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Onion Valley Road; former California State Route 180 to Kearsarge Pass

This summer I had an opportunity to drive one of the lesser known great roads of California; Onion Valley Road from Independence west to Onion Valley near Kearsarge Pass.  Aside from being massive climb into the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains the path of Onion Valley Road was once signed as California State Route 180 and was intended to be part of a Trans-Sierra Highway.


Onion Valley Road is located west of Independence of Inyo County and is 12.9 miles in length.  According to pjammcycling.com Onion Valley Road begins at an elevation of 3,946 feet above sea level in Independence and terminates at 9,219 feet above sea level at Onion Valley.  Pjammcycling rates Onion Valley Road with an average gradient of 7.8% and lists it as the 6th most difficult cycling climb in the United States.  Onion Valley Road also includes ten switchbacks which largely follow the course of Independence Creek.  Anyway you look at it the route of Onion Valley Road is no joke and is definitely a test of driving ability.


My choice in vehicle for the drive on Onion Valley Road was my 2016 Dodge Challenger Scat Pack.  My daily driver is a Subaru Impreza which often might seem ideal for such a road in most circumstances.  That said, earlier this year I took my Impreza up Mineral King Road in Sequoia National Park.  The uphill climb on Mineral King Road wasn't so much of an issue but holding a low gear with the Impreza's CVT was not an easy endeavor heading back downhill.  Having a large 392 cubic engine, an eight speed transmission and four wheel vented disc brakes seemed like a must have on Onion Valley Road (and later in the day Horseshoe Meadows Road).  Besides, a cool road (especially when paved the whole way) in my opinion demands a cool car.



Part 1; the history of Onion Valley Road and the intended path of California State Route 180 over the Sierra Nevada Mountains

The route through Onion Valley to Kearsarge Pass was established as a path of travel due to the development of the Kearsarge Mine.  The mining claims in Kearsarge Pass were discovered during the Fall of 1864 when a vein of silver and gold was located.  These mining claims led to the establishment of the Kearsarge Mining District.  Onion Valley Road was constructed as a haul road from nearby Independence to reach the mines of Kearsarge Pass.  An avalanche during 1866 led to the relocation of much of population of Kearsarge Mine to Independence and Kearsarge Station on the Carson & Colorado Railroad.  The Kearsarge Mine was named in honor of the Union Ship USS Kearsarge which sunk the CSS Alabama during the Civil War.  The Kearsarge Mine operated on a significant scale until the early 1880s and was abandoned by 1888.  Several attempts to redevelop the Kearsarge Mine during the 20th Century failed.

The below USGS photo shows the Kearsarge Mine as it was in 1871.


The below photo sourced from Tales Along El Camino Sierra shows the Kearsarge Mine just off of Onion Valley Road looking east towards Independence.


The below photo sourced from Tales Along El Camino Sierra shows the view from Kearsarge Pass looking down towards Onion Valley and Owens Valley. 


One of the more vexing mysteries of the early Sign State Route era which has always intrigued me is the planned route of California State Route 180 ("CA 180") over Kearsarge Pass.  The original Sign State Route definition of CA 180 announced in the August 1934 California Highways & Public Works shows that it was intended to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains to an eastern terminus at Independence via Kings Canyon and Kearsarge Pass.



What would become CA 180 consisted partially of what was Legislative Route 41 ("LRN 41").  LRN 41 was loosely defined in 1905 according to CAhighways.org which authorized the following:

"locating, surveying, and constructing a public highway from the General Grant National Park in Fresno County, thence E-ly into Kings Canyon..."

During 1909 what would become LRN 41 was updated with the following definition:

"The highway now completely located and surveyed, and partially completed ... from the General Grant National Park to the floor of the Kings River Canyon is hereby made a state highway..."

