Journey to the Center of the Earth at Reward Mine
If you enjoy exploring old mines, a trip to the Reward Mine in Inyo County, California, should be on your list of Must Do Jeep Trails. The main tunnel of this mine is large enough to fit several vehicles and provides a unique opportunity to drive into the depths of a mine. This is undoubtedly one of the coolest things you can do in your rig.
The Reward Mine is actually a cluster of several mines and claims that developed over the years. It was originally known as the Eclipse Mine, and later as the Brown Monster, before being purchased by the Reward Mining Company. The complex was a major gold producer while it was active between the 1860s and 1959.
Getting to Reward Mine
The Reward Mine is located on the western slope of the Inyo Mountains, 9.5 miles north of Lone Pine. The trail begins across from the Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of 10 U.S. concentration camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII. It is now preserved as a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Site.
From US 395 we turned east onto the graded dirt Manzanar-Reward Road. To the west, the majestic Sierra Nevada Range towers over Owens Valley.
We crossed over the remains of the abandoned Manzanar International Airport. The airport was built by the military in 1941 and used to resupply the relocation camp. The government formally abandoned it in 1956. Thereafter it was used for special events, including automobile racing time trails on the 5,000-foot hard surface runway. When we visited, there were several massive weights of odd amounts scattered about. We couldn't figure out what they were used for.
Past the airport, the road enters the Lower Owens River Project. Owens Valley has a contentious history with the city of Los Angeles. A 60-mile stretch of the Lower Owens River was left dry when the water was diverted to the L.A. Aqueduct in 1913 to provide water to Los Angeles. The diversion destroyed what had once been fertile riparian land.
It wasn’t until 2006, almost 100 years later, that a decision was made to restore the flow of water in the river. The river is beginning to recover now, and we spotted several people fishing along the banks.
Stop Off at Brown Betty Mine
Beyond the river, we again entered desert terrain. It is about 6 miles from the turnoff to the base of the Inyo Mountains. We easily spotted the first section of mining remains on the slope. A sedan could make it this far, and there is room for parking at the bottom. We learned that even stock 4WD SUVs have a problem continuing on the trail, though, and must park at the bottom. 4WD isn’t required, but good off-road tires like my Nitto Trail Grapplers are needed for traction. Street tires won’t cut it, and this is the easy part of the trail.
There is a narrow plateau with a fantastic view of the Sierra Mountains. There are more mining relics higher up, as well as a short but steep, rocky trail leading to them. Some people refer to this section as the Brown Betty Mine.
After enjoying the view, we didn’t spend much time poking around here. We were too excited about reaching our main goal: the large tunnel of the Reward Mine. This section of trail loops back down and around to the parking area below, but it’s steeper than the climb up.
The trail leading to the Reward Mine is to the left of this mine. It is steep and rocky with embedded boulders — much more so than the earlier section of trail — and requires 4WD to reach the top. It was an easy drive for us, but we’ve read of many who weren’t able to make it. Do not attempt this section of trail if you do not have 4WD and good off-road tires.
Venturing Inside the Earth at Reward Mine
We reached another large plateau and the entrance to the main Reward Mine Tunnel. The netting above the entrance to catch any falling boulders had me concerned for a brief minute.
You can drive into the mine for more than a quarter mile. There are a few spots where a single vehicle can turn around, and the end is large enough for several vehicles to turn around. It’s probably a lot of fun with a group of vehicles lighting the way, but when you’re alone it gets a little bit spooky. There are several side tunnels and chambers to explore on foot, so be sure to bring flashlights.
TIP: A lifted Jeep does fit in the tunnel, but a roof rack or light bar above the windshield may prevent you from making it more than a few yards. We also learned the hard way that you should make sure to remove or tie down any antennas before entering.
The flat open ground near the entrance has plenty of room for a group to camp, making this trail good for an overnight trip. The view of the Sierra Nevada Range is amazing from up here.
Another trail leads further up the mountain. Although most of the original buildings here were destroyed in the earthquake of 1812, you can still find their foundations, ore bins, tramway towers, cables and other equipment. You could spend all day exploring the entire complex.
Getting home requires retracing your steps back down the mountain and out to CA 395.
Be sure to plan time to visit the Manzanar War Relocation Camp while you’re there. It’s something that everyone should experience for themselves.
SAFETY: Any time you enter a mine shaft or tunnel, there is some degree of risk. The responsible agencies usually close off mines that are at risk of collapse or otherwise too dangerous to enter. It is well known that people drive into the Reward Mine tunnel, and we believe that if there was any substantial danger of collapse, it would be closed. You are responsible for making your own decision to enter the tunnel, and your safety is not guaranteed. As with any mine, if you decide to enter, exercise common sense and safety precautions when exploring.