4x4 eastern sierra nevada great basin 4wd hiking white mountains california mono county spark plug mine champion

RECONNOITERING IN THE EASTERN SIERRA NEVADA & GREAT BASIN
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4x4 Trails:
The CHAMPION SPARKPLUG MINE

Trail Difficulty:


Easy to Moderate

Season:


Year Round – But the site gets snow in winter due to its elevation.

Elevations:


4,544' at US6 and White Mountain Ranch Road.
About 5,560' at lower trailhead.
About 6,600' at upper trailhead
7,550' at Black Eagle Camp.
About 9,000'+ at upper mine camp.

Cell phone Signal:


None to Fair – A fair signal can be obtained at the Black Eagle Camp.

Running Surface Water?:


Yes, at Black Eagle Camp.

Distance to Civilization:


About four miles to White Mountain Ranch, ten miles to the general store at Chalfant Valley, 25 miles to downtown Bishop.

Trail Travel Density:


Generally busy on weekends and holidays. There will likely be someone staying at the camp on any given day.

Nearest Supplies/Emergency Aid:


Bishop, California.

 


The Champion Sparkplug Mine 4x4 trail is unique to this series of trails on this website, as it not only involves driving, but hiking as well. The goal of the trip is the well preserved camp left from the days when Champion Sparkplug Company closed down the mine and camp during World War 2.


The camp is maintained by volunteers and those who visit the camp and kept in an “Adopt-A-Cabin” like state. The camp is on Inyo National Forest land. There are two trails that reach the camp. One climbs along the canyon bottom, a second one contours into the camp with minimal elevation gain from a trailhead on the ridge line separating Jeffery Mine Canyon from the Lone Tree Creek canyon. It takes about two hours to hike the lower trail by someone in good physical condition and carrying minimal weight; about an hour is needed to reach the camp via the upper trail by someone in the same condition.

This discussion will be broken into several sections, with photographs illustrating each.


Part 1: White Mountain Ranch

The White Mountain Ranch was part of the Champion Sparkplug Company workings. The ranch was used to raise livestock and crops to feed the miners at the camp, as well as grow feed for the mules used to transport the ore to the access road near the bottom of the canyon.

Also at the ranch were a hydroelectric generating plant and large concrete sorting tables used to sort the andalucite before transporting by the narrow gauge Southern Pacific Railroad.

The White Mountain Ranch is also the gateway to our byway to the Champion Sparkplug Mine. To reach the mine, drive to the junction of US395 and US6 at the northern end of downtown Bishop, California. Drive north on US6 for 20 miles to White Mountain Ranch Road (signed). Turn onto White Mountain Ranch Road and stop.

To your north within the chainlink fencing are two large concrete foundations. These were used to dump the andalucite from the trucks that brought the ore down from the canyon. Picture large chunks of the white, chalk-like stone piled head high and covering nearly the entire foundation.

Now look to the west, across the highway. A short distance past the highway was Shealy Siding on the narrow gauge Southern Pacific Railroad. After the andalucite was sorted for size, the ore was reloaded onto the flatbed trucks and hauled across to the railroad siding, where they were loaded onto gondola cars on the narrow gauge.

Continue east on White Mountain Ranch Road. The road is an oiled surface, maintained by Mono County and suitable for any vehicle. About 3,300 feet from US6 you will come across the hydroelectric generating plant used to generate power for operations at the plant and up at the mines and mine camp. Water to turn the Pelton wheel comes from a penstock tapping nearby Millner Creek, which runs along the road heading southeast. The penstock sticks out of the ground in places near the generating plant.

Photos – Part 1: White Mountain Ranch


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Overview map showing the general location of the Champion Sparkplug Mine.


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One of the sorting tables at the White Mountain Ranch, with the White Mountains forming a backdrop.


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The second of the sorting tables. This view looks slightly north of west, in the vicinity of Shealy Siding.


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The hydroelectric generating plant, built to power the Champion Sparkplug Company's operations in Jeffery Mine Canyon, stands at the southeastern corner of the White Mountain Ranch.


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Historic photo of Shealy Siding. This photograph is found in the Black Eagle Camp Museum.


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Map of the White Mountain Ranch and road into Jeffery Mine Canyon.


