Discover dry Owens Lake on a weekend escape to Lone Pine

For our family, Lone Pine was the road-trip stop with the fast-food-adjacent park where our toddlers could play. Later, it was where we got sweet treats at the reopened Frosty Chalet. And it remains a great spot to fill up the tank between our Death Valley days and Sierra skiing. But recently, I'd heard about restoration efforts and public access at dry Owens Lake that I wanted to explore. OK, but we still needed to stop in Lone Pine. And so early this month my husband, Paul, and I returned to this gutsy Owens Valley town, nearly destroyed in the massive 1872 earthquake. The tab: We spent $80 for a view room at the historic Dow Villa hotel and $145 on hearty hiker food.

THE BED

What's not to like about the affordable, family-run, historic Dow Hotel (think 1920s and limited Wi-Fi) with a lobby exhibit dedicated to John Wayne? Walter Dow, who built the hotel, recognized early that Hollywood crews on location in the nearby Alabama Hills or snow-capped Sierras needed lodging. The attached, modern, AAA-approved motel has several wheelchair-accessible rooms. Upstairs in the hotel, it's like grandma's house, with high ceilings, radiator heating and subway-tiled bathrooms. It's spotlessly clean yet simple, suitable for the active traveler and not the spa-pampered crowd.

THE MEAL

Food in Lone Pine comes one-size only: really generous. Strong coffee and a massive avocado and bacon omelet launched my morning at the cozy Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery, where the imaginative wall drawings hint at what visitors may "see" in the rock shapes on a self-guided road tour nearby.

THE FIND

Remember William Mulholland and that aqueduct? Well, about 100 years after diverting most of the river water that supplied Owens Lake to an emerging 'burb named Los Angeles, something is being done about the dust pollution blowing off the desiccated lake bed. As part of the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and others have restored habitats for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds at the sprawling site. I took a wrong turn after the Highway 395 turnoff for the Boulder Creek site, and instead of the promised public overlook in a revitalized section, I encountered industrial tanks, construction equipment and warning signs about the years-long dust mitigation. I eventually found the Plaza area and its public lake access and the two-mile walking trail on the eastern "shore" off Highway 136. As I strolled along the still barren area near one of the new rock and metal "land art" installations, I tried to imagine this lake — now more like a large pond— so full that in the late 1800s it supported mining barges.

THE LESSON LEARNED

Make time for history. My lake misadventure cut short our regular stop at Manzanar, the wartime relocation camp now a national historic site. We still managed to find the reconstructed barracks that illustrate that dark time in U.S. history. We also found on the memorial wall the name of an inspiring ex-inhabitant we recently met. Living history, all around, on this Lone Pine stopover.

Dow Villa, 310 S. Main St., Lone Pine; (800) 824-9317, www.dowvillamotel.com. Rooms from $80. Wheelchair-accessible motel rooms.

Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery, 111 W. Post St., Lone Pine; (760) 876-4675, lat.ms/alabamahillscafe. Breakfast from $8.

Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, U.S. 395 and California 136, Lone Pine; (760) 876-6200, lat.ms/visitorcenter. Helpful staff; brochures on the Owens Lake Trails.

Manzanar National Historic Site, www.nps.gov/manz

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