Monache, Templeton and Tunnel Meadows are High Sierra meadows high on the Kern Plateau south of Mount Whitney. All three meadows had airstrips where pilots could land. Monache Meadows was at 8,000’ elevation, Templeton Meadows was 8,600’ and Tunnel Meadows, in a box canyon, was at 9,000’ elevation. Only Monache had road access [4×4]. The other two you either hiked in, rode in on horseback, or flew in.
My 1940 65 horsepower Luscombe 8A on Monache Meadows, 1973
Beginning in 1923 when the star of the silent film “The Virginian”, Kenneth Harlan, flew his biplane into Templeton Meadow which was filmed there, these airstrips had been in continuous use up until the late 1980’s when the Forest Service, in collusion with the Sierra Club, closed them [that is a sordid, terrible story!].
I began flying into Monache in 1973 in my Luscombe 8A. Due to the high “density altitude” and the very marginal performance of my 65 hp plane, it was some exciting times, especially the take-offs.
I’d take my backpack and tent, go hiking around the area, and camp. Eventually I “converted” my plane into a “camper” where I could sleep “full length” inside the plane out of the rain and snow, warm and dry. Wonderful times!
My 1964 Cessna 150/150 4398″ugly” with 150 hp Lycoming engine
I sold the underpowered Luscombe and bought a two seat Cessna 150 that had been modified with a much larger than “stock” engine. With that plane I could fly into Templeton and Tunnel Meadows and take a friend.
Camping on the Grant strip, Monache Meadows, 1975
We flew up to Templeton Meadows for several years hiking and camping in tents before we discovered an old cabin way back in the trees at Templeton.
Templeton Cow Camp
We found out who owned it and made a deal with them to use it. Several Owens Valley ranchers had grazing permits and “ran” cattle on the meadows. In exchange for cleaning the cabin up, and for flying for the ranches, they gave us the use of two horses and the cabin. We did that for 10 years, until the airstrips were closed.
Bill Wernicke and me with our horses Benny & Red
When I say “friend” I mean Bill Wernicke, my deputy partner whom I’d taught to fly, and who bought his own plane with a big engine for flying into the meadows. We flew up there nearly every week, spending 3 or more days at a time. It was only a 1 hr, 10 minute flight from Pacoima.
On the trips to the “High Country” we’d often take friends. Terry Naumann, one of my “surrogate sons” was a regular and went dozens of times. On one trip as we were getting ready to leave Terry decided that he wanted to “hike out”, a two day & 40 mile trek to Olancha. And he did it, 15 years old!
Terry as he was getting ready for his 40 mile hike out to Olancha.
Mike Sweeney at the top of Kern Peak. It took us 2 days to climb the dammed thing!
Bill with Ron Malnek at what’s left of the log cabin “sets” used for the filming in 1923 of “The Virginian”, on Movie Stringer, Templeton Meadows.
Bill, ?, Terry & Trent with our two planes at Templeton Meadows.
Me with my favorite horse “Red”.
Terry with Red
The Monache Rodeo!
All the cowboys from the four ranches that had grazing permits on the
Kern Plateau got together and had a “rodeo” in the old style. No fences or arena, no bleachers, etc. The “fence” was all of us sitting on our horses in a circle to contain the livestock.
Terry, who had never done anything like this, took the challenge and entered the bull riding event, and damned near won it [took 2nd place!]. The photo is Terry on his bull, lasting 7 of the 8 seconds “ride” before he got “pitched”. If he had stayed on for the full 8 seconds he would have tied for the win. He was 16 at the time.
The bare spot on the far left is Bakeoven Meadow, the old Monache airstrip is barely visible just to the left of the long “straightaway” of the dirt road before it turns left towards Bakeoven, and the existing Grant airstrip is visible on the bare patch , top right. The river is the South Fork of the Kern River.
Templeton Meadows, airstrip is the diagonal line.
The demise of the airstrips happened like this; both Tunnel and Templeton strips were in the newly created Golden Trout Wilderness Area. Monache was not. The Forest Service was seeking “input” from the public as to the future of the airstrips. Note that there were, and are today numerous “open” airstrips in Wilderness Areas in other states [Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, etc.].
We went to the Forest Service office in Bishop and asked how we should submit our input? The Forest Supervisor and his staff said a “petition”. So we spent 7 months, hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars gathering signatures supporting the “remaining open” of the airstrips. From all over California, Nevada, and some from Arizona and Oregon. Note that this was way before the internet, email, and social media.
We were very careful to include only pilots who had flown into the strips, or pilots who wanted to be able to fly into them, including verifiable names, addresses, pilot license numbers, and phone numbers of the signers.
On the appointed day we presented the petition to the Forest Supervisor and his staff in Bishop. We had in excess of 2,300 signatures. Their jaws literally dropped open. They couldn’t believe it. They stuttered, stammered and finally said “We’ll get back to you”. They never did. They closed all three of the airstrips.
In their report justifying the closures it was revealed that they had counted our petition of 2,300 plus signatures as “one response”. They gave it the same weight as if it were one postcard from one individual!
Several years later we met a District Ranger in Lone Pine whom we’d known before. He’d been on our side. He told us that we’d never had a chance, that the Forest Supervisor and the Sierra Club environmental wackos had an agenda to close those airstrips and they didn’t care how they did it, or who they hurt.
Why didn’t we fight it? We were young & naïve, we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t know how to fight it. Under the “arbitrary & capricious” section of today’s Federal RICO Statutes we could have easily won it. And probably gotten punitive damages.