Part 2: White Mountain Ranch to Lower Trailhead

Up to and as of October 30, 2005, the route to access the Sparkplug Mine camp was via a dirt road that ran along the eastern side of the White Mountain Ranch. On October 30, 2005, a new fence ran further eastward about 500-600 feet. A gate next to the hydro plant and across the access road was unlocked and a sign indicated that a new route was being constructed around the eastern side of the fencing. The only warning was that there was to be no hunting and access to the road could be revoked at any time. As of that October date, there was no indication that a bypass road had been started, and the writer traveled the original route that was always used in the past.

Until the new route is constructed, turn north at the hydroelectric plant and through the gate. Continue north about a quarter mile to a road heading east. This route will soon exit the new fenced in section of the White Mountain Ranch and start climbing the alluvial fan of Jeffery Mine Canyon.

The route is generally in good enough shape that a standard 2WD pickup truck can make it to the lower trailhead. However, being that the route is on alluvial soil, the road's condition is always subject to change with each thunderstorm. Generally there are no large stones, so crossover SUVs, such as Toyota RAV-4s, Honda CRV's and Subaru Foresters should have no problems as long as the driver is cautious.

The route enters Jeffery Mine Canyon and ends in about 2.8 miles at the former location of Champion Sparkplug Company's transfer station, where ores carried down by mules were offloaded and put onto flatbed trucks. Also here was a large corral for the mules and other structures. As you travel along the narrow part of the canyon, watch closely for a small sign on the right side of the road indicating that the last couple of tenths of a mile are navigable by four-wheel-drive only. A crossing of the wash bottom is the culprit – often deep and eroded. There is ample space to park for those with 2WD or low slung SUVs at the sign.

Photos – Part 2: White Mountain Ranch to Lower Trailhead


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Route near the bottom of the alluvial fan, near White Mountain Ranch.


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Road dropping into the bottom of Jeffery Mine Canyon.


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The road as it nears its end. Views above toward the Black Eagle Camp and the upper mine workings begin to open up here.


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Beyond this sign it's wise to only proceed if you have a Jeep or higher clearance 4x4. If not, there is ample space to park here.


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When I made my first trip in 1991 to the Champion Sparkplug Mine, I owned this 1980 Chevrolet 2WD pickup. The sign indicated parking and that 4WD was needed to proceed beyond, although this sign is no longer there. The location shown here is near the 4x4 only sign shown in the last photo.


Part 3: The Lower Trail to Black Eagle Camp

When the writer first came to the Champion Spark Plug Mine in 1991, the lower trail was used to access the camp; but on subsequent trips utilized the upper trail. The lower route follows much of the old, original mule trail. The trail is narrow in places, and at one point it was necessary to climb out of a narrow chasm using an old wooden ladder. It is the writer's understanding that the ladder, though still there, is unnecessary, as there is now a bypass around this chasm. Using the lower trail requires an elevation gain of nearly 2,000 feet to reach the Black Eagle Camp.

Photos – Part 3: The Lower Trail to Black Eagle Camp


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Map showing the two trails to Black Eagle Camp.


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The writer and his dog about to embark on the lower trail to Black Eagle Camp in 1991. This was my his first backpacking trip in more than half a decade and he carried far too much stuff.


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A friend of the writer, who was the guide to the Sparkplug Mine.


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Pausing along the lower trail.


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Tackling some of the worst part of the lower trail.


Part 4: Road to Upper Trailhead

Near the end of the road to the lower trailhead, a second road nearly doubles back and begins to climb the northern side of Jeffery Mine Canyon. This road originally accessed some shallow prospects, but it now mostly makes itself useful as a good access to the upper trailhead. The road that accesses the upper trailhead is hard to spot, so it's best if you go to the 4x4 required sign, turn around, then head back down the canyon, where the split will then be obvious.

It is recommended that a truck based 4x4 with low range to use this road, although any 4WD or AWD should not encounter any trouble making it to the parking area; there being no bedrock projecting up through the road's surface. There is one sharp switchback encountered midway up. There have been times when mountainside debris has washed down onto the road, making for some off camber humps. At times large stones that have rolled down onto the roadway needed to be moved. The road is relatively narrow and clings to the mountainside, although the writer rode in a full size Ford Bronco owned by the U.S. Forest Service the first time he traveled it. Full size 4WD pickup trucks are routinely seen at the parking area, as well as the newest SUVs. The views are stupendous traveling this road.