The 1919 Third State Highway Bond Act authorized funding for construction of the Kings River Canyon State Road.  This definition was updated in 1935 to specify three segments of LRN 41:

-  Legislative Route 5 near Tracy to [LRN 4] near Fresno
-  Legislative Route 4 near Fresno to General Grant National Park
-  General Grant National Park to Kings River Canyon

Notably the October 1931 California Highways & Public Works discusses a reconnaissance trip of the South Fork Kings River Basin via Kearsarge Pass, Bullfrog Lake, and Junction Meadow to survey snow courses.  The article elaborates further by stating a cooperative survey between the Division of Highways and Forest Service was in the works to survey a route for a new highway through Sequoia National Forest and Inyo National Forest.


Despite CA 180 clearly being intended in it's original definition to reach Independence the definition of LRN 41 was never extended east of Kings Canyon.  This implies that any road from the Kings Canyon east over Kearsarge Pass to Independence would have been maintained by the Forest Service and Inyo County.  Regardless several early Sign State Route era maps show CA 180 existing from near Kearsarge Pass east via Onion Valley Road to Independence (note; early Sign State Routes were signed by the Auto Clubs and not restricted to State Maintained Highways).  CA 180 can be clearly seen on Onion Valley Road along with the planned connecting route over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Kings River Canyon on the 1935 Goshua Highway Map of California.


Onion Valley Road can be seen under local control on the 1935 Division of Highways Map of Inyo County.


The 1937 Goshua Highway Map of California also shows CA 180 on Onion Valley along with it's planned route west to the Kings River Canyon.


On March 4th 1940 General Grant National Park was expanded into what is now Kings Canyon National Park.  The new boundary of Kings Canyon National Park annexed a great deal of Sequoia National Forest north from the boundary of Sequoia National Park towards the planned route of the Piute Pass Highway (planned CA 168).  It seems that the National Park Service didn't have an interest in buildings a Trans-Sierra Highway via the Kings River Watershed or allowing the Piute Pass Highway as both routes more or less faded into obscurity.  The newly expanded Kings Canyon National Park can be seen for the first time on the 1940 Division of Highways State Map.

Onion Valley Road is discussed in a March/April 1962 California Highways & Public Works.  The lower 8.5 miles of Onion Valley Road are described as being improved by Inyo County during 1956 as part of Federal Air Secondary Project 1183.  The Inyo County Board of Supervisors requested a 5.4 mile extension of Federal Aid Secondary Project 1183 another 5.4 miles to reach Onion Valley proper.  The project over the final 5.4 miles of Onion Valley Road included; reducing the number switchbacks from 17, reducing the grade to approximately 8%, and saving 1.5 miles of travel.  Much of the new alignment of Onion Valley Road over the last 5.4 upper miles is described as obliterating the older mining road. 

The John Muir Wilderness was established in 1964 which enhanced protections over existing National Forest Lands.  The John Muir Wilderness was enabled by the Wilderness Act of 1964 which largely sought to stop highway development in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  The John Muir Wilderness largely seems to have been an attempt to stop numerous planned Trans-Sierra Highways as it's boundaries cover the planned routes of:

-  The original planned route of the Lone Pine-Porterville High Sierra Road (CA 190) through Horseshoe Meadows and Mulky Pass.  
-  The previously planned route of CA 180 over Kearsearge Pass.
-  The previously planned route of CA 168 over Piute Pass.
-  The often proposed Minaret Summit Highway.

The boundaries of the John Muir Wilderness can be seen below:



Part 2; a drive up Onion Valley Road

My approach to Onion Valley Road was from US Route 395 (Edwards Street) southbound in Independence.  I made a right hand turn onto from US 395 westbound onto Market Street.



The Mary Austin House can be found at the corner of Market Street and and Webster Street. 




The Eastern Sierra Museum can be found on Market Street at the intersection of Grant Street.


Market Street west of Independence becomes Onion Valley Road.  Traffic is advised that the Grays Meadow Campground is 6 miles away whereas Onion Valley is signed as 13 miles away.  I turned off my air conditioner upon leaving Independence and took a coolant temperature reading of 204F.




