Eastern Sierra SMASH
Updated: Oct 16, 2022
This article covers all of the survey marks I recovered during my week-long trip (August 20-26) to Lone Pine, including my successful summit of Mount Whitney on Thursday, August 24, 2022. My trip report from that adventure is linked at the end of this post (and in the hyperlink above 😉); it contains a lot of great information if you are preparing for your own Mount Whitney journey, as well as the story of my 3-Day overnight trip.
I had developed a general itinerary for the week that included looking for survey marks, altitude acclimation, warm-up hikes, sightseeing, and ultimately summiting Mount Whitney. This article will cover all the survey marks I found during the trip.
The drive to Lone Pine is generally a five-hour drive from the house. I resisted the temptation to research and create waypoints for markers on my drive to Lone Pine, as it would be easy to spend the entire day stopping for recoveries. Instead, I limited my research to marks in a few key locations in the Lone pine/Independence area: the Manzanar historical site, Alabama Hills, Whitney Portal Road, and Mount Whitney.
U.S. Route 395 (Saturday)
A true Drive-By Recovery is an unexpected bonus and always exciting; unlike USGS Topo Map Recoveries, no symbol on the map indicates a potential survey mark. Drive-By Recoveries are found by either spotting a witness post, concrete monument, or the survey mark itself. Often, I'll see a witness post or monument, but there is no safe place to pull over. I had just passed through the small town of Johannesburg, northbound on the 395, when I saw a tell-tale red and white striped witness post on the berm ahead. There was a wide shoulder and no traffic, so I stopped to check it out. At first, I thought it was a postmile marker, but after further research, I found the Report of Survey that identified it as a CALTRANS Right of Way marker.
WHITE (PID: GT1771) and WHITE AZ MK (PID: GT1770)
The next two recoveries were ones that I had researched and plotted on my map beforehand. Using the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) Data Explorer, I found these marks, printed the datasheets, and plotted their coordinates in my GAIA GPS App. The first was Triangulation Station WHITE, located just off the road near the Lone Pine Airport. As you can see from the photos, this was well-marked with witness stakes/signs, which was good since it was buried when I got there. The datasheet listed a Reference Mark 1 and another Benchmark (W 1162) that served as RM 2; however, given their location and my schedule, I chose not to look for them.
The WHITE Azimuth Mark was located 0.30-miles further north on the 395. Once again, obvious witness posts and flagging made this one another easy recovery. Still, I had to clear the dirt and debris from the monument to prep it for photos.
Inyo County Airport (Abandoned)
Using the NGS Data Explorer, I identified several potential recoveries at the site of the WWII Internment Camp at Manzanar and a nearby abandoned airfield. I planned to visit the airfield first, then double back across the 395 to Manzanar.
This airfield was used as an auxiliary training facility for U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) during WWII and was later used as a civil airport until it was closed in 1956.
I made five recoveries, as anticipated, from the information I pulled from the NGS Data Explorer. As you can see from the photos below, all of the marks are still in very good condition. The coolest find on this site was SW 5 (PID: GT0211). At first glance, this mark looks like a plain brass disc; however, it is a brass shell casing turned upside down and mounted in a cylindrical concrete monument!
All of these marks are related to CAMERA POST 5 RESET (PID: GT1760); the original mark (CAMERA POST 5) was a nail set in the top of an 11-inch by 4-foot wood post that had been destroyed. The reset using an NGS Horizontal Control Mark was done in 1984.
RADIST L RESET (PID: GT1761)
Another reset in 1984, this one using an NGS Reference Mark disc, replaced the stem from the original disc that had been destroyed. While this looks like it would be easy to find, it took me forever to locate it.
When I initially parked on the abandoned runway, I had inadvertently parked over the mark! 🤣🤷🏻♂️😂 My GPS kept bouncing around and had me searching a wide section of runway nowhere near where my truck was. Ready to give up, I was walking back to the truck and caught a glimpse of the marker under the front end; 🙄 I backed the truck out of the way and finished the recovery.
