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Hiking: High Sierra

Postpile: The Devil Made Them Do It

September 15, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

No doubt at all how Devils Postpile National Monument was named. It's easy to imagine that the collection of dark rock columns is a pile of posts pushed up from the depths of the Earth by the old devil himself. Geologists have another explanation: An ancient lava flow created a formation of columnar basalt, as it's known.

Subsequent glaciers excavated one side of the Postpile, revealing a precipitous wall of columns 60 feet high. Glaciers also smoothed and polished the top of the Postpile, leaving behind a surface that resembles the tiled floor of some ancient Greek temple.

The national monument's other natural attraction is the river--the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin. At one point it leaps 101 feet off the basalt cliffs, creating Rainbow Falls.

Because of the national monument's small size, a walk to Devils Postpile, a stroll along the river and a visit to Rainbow Falls just about exhausts the hiking possibilities there.

However, this little island of national parkland is a great jump-off place for more ambitious hikes into the nearby Inyo National Forest's Ansel Adams Wilderness. Both the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail (traveling in tandem) cross the national monument. Fern Lake (13 miles round trip) and Minaret Lake (15 miles round trip) are two splendid all-day journeys that begin from Devils Postpile.

Getting to the national monument is easy, but requires some planning. Some years ago, the U.S. Forest Service restricted private vehicle access on the narrow entry road and instituted a shuttle bus service. The hiker can ride the shuttle to Devils Postpile, Agnew Meadows, Reds Meadow Resort and other trail heads and destinations.

The famed Pacific Crest Trail offers a 7 1/2-mile one-way tour of the national monument; the convenient shuttle bus offers an easy way back.

This hike begins at Agnew Meadows Campground, visits Devils Postpile, then travels to Reds Meadow Resort. Pumice-lined Minaret Creek, as well as a white volcanic rock outcropping known as Pumbic Flat, testify to the fiery geologic history of the area.

If you want to get right to Rainbow Falls, begin at the signed trail head on the road just outside Reds Meadow. Otherwise join Fish Creek Trail, soon passing a junction with John Muir Trail and intersecting the path for Reds Meadow at 0.4 mile. Keep cruising downhill amid towering conifers past the junction with the main Devils Postpile Trail at 0.7 mile. At the one-mile mark, you'll reach another junction and angle right for Rainbow Falls.Another quarter-mile walk leads to a wood stairway that descends to the river.

Directions to trail head: From U.S. 395, about 25 miles south of Lee Vining and 35 miles north of Bishop, take the Mammoth Lakes/ Highway 203 exit and head west four miles through the town of Mammoth Lakes. Turn right on Minaret Road (a continuation of California 203) and proceed 4.5 more miles to Reds Meadow Recreation Area. Early birds (before 7:30 a.m.) may drive an additional steep and winding 7.8 miles to a signed turnoff, then another quarter-mile to the parking lot.

Most hikers enjoy boarding the shuttle bus. Tickets are $7, adults; $4 children, 5 to 12; children under 5 free. Disembark the shuttle bus at the Devils Postpile parking lot. The footpath for this walk begins just past the ranger station.

The walk: Tramp the well-traveled pathway from the meadow near the ranger station along a mellow forest trail to Devils Postpile. After exploring the basalt columns, join the trail at the base of the formation to Rainbow Falls.

Wander past some blackened lodgepole pines (the result of a 1992 blaze) along the San Joaquin River. The path meanders into Inyo National Forest for a time, then heads back into national park service domain. Go straight at a junction where a path branches left to Reds Meadow Resort.


Devils Postpile, Rainbow Fall Trails

WHERE: Devils Postpile National Monument.

TERRAIN: The Postpile, San Joaquin River.

DISTANCE: Ranger Station to Devils Postpile is 0.8 mile round trip; to Rainbow Falls is 5 miles round trip.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Devils Postpile National Monument, c/o Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, Three Rivers, CA 93271; tel. (209) 5653341.

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