The road climbs steeply about a mile to gain summit of the ridge, then tapers off a bit as it crosses a relatively flat area. Just before the parking area, the road clings to the side of Jeffery Mine Canyon. There are two places to park – the first one is found where the road makes a sharp turn back up the side of the canyon, the second a short distance above that point. Obvious parking spots are found where people have been parking for some years. There are no signs, although in the past there have been.

From either of the two parking areas, begin looking for a subtle trail that heads east to the Black Eagle Camp. Trails from the two parking areas merge a short distance east of them.

Photos – Part 4: Road to Upper Trailhead


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The split in the road, as seen looking westward from the main road through Jeffery Mine Canyon. The road on the right accesses the upper trailhead.


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The beginning of the climb to the upper trailhead.


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Looking back down into Jeffery Mine Canyon a short distance up the upper road gives an indication as to how fast this road climbs.


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Another indication of the steepness of the road is seen here, a short distance up the road to the upper trailhead, where the view back down the road into Jeffery Mine Canyon shows a late model Toyota 4-Runner parked at the 4x4 required sign near the end of the road to the lower trailhead. The Toyota 4-Runner is within the red circle.

 
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Nearing the parking area for the upper trailhead.


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The first parking area. There are a couple more on the roadway seen above the truck.


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Part 5: Upper Trail

From the upper trailhead, the upper trail contours along Jeffery Mine Canyon eastward for about 1.5 miles to the Black Eagle Camp. There is nearly 1,000 feet of elevation gain along the trail, much of it near its eastern end as it climbs up to meet the Black Eagle Camp. The upper and lower trails join near the camp, and from there the trail switchbacks a bit and then enters the Black Eagle Camp.

The upper trail is very narrow, often only the width of one's foot and runs through sections of loose shale on steep hillsides, some approaching 50° in steepness. Though the trail itself is not dangerous, this is not a trail for someone with a fear of heights nor unsteady on their feet. A misstep off balance and the potential is there for injury if one should fall, especially if loaded down with a heavy backpack. In several areas, it is vital that one watches his/her footing.

Photos – Part 5: Upper Trail


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The view up Jeffery Mine Canyon at the beginning of the upper trail. The Black Eagle Camp is about ¾ mile away, although the trail is about 1½ miles.


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The individual standing gives scale to how narrow the trail is. The trail can also be seen crossing the gray slope behind, where the trail is at its narrowest.


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This demonstrates how narrow the upper trail can get in places. The slope is around 50°, enough so that a misstep might result in a tumble for a long distance down into Jeffery Mine Canyon.


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The trail at its narrowest and on the steepest slope.


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Making one's way westward along the trail back toward the truck.


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The western end of the trail near the trailhead parking area.


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Along the trail.

 


Part 6: Black Eagle Camp

The heart of the Champion Sparkplug Company operation was at Black Eagle Camp. Here was a self contained camp that had all that a person could wish for after a hard day at work in the mine. Today, this camp has everything that a person could wish for after a hard day hiking in this beautiful countryside.

The camp sits upon a shelf in the floor of Jeffery Mine Canyon, in a nice forest of Jeffery pine trees, one of the few places that Jeffery pine grows in the White Mountains. There is a spring nearby the camp and a water system has been constructed with running water to most cabins during summer months.

Most of the buildings at the camp have been maintained to comfortable standards. Beds, minimal bedding, books, canned food, candles, maps, wood stoves, curtains, and other creature comforts.

The camp was abandoned by the Champion Sparkplug Company during World War 2. About 1966, Don and Margy Fraser began coming to the site during outings when Don was enjoying his hobby in rock collecting. A mineral known as rutile was what brought Don to the Sparkplug Mine. Within a few years, Don began to find the buildings vandalized, so started bringing up tools and supplies to repair and maintain the camp. In time, others joined him in keeping the camp maintained and found it a wonderful place to come and stay a few days.

One of the cabins has been maintained as a museum, started by Margy Fraser around 1967 or so. It is full of bric-a-brac, photos, business cards, logs, old Champion Sparkplug advertisements, samples of andalucite and the like.

For those who need to keep in touch with the outside world, the best location to use your cell phone is on the porch of the “Champion Hilton” cabin, or on the overlook south of the spring, reached by a short trail.

Photos – Part 6: Black Eagle Camp


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One of the original buildings at the Black Eagle Camp and the only one that had wood siding. This photo is of the building in 1991, when it was in rather poor shape.


