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.


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:


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!

Quiet walks in pretty places

Where: our summer job at Rock Creek Lakes Resort

Just as the crowds all roared in at once in June, they all rushed back out, about a week ago, as school started up across California.  After the hustle and hubbub of the busy summer months, the canyon seems almost empty.  On weekdays, the store and cafe have light business, and you can find a site in almost any campground nearby, even the little tiny ones.  Weekends are still quite busy, but fall is most certainly in the air, and it feels like a change of seasons is quickly approaching.  JJ and I took the opportunity to enjoy some solitude, taking walks around Rock Creek Lake, and getting away to a nearby campground for our two days off.  I enjoyed the dusky light quality that comes with the lower sun of late summer, and I took lots of pictures of the beauty around us.  Here’s a photo essay of the sights.

Rock Creek Lake:




The first one wasn’t just a fluke:

Horton Creek Campground overlooks Crowley Lake, and has an extensive trail network around it, which lead to fabulous vantage points over the lake.

Not a lot of other people there:

Campground road and valley views:

Hike to Hilton Creek:

You can see the campground as little specks in the bottom left hand corner:

Til next week!

A fire nearby and a visit from Down South

Where: our summer job at Rock Creek Lakes Resort

In past years at the Resort, we definitely felt like we were total Ohioans. We have a Midwest accent, we can eat church potluck foods unironically, and we refuse to say “the” in front of a freeway name. This year, our third season, I’m starting to notice a slight shift to the left, and a couple points really drove it home: Forest fires have become a normal part of the summer season, and when I say “down south”, it means Southern California rather than the Deep South of Alabama and Mississippi. I guess it was bound to happen after so many years of exposure!

Before I worry you too much, I’ll tell you about the fire. The Butte Fire started about 10 miles west of Mammoth Lakes on August 7, from a lightening strike. As the crow flies, it’s about 30 miles northwest of us, which doesn’t put us in any danger, but it does mean that we get a lot a hazy days as the smoke blows over the ridges and into our canyon. It’s also been filling up the Owens Valley with a thick film, so we can barely see the White Mountains, just 30 miles away.

Before we started working out here, I was terrified of forest fires, because the national news always made them look so bad. Now, I’m not saying that these fires are never dangerous; many communities around us have had a devastating fire come through and destroy property. But, the reality is that they’re mostly seen as an annoyance, ruining air quality and closing down the few highways that run through the mountains. I think a major difference is the length of the event. See, a tornado comes and goes in a a matter of minutes, but some of these fires can go on for a month or more. The Forest Service only puts them out immediately if people are in danger; if the fire is in a really remote location, the FS prefers to let it burn, as nature intended. It’s hard to stay hyper about something with such a long life span. Plus, it seems that whenever one fire is finally put out, another starts up from the lightening that accompanied the rain that doused the first one.

So, because it’s been a little bit hazy for quite some time, we decided to hike in the Mammoth area last week, and take our chances with the smoke. We took a short but charming trail that quickly gains elevation over the Mammoth Lakes Basin and leads to a nice lake in less than 2 miles. Crystal Lake, as advertised, was a gorgeous clear blue, and we watched tons of trout swimming around and coming up for a bug breakfast. Then, I though that my sunglasses were smudged, because everything looked blurry. I took them off to clean them, and saw thick smoke starting to pour over the ridge. The wind had shifted, and the clear morning was quickly wearing off. We headed back down the trail briskly, astounded by how the basin had changed from just a hour previous. We could barely make out the lakes below, and the air was almost too thick to breathe. Time to head inside!

Crystal Crag:

Nice and clear:

Still big snowfields:

Big change in the span of 30 minutes:

Where’s the lakes?!:

The other interesting part of our week was a visit from our friends from Down South, Buddy and Judy. They brought their trailer up for a few days of camping along 395, and managed to snag a night in a prime spot at Rock Creek Lake Campground. (Get this—most of California is already back to school, which makes this an awesome time to do some traveling!) Yesterday, we joined them in the June Lake area for a hike to Parker Lake. (Which was closed a few weeks ago due to yet another fire in the area.)

It was a perfect day for a hike with warm sun but cool breezes, and with that hint of cooler air, I saw my first yellow leaf of the season. It seems like just a couple weeks ago that I was taking pictures of aspen buds, and they are already starting to think about fall. It’s always fun to see Buddy and Judy, who call themselves our “road parents”. They cooked up a delicious feast from the grill, and even had gluten free cookies for dessert! It’s always great to catch up with them.

JJ with Buddy and Judy and their friend, Debbie:

Still plenty of snow up here, too:

Parker Lake:


Til next week!