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Hike of the Week; Silver Lake to Parker Bench

October 21, 2011

Aspens on the Parker Bench. This bench high above Silver Lake used to be a favorite pasture for sheep and their shepherds and many of the shepherd's names are still visible, carved into the white back of these elegant trees.

It’s been an odd and wonderful fall.

Aspens and cottonwoods, still summer-lush with the life given to them by the record-breaking winter, met one of the warmest falls in many years. In no hurry to go dormant again after being buried alive for nine months, the trees held their green far into October, much to local’s confusion and delight.
The summer, so late in coming, seemed like it would never end.

No one complained about it, either.

Then, a bright, sharp winter storm ended the stalemate in early October. The cold storm triggered a run of gold and crimson and scarlet and orange down every mountain, beginning at the highest elevations and cascading down to the valley floors. The unseasonably warm days returned. The mountains, capped in shimmering white, reigned like royalty, providing a perfect backdrop to the flaming trees but keeping their long, cold, snowy fingers to themselves for a little while longer.

If ever there was a more perfect fall in the Eastern Sierra; if ever there were more stunning golds and greens and scarlets and reds; if ever the days were warmer, the skies bluer, if ever there were more flowers (paintbrush and aster, columbine and gentian) still alive to defy the coming winter; if ever there more grasses in meadow and grove still green under the flaming trees, I know nothing of it. If ever there was a more beautiful trail out there than the one from Silver Lake to Parker Lake via the Parker Bench, I know nothing of it.

So go on.

Get out there.

Getting there:
Drive to June Lake to the Rush Creek and Parker Lake trailhead just to the east of Silver Lake. Park there and begin your hike up the hill, following the right branch of the trail, not the trail to Rush Creek.

The hike:
Length: Between four and nine miles round trip, depending on your time and desire. It’s about two miles one way to the top of the Parker Bench, and about five miles one way to Parker Lake from Silver Lake.
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult.
Elevation gain and loss: Around 2,000 feet.

The trail from Silver Lake in the June Lake basin to the top of Parker Bench and then down to Parker Bench is, for the true fall color lover, one of the best hikes in the area, if not the best.

On no other maintained trail do you walk through groves of aspens for as long as you do on this little used trail. The trail takes you through more than a dozen big groves of aspens, each grove fed by a tiny trickling stream lined with grasses and some late season flowers. When the sun backlights the leaves, it’s like nothing so much as being under a giant stained glass window as the light filters through the kaliedescope of colors. When you exit the groves onto the drier hillside, the views far below you of Silver Lake and Carson Peak framed by the backlit aspens are incomparable.

If you are up for it, the hike down to lovely Parker Lake can make for a perfect place to have lunch and turn around, or a shuttle with a car left at the Parker Lake trailhead can make for a shorter, easier day.
Begin your hike at the trailhead for Rush Creek and the Parker Bench, just to the east of Silver Lake and the Silver Lake Resort area in the June Lake basin. The hike up the broad hill north of the trailhead begins immediately as a long, moderate climb. Dozens of different groves of aspens dot the hillside, all of a different color, all of different sizes, looking something like a colorful crazy-quilt of gold and bronze and orange and scarlet against a silver-green background.

The grade alternately steepens and gentles as you climb, allowing time to catch your breath between steeper sections. Each grove of aspens is a delight, each fed by a small spring or seep, each littered with fallen gold leaves and thick, green grasses and even a few hardy flowers that survived the winter storm a few weeks ago. Walking through these groves is like walking through liquid sunlight; dappled and limpid, warm and clean. The trail is not well traveled or well known, so solitude is almost guaranteed, inviting you to stop and set a spell in the filtered light, or maybe read a book, or take a few photos.

The views back toward the trailhead are stunning. Silver, shimmering Silver Lake is well named. Carson Peak, towering above the little town of June Lake and June Mountain, is dusted with snow. The contrast between the aspens in front of you, the white peak, the silver lake, and the blue sky are the essence of fall in the Sierra.

After about two miles of a steady climb, the grade begins to even out as you reach the top of the first layer of Parker Bench. Up here, the world changes dramatically from the hillside you just left. Giant, old-grown aspens (some 50 and 80 feet tall) line the eastern edge of the bench. Mono Lake shines indigo and teal far down in the Mono Basin below you, a perfectly round gem backlighting the trees. To the west, the giant bulk of the mountains on whose flank you walk climbs to the sky.

Continue walking, climbing a bit higher, watching for the trail, which gets indistinct here, as it melds and twines with several old, abandoned roads. You can’t get lost, but the trail isn’t sure what its real route is and it gets mixed in with the old road. Just stay on the most logical route, heading north toward Parker Lake. Big, butter-gold meadows, once the haunt of the sheepherders whose names are carved deep into the aspens here, hug the edge of the bench.

A good side hike option takes you through these aspens and down off the edge of the bench a ways, to where the big grove drops abruptly down a steep, aspen-filled valley to Grant Lake. It’s a magical world back here under these towering trees, their pure white bark shimmering like snow against the deep blue sky, their leaves shifting and rustling like water over stones, the tiny meadows and surprising springs coming right out of the ground lined with late season fleabane and tiny, gold sunflowers. Camping here, under the stars and lean white trunks and whispering leaves, would be sublime.

The trail/road continues to head mostly north, above the stands of aspens, toward Parker Lake. If you are going to the lake, continue walking on a mostly level tread for about a mile, before you begin the steep descent to the lake and Parker Canyon, where another shuttle car might await you.

For those who intend to return back the way they came, a good side trip is a walk over to the edge of the bench, where you can look down on the flaming mass of aspens that cover much of the lower slopes of the Parker Bench and that can been seen from U. S. 395 on the drive between June Lake and Lee Vining.

Retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

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