May/June, North America, September/October, Travel Guide

Guide to Owens Valley, USA

Friday 14 February, 2014
Riding the Sierra Nevada from Walt’s Point. Photo: Jonathan Dietch

Riding the Sierra Nevada from Walt’s Point. Photo: Jonathan Dietch

Owens is the stuff of legends – top-end stuff, but not to be missed on a USA trip


The Owens Valley is not for the faint-hearted, but pick your season, and the valley’s rocky peaks pump powerful climbs up to 6,000m over the deepest valley in the United States.

Bishop is a quaint western adventure town which thrives on skiers heading to Mammoth Mountain in the winter, and climbers, hikers, and other tourists who come to spend time in the Sierras in the summer and fall. The rock climbing and bouldering is world class in the Alabama Hills.

Amenities are substantial considering how close visitors are to vast tracts of wilderness.

The main launches close to town are Flynns, Paiute and Gunter in the White Mountains on the east side of the valley. 4×4 access only. Facing west, they work in the afternoon. Paiute and Gunter start first as they’re 800 m higher than Flynns. Flynns offers easier access, great XCs and beautiful glass-offs.

On the other side of the valley is one of America’s XC jewels: Walt’s Point. The first 100 and 200-milers in the United States originated here on both paragliders and hang gliders. The launch is a road cutting sitting precariously at the back of a canyon. Launching a paraglider is always an intense experience; it’s often difficult to get your wing into the clean cycles that swirl up and over the road cutting, the glide out is questionable, and the climb right off launch can be throttling.

However, using Walt’s allows you to start deep in the Sierras from where you can fly by Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states. Eventually you can leave the Sierras and cross Owens Valley to the White Mountains, from where you can follow the range until it ends, leave California and enter the Nevada desert – a glorious life experience.

Strong mountain thermals and mountain desert flying. Light winds are critical. Only go flying during the suggested months, as the desert floor heats too much in mid-summer for sane or safe piloting.

Spring: May-early June (HGs survive into July).
August: Jedi only!
Autumn: September-mid-October

Cloudbase:  4,000-6,000m
Launches: Flynns 1,500m,
Gunter 2,40 m,
Paiute 2,419m,
Walt’s Point 2,743m
Landings: Valley Floor 1,219m

All the sites can be driven up.

Launch off the White Mountains and head north along the range to the Nevada border (about 60km/40miles). There’s something about crossing state lines that just makes you smile.

Advanced XC pilots: take advantage of the small window of opportunity in late spring or early fall for a breathtaking flight through the Sierras from Walt’s. Heading north it’s 60 miles to Bishop, and 100 puts you in Nevada. It’s a ride you’ll never forget.

Extreme thermic turbulence in the height of summer.

High winds! Winds typically run along the valley floor and form strong rotor behind spines and in canyons.

Strong prevailing west winds can spill over the tops of the Sierras. Check the weather carefully before flying there.

Bishop has a small airport, with class E airspace, a couple miles east of town.

Low-key, but consistent. Book whichever of the Super 8/ Holiday Inn places has a deal when you’re there. The Townhouse Motel is where many pilots stay as it’s central and well priced.

Camping with showers at Browns Camp Ground on Highway 395 at the south end of town, and plenty of other campgrounds throughout the valley.

Triple HG world champion and X-Alps athlete Kari Castle is based here and runs courses and guides.
Eagle Paragliding

“Owens thermals can send you into orbit at speeds that can turn your knuckles white. Personal bests are set in the Owens all the time.” Nick Greece, USPHA Editor

Only if they’re into nature and outdoor activities.

Hot springs and a visit to the world famous Schat’s Bakery in Bishop.

Weather.com for a general forecast including wind directions on the valley floor. Or www.XCskies.com.

Check the NOAA winds aloft for BIH (Bishop) and FAT (Fresno). Checking FAT gives a hint as to how much west wind you can anticipate when flying on the Sierra side of the Owens.

For real time winds go to www.wrh.noaa.gov/mesowest/index.php and select ‘Hanford CWA’

Fly to Reno, Nevada and rent a 4×4 for the 3½-hour journey. Internationally, Los Angeles/Ontario airport in California is the closest city to fly into.

For flying info
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