traditional Bedspring Trail route to the call of his work in Ridgecrest while the rest of us dropped down into McElvoy Canyon. The upper 1,000' of McElvoy Ridge was a little challenging due to deeper snow on the east side. Tom Budlong and Morgan Irby did most of the route finding and at 10,000' we left the ridge for the canyon bottom - hoping to find some sign of the Beekeeper. Nothing all the way down canyon until 6,400' where we came across some small historic camps with some scattered cans. Probably left by miners cutting wood for the McElvoy millsite. We encountered the Upper McElvoy Canyon Trail at 6,000' and have yet to determine its complete route. We could see the trail switchbacking northward up towards the top of the McElvoy Ridge so we that it leads back up to the top of the McElvoy Ridge. We know now that it does not go up to the Inyo Crest. Wendell Moyer, Brian Webb and I opted to sleep there on the trail while Tom and Morgan went another mile down canyon to the McElvoy millsite ruins.
Day four, everyone headed south on the Lonesome Miners Trail except for Wendell Moyer and I. Putting a Beekeeper plaque on the millsite, Wendell and I dropped 1,000' down canyon to check of the Beekeepers cabin at 4,200' and install our last plaque. The cabin has really deteriorated since I last saw it and we are considering a future project to stabilize and try to save it. Returning up canyon, the higher temperatures had us rather dehydrated even though we were drinking as much stream water as possible since it would be a dry camp for us on the McElvoy Ridge that night.
Starting north on the LMT with all water bottles filled, it was a hot 3,000' gain to the ridge - not helped by my losing the trail and having to scramble up loose rock for 1,000'. We had come down this trail two years earlier but many sections of the old trail are very difficult to follow even after you have used them. Half way up we regained the trail at the remains of a rock cabin and again enjoyed seeing the variety of artifacts at that historic site.
Reaching the beautiful, two mile long flat forested McElvoy Ridge at 8,200', we had a wonderful campsite in one of the meadows looking up at snow covered Keynot Peak and Mt. Inyo. Day five it was straight down the McElvoy Ridge. The upper portion was not too difficult with some slow sidehilling on scree but it does not drop much as we worked our way out to highpoint 7,387' where the real dropping would start. From there, the descent was steep and alternated between easy to difficult climbing as the rock strata changed - one section of very loose conglomerate rocks took quite awhile.
The best was saved for the last 2,000' where we got into extremely loose sedimentary rock and had to work across two small canyons. Finally getting out to the end of a ridge, we had an undignified 700' slide down a clay chute to reach the final canyon bottom. Dirty but happy, we were congratulating each other when Gerry Goss called down to ask what we were doing. Gerry had been doing trail maintenance of the Keynot Trail for 15 days by himself and then helped get our teams together and back to our vehicles as we all came out into Saline Valley.
It had been an enjoyable five days taking in the never ending features and beauty of the Inyo Mountains. It was nice to install the five plaques for the Beekeeper which everyone felt appropriate for a person who had survived 15 winters from 1965-1980 in McElvoy Canyon. We still have not figured out how the Beekeeper would repeatedly get from his shelter on the Inyo Crest down to the millsite during the winter time. Our route was not good and so the next option is that he went south to the low point on the ridge above Bedspring Camp and descended at that point. Something to check on a future project.
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