Onion Valley Road westbound begins to almost immediately climb uphill and enters Inyo National Forest.  Onion Valley Road within Inyo National Forest is still under Inyo County maintenance.  Onion Valley Road westward into Inyo National Forest forms a bubble in the John Muir Wilderness.







Onion Valley Road passes by Foothill Road.



Onion Valley Road begins to climb into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and passes by Lower Grays Meadow Campground.





Onion Valley Road swings northward approaching Upper Grays Meadow Campground.



As Onion Valley Road passes by Seven Pines Road, Onion Valley is signed as 6 miles to the west.  Traffic is notified that snow removal ahead only occurs between 8 AM-4 PM, 7 miles of falling rocks are ahead, along with 7 miles of slide zones are ahead.  Onion Valley Road also crosses over Independence Creek.




Onion Valley Road swings eastward towards the first of ten hairpin curves.




Onion Valley Road swings northward towards hairpin number two.








Onion Valley Road makes a southwest jog towards hairpin number three.











Onion Valley Road jogs quickly to hairpin number four.




Onion Valley Road makes another southward turn towards hairpin number five.




Onion Valley Road turns northward towards hairpin number six.




Onion Valley Road turns south and then west towards hairpin number seven.




Onion Valley Road turns east again to hairpin number eight.


Onion Valley Road takes a western jog to hairpin number nine.



Onion Valley Road approaches hairpin number ten headed eastbound.



Onion Valley Road swings westward and enters Onion Valley itself where it terminates at a parking lot.








Upon my arrival in Onion Valley my coolant temperature read 219F.  I didn't have time to hike to Kearsarge Pass but I did have time to look around for some evidence of the Kearsarge Mine.  There is a packing station in Onion Valley dating back to 1872 which claims to be the oldest in the High Sierra.  Notably the mining town of Kearsarge was in the running for the first Inyo County Seat.  Inyo County was formed out of what Coso County on March 22nd 1866.  The 1866 avalanche in the Kearsarge Mine occurred on March 1st which essentially handed the County Seat to Independence.  Reportedly there is still evidence of foundations in Onion Valley and a pulley system which climbed to Kearsarge Pass. 












The Kearsarge Pass Trailhead has information regarding regulations in the John Muir Wilderness.  As Onion Valley and Kearsarge Pass are now it is hard to envision CA 180 continuing westward to Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. 





Part 3; a drive back down Onion Valley Road

My drive back to Independence began after I had a breakfast in Onion Valley, by then my engine temperature had returned to normal.  I found myself using mostly 2nd and 3rd gear headed downhill from Onion Valley towards Grays Meadow Campground.  Traffic heading out of Onion Valley is advised of 7 miles of rockfall and is greeted by a wide vista approaching hairpin number ten.






Onion Valley Road eastbound approaching hairpin number ten.




Onion Valley Road eastbound approaching hairpin number nine.


Onion Valley Road eastbound approaching hairpin number eight.



Onion Valley Road eastbound approaching hairpin number seven.


Onion Valley Road eastbound approaching hairpin number six.





Onion Valley Road eastbound approaching hairpin number five.



Between hairpins five and four a large vista of Owens Valley in addition to the White Mountains can be found.  Both were obscured by the ongoing fire in the Golden Trout Wilderness.







Onion Valley Road eastbound approaching hairpin number three.



Onion Valley Road eastbound approaching hairpin number two.








Onion Valley Road eastbound approaching hairpin number one.







Onion Valley Road eastbound descending to Grays Meadow Campground.





Onion Valley Road eastbound leaving Inyo National Forest.






Onion Valley Road eastbound descending to Market Street in Independence along with Market Street intersecting US 395.  I made a southbound turn onto US 395 in Independence to head towards Lone Pine and Horseshoe Meadows Road.









Article update log

-  Published; 8/30/20

-  Update 1; 1/24/21

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