Bishop, California

Centrally Located to Spectacular Sierra Nevada Wilderness

Bishop is a city – the only incorporated municipality (1903) – in Inyo County, California, a county shaped like an elongated, or stretched state of Missouri. Bishop is located at the foremost northern edge of the county alongside the Owens River, about 10 miles south of the county line with Mono County. To its west, Inyo borders Fresno County and Tulare County. Inyo County’s eastern boundary extends to Nevada. The county seat is located 55 miles to the south of Bishop in the town of Independence.

With 3,879 residents and city territory measuring less than two square miles, Bishop was the largest populated place in Inyo County in 2016, according to the US Census Bureau. Another 11,000 people live in the “greater Bishop area.”

Bishop is a regional recreational hub as it very near several attractive locations for people seeking outdoor adventure. When visitors are factored in, the town’s population can swell to over 30,000. The landscape near Bishop is some of the best natural scenery California offers, making it a favorite for wildlife photographers. Hunting, rock climbing, hiking and fishing enthusiasts also find Bishop’s location well-suited for their activities.

History

Prior to arrival of Europeans and Americans, the Bishop area was home to a subset of Northern Paiute First Nation – “Indian” or “Native American” – people referred to as Owens Valley Paiute (formerly called the Eastern Mono). The Owens Valley Paiute speak the Mono language and self-identify as “Numa,” meaning “People” or Nün‘wa Paya Hup Ca’a‘ Otuu’mu – “Coyote's children living in the water ditch.”

Skilled hunters, the Owens Valley Paiute used several different approaches to catch deer. Methods included stalking deer while wearing camouflage, surrounding the deer with people, using trained dogs, and at times, setting brush on fire. Antelope and mountain sheep were captured by driving them into a corral or between rows of rock piles and narrow canyons.

Rabbit were hunted in the autumn in a community rabbit drive where men, women and children would beat the bush with sticks, bows and long nets nearly three feet high. One hundred foot nets were placed end to end in a large semi-circle and rabbit would be driven into the trap. The tribe also built custom traps to capture small mammals while fish were caught by diverting a stream. Bear was culturally off limits as the Owens Valley Paiutes considered the animal to closely resemble a human being.

The tribe’s men dressed in buckskin shirts and pants or girded themselves with an untrimmed buckskin. Women did not dress from the waist up, wearing only a buckskin dress from the waist down. The women’s hair style is similar to the US hippie of the late 60s and early 70s - parted in the middle – with the part sometimes painted red – and laying loosely down the side of their face. When travelling, moccasins were the preferred footwear for both men and women. Blankets were made from rabbit skin.

The Owens Valley Paiute semi-cultivated wild tobacco. It was smoked by men in a tubular pipe made of pottery, measuring a few inches long. The tobacco was mixed with burned shells or ashes and chewed by the women. Tobacco use was moderate and had ceremonial significance when used by the Shaman. The Paiute’s developed a game similar to soccer where teams attempt to kick a buckskin-covered ball over goal lines at opposite ends of the field.

In 1846, four years before California gained admission into the Union as part of the Compromise of 1850, famed explorer, US Army Civil War two star general and future California federal senator John Fremont traveled through the Bishop area heading south through Owens Valley.

Soon after, Bishop’s proximity to an abundance of natural resources – minerals – in the Eastern Sierra Mountain Range attracted miners and prospectors to the region. The area became an agricultural hub reliant upon Owens River water. In 1862, the town of Bishop Creek was established by Samuel Bishop near his Saint Francis Ranch. Bishop Creek is a creek flowing down from the Sierra Nevada, also named after Bishop. The town became known as Bishop in 1889.

The inevitable conflict with First Nation people in the region began in 1862 with what is known as the “Owens Valley Indian War.” Hostilities lasted until 1867, despite the forced relocation of many Owens Valley Paiute to Fort Tejon in 1863. The war was fought by the US Army, volunteers and local settlers against the Paiute, who were joined by Kawaiisu and Shoshone allies. Settlers’ way of life was destroying the Paiute’s ability to live theirs. Among the factors contributing to the Paiute’s facing starvation was imported cattle devouring native wild plant crops. In retaliation, Paiute began killing cattle.

Map of the Owens Lake/River watershed in eastern California, USA. Shaded relief from US Geological Survey data. Includes LA Aqueduct and Mono Basin Extension, shown by dotted lines. Graphic courtesy: Shannon1

Early in the 20th century, the Owens Valley caught the eye of semi-arid and thirsty Los Angeles, over 220 miles to the south. The city managed to acquire property and water rights and in 1913 completed the building of an aqueduct and began exporting water for both agriculture and human consumption, marking the beginning of the end of Lake Owens – which went dry in 1924 – and the Owens valley economy. The Owens Valley water war with Los Angeles provided inspiration for the back story in the movie, Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson.
Bitterness between Los Angeles and Bishop remains high today as the City of Bishop notes on its website: “The acquisition of these rights and the export of the water led many to believe the valley had been betrayed. The battle between the Owens Valley and Los Angeles for control of the valley and its water is famous in the west and the subject of written works and movies. Today, the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power – known as DWP – own the vast majority of the floor of the Owens Valley including around and in the City of Bishop.”

Population / Elevation
3,879 / 4,150 feet above sea level

Weather / Climate
Bishop, along with the rest of Owens Valley, is considered arid. Storms moving over California from the Pacific Ocean drop most their moisture on the Sierra Nevada Range to the west, resulting in an annual average precipitation of just over five inches for Bishop. Owens Valley is known as the “Land of Little Rain.” Owens Valley is one of the deepest valleys in the US. It is tucked between the Sierra Nevada Range to the west, and the White Mountains to the east. Both ranges have peaks over 14,000 feet. Though summertime average high temperatures range from the low to upper 90s, the average low in summer months dips down to the mid and lower 50s. Bishop has a record high temperature of 116 degrees. Five of seven months, the average low is below freezing.

