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When done well, local museums are a valuable resource for gaining a deeper background regarding the places you visit. Even the smallest of towns can have great museums. One such museum is the Eastern California Museum in Independence, California. The excellent museum goes in-depth about the Owens Valley & the rest of Eastern California, including Death Valley & the Eastern Sierra Nevada. The Eastern California Museum covers topics ranging from the biology & geography of the region to historic events such as the water wars and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, as well as the Manzanar National Historic Site.
The Eastern California Museum is located at 155 N Grant St, Independence, CA 93526, just off of Highway 395 (but really, all of Independence is just off of 395). Museum entry is free, but a $5 suggested donation is encouraged.
On one side of the museum, which is operated by Inyo County (official website), there is a room with Native American items, including a huge collection of Paiute and Panamint Shoshone baskets.
Every local museum seems to have a random collection of something. In the case of the Eastern California Museum, it’s local bird eggs.
The other half of the building has the bulk of the Eastern California Museum’s exhibits.
The centerpiece of the Eastern California Museum is the exhibit about Manzanar. However, this wasn’t always the case. Shi and Mary Nomura visited the museum in the 1970s and found that it was lacking in details about the history of Manzanar. The two then spent years collecting artifacts and stories from those who were imprisoned just a few miles away. The Manzanar exhibit today is dedicated in their honor.
While visiting Manzanar is important for getting the context of the place itself and learning about its history, the Eastern California Museum is a vital companion site. The museum brings to life what it was truly like in the camp. The exhibit contains photos and art from the camp, along with stories about what day-to-day life was like for those who were imprisoned.
Ordinary household & personal items provide a glimpse into that era.
There is even the original pitching plate from the baseball field, which was found some 40 years after Manzanar had closed.
Earlier in the 20th century, there was another major historical event that changed the landscape of the Owens Valley & the Eastern Sierra. The California Water Wars culminated with the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, diverting water that once supported local agriculture. Los Angeles now owns most of the land in the Owens Valley. The Eastern California Museum has an informative exhibit about this history.
One other large exhibit covers Norman Clyde. Norman Clyde was a mountaineer who was the first to have ascended many of the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada. He led a fascinating life, one worthy of being turned into a movie (several books have indeed been written about him). This excellent section of the Eastern California Museum is a nice way to learn about an Eastern Sierra legend.
Another exhibit for the semi-random category includes a dress & jacket that belonged to Amelia Earhart.
Finally, there is a section dedicated to the nearby Ancient Bristlecone Pines, tying the whole Eastern Sierra together.
If the Eastern California Museum only consisted of the indoor sections, it would still be a great little museum. However, there’s even more to see outside.
The surrounding property, including a large shed, is filled with old machinery. Much of it is old mining & construction equipment, as well as trains.
Just outside, there is a well-maintained garden with native plants, situated along Independence Creek. The Mary DeDecker Native Plant Garden is a lovely place for a walk, backdropped by the snowy Sierra Nevada.
The trail continues all the way to a nearby park, or you can just loop back to the parking lot.
The Eastern California Museum is an excellent place to learn about local history. The exhibits are informative, but the staff members are also great & happy to chat, whether it’s to you as a visitor or to themselves as they work. It’s the sort of museum that may not get a ton of people coming in each day but appreciates those who wander in.
If you’re on a road trip & making your way along Highway 395, I also recommend stopping at Manzanar. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is worth a detour. Bishop is also a nice town with some great craft beer spots.
Here are some other things to see & do near Bishop.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in Bishop, check out these nearby hotels.