Pine Creek Canyon

Pine Creek Canyon is about as rugged as it gets in the Eastern Sierra. This is a place where a person could lose his life real fast in a fall or rock slide; there are places right off the trail that are death defying, It takes a sure foot and steady nerve to negotiate the trails of Pine Creek Canyon. The trailhead is 10 miles north of Bishop and about eight miles west of U.S. 395. The road passes through spectacular scenery on both sides with large granite and rust-colored shale and slate mountains jutting up. At the mouth of the canyon is the little village of Rovana, which gets its name from an amalgam of Round Valley and the Vanadium Ranch. Rovana was 1940’s housing for the miners who worked in the Union Carbide mine up at the trailhead. Many a Bishop local grew up with fond memories of Rovana.

At the trailhead I notice that things are still semi-primitive. No paved parking lot or permanent facilities are in existence. The trail goes right through the entrance to the pack station and heads for Pine Creek and Italy passes. A side trail goes up into an entirely different canyon to Gable Lakes. The old switchback road opposite the mine goes up to Morgan Lakes. Brian and Danika Berner are the owners of Pine Creek Pack Station. They are carrying on a tradition that goes back to the 1920’s and 30’s, when mules were used to pack in supplies to the tungsten mines and carry out ore. The tram towers that surround the canyon are a testament to what men and mules can do, and how they constructed the wooden towers in impossible places. Brian and Danika are long time Eastern Sierra locals who are wise, love the mountains and have respect for the environment. They come from an old, great Crowley Lake family.

The trail leaves the pack station and works its way up through a jungle of aspens, firs, and riparian plants. After about a half mile it joins the old mine road that climbs the steep hillside to the upper Brownstone mines. This trail is hot and killer in summer, and anyone who goes up after 11 a.m. is asking for heatstroke. There is very little shade, and dogs will expire. The road finally turns into a trail and traverses under the high tungsten mines. The scenery up this trail is absolutely mind-drooling insane. Waterfalls and multi-colored striated peaks are everywhere. It is rough and rugged and the steps are too high. This is not an easy hike that leads to Pine Lake and beyond. But what trail in the Sierra is?

In 1980 on a hike over Italy Pass from Pine Lake, I remember going through Granite Park and seeing these choice little creeks meandering down through perfectly manicured grassy meadows. The sand was white and the water had a pure bluish tint. Colorful flowers were popping up all over the place like a Galen Rowell photo. This place was heaven! I can still see the snapshot in my mind, and the wonderful thing is that the snapshot is no different today. My old buddy Slim Nevins, the Forest Service packer, told me he used to pack mules over Italy Pass when he owned Pine Creek Pack Station in the1950’s. There is no way a stock user could do that today. Those old guys, like Art Schober from Bishop, made trails and packed into places that are unbelievable. I consider it a great thrill to find these old trails that those men made that have gone back into history. Their legacy is a wonderful one that is cherished by their families to this day.

Italy Pass was stark, Italy Lake was stark, and I just wanted to get down through the Hilgard Branch into the forest at Bear Creek. Now I was deep into the west side of the Sierra. Deep into a comfortable scene of smooth granite, streams and forests. Places where many a native person had been long before me as evidenced by the artifacts they left on the ground. It was sweet, but I knew I had to go back over the hill and head for home.

That was just one way to go. I was going to hike up to Gable Lakes on a side trail. This trail goes up a steep rocky slope that has the look of avalanches, rock slides and flash floods. It has been closed before due to rock slides. I stood beneath a rock outcrop on this trail one time and watched slides come down on each side of me. It was too much and would have been instant death if not for the rock outcropping. The mountains are always unstable, and a slide can happen at any time for any reason.

Off the Gable Lakes Trail are tram towers that carried ore in cars from the mines in the sky to the mill at the bottom. These towers that were built out of heavy timbers and packed in on mules, seem to hang out in space. The tram line was very scary to work on, because it is so high off the ground and had to be maintained year round.

Old miners like Jesus and Marcello, who worked at the Union Carbide Mine in the 60’s told stories about guys riding the tram cars up the hill, when they were coming back from town drunk. The tram cars would get sideways in a wind and jump the rail when it snowed heavily. Sometimes the guys were in the cars when this happened.

