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Mountains, Movie Stars and Small-Town History in Independence, California

The Winnedumah Hotel is a cozy bed & breakfast with historic California charm. | Photo by Greg Aragon / Beacon Media News

By Greg Aragon

While recently charting my course to California’s Eastern Sierra, I spotted a tiny town on the map called Independence. It was located off Highway 395, right along my path. And with a name like Independence, it screamed history and small-town California. I had to investigate. 

My getaway began at the historic 1927 Winnedumah Hotel, where a couple friends and I met Cindy and Derek Abrahams, the property’s general managers. They told me about the fascinating history surrounding the Winnedumah and set me up in the Bing Crosby suite. That’s right, I stayed in the same room that the legendary actor/crooner stayed in while he was in town filming or sneaking away from Hollywood.

Vintage and charming, the Crosby suite features two rooms that share a Jack and Jill bathroom. The suite has a 1920s décor, with classic hardwood floors and furniture, metal framed beds and period-era bathroom fixtures.

There are no televisions in the hotel rooms, but the serenity of the property, with its gentle creaking wood floors and crackling fireplace in the lobby, inspire relaxation, book reading, or conversation with friends, fellow guests from around the world, or with Cindy and Derek, who are knowledgeable about the area and treat guests like family.  

 “When people visit Independence and the Winnedumah Hotel, they are going to get an authentic, historic Eastern Sierra Nevada experience,” says Cindy. “This is the old west and we’ve got the mountains, the high desert and quintessential small-town USA. And when you stay here, you get a very personal, boutique hotel experience.”

Independence is a gateway to famous mountain peaks and national parks. | Photo by Greg Aragon / Beacon Media News

Independence is located off U.S. Route 395, the main north-south highway cutting through the Owens Valley. The tiny town is a gateway to outdoor havens such as the John Muir Wilderness Area and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks. Hikers pass through while trekking the Pacific Crest Trail, or on their way up California’s two tallest peaks, Mt. Whitney and Mt. Williamson. Others stay at the Winnedumah Hotel for a quieter experience while skiing in busy Mammoth. Whatever the reason, the hotel gets about 60 percent of its clientele from international travelers.

But many of the Winnedumah’s first visitors were local, coming by way of Hollywood. Numerous early westerns were filmed in nearby Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills. This brought the likes of Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Gabby Hayes, John Wayne and Bing Crosby to the newly built Winnedumah Hotel. Wayne had a favorite room at the hotel and when Crosby visited, he was given the room above the managers’ suite so they could hear him sing in the shower. Even famed California photographer Ansel Adams sought comfort at the property while on photo shoots.

The hotel lobby still has the original 1892 piano that Bing used to sit at and sing as well as other furnishings from the 1920s, including the overstuffed chairs in the lobby and the steel mesh chairs on the front porch which can be seen in Roy Roger’s first movie “Under Western Stars.”

Besides the Winnedumah, the town also boasts one restaurant, a sandwich shop and a taco truck. For culture there is the Eastern California Museum, located a couple blocks from the hotel. After a complimentary buffet breakfast at the hotel, we walked to the museum and discovered an incredible collection of beautiful, hand-crafted Native American baskets.

The display is one of the largest exhibits of local Paiute-Shoshone basketry in the nation. Ornamental and functional baskets, along with cradleboards, projectile points, bows and arrows, and rare examples of Paiute beadwork are included in the extensive exhibit. The basket exhibit includes more than 400 pieces and nearly 100 other, related artifacts, and is contained in about 14 large display cases.

The museum also showcases a large collection of historic photographs, Owens Valley history, scores of old west guns, and extensive mining and farming equipment and historic structures found outside in the museum yard. There is also a lovely creek and pond outside, with majestic views of the Eastern Sierra mountains in the background.

Directly across from the Winnedumah Hotel is the iconic Independence Courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1969 the courthouse held 24 members of the Manson Family for possession of stolen vehicles and property.

About three miles northwest of Independence is the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery. Built in 1916, it has supplied trout eggs to other hatcheries in California and other western states. It is the only hatchery to produce golden trout, California’s state fish.

For more information on visiting Independence and on staying the Winnedumah Hotel, call (760) 878-2040 or visit: www.winnedumah.com.

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