Follow the rusty brown pipe!

Where: at our summer job at Rock Creek Lakes Resort

Living in the Sierra has made a lot of geology much less of an abstraction, especially when the terms you read directly relate to the terrain of the hike you’re about to take. This area is full of “hanging valleys”, which sound pretty neutral as a phrase, but make you think twice as a hiker when that feature is a part of your route. Hanging valleys occur where two glaciated canyons meet, except one was carved down much lower than the other. It means that if there were a river flowing down the less eroded canyon, at a certain point, it would become a waterfall where it meets the deeper channel of the other canyon. And when you’re hiking, it means you’re going to have a damn steep section that challenges your lungs and leg muscles. Sometimes you’re up for the challenge, and sometimes you’re just looking for an easy hike. Last week, we managed to find a hike that had both a hanging valley, but also an escalator of sorts!

We’ve been following a great online resource, California Fall Color Map, which is a crowd-sourced amalgamation of the hot spots for color in this state. The canyons to the west of Bishop were popping with yellows and oranges, so we headed for South Lake, to try an unusual hike that begins there. First, we stopped for lunch at Bishop Creek Lodge, which was a super-quirky place with animal heads all over the walls, a bar covered in dollar bills, and a fireplace big enough to roast a whole cow. The drive up Bishop Creek Canyon to the trailhead was pure color therapy, with big aspen lining the road, creating a yellow tunnel.

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We were headed to Green Lake, but rather than take the version of the trail that first tackles that hanging valley, we looked for an unmarked gate, and the small trail behind it. Just a couple hundred feet later, we found the rusty, now unused pipeline that we’d use as a shortcut and freeway. The pipe is just wide enough for about one and a half of your feet; in other words, you can’t quite walk normally, but you don’t have to take it like a tightrope, either. At first, we found it very difficult to balance, but it got a lot easier as we went along. The real benefit to the pipeline was the fact that it cut off several hundred feet of elevation gain, and made for a way less steep hike.

We quickly rose above the trees and had lovely views of aspen and the sparking waters of South Lake, and also of the fall colors in the canyon below. It was short hike, and we were soon at Brown Lake, skirting around it to reach our end destination, Green Lake. The hike itself was stunning, with expansive views of distant mountain ranges, and little creeklets still weaving through the alpine meadows. However, we both laughed when we got to Green Lake because it was so, well…. ugly.  In fairness, I have to admit that we’re a bit spoiled when it comes to mountain grandeur, and I know that even the most “meh” view in the Sierra is enough to make an Ohio native say “holy cow!” But, in comparison to the lakes that are end points for other hikes, this was definitely the least attractive one we’ve seen. Overall, the hike was a big winner, with fall colors, a unique trail substrate, and because we only saw one other couple in the 4 hours we were out.

Brown Lake:

Green Lake:


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The Resort closed for the season on Monday, October 9, and we’re now working on shutting everything down and buttoning up for the snowy season. There’s cabins to deep clean, inventory to count, floors to scrub, boats to store, and a million other little items that work best when the crew is still here to tackle them as a team. Thankfully, the weather is holding, and we’re in a string of nice sunny fall days, with highs in the 50s and lows in the 20s, and no snow in the forecast. We’ll be finished by next week, and headed off to our next adventure. Spoiler alert: we’re seeing Mary!

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Twenty Lakes Basin, round 2

Where: at our summer job at Rock Creek Lakes Resort

Last year, on a glorious day near the end of September, we drove way north and did a hike with Mary just outside of Yosemite National Park. Twenty Lakes Basin, as advertised, is a rare loop hike, where you don’t have to backtrack a single inch, and you also see a beautiful string of clear lakes, a glacier, and not too many other people. When JJ and I were trying to decide where to hike last week, I realized that we could repeat that hike, exactly one year to the day later. What a difference a year makes, especially when one year was extremely low snowfall, and the next was really high!

Mary, in Twenty Lakes last year:

Saddlebag Lake Resort, where the trail begins, never even opened for the season. That area of the Sierra got particularly hammered last winter, and nearby Tioga Pass didn’t open for the season until early July. The resorts in that area are generally only open from June to early September, and with such heavy snowfall, it probably didn’t make sense to try to open for only 8 weeks. In past years, the resort has run a hiker’s ferry, which takes you from the trailhead to the far end of Saddlebag Lake, cutting off 3 miles of hiking. The only option this year is to hike the whole 8.5 miles, which was fine for us, but probably explains why we saw less hikers this year.

Saddlebag Lake scenes:

The mountains in the basin were glittering with a fresh coat of snow, courtesy of the same storm that we saw two weeks ago. As we started around the lake, we were hot in the sun, hiking in tshirts, but there was about 6 inches of snow in the shady areas under dense stands of trees. As we left Saddlebag Lake and started into Twenty Lakes Basin, we immediately started to see more white stuff. It was all fresh, just a couple inches from the previous week, until we headed down a small canyon towards Lake Helen. Right there, there was so much snow that we couldn’t make out the trail. The snowdrifts were 10 feet high in some places, and we realized that this was still snow left over from the past winter! I knew that some areas of the very high Sierra still had snow, but we were only at about 10,000 feet, which I had assumed was low enough to be snow free by the end of summer! We picked our way down carefully, and peaked inside a huge tunnel where a little stream had carved out the snow.

After that first snow crossing, there were many more areas that clearly had never melted out. Some of the snowfields were at a rackish angle, sloping down steeply and ending into a lake. On the worst one, I crawled across on my hands, and sometimes my knees, to ensure I wouldn’t accidentally glissade down into the water where the snow ended. The terrain made for slow going, but it was really cool to be playing in the snow while sweating in the sun!

The lakes were all so pretty, each one surrounded by granite spires coated in white. We dawdled at the first few, and as the sun dipped lower, we started to hustle, so that we would be finished before dark. Late in the afternoon, we reached the other bank of Saddlebag Lake, now completed shaded by the mountain right beside it. We quickly put on our jackets, shivering in the drop of 20 degrees. I loved the hike, but I was ready to get in the car and blast the heat by the time we finally finished.

I took almost the identical picture last year–compare the differences:

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Ever since the big snow storm two weeks ago, Rock Creek has been at below normal temperatures. With lows in the teens or twenties at night, we have to drain all the outside water features at the Resort, and even empty the public toilet since it’s in an unheated room. I am so grateful for the best present ever, the electric blanket that Amy gifted me last year. I slip it inside my sleeping bag in early evening so that I can snuggle into a warm bed when it’s time to sleep. We run our electric heater at night, which keeps the rig at about 50 degrees–fine for us, but miserable for little Soupy, so she spends her nights tucked inside JJ’s sleeping bag with him.

The last day for the Resort is this coming Monday, Columbus Day. So far, it seems that the weather will be ok while we’re here, colder than normal, but not excessively so, and no snow is predicted in the foreseeable future. Starting Tuesday, we will shut down the cabins and do a through cleaning of the kitchen, cafe, and store. We’ll put up shutters, bring the boats and docks off the lake, and tuck everything away in sheds and barns. With bright yellows and oranges everywhere and such cold temperatures, it’s definitely almost time to leave the mountains for the season!

Winter for the last day of summer

Where: at our summer job at Rock Creek Lakes Resort

We made plans with Patty, our former and now retired co-worker, a couple weeks ago to get out for a hike. We planned to get together on the 21st, the last day of summer, and enjoy the start of the fall colors that are spreading across all the high-elevation canyons. A few days before, we started to get an inkling of the fact that we might need to change our plans, when sustained high winds started coming through, and the dreaded “s” word was predicted for hike day. We decided on Lower Rock Creek Canyon, which is the same stream that flows out of Rock Creek Lake, just next to the resort, but at a point where it’s at about 5000 feet lower than us.

The snow started on Wednesday night, and by Thursday morning, we had a decent covering on the ground. Visibility was pretty bad, and there was no sign of the mountains that surround us. We were happy to get in the car and head down into the valley, into another world where it was still summer, and where the cloudy, stormy Sierras were just distant, dreamy vision.

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Lower Rock Creek is a hiking and mountain bike trail that runs in a deep gorge through the Owens Valley. The rock walls are largely barren, made of tuff from ancient volcanic explosions, with very little vegetation except for the very hardy and drought resistant. In contrast, the bottom is an oasis for dense trees and shrubs that only exist thanks to the constant moisture from the stream. In extreme contrast to the near blizzard in the mountains, we had gorgeous blue skies and enough sun to hike in shirtsleeves.

Literally 30 minutes later and 5000 feet lower:

Patty is always a good biology teacher, and she introduced us to rosehips, which filled the bushes along the sun-dappled edges of the waterway. We learned that the brand new fruit tends to be very tart and bitter, but loses its edge as it dries out. Halfway between just born, and dry and withered, is the perfect version, a little bite of fruit leather surrounding a dense clump of seeds. We kept our eyes opened for specimens in the right condition, and munched our way through the hike, enjoying a yummy snack, and supplementing our Vitamin C intake, to boot!

Just right:

Too new to enjoy:

The middle of the hike is filled with geology with the same chemical background as Devils Postpile; Volcanic basalt flows cooled in just the right way to form columns that line the canyon. Some of the columns are laying down flat, some stand straight up, and others somehow managed to cool into a rainbow or wave formation. These volcanic flows also produced large amounts of pumice, which is the result of lava with air bubbles trapped inside. We had a lot of fun finding giant specimens which we could pick up and look like a superhero, thanks to the porosity of the substrate.

This middle part also hosts some very, very large pine trees, which made a nice, shady place to have a snack.

When we turned around, we saw that the mountains were still being pummeled.  We we happy we made a great choice for a more temperate hiking location!

We loved this fanciful mutation in a rabbitbrush bush:

Since that storm, the weather steadily got warmer and nicer.  We only have a few weeks more at the resort, and we’re hoping that things hold until we leave!

A confluence of seasons

Where: at our summer job at Rock Creek Lakes Resort

The Sierra summer is a fleeting thing. It seems like not so long ago that we were anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring (in June!) and within the last week, we zoomed through fall and are now having the first bout of winter weather. The leaves are well on their way to autumn colors, with lots of pretty yellows and oranges, and the inaugural storm of the winter is here for a few days to bring snow to the high country. To complete the meeting of the eras, we went on a hike last week where we also saw tons of summer flowers still in full bloom, making a brightly colored carpet along the trail that made it feel like summer. In how many parts of the country can you experience so many markers of so many seasons in such a short time?

Last night at the Lake:

This morning:

Our hike last week was in Lundy Canyon, near Mono Lake, about 50 miles north of our canyon. Lundy is known for fabulous fall colors and tons of waterfalls all throughout the canyon. Unlike Rock Creek, it’s a much less developed area, with only a few campgrounds and one little resort that was already closed for the season. The paved road ended at the shuttered resort, and from there, we bumped along a rutted dirt road to the tiny trailhead parking at the end.

Just a short walk from the beginning, you have a fabulous view of Lundy Creek tumbling down in a double waterfall. Behind it is a series of other cascades the river takes in a dramatic run down the canyon. We also saw more waterfalls than we could count coming down from thick snowfields still up in the mountains that make up the basin. There were quite a few water crossings, some with proper bridges, and many other smaller ones with logs across so that you could stay dry. The meadows in the highest areas were stunning, still damp from all the runoff, and filled with flowers that are normally finished blooming in August.

Double waterfall:

Thin waterfall way in the distance:

We thought we’d try to scramble over the pass in the back that leads to the Twenty Lakes Basin area, where we hiked with Mary last year. Just past a particularly fetching waterfall, the trail got very very steep and then crossed a giant scree field. We weren’t so much following a trail as picking our way across the most sturdy looking rocks. We reached the outlet of the lake where we were trying to go, which was another waterfall crashing down from a couple hundred feet above. We started up what seemed to be the right direction to get over the ridge, and quickly decided that it wasn’t the day for such an endeavor. Sometimes a steep, loose scree field looks like a grand adventure, and other times it just looks like a long slog that means having to slide back down on your patootie. We settled for a nice sit at the base of the falls and enjoyed the warm sun.

A good ending point:

Like every summer here, there’s just not enough weekends to do all the hikes we’d like to do. The last day for the resort is 10/9, and we will probably be completely finished about a week after, ready to hit the road for warmer climes. That only leaves 4 more weekends for hiking, and we’re still sitting on a list of about 30 hikes we’d love to experience. This really is an amazing area to spend the summer!

JJ’s patootie and a tale of 6 lakes

Where: at our summer job at Rock Creek Lakes Resort

Last week, we went out in search of the newly minted fall colors that are starting to appear at higher elevations.  Tyee Lakes is a series of 6 lakes that lie at the top of a very steep hike, and promised great views with less crowds.  As advertised, we saw more beauty than seems possible for one area, and didn’t see a soul for a couple hours.  However, I realize that I have a very distinct photo style, as I lag behind JJ and enjoy the splendor; namely, most of my photos thereby feature his behind, in addition to the lake or mountain being photographed. So, please enjoy the combo of the glory of the Eastern Sierra, as well as my husband’s derriere.

First Lake had a sandy beach area and was a tempting swimming hole:

Second Lake was filled with reeds and looked shallow enough to wade all the way across:

I doubt the sky could be more blue:

Fifth Lake, with the hidden passage in the back to Lake Six:

At the back of the whole basin, Lake Six was nothing but clear snowmelt:

And back down towards Five:

Lake Four:

It was indeed steep–down there is Lake Two:

Those fall colors we were after:

We’ve been in a crazy weather pattern for a couple weeks, with lots of afternoon thunderstorms and plenty of rain.  Tomorrow is supposed to be only a 20% chance of rain, so we’ll try to get out for another hike and hope that we don’t get caught in an electrical storm!  Til next week!

