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Division Creek hike takes you to a world like no other in Eastern Sierra

May 20, 2011

Scotty’s Spring it’s called on the map. Walking along this stream could take 10 minutes or it could take all day.

It’s been a long winter up here in the northern Eastern Sierra; eight months of snow, a cold, cold April, flowers frozen on the bud in May.

Even the most ski-crazy winter fanatic is beginning to feel cheated, as May gives way to June with more snow predicted for next week.

But there is hope.

It’s called a car. Yes, cars are gas-guzzling, carbon-spewing monsters that we should feel guilty for driving. But they are also the essence of freedom and adventure and in this case, escape.
The lovely thing about the Eastside is that in a few short miles, the weather can change more dramatically than it can in most places in an entire year, from a full-out blizzard to barefoot in the park, from 32 degrees to 75 degrees.

That’s how it is with the Division Creek drive. The drive takes you to a creek almost no one knows exists, located between Big Pine and Independence.

Here is one of the most unusual places in the Eastside: a spring-fed, oak-studded, lupine-covered drainage of stunning beauty that looks far more like the lush western Sierra foothills than anything else.

At the end of the drive, you can walk if you wish – and you will. For 30 minutes, for a day, on easy ground. This is an adventure that is as suitable for families with children as it is for the wild adventurer who just has to head up into the steep-walled, un-trailed canyon that feeds Division Creek.

Nowhere else in the Eastern Sierra can you find oaks like those at Division Creek; the kind of oak you see over on the coast – big-leafed, sturdy-branched, beautiful oaks, not the scrubby, needle-sharp, army-green scrub oak common to a few southern Eastside canyons.

Nowhere else can you find lupine like you find at Division Creek. Three-feet tall, sprawling like a purple royal carpet across the granite-studded slopes. If the oaks don’t get you, the lupine will. Courtesy of a decade-ago wildfire that made the soil so fertile the carbon-loving lupines that grew that spring surpassed six feet in height and five feet in diameter, the lupines are at their peak right now.

Nowhere else can you find the green, grassy meadows fed by a tumbling spring, flashing under the green oaks, columbine swaying in the spring breeze, mint growing in the stream bed, all backed by the ten-thousand-foot-tall peaks still dusted in snow.

Division Creek is located about halfway between Big Pine and Independence, at the foot of the Sierra just past the parking area for little-used Sawmill Creek Trailhead.

The creek itself is tapped near the bottom by a Department of Water and Power diversion pipe that eventually sends Division Creek water on down to the LADWP aqueduct, but above that, where this hike takes you, is a place of magic and lush green unrivaled in the arid Eastern Sierra.

Drive south of Big Pine about 15 miles, looking for the Division Creek road on the west side of U.S. 395.

Take that sharp turn and travel up the paved road for about two miles, past the old DWP maintenance quarters. Right about here, the road goes to gravel, and the driving gets a bit rougher, though still suitable for a 2WD passenger car. Also at about this point the lupine begins, making a spectacular backdrop to the high Sawmill Ridge to the southwest and the elegant mountains to the northwest.
Keep driving another one and a half miles up this dirt road, passing the trailhead parking area for the Sawmill trail, one of the hardest, steepest, driest trails in the Eastern Sierra.

At almost four miles in, the road is partially washed out and only a good 4WD can go the last quarter mile to the end of the road. If this is not you, park on the side of the road, and begin your walk here.

The hike

Head up the road toward the tumbling green creek you can hear in the near distance. On each side of the road, the purple lupine dominates the foreground, just as Perkins and Colisseum mountains dominate the western skyline. At the end of the gravel road, the creek makes a big pond, pooled behind a DWP dam. It looks perfect for a hot summer day’s swim, but right now, the water is icy cold and moving too fast to consider getting into.

This is a good spot to stop if you wish, perhaps have lunch by the creek. But for those with more adventure in their feet and soul, keep going.

Head to the right, or north, where you see a small stream channeled through a concrete ditch that was built by a previous denizen, Follow it for the next enchanted half mile as it slips and tumbles through oak-covered meadows, past warm granite rocks, under nodding columbine and lupine, past flowering currant and old fruit trees left behind when the last human to live here walked away.

Take a blanket, a picnic, a nap. There are a dozen adventures in this place, whether you head up Division Creek itself to the point where it crashes out of a steep-walled canyon that looks straight out of Tolkien, or you explore the lush spring area farther. What happens in this magical place is best left unsaid here: my secret to keep and yours to find.

Trust me, it is worth every minute.

So go on. Get out there.

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