Hike of the Week: Lower Rock Creek Canyon
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.
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.