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Same building in 2005. The cabin, although not weathertight nor furnished, is still kept clean and could be used to set up a tent in if necessary.


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1991.


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Two of the easternmost cabins at Black Eagle Camp in 1991, at which time they were unused, empty and a bit rundown.


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Same two cabins in 2005. Both cabins are now nicely and comfortably appointed.


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A dramatic and colorful view from the northernmost of the two cabins.


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The “Champion Hilton,” the northernmost cabin and the first that one comes at the end of the trail, has the best view of all the cabins. This photo was taken in 1991.


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The “Champion Hilton” as one reaches the Black Eagle Camp on the trail. Photo taken in 2005.


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On on the porch of the “Champion Hilton.” Photo taken in 2005.


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Photo taken in 1991. The left cabin houses the museum.


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Photo taken in 2005 of the same two cabins, but of their front sides. The museum cabin is on the right.


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The short but spooky trail south of the camp will take one to enjoy a nice lookout of the countryside to the west and down onto the camp.


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Looking down onto the Black Eagle Camp from the southern rim of Jeffery Mine Canyon; photo taken from the trail shown in the previous photo. A good cell phone signal can be had at this point also.


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This small storage magazine, photo here taken in 1991, later was modified into a sauna around 1994. It was later accidentally burned and is now a shallow depression in the slope.


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The remains of the storage magazine/sauna in 2005.


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In 1991 filling up a canteen from the spring just to the south of Black Eagle Camp. Today trips to the spring are unnecessary during summer months due to the original water supply system being restored a decade ago.

 
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Preparing a meal in one of the cabins, next to the museum, in 1991.

 
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In 1991, most of the wood stoves were in poor shape. This stove in the cabin next to the museum had a makeshift door, set upon bricks and had bracing holding it together.

 
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Interior of one of the easternmost cabins in 2005. The neatness of this cabin is representative of how most cabins are left by those using them and how cabins are appointed.


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Interior of the same cabin as the last photo. Many of the old, broken down woodstoves have been replaced by simple yet effective homebuilt stoves.


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A view typical of what items are left in each cabin for use. As they say, “take an item, leave an item.”


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Interior view of another cabin in 2005.


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Same cabin, view out the front door.


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The cooking area of the former mess hall. In addition to this woodstove, there is a Coleman white gas stove for use also.


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Sleeping arrangements in the mess hall in 2005.


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Don and Margy Fraser, photo taken in 1991, who were so instrumental in setting the example still followed today, resulting in keeping the Champion Sparkplug Mine intact to the delight of those who make the trek to enjoy its unique environment and setting. Don and Margy at last report (2005) have not made the trek to the camp in some time now, due to the fact that both are near 90 years old and getting frail.


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Black Eagle Camp Museum, 1991.


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A crucible made from local andalucite. Photo in the Black Eagle Camp Museum, 1991.


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Plaque from the 1995 ceremonies when ASM International dedicated the Champion Sparkplug Mine as an important site that contributed to modern technology.


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The museum contains several logbooks of those who have visited the camp over the years. The book sits below a copy of the June 18, 1995 article that this writer wrote for the Inyo Register (Bishop, CA) about the dedication ceremony by ASM International.


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Black Eagle Camp Museum, 2005.


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Old Champion advertisement, hanging in the Black Eagle Camp Museum.


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Old Champion advertisement, hanging in the Black Eagle Camp Museum.


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Historic photo of a miner at work. Photo is found in the Black Eagle Camp Museum.


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Photo of Dr. Jeffery, founder of the andalucite ore in Jeffery Mine Canyon. Photo is found in the Black Eagle Camp Museum.


Part 7: Upper Mine and Camp

Those visiting the Black Eagle Camp cannot go without noticing the brightly colored prominent outcropping high above them. Within this bold outcropping was found the ore that Champion Sparkplug Company was looking for. In later years, however, a open pit quarry was opened up down much closer to the camp and operations continued here until the close of operations during World War 2.

The huge outcropping hides a second camp, which is high up at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet. The outcropping itself is honeycombed with mine tunnels, one of which bores through the outcropping; the dead end of this tunnel can be seen even from the Black Eagle Camp.

There used to be several sturdy structures at the upper mine camp until 1988, when some thoughtless local teenagers burned down all but one of the cabins.