Jesus loved to tell stories about the buses that ran up the steep switchback road to the upper Pine Creek mines. Before the switchbacks were constructed they used to drive all the way around through Rock Creek Lake. “Most guys only lasted about a week riding the old gray bus up and down those switchbacks each day. One time in winter the bus started spinning wheels with chains on and rolled back ready to go off the hill. One pine tree saved our lives, and it was the only one on the road,” Jesus said, adding that a lot of guys quit after that.

No story about Pine Creek can be told without mentioning the tungsten mines. Joe Kurtak tells the story in his wonderful book, Mine in the Sky. This is a story about how a steel hardener called tungsten helped win WWII. Now the mine sits idle and waits for the future to claim it. I for one am glad to see it defunct, because it used to smell awful, like rotten eggs, back in the old days, when they were still milling the ore. You could smell it all the way up at 11,000 feet, and it would make you sick hiking back down to the trailhead.

It sure is amazing how time can change things for the better or worse. The old man from the wilderness asked me to share this message with you. He said to take time out to reflect on Nature, because she is the wise teacher. Besides wisdom and respect this is what the mountains have taught me: 1. When the sky looks real ominous and black, she means business. Get off the mountain if you can. 2. Never camp under a large dead tree, because a wind could come from out of nowhere and take you out in your tent. It doesn’t even have to be a wind, as the tree could fall from old age. 3. Never camp in a wash because a flash flood could roll through. I have come across abandoned camps where the tenants fled during a storm at night. They don’t bother to retrieve their camping gear, because they are too busy telling horror stories at home. Stick a bear into that scenario and we are really having fun. Can you imagine a bunch of people yelling and running out of their tents in a rain storm in the middle of the night chased by a bear?

Speaking of bears that reminds me of the time I was out camping with the wilderness crew from Mammoth. My old trail partner, Sue Farley, was there among other notables. Sue is a woman after my own heart. She has been there, done that, can do it all, and then some. I knew that I had pitched my tent too close to the other folks at camp, when I had to get up in the middle of the night. The dogs went off, the flashlights came on, and someone said, “It’s a bear!” Then I heard Sue say, “That’s no bear; it’s a bare ass in the woods!”

Well, it sure has been a lot of fun sharing with you some stories about one of my favorite places in the Eastern Sierra: Pine Creek. Until I write again, I hope you find happiness along the trail of life.

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18 Responses to “Pine Creek Canyon”

  1. Leslie Says:

    I love your post(s) (esp. the story of the Bear a55). Awesome photos too. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Katherine Semmens Clark Says:

    Wow! I stumbled upon your post when I was Googling Union Carbide. My grandfather was Gil Semmens and lived at the mill site in the only house at the operation. He was their master mechanic. I spent many a vacation hiking the switchbacks and spending time in those mountains during the 60’s and early 70’s. In the 50’s, my dad used to hunt deer and fish in the upper lakes with his buddies from Bishop. They were once tracked by a mountain lion. Your post brought back many memories. My grandparents are mentioned in Kurtak’s book, which sits proudly on one of my bookcases. Pine Creek is truly one of most beautiful places on the planet. Thanks for the memories!

    • Lisa Provenza- Bebar Says:

      Katherine, do you recall the name Bebar? My husbands father died in a mining accident in 1973 at the Pine Creek Mine with Union Carbide. We are trying to find out information. Please let me know if this sounds familiar to you. Thanks, Lisa

      • Kat Clark Says:

        Hi Lisa,
        I’m sorry, but I do not recall that family name. My grandfather retired in either 1970 or 72. I was just a kid at the time. Do you have the book, “Mine in the Sky”? It’s all about the mine. I’ll try to dig out my copy and do some research for you.

