Inyo County is located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada and southeast of Yosemite National Park in Central California. It contains the Owens River Valley; it is flanked to the west by the Sierra Mountains and to the east by the White Mountains and the Inyo Mountains.
Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Continental United States, is on Inyo County's western border (with Tulare County). The Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest place in North America, is in eastern Inyo County. The two points are not visible from each other, but both can be observed from the Panamint Range on the west side of Death Valley, above the Panamint Valley.
Present day Inyo county has been the for thousands of years of the Mono tribe, Coso people, Timbisha, and Kawaiisu Native Americans. They spoke the Timbisha language and the Mono language with Mono traditional narratives. The descendants of these ancestors continue to live in their traditional homelands in the Owens River Valley and in Death Valley National Park.
For many years it has been commonly believed that the county derived its name from the Mono tribe of Native Americans name for the mountains in its former homeland. Actually the name came to be thought of, mistakenly, as the name of the mountains to the east of the Owens Valley when the first whites there asked the local Paiutes what the name of the mountains to the east was.
The local Paiutes responded that that was the land of Inyo. They meant by this that those lands belonged to the Shoshone tribe headed by a man whose name was Inyo. Inyo was the name of the headman of the Panamint band of Paiute-Shoshone people at the time of contact when the first whites, the Manly expedition of 1849, wandered, lost, into Death Valley on their expedition to the gold fields of western California. The Owens Valley whites misunderstood the local Paiute and thought that Inyo was the name of the mountains when actually it was the name of the chief, or headman, of the tribe that had those mountains as part of their homeland.
"Indian George", a fixture of many of the stories of early Death Valley days, was Inyo's son. Indian George's Shoshone name was "Bah-Vanda-Sa-Va-Nu-Kee", which means "The Boy Who Ran Away", a name he was given when he became terrified of the whites and their wheeled wagons and huge buffalo, none of which the Shoshone had ever seen before when they came wandering down Furnace Creek Wash in December 1849. In 1940, when Bah-vanda was around 100 years old, JC Boyles, a Panamint Shoshone who had become educated, came back to the Panamint Valley and interviewed Bah-Vanda at length about the early days of his life, including the events of 1849, and it is in this interview (which can be found in February 1940 issue of The Desert Magazine) that Bah-vanda refers to his father, Inyo.
In order to provide water needs for the growing City of Los Angeles, water was diverted from the Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. The Owens River Valley cultures and environments changed substantially. From the 1910s to 1930s the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power purchased much of the valley for water rights and control. In 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power extended the Los Angeles Aqueduct system further upriver into the Mono Basin.
Inyo County is host to a number of natural superlatives. Among them are: