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Hike of the Week: Lower Rock Creek Canyon

April 21, 2012

Hike details

Length: 1-8 miles one way 

Difficulty: Easy to moderately strenuous

Elevation gain and loss: 200-2,000 feet, depending on how far you walk

Notes: The trail is known for its mountain biking but it also a good hiking trail. It can be hiked either from the top, just a mile south of Tom’s Place on Lower Rock Creek Road, or at the bottom, at the trailhead at the old Paradise Resort and Restaurant right off Lower Rock Creek Road).

There are also two other access points to the trail along Lower Rock Creek Road which parallels the trail in some places; one at about four miles from the bottom and another about five miles from the bottom. This allows for a variety of shuttle options or up and back hikes, depending on the season and time available.

 

The hike

 

There are four different places to access this hike (see notes), all of them along Lower Rock Creek Road, which begins about one mile south of Toms Place This hike describes the lower end of the canyon, beginning from the trailhead at the tiny hamlet of Paradise about 13 miles north of Bishop or 30 miles south of Mammoth Lakes. The upper reaches of the trail, where it begins just below Toms Place on U. S. 395, are about 2,000 feet higher and are often snow-covered until May. 

Hike or bike past the old lodge and cabins, starting a slow ascent that meanders past huge Jeffrey pines, flowers and still pools. The early spring flowers are out down here; the giant waist-high balloon penstemons abuzz with its attendant bees and the yellow, flashy prince’s plume and the fragrant wild roses—masses and masses of wild roses. The trail dips and rambles and meanders slightly up, crossing numerous bridges over noisy whitewater Lower Rock Creek. The canyon walls begin to rise, the canyon to narrow, and in about a mile, the trail is surrounded by high walls and the creek is crashing down toward the faraway Owens River with little reserve. 

This is a good place to stop and listen for the canyon wren, a tiny, nondescript-looking bird whose nine-note descending song sounds like the cascade of a creek made into music. 

Continue walking over tiny freshwater springs, past big boulders made of pink tuff, up toward the middle of the gorge. The trail alternately rises moderately, and mellows for a few hundred feet at a time, as it climbs the first 1,000 feet, passing through thickets of water birch and aspen, alternating with open sunny stretches and wide-spaced Jeffrey pines. 

In about two miles, the trail hits an open, flat area surrounded by the giant pines, a great place for a break or to turn around if you are tired. If not, continue hiking up, crossing through changing vegetation as the trail climbs. 

 You will be able to access the road where it crosses the creek via a bridge in about four miles; another good place to turn around, or, to pick up another car for a shuttle trip if you have planned ahead. You can keep going on up the trail to the next bridge at about five miles or to the top at about eight miles, as the gorge widens and the trail steepens, crossing into higher elevation ecosystems of Indian paintbrush and sage as you climb. 


 

 

 

Getting there

 

Drive south on U.S. 395 from Mammoth about 30 miles, until you reach the Gorge Road exit. Take a right (west) at the exit and then another right at the “T” on Lower Rock Creek Road. Drive about 1.5 miles to the Paradise Lodge and Resort building on your right and park at the signed trailhead.

 

Rock Creek is best known as the beautiful creek that meanders through the meadows above Rock Creek Lake, and under the black and white striped turrets and ramparts of Bear Creek Spire. The creek then begin an abrupt drop down toward the Owens River, flinging itself headlong down the mountains, dropping 6,000 feet in just a few dozen miles.

Along the way, the mountain-born creek has carved a deep canyon through the soft Bishop Tuff that shelters one of the best early season hikes in the Sierra.

One-hundred-foot tall old-growth Jeffrey pines tower over a series of waterfalls that drop in a seemingly endless cascades: one after the other, crashing and tumbling and laughing, kicking up spray that cools the warm spring air. Lush pocket meadows line the creek and tiny, mica-strewn beaches glitter in the sun.

The haunting call of the desert-born canyon wren, more common to the red rock canyon country of the American Southwest than here, echoes through the balmy evening air.

By late April and early May, the smell of rose and, inexplicably, cinnamon wafts off the masses of wild roses that line the creek. Giant, pink, balloon flower penstemons and lavender phlox grace the lower reaches of the canyon, even when nearby Mammoth Lakes is still deep in snow. 

The canyon is narrow and deep and in some places, lined with the exotic hexagonal columnar jointing that defines Devil’s Postpile National Monument. This time, though, the rock is a soft pink instead of ebony black. The walls soar like winged birds reaching for the sky, rising one hundred, two hundred feet above the clean, cold creek.

Go on

Get out there.

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