Manzanar War Relocation Center Historical Site
Originally recognized as a California Historic Landmark in 1972, it was named a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1976, a National Historic Landmark in 1985, and finally, a National Historic Site in 1992. The Center is currently under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. For more information and history from the NPS on Japanese-American Interment Sites, this 2001 Report to the President of the United States is a good starting point.
Within months of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the entire west coast was determined to be a military area. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, allowed military commanders to exclude civilians from all military areas; while the executive order did not specifically identify specific ethnic groups, those of Japanese descent were targeted. The military initially encouraged Japanese Americans to evacuate voluntarily but soon began the forced evacuation of more than 110,000 Japanese-American citizens to one of ten Relocation Centers. The Manzar War Relocation Center was used from March 1942 to November 1945 and was the sixth such facility to close following the war's end.
SW 8 (PID: GT1803)
Five must be my lucky number! I left the airfield with five recoveries and had five at Manzanar, including my second Shell Casing survey mark, SW 8 (PID: GT1803). Two of the Reference Marks for SW 8 were both considered in poor condition (RM 1 & 3), the discs had been removed, and all that remained was the stem and an impression of where the disc had been. This didn't surprise me because both of these survey marks were inside the fence line of the site and in plain sight, whereas the other three were all located in the brush outside the fence line.
I found both Reference Mark 2 and the Azimuth Mark in great condition. Interestingly, the Azimuth Mark was set in a footing from guard tower number 7.
Alabama Hills (Saturday/Sunday)
On the way back through Lone Pine to Alabama Hills, I stopped at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant for a burger; my go-to burger is the "Alabama Hills" with grilled mushrooms and Jack cheese; however, today, I changed things up and went for the Pastrami Burger with grilled onions and Jack cheese. As always, I get my burgers as a lettuce wrap as I have to be Gluten Free for medical reasons, and this one was amazing! After a solid lunch, I headed to Alabama Hills to look for a good campsite.
I followed Movie Road to Hogback Road, then doubled back, looking at the arches I could see from the roadside while looking for a spot to set up for the night. I found a great location at the base of the hills with an awesome view and nobody camping nearby. I found two section corners while looking for my campsite; located about 50 feet apart, they mark corners on the same meridian, but the baseline is slightly askew; these were only a few feet from the dirt road I was on.
I plotted several section corners to investigate based on the PLSS grid and map symbols indicating a corner monument on the USGS Topo map. Still, my plan for Sunday was to hike around, looking at all the various arches and rock formations. I had a great morning exploring and even recreated a scene from Tremors, climbing up on the same rock they sought refuge on in the movie!
I did recover three more section corners while in Alabama Hill and only had two that I looked for but could not locate. I did unstack (and restack) the cairn at Section 16, hoping that there was a pipe cap marker or disc mounted low to the ground, but as it turned out, the cairn was the marker. The other pipe cap markers were in good shape, considering they were placed in 1916!
You may note the initials "MDBM" at the end of the description of these marks, which stands for Mount Diablo Base and Meridian. The Mount Diablo meridian was established in 1851 and runs north/south from its initial point at the summit of Mount Diablo. This point is used for surveys in most of northern California and all of Nevada. Note to self: I need to add visiting the Mount Diablo initial point to my bucket list 😉
Lone Pine - Whitney Portal Road (Sunday)
I left Alabama Hills Sunday and headed into town for an early lunch and to visit the Museum of Western Film History before looking for survey marks on Whitney Portal Road.
Earlier in the day, I had seen a social media post from Phil that he and Kayla were in Lone Pine on a rest day between hiking a series of 14ers (I hiked Palomar Mountain with them on New Year's Day). I had messaged him about the possibility of meeting for lunch, but I hadn't heard back from him until I was in the museum.
Coincidentally, their hotel was next door, and they surprised me by coming to the museum! It was great to see them and catch up on their adventures. The museum was very cool; it's amazing how many movies have been filmed in Lone Pine and Alabama Hills! Of course, I had to grab several pictures from the Tremors exhibit! 🤣
The Survey Marks...