Still, the hike to the camp offers the sturdy hiker wonderful views and interesting ruins to poke through. The trail can be difficult and requires rock scrambling over loose rock due to a large rockslide that has occurred since abandonment of the mine. Along the trail are the old power and telephone poles.

The trail to the upper camp exits the east side of the Black Eagle camp and continues up Jeffery Mine Canyon. In time the trail will disappear under the rock slide and here you must start the difficult and tricky climb up the loose rocks seemingly forever. When you spot the only double-pole, which you can see from quite a distance, your goal has been found. Immediately under it is the only standing structure left at the camp. Because of the vegetation and terrain, it is hidden until you are almost upon it. If possible, stay toward the west side of the slide. As you climb, you should stumble upon the point where the trail comes out from under the slide, a few hundred yards upslope from where you began scrambling. Continue your hike on the trail for the remaining distance to the upper camp. The ruins of the other buildings are scattered around on various levels around this cabin, and the portal into the mine is obvious. Though the writer does not endorse entry into old and abandoned mines, the mine is a honeycomb affair within the colossal outcropping and appeared relatively safe.

Photos – Part 7: Upper Mine and Camp


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Onthe trail to the upper mine and camp in 1991.


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Inspecting the ruin of a watering trough for the mules along the upper trail. Photo taken in 1991.


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Remains of the upper camp in 1991.


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A view of the only remaining cabin at the upper camp, along with a double power/telephone pole. Photo taken in 1991.


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A view of the upper mine camp from one of the mine portals, 1991.


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Inspecting the remains of a wood cookstove at the site of one of the cabins that was burned down in 1988. The view down the canyon gives ample evidence of how rugged and steep this countryside is. Photo taken in 1991.


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At the ruin of one of the upper mine cabins in 1991.


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A view of the perforated outcropping that was tapped for andalucite ores. Photo taken in 1991.


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View of the main mine portal from the remaining cabin at the upper mine and camp in 1991.


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One of the mine tunnels bores completely through the outcropping, ending at a deadly plunge. A wonderful view of the camp and surrounding countryside can be enjoyed from the end of the tunnel. But stay a safe distance behind that flimsy cable! Photo taken in 1991.


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Sauntering through the tunnels in the upper mine in 1991.

 


Epilogue:

Please leave the Black Eagle Camp as you found it. This site is popular yet relatively unknown. Many of those who visit are repeat visitors; many local people often make the trip up to spend a few days or simply to check on the camp. As with any Adopt-A-Cabin, bring something to leave for the next party who comes to stay. Food, magazines, books, maps, firewood, tools, repair materials and supplies and the like are all appreciated by those who come to stay a night or more.

In winter, the water system is apt to be turned off to prevent freezing and breaking of pipes. The spring has ample flow if the water system is turned off. Please don't turn on the water system in winter.

Take care with fire in the woodstoves. The camp doesn't need another fire which could wipe out the entire camp.

Enjoy your stay at the Champion Sparkplug Mine!

Maps: USGS 7.5” Topographic

Chidago Canyon, California
Chalfant Valley, California
White Mountain Peak, California

Books for Further Reading:


THE CHAMPION SPARKPLUG MINE - Kelsey, Bill & Louise
The Album: Times and Tales of Inyo-Mono

Volume V, Number 4 (October 1992)

Chalfant Press, Bishop, California


SPARKS ON THE MOUNTAIN - Wright, David A.

The Album: Times and Tales of Inyo-Mono

Volume VI Number 1 (February, 1993)

Chalfant Press, Bishop, California


(A copy of both issues of The Album may be found in the Black Eagle Camp Museum.)


NATURAL HISTORY OF THE WHITE-INHYO RANGE, EASTERN CALIFORNIA AND WESTERN NEVADA AND HIGH ALTITUDE PHYSIOLOGY: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, WHITE MOUNTAIN RESEARCH STATION SYMPOSIUM Volume 1, August 23-25, 1985 - Edited by Clarence A. Hall Jr. and Donna J. Young


ADVENTURING IN THE CALIFORNIA DESERT: THE SIERRA CLUB TRAVEL GUIDE TO THE GREAT BASIN, MOJAVE AND COLORADO DESERT REGIONS OF CALIFORNIA - Foster, Lynne
Sierra Club Books


Created date: 2005


Page Revised: 08/24/2010