    • keith herzog Says:

      Katherine – I grew up in Round Valley (kindergarten through high school graduation – 1963) I remember your grandfather and grandmother(Nancy?) very well. My father worked for Gil for over 20 years. I remember the house that your grandparents lived and the creek that ran near by. The house right next to the mill. I also have very fond memories of growing up in Round Valley. The many trips up Pine Creek Canyon are unbelievable. Your grandfather was instrumental in getting me a summer job at the mill once i graduated from high school and went off the college. I still visit the area at least once or twice a year. My name is Keith Herzog and my fathers name was Al. It is strange that I run across your posting now. I will be in Bishop this September for a 50 year high school reunion. I have not had a connection with the Round Valley/Union Carbide “kids” in many years.

      • Katherine Clark Says:

        Yes, Gil and Nancy were my grandparents. My dad, “Chuck” David Charles Semmens graduated in ’56 I think from BUHS, so he was a little before your time. My first visit was in 1960 at the tender age of 3 mos. Many wonderful memories ensued from that time. They left the “mountain” in 1970 or 72 and bought a house in town. Granddad passed away in 1999, followed by my Dad in 2002, and then Nancy in 2004. How wonderful that you can celebrate your 50th high school reunion! I keep telling myself that I’ll get over there and visit the school one of these days.

  3. Pat Says:

    Thanks for the wonderful stories, they immeasurably add so much more to the beauty of this area.
    In the 80’s I backpacked up the mine switchback road in Winter and we ended up camping close to some of the mine shafts. Going down in to the mine shaft was treacherous, as the floor was solid ice and there were 4 ft long icicles that if you slipped and broke off and would impale you to the floor.
    I put on my crampons and started in. After about 45 minutes in, I came upon some kind of miner station where there was a huge stack of old Playboys or Penthouse magazines. I think I gave up after that and headed back out.
    Anyway, that was my odd memory of the Union Carbide Mines, dovetailed with the impressive majesty of the mountains and lakes.

  4. Tammy Nivens Says:

    I stumbled onto your Blog while researching information about my grandfather John “Slim” Nivens, who packed that country after WWII and owned and operated Pine Creek Packstation for a time. My Dad talks about growing up in the area. It is nice to know that his legacy will live on. Thank you!

  5. Tony Ferrari Says:

    Here is a link to a picture of the old tungsten mine I took in 2005:
    http://www.accesscom.com/~mjcarter/New%20Scenics/image-html/Pine_Creek_Tungsten_Mine.html

    somehow when I first posted it it got into the comments for the spark plug mine

  6. Candy Mckinney Says:

    I lived in Rovana my entire childhood…my Father worked at Union Carbide.! The beautiful memories of this gorgous place will remain with me forever…I lived in house 29 and then in house 12! My Dads name was Dean Stewart…My days were spent in Round Valley elementary school, and my summers were spent entirely outdoors playing everywhere our feet would take us!! My name Candy Stewart…maybe someone will remember me! Oh how wonderful to visit my home again!! But I am wondering…are the rows of house still there? I’m excited to chat with anyone who is familiar with my Rovana!!

    • tony ferrari Says:

      Yes the rows are still there – check Google earth. There is a picture of the mill buried in my website (below) also on google panoramio.

      http://www.panoramio.com/user/7798743

    • keith herzog Says:

      I grew up in Round Valley from kindergarten through high school.

      I graduated from BUHS in 1963. I was in Rovana last fall. The housing at Rovana has been purchased by a developer. Round Valley school looks pretty much the same as it did when I attended. I remember the summers – playing at the baseball diamond and the tennis courts near by. The winters were spent playing in the snow and sledding down the “old road” that ran on the south side of Rovana. I don’t know if you remember the white cross on the hill? It is still standing in the same place. When I was there last fall, the gymnasium was being demolished.

  7. Candy Mckinney Says:

    I lived in Rovana 1953- 1969….! No better times were ever had again…….

  8. Thomas haenni Says:

    Hi Lisa Provenza-Bebar,was hes first name Joe?You can contact Pete Belec in Bishop,he told me that name many times,hes been working at the mine and mill since 1966.I am the lucky one that takes care of the property now. Tom

  9. Elizabeth Robert Says:

    Wow! My Dad, Gerald Shelhamer worked at the mine my whole life. I lived at Rovana and was born in Bishop. After I graduated High School, I went back and worked at Union Carbide for one Summer! Lots of memories of the kids and life there…..

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