!Labor! Day

Where: at our summer job at Rock Creek Lakes Resort

The final holiday of the summer really showed the season out in style!  We had a very, very busy Labor Day weekend, with one day that truly blew us away.  At 3pm, the normal closing time for the restaurant, there was still a line of 20 people waiting to get lunch.  Instead of closing at the regular time, we just kept rolling until the last person had ordered, and at 3:30, we were finally finished.  It was a big last hurrah!

I have to admit that I’ve let my exercising go by the wayside for the last couple weeks.  It gets to a point in the season where I can either do a great job at work, or have enough energy to exercise, but I can’t do both.  I was feeling like I needed a little boost this weekend to get through the crazy times, so I decided that I would make a point to take a walk and do yoga every day.   I love to take my phone along and get pictures of the things that catch my eye, and it forces me to be in the moment for at least a little while.  So, in closing, I don’t have any big stories for you this week, but I have a collection of the sights that brought me joy on my ramblings.  This week forward should bring some quieter times at the Resort, which means we’ll feel more like getting out for story-generating excitement.

Fires west of us mean hazy evenings at the Lake:

Eek, now they’re showing up in bundles:

Reminds me of a firework:

Early morning lights up the pines:

Mount Starr at sunrise:

An old cabin near the Resort:

The quiet trail where I can always find solitude:

Esther’s tree, saved from the chopping block when the road was being built:

Honeybee and Monk’s Hood:

There’s no place like home

Where: at our summer job at Rock Creek Lakes Resort

With the huge amounts of tourists who come through our canyon specifically because they want to hike Little Lakes Valley, it’s a crying shame to announce that before this week, we had not set foot in our world-famous valley even once this season. Mosquito Flats Trailhead, a mere 1.8 miles further into the canyon, is the start of the gorgeous trek, so close that we walked up to the parking area a couple times when the road was still snow covered. This spring was so snowy that you really needed snowshoes to enjoy the experience, so we didn’t get out at the start of the season. And then once the temperatures warmed up and the trail opened, there were hordes of people and overflowing parking lots, which is just the sort of situation we prefer to avoid on Wilderness hikes. We decided yesterday was the perfect time to experience some solitude: midweek after kids around here are back in school, and a little bit overcast with a decent chance of rain.

Little Lakes Valley was a major destination for us the first time we came through in the fall of 2014. So many bloggers raved about the amazing beauty, the crystal clear lakes, and very little elevation gain, to boot! That first visit was magical, with orange and yellow aspens lining the drive up, and a riot of fall colors in the little plants that grow along the trail above 10,000 feet. I remember that it was an exceptionally warm day, and we hiked in shirtsleeves and sat in the sun when we rested. I fell in love with the beauty of the area, completely unlike anything I’d seen before. (That day was also our first time at Rock Creek Lakes Resort, the day that we ate excessive amounts of pie and got a summer job at the same time!)

We’ve never been here in calendar winter, but with such a short warm season, I feel like we’ve seen a good representation of spring, summer and fall over the 5 or so months we’re around each year. Spring means mountains almost completely covered in snow, against pale blue skies. Summer brings all kinds of flowers, from the meadows filled with a carpet of color to the water loving showstoppers that thrive tall and proud along the streams. In the fall, everything but the pine trees changes hue to a faded version of their summer selves, and the canyon glows gold in the right light. Any season can look totally different when a storm rolls in and casts a moody, ominous feeling over these features.

Behold the moody, ominous light:

Yesterday was a rare mix of several seasons, thanks to a exceptionally wet year. So, while many of the plants are starting their decline into winter torpor and turning brown, most of the summer favorites are still going strong, and wildflowers were everywhere. My favorite discovery was the columbine. Around Rock Creek Lake, there’s only one version, but near Long Lake, we saw a hillside with five different color combos, all living right next to each other.

We knew we were gambling with the weather, which has been much more cloudy and rainy than the other years we’ve been here. As we hiked towards it, the headwall alternated with bands of blue skies or heavy clouds that threatened rain. When we reached Gem Lakes, the last basin we intended to visit, a light sprinkle quickly devolved into a strong storm. In addition to a heavy downpour, we got gale force winds and a little hail. We hunkered down in a dense stand of pines and put on all our rain gear. We decided to cut short our original plan to explore through some off-trail lakes and instead just beelined it back along the main trail. The skies continued to look bad, but the rain quickly stopped and blue skies started to peek out. Even with the improvement in the the weather, the temperature drop that came along with the storm induced us to head back home for hot drinks and dry clothes.

Water crossing below Long Lake:

Long Lake:

Last bit of dry hiking for the day:

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And for your moment of zen, Steve’s homemade eclipse viewing hat from earlier this month. (And yes, all Moms out there, this is only a joke! 🙂  )


*photo courtesy of Nathan Crews

Til next week!