Lower Rock Creek trail, one of the best early season hikes in the area, holds many secrets—including the Devils Postpile’s forgotten little sister.
Rock Creek is best known as the beautiful creek that meanders through the meadows above Rock Creek Lake, under the black and white striped turrets and ramparts of Bear Creek Spire, then down along the road from Mosquito Flats to Tom’s Place.
But like most Eastern Sierra creeks, it doesn’t stick around long. Within a mile of Tom’s Place, it begins a 3,000-foot descent into Lower Rock Creek canyon.
On its way to the Owens River near Bishop, the crashing white water cuts a deep canyon, carving through the soft, pink Bishop Tuff rock formation like a knife through butter.
The walls above the creek soar like winged birds reaching for the sky, rising one hundred, two hundred feet above the clean, cold creek.
One-hundred-foot tall old-growth Jeffrey pines tower over a series of waterfalls that drop in a seemingly endless cascade: one after the other, crashing, 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.
Not far into the hike, one of the oddest of Eastern Sierra oddities greets you—the little sister of the Devil’s Postpile, all done up in pink Bishop Tuff instead of black basalt.
Begin your hike at the bottom of the canyon in early spring, where the snow has melted. Hike past the old Paradise Restaurant and Resort and some new homes, starting a slow ascent that meanders past huge Jeffrey pines, flowers, and still pools.
The early spring flowers are out; giant waist-high balloon penstemons, yellow, flashy prince’s plume and fragrant wild roses—masses and masses of wild roses by early May.
The trail dips, rambles, and meanders slightly up, crossing numerous bridges over noisy whitewater Lower Rock Creek. The canyon walls begin to rise, and after about a mile, the trail is surrounded by high walls, the creek dropping dozens of feet every few hundred feet.
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.
It is also about here that you meet the Devils Postpile’s little sister.
Soaring hexagonal columns rise to the blue sky, swirling out of the hillside, curving up, then straightening into the familiar hexagonal columns that characterize Devils Postpile. The formation isn’t as big as the Postpile, or as high, but there is no mistaking it—it’s a smaller, pinker example of what geologists call “columnar jointing,” the same phenomenon that created the famous Postpile.
“It all happened 670,000 years ago,” said Bob Drake, a retired U.C. Berkeley geologist and Mammoth Lakes woodworker. “When the caldera released the gas infused rock in a giant depressurizing event, it covered much of the Eastern Sierra, from the Inyo Craters to Bishop and even as far south as Lone Pine. The gasified rock, which we now call Bishop Tuff, settled thickest in the canyons, like Lower Rock Creek canyon.
“There, the higher pressure and heat allowed the cooling rock to form the hexagonal columns that you see along the trail in Lower Rock Creek, just like a similar process allowed the hexagonal columns to form in another deep canyon and create the Devils Postpile.”
Drake said there are many places between Mammoth and Bishop where the same hexagonal shaped rocks can be found, but they are broken up and hard to see.
Not so here at the bottom of Lower Rock Creek.
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 as well as hiking. It can be hiked either from the top, just a mile south of Tom’s Place on Lower Rock Creek Road, or, as described in the hike here, 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. This allows for a variety of shuttle options or up and back hikes, depending on the season and time available.
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. The hike described here begins at the lowest end of the canyon, near the tiny hamlet of Paradise and at the old Paradise Restaurant and Resort.