Where in the Hills is Cerro Gordo?
The souvenir T-shirt reads “Where in the Hills is Cerro Gordo?” Like many of the western ghost towns from the glory days of mining, Cerro Gordo is now a distant memory for many people. Originally settled in 1865 by Mexican prospectors, Cerro Gordo at one time boasted a population of more than 4,500 residents in the mining district, slightly more than the 1870 population of Los Angles.
So, just where in the hills IS Cerro Gordo? Several Tierra del Sol 4WD Club members found where it is and enjoyed every minute of the drive in and out. Cerro Gordo is located at the 8,500 foot level in the Inyo Mountains overlooking the Owens Valley. From Highway 395 about one mile south of Independence, CA, we turned on State Highway 136 and head for Keeler. We had spent the early day trekking through the White Mountains and opted for the quick ascent to Cerro Gordo and an evening campsite. After a brief stop to air down, we began the 7.5 mile trip up the steep and winding road to Cerro Gordo. The graded road followed the route once traveled by ore carts pulled by mule team.
Upon reaching the town site of Cerro Gordo, we were greeted by the caretaker and tour guide, Frank Purkart. Frank entertained us with delightful tales of Cerro Gordo’s past, including a description of the remnants of the original smelter and the history of the town buildings which include the 1871 American Hotel, a restored 1904 Bunkhouse and the 1868 Belshaw house which are currently used for overnight guests. Other buildings include a general store (now a museum), an assay office and numerous other structures. During its peak, the Cerro Gordo mining district produced over $17 million dollars worth of silver and in later years, the mine tailings yielded over $250,000 worth of zinc. The main mine consists of approximately 37 miles of tunnel spread over seven levels.
As it was getting late, we started on the trail north out of town toward Swansee, which follows the ridge of the Inyo Mountains. The short narrow, slightly off-camber trail soon gave way to a steep down slope which then turned into a long and steep climb. About four miles outside of town, we reached the remains of a long abandoned aerial tramway which had carried salt for 17 miles from the Saline Valley on the east to the Owens Valley on the west during the period of 1917 to 1930. Many of the tramway towers, buildings, and equipment remain. That was our campsite for the night. During evening supper, we enjoyed a spectacular sunset over Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada Mountains followed by a campfire and tales of past trips. While others opted for the protection of a tent, I spread my mummy bag on my cot under the stars. At 9,000 foot elevation, the night sky was clear and the bright stars and Milky Way were a spectacular sight.
The morning presented a constant dilemma. Was it to watch the sun rise in the east over the Saline Valley with the Panamint Mountains and Death Valley in the background or watch as the rising sun illuminated Mount Whitney and the Sierra Mountains to the west? A truly enjoyable background for breakfast. We reluctantly broke camp and began the decent to the Owens Valley floor and the little town of Swansee.
During the decent, we made a brief stop at the Burgess Mine. At slightly over 9,000 feet, the rustic cabin has provided shelter for many travelers. Notes scrawled on the walls told of a romantic honeymoon spent and the weary backpackers that found one season to hot an another season to cold. A crude furness made from a 55-gallon drum was ready to warn the cold traveler and tins of food were available to ensure no one was trapped without something to eat.
Again, this spot provided spectacular views of the Saline Valley and the Owens Valley with Mount Whitney in the background. From the Owens Valley floor, it is difficult to identify Mount Whitney as the tallest peak in the lower 48-states. From the vantage point of the Inyo Mountain ridge, the majestic height of over 14,000 foot Mount Whitney is clearly visible. Reluctantly, we left that beautiful vantage point and continued the downward trek. We still had about 6,000 feet down and 19 miles to go.
The trail down was at times idling along with towering canyon walls on either side. At several points, the trail dropped rapidly through the Pinion Pines and Juniper bushes. Definitely, 4-wheel drive and ample ground clearance were necessary. The downhill descent was easy. In places, an uphill ascent could be a challenge.
The Pinion Pines and Juniper soon yielded to sagebrush and grass while the temperature began a noticeable rise. About three and a half hours after leaving the Burgess Mine, we reached the town of Swansee. It was now time to air up and say goodbye to the mountain beauty. An extended July 4th weekend of wheeling in the White Mountains and Inyo Mountains was coming to and end. During the return trip to San Diego, the immortal words of General MacArthur came to mind: “I shall return.”