During my pre-trip preparation, I set waypoints based on the benchmark symbols on the USGS Topo map, 22 benchmarks in all, on the 11-mile stretch of Whitney Portal Road between town and the Whitney Portal Family Campground. My campsite was reserved, and I didn't have any significant plans for tonight, so I had all afternoon to stop and look for marks as I worked my way to the campground. I spent about an hour and a half total and made 15 recoveries, two of which weren't on my original list. Based on the coordinates, three marks were located on fenced-in and signed private property, so I skipped them.
One of the surprise recoveries was the first disc I would find in the "FMK" series. I passed what appeared to be a stream gaging station; these usually have survey marks that don't necessarily appear in the NGS database, so I stopped to check it out. I didn't find a unique gaging station marker; however, I did find a U.S. Department of Interior Geological Survey disc 212 FMK (PID: N/A). I would find three more discs in this series, each corresponding to a symbol and waypoint on my Topo map; interestingly, 212 FMK didn't have a symbol on the map. In case you're wondering, there is not necessarily any significance to the "FMK"; it was quite possibly the surveyor's initials.
The second "unexpected" recovery was a RESET disc that happened to be close to one of my other waypoints, a section corner that I noted on the Topo map. Like 212 FMK, this mark Y 43 RESET (PID: GT2149) was not shown on the Topo.
The remaining nine marks were recovered as expected based on the symbols on the USGS Topo map. These are in the order that I found them traveling west on Whitney Portal Road.
I have done many dedicated survey mark-hunting trips, and this one had the highest number of "RESET" survey marks I found on a single outing. There were also quite a few that I didn't find that could have been lost during road-widening projects.
I arrived at Mount Whitney Family Campground late afternoon, found my campsite, and started getting everything set up. I had reserved this spot (#37) for Sunday and Monday nights, then had the campsite across the street (#3) reserved for Thursday night.
I did like both of my campsites; however, they were near the entrance to the campground, so the headlights from people arriving throughout the night were annoying. I did enjoy leaving my rain fly off the tent, giving me amazing views of the stars as I drifted off to sleep.
After everything was set up and I'd secured all my food and scented items in the bear locker, I walked up to the Whitney Portal store/cafe at the trailhead. I browsed all the Whitney swag and kept repeating the mantra, "not until you have successfully summited!" 🤣 I wandered around the trailhead area for a while, checking out the picnic area and a small fishing pond. I did have one benchmark pinned on my map based on the Topo symbols, and sure enough, it was right where it was supposed to be!
8373 (PID: GT0132)
This was a great recovery, an old U.S. Geological Survey disc named (numbered) for its elevation, so this mark was at 8,373 feet and is stamped as using Datum B. This was the oldest survey mark I found on this trip, dating back to 1905.
In addition to the elevation and date, this mark is stamped with an alpha character under the center cross and a number on the right of the prestamped initials, B.M. It is difficult to tell, but the alpha could be either a P or an F; the number is 4. It's hard to say why this information wasn't included in the official designation for this mark, but it probably comes down to how the original surveyor reported it.
I found a similar disc in Yosemite National Park, the same style, also issued in 1905, stamped with the number 27 and the letter S similarly; both were included in the mark's official designation. 🤷🏻♂️
Whitney Zone (Tuesday-Thursday)
According to the USGS Topo map, several benchmarks were located within the Whitney Zone close to the Mount Whitney Trail. I created waypoints for these and decided to make a cursory search for them if the hike permitted. When we approached a potential mark, I gave my team a heads-up and promised not to take too much time searching. They were happy to take a rest break while I looked, so that worked well. During a day hike to Lone Pine Lake on Monday, I searched for a benchmark about one mile into the trail but could not locate it. On Tuesday, the first day of our overnight adventure to summit Mount Whitney, I was 2-2-2 for the day. I passed by two marks without looking for them, searched for two that I could not locate, and made two recoveries.
C 72 (PID: GT0224)
Located close to the trail, a short distance past Mirror Lake, this was an easy recovery, and the mark was in good condition.
T 593 (PID: GT0226)
This mark was located on a rock outcropping 250 feet NE of our campsite and was one of two benchmarks shown on my Topo map. I couldn't find the second mark, but this one was another easy recovery; I had found this one without using my GPS and waypoint. After setting up my tent, I walked out to this rock to take in the views, and lo and behold; I walked right over the mark!
