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9 Fun Things to Do in Independence, California

If you are planning an Eastern Sierra vacation, Independence offers outstanding natural scenery as well as a number of sights of cultural or historical significance.

Located between Bishop and Lone Pine in Inyo County, Independence is often overlooked by visitors to the region. But whether you make it a stop on a Highway 395 road trip, or you plan to spend a night or two here, you will find plenty to keep you engaged in Independence.

Native Plant Garden in Independence California
A view of the Sierra Nevada at Independence

The county seat of Inyo County, Independence is nestled in the Owens Valley, with the towering Sierra Nevada to the west and the Inyo Mountains to the east. It’s a laid-back destination, equally a draw for outdoor enthusiasts that wish to hike, bike, or go horseback riding into the mountains, and for history and culture buffs looking to learn more about the region’s past.

Read on to discover the best things to do in Independence!

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Things to Do in Independence, CA
Things to Do Near Independence, California
Getting to Independence, CA
Getting Around in Independence
Where to Stay in Independence, CA
Where to Eat in Independence, California
The Best Time to Visit Independence, CA

Things to Do in Independence, CA

Visit the Eastern California Museum

History buffs will definitely want to tour the Eastern California Museum, established in 1928. The museum is focused on the natural and cultural history of the region, from Death Valley in the south to Mono Lake in the north.

Eastern California Museum in Independence, California
A visit to the Eastern California Museum is a must!

One of the highlights of the museum is the collection of Native American basketry, showcasing the work of the Paiute-Shoshone and the Panamint-Shoshone. You’ll find several hundred baskets to admire, along with other artifacts, such as beadwork and bows and arrows.

Among the permanent exhibits at the Eastern California Museum is the exhibit on Norman Clyde, an adventurer that explored the Sierra Nevada extensively for several decades of his life. He climbed numerous peaks in the area, and is an inspiration to lovers of this beautiful region.

The museum also features artifacts from nearby Manzanar, and an extensive collection of historical photos from the region. The bookstore makes for a great browse. At the Larry Peckham Engine house, you can view the Slim Princess, a historic narrow-gauge steam locomotive.

Outdoor Exhibits at the Eastern Sierra Museum in Independence CA
Outdoor exhibits at the museum

The Eastern California Museum is free to visit, although donations are appreciated. It is located at 155, N. Grant Street, and is open every day between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., major holidays excepted.

Walk the Mary DeDecker Native Plant Garden

If you enjoy plants, don’t miss the Mary DeDecker Native Plant Garden in Independence, located right outside the Eastern California Museum. The garden is a part of the museum complex, located along the nature trail to the north of the museum building.

Mary DeDecker Native Plant Garden in Independence California
The native plant garden makes for a pleasant stroll

The garden honors botanist Mary DeDecker, who explored the Eastern Sierra on family camping trips and became interested in its flora and natural history. She discovered six plants, and founded the Bristlecone chapter of the California Native Plants Society, which designed (and maintains) the garden.

While some plants here are naturally occurring, and mature, several young plants from local seeds have been planted as well. The garden is laid out along Independence Creek.

Dehy Park Trail in Independence, CA
Walking the native plant garden

Walking the pathways through the plants is a joy, and you get gorgeous views of the Sierra Nevada in the distance. In the spring, you will find many plants in bloom. Planted specimens are labeled. Look for birds as you walk.

Entrance to the garden is free. Dogs on leash are allowed, but digging is not permitted.

Stroll the Easy Dehy Park Trail

For a short, easy, and scenic hike, continue past the native garden along the northern path to Dehy Park, located at the northern end of Independence.

A view of the Sierra Nevada from the Dehy Park Trail in Independence CA
A view of the Sierra Nevada from the trail

The trail is flat and well-marked, and features fabulous views of the Sierra Nevada. At either end, little bridges take you over Independence Creek. Enjoy wildflowers in the spring, and look for birds and wildlife along the route.

Dehy Park has beautiful mountain views and a creek that runs through it, making for a pleasant walk. There are picnic tables and grills, if you wish to enjoy a picnic meal.

Snap a Photo of the County Courthouse

The Inyo County Courthouse is gorgeous! It is definitely worth at least a stop for photos: you will find the building along North Edwards Street (Highway 395).

County Courthouse in Independence, CA
The County Courthouse building is stunning!

Built in the early 1920s in the Classical Revival style, the courthouse was designed by architect William H. Weeks. The impressive building is the only example of this architectural style you’ll find in the region.

The courthouse is included in the National Register of Historic Places. It features a small rose garden in front, and looks beautiful both by day and by night.

Admire the Historic Mary Austin House

Mary Hunter Austin wrote novels and essays about the Owens Valley and the American Southwest, and is most known for The Land of Little Rain, published in 1903. Her first book, it is a wonderful collection of essays about the Owens Valley: a great read before your trip to the valley.

