Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Spark Plug Mine – May 2013

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Memorial Day Weekend

Many people have learned of, or put up with, our addiction to exploration, the road less traveled, adventure, and finding little known special places. Friends will share ideas or tidbits of information. A young couple told me of their visit to this place – The Spark Plug Mine. They said it sat high in a remote rugged canyon. The camp was mostly intact; in fact a small number of volunteers cares for it. No road reached it and this fact has saved it. I was intrigued.

I did research. I looked at maps. I determined its location. I just had to figure out how to get there. I also turned up interesting, fascinating bits of history. A dentist was looking for materials that would make hard ceramics for false teeth. He discovered a deposit of aluminum silicates, filed claims, realized the need for components for all these new mass produced internal combustion engines in the developing auto and aviation industries, and sold the idea of development of this mine as a source for raw materials for high temperature ceramics to the Champion Spark Plug Company.

The mine operated from 1919 to 1945 and during all that time supplies were carried in and the ore carried out on the backs of mules. Local agriculture developed to supply the miners and all the mules with food. A railroad siding was established to transport the materials to Detroit. Next time you visit the Bishop area and take part in the annual Mule Days celebration or visit the Laws Railroad Museum think about an old mine that is now almost forgotten yet it played a big part in the area’s history.

The Spark Plug Mine was added to our list for future explorations. Things are a bit hectic around here and our Memorial Day Weekend trip planning mostly consisted of occasionally asking one another, “Where should we go?” as we were busy with other things. It was always a question. A couple days before the weekend, I answered the question with, “The Spark Plug Mine!” About the same time we received an email from the Lighthawks telling us they were heading to Mono Lake for the full moon rise on Friday evening and other than that had no real plans for the weekend. We invited them to join us and they invited us to join them.

We spotted their rig along the west side of Mono Lake. A small double track led into their spot. SR and little Callie greeted us. Lighthawk was already down on the shore, among the tufa, and setting up for his wonderful photography.

SR, the Lady and I plunged onward through the head high vegetation and tufa……………………………

…………………….and found Lighthawk just as the clouds turned pink and the moon came into view.

This night and place had an otherworldly quality. The bizarre shapes of the tufa and the sounds of gulls, waterfowl, osprey, and the scent of brine caught all our senses off guard. It was a wonderful experience and we thanked the Lighthawks for bringing us here.

The morning was also incredible.

I don’t think the gulls are ever quiet but it was fun to find a swallow perched and still, letting the sun warm it before getting on with its busy day.

We headed over toward Highway 6. Along the way the Lighthawks shared with us some of the neat places they have found including Chidago Canyon Road as it drops into narrow Red Rock Canyon before breaking out into Chalfant Valley.

Our objective was a canyon on the west side of the White Mountains. The dirt roads that access had been rerouted and didn’t match our maps but we soon found the rough narrow road that bumped its way up the alluvial fan and entered the canyon.

We had a choice – a lower trailhead at the canyon bottom that followed the actual mule trail two miles and 2000 vertical feet up to the mine camp or a newer high trailhead accessed up a steep, narrow 4x4 low range road that barely clung to the mountainside. This would eliminate one mile and 1000 feet of vertical gain. We chose the latter. SR named it the “HPF Road”, as in High Pucker Factor. The Lady named it the “Thank God! Road” as in “Thank God!” when we finally reached the top. I was just glad I could break the suction that held me to my seat and exit our truck at the trailhead.

We started up the trail.

We looked back at our land yachts and their hard won high perch, the Chalfant Valley and the Volcanic Tablelands far below and the Sierra Nevada crest beyond.

This is steep, rugged, and spectacular terrain.

Above us the first buildings came into sight.

The camp sits in the only – somewhat – flat bench in this steep canyon.

Architecture is primarily corrugated sheet metal.

It seems there are Hilton’s in all the best locations.

Information on the history is displayed.

A dentist and a spark plug company.

Guest books and visitor logs are in several of the cabins. It is great to read the entries from those who take the time and effort to visit this place.

One small building has been converted into a museum.

There had to be spark plugs! It was so interesting to see samples of the ore that went into making the ceramic insulators.

There was a large photo of the upper mine. The legend said this photo hung in the Champion Headquarters in Detroit.

An idea of how much work the mules did.

We hardly spent enough time looking at all the treasures in this small building.

The Lady found the deck with a view. She pulled out her see mores and checked to see if our poor trucks were still there and hadn’t slid down the mountainside.

Rhondenite must be a miner’s joke.

I received this note from Foy, a geologist and a member of Wander the West -
 "I would guess the reason for labeling the latrine with the term rhodenite was derived from the manganese inosilicate rhodonite. Some forms are brown masses in natural occurence, while other forms weather to lumpy brown masses. It is also possible rhodonite was a frequently-encountered waste mineral which had to be dealt with by discarding it as the kyanite/sillimanite/andalusite which has ceramic value was mined. Either way, the latrine might be labeled a 'rhodonite deposit area'."