Where to Stay Hotels Near and in Bishop Check Here

Laws Rail Museum

Laws Rail Museum and Historic Site is operated by the Bishop Museum and Historical Society. Both the artifacts and land was donated to Bishop and Inyo County in 1960 by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Exhibits include the authentic 1883 depot with model train displays and memorabilia, the original agent’s house with period furnishings, also circa 1883, and a locomotive engine – Slim Princess – and freight cars. Access to the Slim Princess is open to the public and represents the American West's last common carrier, narrow gauge railway. The Laws museum bills the Slim Princess as standing in “mute testimony to the time when the Owens Valley depended upon the railroad for its contact with other parts of the world.”

Visitors will also see the Death Valley Car, a self-propelled train car built in 1927 from the Death Valley Railroad that was rehabilitated in 2004. This train is open for business in the summer months. Railroad activity in Laws ended in 1960, and was accompanied by the end of the town of Laws. The town of Laws is less than six miles northwest of Bishop across the Owens River and the museum is open to the public seven days a week.

A photo of a mule pack string operated by the Rock Creek Pack Station
participating in the Bishop Mule Days parade. Phot courtesy: Jim Heaphy

Bishop Mule Days

The Memorial Day holiday in Bishop is preceded by Bishop Mule Days – a seven day festival celebrating the important role the pack mule played in that town’s history. Considered the “Mule Capital of the World,” on Memorial Day itself, Bishop hosts the “world’s largest non-motorized parade down Main Street.” The annual event began in 1969 and is attended by over 30,000 people.

Inyo National Forest

The eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range is part of Inyo National Forest. This forest continues with the White Mountains to the east of Bishop and Owens Valley. The eastern slope of this mountain range ends in Nevada at the Great Basin portion of the Mojave Desert.

Mono Lake

Inyo National Forest is home to Mammoth Mountain ski resort and the popular Mammoth Lakes, less than 50 miles from Bishop. Mono Lake is 65 miles north of Bishop and is home to or visited by millions of migratory and nesting birds. Estimated to have formed between one and three million years ago, it is one of the oldest lakes in North America. Mono Lake also fell prey to Los Angeles’ insatiable thirst for water. In 1941, Los Angeles DWP began diverting Mono Lake's tributary streams. By 1982, the volume of water in the lake was reduced by half to 2.1 acre feet from 4.3 million acre feet in 1941, stressing the ecosystem to near the point of collapse. Today, Mono Lake is an epicenter for ecological research and home to trillions of brine shrimp. Despite its relatively small size, Mono Lake, along with its tributaries, basin and watershed is biologically diverse in the extreme. The area is home to 14 different ecological zones, over 1,000 plant species, and roughly 400 vertebrate species.

Sierra National Forest

The Sierra Nevada Range is subdivided into national forests and national parks. The southernmost portion of the Sierra Nevada Range is called Sierra National Forest. This US Forest Service-managed land is considered the gateway into the Sierras, leading north to Yosemite and then Lake Tahoe. Almost half the land at Sierra National Forest has been designated as wilderness. Visitors will experience extreme changes in elevation, vegetation and landscape, and have access to over 1,000 miles of trails. Trails range from well-maintained to rugged routes leading to the forest’s highest elevations.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Still south of Bishop in latitude in the Sierra Range are Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The parks adjoin one another and together are managed as one national park. At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48, is located in Sequoia National Park. Mount Whitney is less than 90 miles away from Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, which, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point in North America. Mount Whitney was named after State Geologist of California, Josiah Whitney in 1864 by members of the California Geological Survey.

Sequoia is well-known for its giant sequoia trees and is home to the largest tree on the planet when measured by volume – the General Sherman, named after Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. Less than seven miles as the crow flies from the General Sherman tree is Crystal Cave – one of many caves dotting the subsurface of this forest. Access to Crystal Cave’s half-mile underground loop is by guided tour only. Together, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are referred to as the “Land of Giants” and nearly all land – over 95% - within the parks has been designated as wilderness. Black bears range throughout both parks.

North of the “Land of Giants” and due west of Bishop on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Range is Sierra National Forest. – home of the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wildernesses.

US ROUTE 6

Originally, the California section of US Route 6 was limited to the eastern portion of the state, beginning in Bishop just 40 miles from Nevada line, making California the state with the second shortest stretch of US 6 among the 14 states the highway enters (Rhode Island at 26 miles being first). During the late 20s and early 30s it was also known as the Roosevelt Highway, after President Theodore Roosevelt.

Commissioned in 1937, the California portion was part of an extension from Greeley, Colorado through the Mojave Desert into Los Angeles, and on to Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean. This brought US 6 designation to the main road entering Mojave – called Sierra Highway from the south, and renamed the Midland Trail as the road leads out of Mojave to the north.

The section of road between Bishop and the sea lost its US 6 designation in a 1964 highway renumbering project. Today, US 6 history is kept alive by U.S. Route 6 Tourist Association.

Today, this north-south section of highway between Bishop leading south to the Mojave Desert is numbered US Route 395. This route connects with Highway 14 in Bradys, California, which then leads to Mojave, Edwards Air Force Base, and Lancaster and Palmdale before ending at Interstate 5 in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles.

Nearby Cities & Towns
Distance from Bishop

Benton – 35 Miles North
Mono Lake – 65 Miles North
Mammoth – 42 Miles Northwest
Big Pine – 15 Miles South
Independence – 42 Miles South
Lone Pine – 55 Miles South
Mount Whitney – 70 Miles South
Owens Lake – 77 Miles South
Ridgecrest – 137 Miles South



 

 
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