Mary Austin House in Independence California
The Mary Austin House makes for a great photo!

Her former home in Independence, a California Historical Landmark, is located at 253 Market Street. The little house features a white picket fence and a photogenic facade, and the historical marker in front has an excerpt from the book.

Tour Manzanar National Historic Site

During WWII, the US government relocated more than 110,000 Japanese American citizens and Japanese residents to ten internment camps. Manzanar was one of the ten incarceration sites.

Manzanar Memorial at the National Historic Site near Independence, CA
Admire the lovely Manzanar Memorial at the cemetery

Located along US 395 about six miles south of Independence, Manzanar is today a National Historic Site, and you can view different parts of the camp on a self-guided auto tour.

Make sure you start at the Visitor Center building, where you can get a park brochure, view the extensive interpretive exhibits, and watch the park film, Remembering Manzanar, which plays every half hour. Exhibits include a huge wall that lists the names of the over 10,000 people that were held here.

Wall honoring the internees at Manzanar National Historic Site in Independence, California
More than 10,000 names are listed on this wall

At Block 14, you can tour two barrack buildings and the mess hall. At the back of the complex, stop by the cemetery to snap a photo of the Manzanar memorial against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Visit the Mt. Whitney Historic Fish Hatchery

The first fish hatchery in California, Mt. Whitney Historic Fish Hatchery is a must-visit in Independence. Fun for kids and adults alike, the hatchery offers education on local wildlife, along with fun activities.

The building itself is very photogenic, and is set in the midst of scenic surroundings. Snap photos of the building and ponds, and then tour the facility. You can even feed the rainbow trout and golden trout in the ponds!

Mt. Whitney Historic Fish Hatchery in Independence, California
The hatchery building is very photogenic!

Established in 1917, the hatchery bred rainbow and golden trout for several decades, from eggs collected at Rae Lakes and Cottonwood Lakes. Operations were shut down in 1996 for financial reasons, and the historic hatchery was repurposed as a tourist (and events) destination.

The hatchery has several exhibits on local wildlife, and you can view a video about its history. The gift shop offers souvenirs and the grounds are worth a wander.

Pond at the Mt. Whitney Historic Fish Hatchery in Independence, CA
One of the ponds at the hatchery

There is no fee to enter Mt. Whitney Historic Fish Hatchery, although donations are appreciated. Fish food costs a nominal amount. The hatchery is located at 1, Golden Trout Circle, and is open Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. through 3.30 p.m.

Do the Scenic Onion Valley Road Drive

In our opinion, Onion Valley Road is one of the most scenic drives in the Eastern Sierra. Just like Whitney Portal Road in Lone Pine, Onion Valley Road features magnificent panoramas of the Owens Valley. You can also bike the road: it is considered the most challenging road bike climb in California.

Onion Valley Road in Independence, CA
Onion Valley Road is scenic from end to end!

Just a little over 13 miles in length, Onion Valley Road runs from the town of Independence to the campground at Onion Valley. It is a steep and winding road. It was in excellent condition when we drove it.

As you climb above the valley, expect jaw-dropping views at every bend, either of the valley below, or the mountains at the top. The grade increases as you climb, becoming quite steep in the final stretch. The elevation gain is over 5,000 feet: Onion Valley Campground is at an elevation of about 9,200 feet.

View at Onion Valley Campground in Independence, CA
Gorgeous views abound in Onion Valley

At the top, you can see a waterfall from the parking area, which also features trailheads for a number of Eastern Sierra hikes. The waterfall may dry up later in the year in dry years. In late spring and early summer, enjoy wildflowers all along the route and around the parking area at the top.

Because of winter snow accumulations, Onion Valley Road is generally only open between May and November. It is a beautiful drive!

Do Some Epic Eastern Sierra Hikes

From Independence, you can hike into the Sierra Nevadas or the Inyo Mountains, with options for both day hikes and backpacking. Overnight trips into the wilderness require permits, so obtain them in advance.

Hikes at Onion Valley Trailhead in the Eastern Sierra of California
Several hikes start at the Onion Valley Trailhead

The Onion Valley area offers access to the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park. One of the most challenging hikes you can do from Onion Valley is the 43.6-mile point-to-point backpacking trip to Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states.

The Kearsarge Pass Trail to Kearsarge Lakes is another popular hike from Onion Valley. The strenuous out-and-back hike is 12 miles round trip, and features spectacular Eastern Sierra scenery, from mountain peaks and valleys to alpine lakes and streams. But you can hike in a couple of miles to Gilbert Lake and back for a much shorter and more moderate day hike.

Kearsarge Pass Trail at Onion Valley
Hiking Kearsarge Pass Trail

The Robinson Lake Trail is just 1.3 miles each way from Onion Valley, but the trail is strenuous and not consistently maintained. Onion Valley to Flower Lake is another out-and-back day hike that offers stunning scenery, albeit with some elevation gain.