Foy has also provided a link to information on the geology and mineralogy of the Champion Sillimanite Mine.
Thanks Foy!

There was so much to explore and discover. We separated. We came back together. We shared things we had seen. We separated again.

Little Callie lived a happy dog’s life on this warm afternoon, alternating between sacking out in the shade and then in the sun.

A sturdy fortress held trays of drilling cores.

It was time to head back down.

Always on our minds was the drive down the “HPF Thank God! Road”.

We headed back down the road out of the canyon. “We need to come back here, we only scratched the surface,” I said to the Lady as we worked our way down.
“Do you really want to drive that road again?” she asked.
“I think we need the full experience and should walk the mule trail up, see what it was like to climb to the camp and mine when it was in operation.”
“Good idea!” was her reply.

Lighthawk suggested moving over to the Volcanic Tablelands and revisiting Sky Rock. We tucked away in a nice spot for the night. The evening air was warm and glorious. For our second night on the busy Memorial Day weekend, we were alone.

This expansive spot was wonderful for the evening light.

Lighthawk and SR were setting up for the show.

It seemed in just an instant all turned red.

After dinner the Lady and I carried our chairs down and watched the lights of Bishop. The fairgrounds arena is lit up on the left. This was the big Saturday night event for Mule Days.

The morning was quiet, still, almost perfect. The Lady and I walked, explored, just looked at what was around us.

We all took our time with breakfast back at camp.

We explored the volcanic ridges and the petroglyph panels hidden away.

We broke camp and parted ways with the delightful Lighthawks. After a quick stop in Bishop for gas, we headed up to Rock Creek Road. This high country area is beautiful with lakes and high peaks and a major trailhead for the John Muir Wilderness. The place was packed with people, as it should be on a holiday weekend. There was not a place to park.

Our next stop was to find another of the Long Valley Caldera’s hot springs. It was busy but our timing was perfect. A large group of young people was just finishing up, toweling off, as we arrived. We enjoyed a relaxing soak, alone, just the two of us.

A large family group - I didn’t know so many people could fit in a double cab Tacoma – arrived as the next shift as we returned to our truck.

We explored some backroads and returned to 395, headed north. It was close to dinner time. “Do you think there is a chance Ted’s Dunderberg Camp is empty?” I asked the Lady.

Once again, no one else was even in the area. We would have another great place all to ourselves. The temperature was around 20° colder than the previous evening. We bundled up and took in the views.

The wind blew all night with the predicted approaching storm. It was surprisingly still at daybreak.

I have taken similar photos here in the fall. This time in the spring it was fun to see all the wildflowers hugging the ground.

We relaxed with a great breakfast with views all around us. I wanted to give Ted a cell phone call and tell him all was well at his place. "Don't go bothering them," the Lady said. "They are traveling and having fun too this weekend. You don't need to barge in on their weekend. Besides, its way too early." I listened to her common sense.

We continued north after an early morning soak at Travertine Hot Springs. We had one stop still to make before returning home.

Heenan Reservoir holds California’s brood stock of native Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. We had stopped earlier in the spring and found the trout had not yet started to move into the inlet stream for spawning. How about now?

American Pelicans had moved over from Topaz Reservoir.

The large trout were up in the inlet stream.

The California Department of Fish & Wildlife has a building ready for the spring spawn and the taking of eggs. It was open.

We talked with the four people. They had already taken 1.5 million eggs. The troughs were full of trout. The next day would be the last take of the season.

We moved back outside.

We had seen a Golden Eagle fly over and land in a large Jeffery. The agency folks told us of seeing Golden Eagles, Osprey, an adult and an immature Bald Eagle, and, of course, they had bear stories. After no trouble with bears last year, they reported this year was different - every evening between 4:30 and 5:00 seven bears show up, rip out the temporary fish ladder structures, and fill up on trout.

As we talked we all watched the rain squalls in the west move toward us. We headed back out to the truck. The spring wildflowers are showing well up here with mule ears, larkspur, lupine, and wild onions.

The rain soon hit and turned to snow over the high pass. We made it safely home, relaxed and happy. We had met up with friends and once again had visited very special places.

Lighthawk has posted a report on this trip on Wander the West. You may find it here - Lighthawk's Memorial Day Trip


  1. Great shot of that lenticular cloud! Thanks, as always, for letting us ride along on your adventures.

  2. It seems that one of your sources for information is my two Sparkplug Mine pages on my former website. I am glad it might have been of any value in helping you find and enjoy the place. Seems like volunteers signed the upper trailhead parking area and trail. My last visit was in 2005, likely the last time I’ll ever see the place.

  3. Oh, forgot to mention that I used to soak in several of my favorite hot tubs in Long Valley, including the time previous to my moving from Big Pine to north-central Nevada. I used to work a couple days a week in Mammoth as a merchandiser, soaking the pains after a long day on an aging body was a great way to finish my day before driving home.