Rock Creek Canyon

I lived in Mammoth Lakes for 16 years back in the 1970’s and climbed and hiked every mountain that I could get my grubby little boots on. As I branched out and discovered new canyons, no other place inspired me more or gave me a truer western feeling than Rock Creek Canyon.

Everybody is moving up the main trail through the Little Lakes Valley and over Mono Pass, but there is so much to offer in the side canyons where far fewer people go. I am so used to not seeing anyone when I go cross country off the main trail, that I would be shocked if I did see someone. It is an amazing thing to think that a person can still go out in the woods in this day and age and not see another person all day-maybe not for days. You can become so isolated out there that loneliness can creep up on you. Anyone who has ever spent a night alone in the wilderness has had to learn to overcome primeval fear. By golly, that is where a dog comes in handy, one just like my little partner, Windy.

Back at Rock Creek Lake there are nice campgrounds, many lakes, streams, fishing, hunting, equestrian activities, climbing, biking, and some of the best hiking in the Sierra. About halfway up the road to Rock Creek Lake from U.S. 395 at Tom’s Place is the Palisades campground. Two springs come off the hill above the large parking area that lead to small meadows and spectacular lodgepole forests. Around these meadows are carvings left by Basque sheepherders from the 1890’s. This hike is a steep cross country one following old people and deer trails, until it runs into the Hilton Lakes Trail. That is just for starters because there are many choices to take farther up the road at Rock Creek Lake. Next stop up the hill is Lower Corral and the winter headquarters for Rock Creek Lodge, which looks the same as when it was built in the 1930’s.

At Lower Corral there is a nice meadow with the most excellent views of the mountains along the creek. At the head of the meadow a trail goes up to the Tamarack Bench. It is the original trail used back in the 1890’s, and there are carvings along the way to prove it. This area is also accessed by a trail that comes up from Rock Creek Lake farther up the road. Since this area is on the wilderness boundary, it is possible to camp up there without a wilderness permit, a rare opportunity these days, and I know of no other place where you can do that except Green Lake in Bishop Creek Canyon.

OHV (off highway vehicle) enthusiasts can access this area via the Sand Canyon Road from Swall Meadows. They can also drive up to Wheeler Ridge that overlooks Bishop and go as far as they can make it. The RARE II roadless inventory closed this road 25 years ago, but it is now reopened and a great opportunity for OHV lovers to experience the high country.

The Sand Canyon Road is also a designated mountain bike trail. Most people ride down from Rock Creek Lake. This is a real treat for mountain bikers to be able to ride in a primo wilderness setting. It should be illegal to have this much fun.

The Tamarack Bench is one of the choicest places I have ever been in the Sierra. There is just something about it that is special-the history, the beauty, the western feeling that I get when I am there. I first went there as a young man, and I hope I can return there until the end of my days.

On the other side of the canyon are the Hilton Lakes Trail, Patricia Lake and Half Moon Pass. A lot of pack stock go into Hilton Lakes. Not many people are going to Patricia, as there is no trail. Hikers have made a trail here and there but a lot of it is big talus rock. The area is popular with rock climbers, because there are huge Yosemite type rock faces and large cracks. Patricia Lake is as pristine as it can be. Half Moon Pass above the pack station is one of my old favorite shortcuts over the hill. It’s a people-made trail that goes up the right hand side of the canyon. There is a notch at the top that allows hikers to get through and down to Golden Lake on the other side. This route cuts off many miles and a lot of time from going over Mono Pass, a direct shot and the way the Paiute Indians used to go, though this route is definitely not for the inexperienced hiker.

That’s just the side canyons. The Little Lakes Valley at the end of the road is just as spectacular as everywhere else in the Rock Creek Canyon. It also has a unique history of heavy equipment driving along where the trail now is up to the Tungsten “mines in the sky.”

Don’t forget to stop at the upper Rock Creek Lodge near the lake for a piece of their world famous pie. With all the money they are making they should forget the resort business and just sell pies all day. If you get there too late, you will be left out.

Well, it has been another wonderful adventure in the great Eastern Sierra mountains and may your journey along Hwy 395 always be a good one.

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One Response to “Rock Creek Canyon”

  1. john Says:

    Your writting is tops.

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