From the Shepherd Pass trailhead, the Shepherd Pass Trail is a challenging 6,000-foot climb to the pass. From here, you can hike into Sequoia National Park and onto the John Muir Trail.

Things to Do Near Independence, CA

While there is quite a bit to do in Independence, the community also makes a good base for exploring the rest of Inyo County. Driving up and down Highway 395 to various attractions and landmarks is easy.

To the south, you will find the town of Lone Pine, where you can drive Whitney Portal Road or hike to the summit of Mount Whitney. The Museum of Western Film History makes for a great visit as well. Also at Lone Pine, the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area is home to beautiful rock formations and natural arches.

Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California
Visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine

The western entrance to Death Valley National Park is just over an hour away, and you can even visit for the day from Independence. Darwin Falls is a lovely waterfall in the western portion of the park, and if you are up for challenging hikes, Wildrose Peak and Telescope Peak are also located nearby.

To the north of Independence, at Big Pine, you can do the short hike to the First Falls at Big Pine Creek. Or drive Highway 168 east to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest to see the oldest trees on the planet.

Further north, Bishop is an outdoor adventurers’ mecca, offering world-class bouldering sites, several stunning lakes, and epic hikes. The town is worth wandering as well, with lots of lovely street art and a beautiful park.

Mural in Bishop, CA
One of Bishop’s many murals

And even further north is Mammoth Lakes, with several beautiful lakes and natural wonders to explore. Here you will find Devils Postpile National Monument, where you can hike to gorgeous Rainbow Falls, and Hot Creek Geological Site, a mini wonderland of hot springs and steam vents.

Getting to Independence, California

Mammoth Yosemite Airport, about 80 miles north of Independence, is the nearest airport. Flights in and out of the regional airport may be somewhat limited, and geared to the winter sports season.

Most visitors visit Independence by road, since it is located along Highway 395, the main corridor through the Eastern Sierra region. Whether you drive north on US 395 from LA (or Palm Springs) and points south, or from the north (Yosemite National Park, or South Lake Tahoe/Reno and points north), the drive is spectacular.

Waterfall at Onion Valley in Independence, California
The waterfall at Onion Valley Campground

Getting around

A vehicle is required in order to explore the region. A 4WD SUV will allow you to drive dirt roads in relative comfort, and dirt roads tend to be common in the Eastern Sierra, especially final stretches of road to trailheads in the mountains.

We did our Eastern Sierra trip in a regular car, but we kept dirt road driving to a minimum. We were able to do short dirt road stretches in our little sedan, but you have to drive very slow and expect the ride to be very bumpy.

Looking to rent a vehicle for your Independence CA trip? Discover Cars offers you the ability to compare availability and prices across many major car-hire companies. Pick the car that best meets your needs!

Book your car with Discover Cars now!

Onion Valley Road in Independence CA
A view from Onion Valley Road

Where to Stay in Independence, CA

Hotels in Independence, California

Mt. Williamson Motel and Basecamp offers air-conditioned rooms with free parking and free wifi. The motel is located along Highway 395. Rooms are clean and beds comfortable, and the breakfast is highly rated.
Book a stay here

Independence Courthouse Motel is conveniently located along Highway 395, not too far from the Eastern California Museum. Rooms are air-conditioned, clean, and comfortable, and wifi and parking are free. There are barbecue facilities onsite and guests may be offered a fruit basket on arrival.
Book a stay here

A bridge over Independence Creek in Independence California
Walking a bridge over Independence Creek

Where to Eat in Independence, California

Good to know: Independence is a tiny community, with limited dining options. The larger town of Lone Pine, where you will find several restaurants and grocery stores, is about 16 miles away.

Still Life Cafe is a French bistro that offers well-made food, from fresh salads to burgers, pasta dishes, and meat items. The local art on the walls is lovely. It’s a small family-run operation, and hours can be hit or miss, so be sure to call before you go. We ate here both days we were in Independence and would not hesitate to go again!

Beautiful scenery at Onion Valley in California
Aspens at Onion Valley

The Best Time to Visit Independence, CA

The best times of year to explore Owens Valley, including Independence, are late spring and fall. Temperatures are pleasant in the valley in these seasons, making outdoor exploration pleasant. Fall offers fabulous leaf peeping, and spring brings a variety of wildflowers.

Wildflowers at Onion Valley near Independence CA in the summer
Wildflowers at Onion Valley in July

While pleasant daytime temperatures on the valley floor make winter a pleasant time to visit, roads leading into the mountains will likely be closed due to snow.

In the summer, daytime highs in the Owens Valley can soar into the high 90s or low 100s, but summer is a great time to go hiking at higher elevations, such as at Onion Valley.

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Discover the best things to do in and around Independence, CA! The Eastern Sierra community offers spectacular scenery as well as cultural and historical sights.

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

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