Wednesday, June 8
The day is already heating up as I exit 395 at Toms Place, CA onto Rock Creek Road. A sign looms ahead on the right: Rock Creek Recreation Area, Inyo National Forest.
There are several NF campgrounds along this road, but I don’t stop at any of them. Local Knowledge says they’re all $20+ a night for dry camping and only the one closest to 395 (French Camp Campground) has a phone signal.
The newly resurfaced road makes for smooth sailing up Rock Creek Canyon. The creek flows swiftly from snow-melt and the Aspen trees are leafing out, both courtesy of the abnormally warm weather.
It’s a cute little place located in an incredible setting: high in the Sierra at 10,000 feet and surrounded by several mountains that top 13,000 feet. The gift shop sells souvenirs and local goods as well as fishing gear – fishing being one of the prime recreational activities in the area. There are cabins for rent tucked into the pines away from the road and the cafe serves breakfast and lunch… more about that later.
I contemplated working here myself actually, and am still entertaining the idea of trying it some future year. It’s different from the typical work-camping gig in that employees are trained to work every aspect of the resort instead of being stuck in one position for the entire summer, and California has a higher minimum wage than most states so the pay is better than usual.
The cost-of-living would also be quite cheap. Campsites are not full-hookup but rent is free and propane is also provided for free to run a heater (at this elevation there’s no need to run an A/C). The resort also provides food for its employees at no cost (and there’s a kitchen area to prepare it in), as well as a bathroom and shower.
The only downside is the lack of WiFi and phone signal, and that’s what kept me from doing it this year. A person would need to drive eight miles down the mountain to get online or make a call, and last year the road was under construction which made getting down the mountain a challenge. With the resurfacing now complete though that wouldn’t be as much of an ordeal…
But today I’m here to hike, and let me tell you, this is an fantastic location for hiking.
Rayn, JJ and I pile into their Subaru with our gear and drive to Mosquito Flat trailhead, where the road ends. Today’s conquest is the Little Lakes Valley hike, which is relatively level and anywhere from 1.5 to 8 miles round-trip depending on how many of the lakes you want to see.
They’re all mind-blowing. Crystal clear water framed by pine (and the first wildflowers this time of year), set in the untouched beauty of high mountains with snow-capped peaks all around. Now that famous John Muir quote really rings true: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
Last year, snow-pack was only 19% of normal in Rock Creek Canyon, and water levels in the lakes and streams were down. This winter snow-pack was at 85% which is a significant improvement. Rayn tells me that when she hiked this trail last Thursday it was still snowbound, but the heat wave is melting things in a hurry and water levels are high right now.
At high elevations, the difference between being in the sun and being in the shade is amazing. It’s warm in direct sunlight and a person can get sunburned quickly up here. But step under a tree, and it feels like the temperature drops by twenty degrees.
Although “warm” is relative. The hottest day on record last year at the resort was 76 degrees. JJ is amazed at how warm the past week has been, well above average for this time of year. Today at Lake Crowley it’s suppose to get up to 88 degrees which is absurd, I’d much rather be up here.
A little purple flower is in bloom, growing in small patches low to the ground. Rayn and take turns lying on our bellies to try to get good photos of it with the mountains as a backdrop. Of several patches taken from several angles, this is the best of mine. The things we do for art.
Two kinds of pine grow in the canyon, and up here above 10,000 feet I meet a tree I remember from hiking Mount Washburn in Yellowstone last summer: the Whitebark pine. It’s not a very stunning tree, but it’s hardy. The needles grow in clusters of five, it’s relatively easy to identify.
“This is where I turned back last Thursday.” Rayn remarks. Ahead of us lies a stream. A series of rocks make a footpath across, but the water is high and there’s no way to get across without getting wet. My shoes are soaked through by the end, but I have fancy wool socks on that stay warm even when wet so I don’t feel uncomfortable.
We walk over a few piles of compacted snow to Long Lake, the fifth one out. The last four have been completely melted, but Long Lake still has a tiny bit of ice on it as we’ve been slowly climbing. The trail on from here is covered with snow, and we opt not to go farther. Five gorgeous mountain lakes with four miles of hiking total (out and back), what a deal!
Back at the resort, we sit down to a well-deserved lunch at the cafe. I order the pulled BBQ pork sandwich, with BBQ sauce made right here at the resort by a father/son team, doesn’t get much more local than that!
It’s delicious, but the portions are so big that I have to take half home to leave room for desert: a crumble made from scratch. Of the three varieties available today I opt for Boysenberry, and get a scoop of cinnamon brown sugar ice cream along with. Nirvana.
After lunch, Rayn, JJ, and I walk to Rock Creek Lake… in our swimsuits. Are we really going to…? Oh yes, we are. Going to the beach and wading in would be absolute torture, the experienced employees of the resort have a much better method.
There’s a pile of rocks at one edge of the lake where daring individuals can jump off into about ten feet of water and get it over with quickly. The only problem is the high level of the lake means that pile of rocks is under about four inches of water right now. We line up at the edge, my feet already freezing. Rayn relates the tale of how the last time she came out to do this, her buddy chickened out and when they got to the count of 3, she screeched and didn’t jump. I’m worried that if I have to wait for a count of 3, I likewise will find myself rooted in place. “One!…” I jump.
GRAAAH! But they were right, it’s better to go in all at once. I swim right back to shore, aching with cold. Luckily it’s such a warm day that as soon as I’m out of the water it’s alright. JJ is brave enough to jump a second time. I get a rare selfie, and even go sit back down on the jumping rock in the water to get a more proper picture taken. Jump into a mountain lake, check and done!
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