Mt. Whitney Summit (Wednesday)
I let my team know that when I was close to the summit, I'd pick up my pace to get there and finish my survey mark recoveries before they arrived. It's funny; I was more excited to find all the survey marks than to stand at the highest point in the Continental United States! 🤷🏻♂️🤣 As the stone house came into view, I felt a renewed sense of energy and covered the ground quickly.
I made eight (ish)* recoveries at the summit. I created this graphic to show the relative positions of all the marks at the summit. (* note: see the discussion below about Mt. Whitney Cairn for why I say "8'ish" recoveries).
The brass or aluminum discs are the most recognizable survey marks, but at Whitney, the stone house and the plaque mounted on a boulder near the house are also registered survey marks. I dropped my gear at the corner of the hut, grabbed my liquid chalk and magic eraser pad, then set out to find all the markers.
MT WHITNEY SMITHSONIAN HOUSE (PID: GT1808)
Constructed in 1909 with funding from the Smithsonian Institute, it was used to house scientists researching high-altitude phenomena. Its construction was prompted by the death of a U.S. Fisheries employee in 1904 who was struck by lightning.
PLAQUE NEAR WHITNEY (PID: GT1809)
This is an interesting mark, and it is possible that this metal sign is not the original plaque at this site. The NGS Datasheet indicates that in 1962 a Coast and Geodetic Survey team recorded this mark as destroyed. However, the GPS coordinates for this sign are the same as the original plaque. If this were not the original, it should have been classified as a "reset" mark and given a new permanent ID.
14502 (PID: GT1810)
This old U.S. Geological Survey Benchmark disc has seen better days. The datasheet lists the date it was monumented (established) as unknown. Out of 1,215 marks, I have found ten with this design; three of them were pipe caps, and seven were discs. Only two were stamped with a date (both 1905), one of those I found in the picnic area at Whitney Portal Monday (see above). The bottom line is I don't know when it was set, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were 1905.
WHITNEY (PID: GT1811)
This is a traditional U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Triangulation Station disc set in 1950; these are typically paired with two USC&GS Reference Mark discs, but considering all the other survey marks at the summit, it was tied out to those and specific reference marks were not set.
WHITNEY (PID: GT1813) & MT WHITNEY CAIRN (PID: GT1812)
This is a USGS Benchmark that is not stamped with any uniquely identifying information, but it ties out with the datasheet. It is also mounted on a rock that is part of MT. WHITNEY CAIRN (PID: GT1812). The datasheet for WHITNEY (PID: 1811) lists the cairn 3 inches from this mark; It's like two for the price of one! 🤷🏻♂️
I took these extracts from the data sheets to show the relationship between the various marks. GT1811 is the Triangulation Station noted above; the marks in the box are listed as reference objects. Note the distance and geodetic azimuth for GT1812 and GT1813; 0.08 meters is about 3 inches, so this disc is mounted on the cairn (or on a rock that was part of the cairn).
BENCHMARK K 72 (PID: GT0238)
This standard USC&GS Benchmark set in 1928 is in excellent condition compared to others at the summit.
BENCHMARK U 43 (PID: GT0239)
Set in 1925, this USC&GS Benchmark shows some signs of wear but is still readable.
CL FWY (PID: N/A)
This California Division of Highways survey mark was a surprise recovery. It was not listed on the map nor registered with the NGS, and it had me scratching my head why CalTrans would have a survey marker at the summit of Mt. Whitney. 🤔
After our summit Wednesday, we returned to camp at Consultation Lake, then hiked back to the Portal on Thursday. I stayed one more night at the Whitney Family Campground but didn't do any more survey mark hunting. My campsite for Thursday was right across the street from where I stayed Sunday/Monday, and it backed right up to Lone Pine Creek, so I had the sounds of rushing water to fall asleep to!
All-in-all, it was an amazing week of camping, hiking, and survey mark hiking. The week's highlight was summiting Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Continental United States, but I also made 45 survey mark recoveries! I was content to drive home Friday and not stop along the way for more recoveries. 🤣 I am looking forward to a return visit to the Inyo National Forest for more backpacking and camping adventures.🥾⛺️🏔❤️😊