Rock Creek Canyon, high above Toms Place resort, which is about fourteen miles south of Mammoth Lakes, is one of the Eastern Sierra’s most spectacular canyons. Filled with dozens of lakes and ponds, fed by some of the highest mountains in the Sierra, it’s a backcountry hiker’s dream. And it just so happens to also have one of the best aspen shows for early fall viewing, which, in this odd, odd, weather year, is about what time of the year the trees think it — and it’s not like you can argue with a tree.
One of the best fall color hikes is down below the main, 10,000-foot elevation trailhead at Mosquito Flats, below Rock Creek Lake. Here, Rock Creek leaves the lake and tumbles about 1,000 feet in three miles, down to a campground called East Fork Campground, before continuing on down to the Owens River in another two dozen miles or so.
The creek up here slips through mirror-still ponds, crashes over rocks the size of a small car, and meanders through meadows and aspens, all in three short miles. Although the trail along the creek is not on a map, it’s a good trail, used by generations of fishermen and campers and hikers who haunt the creek from June through October.
It’s also a good trail for those who want more than to just look at pretty trees; they want to be in them, under them, walking through the sun-dappled golden light, smelling that unique fall smell of incense and cinnamon and nutmeg, hearing the rustle of the leaves, watching the brilliant leaves tumble down in a slow dive; drops of liquid gold on the creek.
Keep an eye out for the wildlife here. At least one local coyote was so friendly — or maybe not, I wasn’t sure Wednesday night when one nearly tripped over me on the trail — I could have reached out and touched it (DON’T!). The numerous bear scat bespeaks bears, lots of bears. If you go in the evening, dozens of fish jump like popcorn out of the still, silver surface of the flat spots along the creek. The elusive pine marten has been seen along this trail, and if the squirrel activity right now is any indication of the coming winter, we are so in for it.
So go on.
Get out there.
Fast, before it’s under ten feet of white.
Drive south on U.S. 395 until you reach Tom’s Place, about 14 miles from the Mammoth Lakes/S.R. 203 turnoff. Take a right/west and head up Rock Creek Road for nine miles, until you reach the parking lot for Rock Creek Lake.
Park here. Don’t go around the lake.
Find the trail where it starts right by the rest rooms at Rock Creek Lake. Begin hiking downstream, following Rock Creek as it tumbles and drops over a series of cascades and waterfalls. The creek even goes through a small gorge, where a forty-foot drop makes for some good spray and a good time out on a hot summer’s day.
The aspen show is sparse up here, but about to get a lot better in a few minutes.
Continue dropping down the trail, following the creek closely. At about two-thirds of a mile down, small streams and springs begin to cross the trail, each one covered by a wooden bridge. This is a good place for fall colors on the understory; plants such as fireweed and currants are going off right now, an extravagant show in their own right.
When the steep descent moderates and the creek beside you pools into a huge, shallow lake at about a mile down the trail from Rock Creek Lake, aspens begin to show. For the next two miles, you will be under a canopy of aspens, all of them in various stages of color change. At about one and a half miles, you can shorten the trip by exiting at either Pine Creek or Lower Pine Creek Campground, turning around and retracing your steps, or doing a shuttle by leaving a car at the parking area for the resort nearby.
But the going just gets better, so if at all possible, continue on another mile and a half to East Fork Campground and the parking lot there.
The walk is pure joy: easy, comfortable, splashed with color and water and light and tiny, still-green meadowy areas.
At about three miles, you reach East Fork campground. It’s closed, so keep to the trail beside the creek until you reach the paved Rock Creek Road, then retrace your steps or pick up your other car for a shuttle trip.