Monday, August 25, 2014

Mammoth Lakes - Bristlecone Pines - Yosemite Road Trip

Summer is over. Long live summer. Today is the first day of school and I'm sitting in a stupor, suffering from chronic insomnia once more. Thank goodness I already graduated and am not required to pay attention or learn anything. Kidding! I'm learning all the time. Like just a couple weeks ago, I learned that Yosemite has a ghost town. Not technically, but close enough.

Just outside the Yosemite National Park boundaries is a lovely 1.5-mile hike to a former silver-mining operation, Bennettville. It's noteworthy because A) the hike is easy and follows a lovely creek with various little drops that almost reach mini-waterfall status, and B) Bennettville, while only existing as two restored buildings, is still a lovely, haunting and strange destination once you emerge from the misty, shadowy woods. Bonus: views of mountains all around.

These are the last two buildings out of many from the abandoned mining operation. The late nineteenth-century company just couldn't get silver out of the tons of granite and finally gave up. These buildings were rebuilt using authentic materials in 1993. Like all abandoned places, it's lonesome with an atmosphere of economic failure, but it's always nice to see nature get the last word in. The word from nature in Bennettville is: too bad—no precious metals for you.

Keith says "YES" to nature on the trail to Bennettville

Speaking of nature, we've been meaning to visit the ancient bristlecone forest in the White Mountain range of the Eastern Sierras for some time now. When we were last in the area (the town of Bishop, to be exact), the winding road to the pines was closed due to snow. So we made a point of heading up that way this time around. The bristlecones did not disappoint.

I know you're probably thinking: why would anyone travel hundreds of miles to a 10,000+-foot elevation to see some pine trees? I have a good answer for that. These are not just any pine trees. They're freakin' bristlecone trees—the toughest, long-lastingnest trees on the planet. That's right—bristlecones can live a long time. How long? Thousands of years long. Each. That's one tree: living thousands of years. In fact, one tree at this blasted, extreme elevation has lived more than 5,000 years. It was just beyond our hiking loop, but we did pass by the second oldest tree (recorded so far), which is no spring chicken at 4,000+ years. I apologize for all the cliches and ad-speak in the above paragraph. I feel the need to sell these trees a little, even though they need no help from me.

Here are some bristlecones. Some are dead, but have been standing for hundreds of years. They're not going anywhere any time soon (I'll stop writing like this now, I promise). The density and durability of the bristlecone allows it to survive in terrible weather conditions that would destroy most lifeforms within a season. Some of these trees are half-alive and some are young and on their way to living history. The dead ones tend have the most character for photography's sake—like crazed modern sculpture, growing out of cruddy soil conditions. Have at it, bristlecones—it's your world—we're just a blink of an eye in it.



The other strange aspect of the bristlecone interpretive history loop is a section of blasted red rocks, spilling down the mountain. This is that weird California phenomena where the Earth's crust along the Pacific coast shoves against the North American continent every hundred-thousand years or so, creating mountain ranges made of multiple layers of whatever gets pushed to the top. In this case, billions of red, shorn rocks. Some are naturally formed in perfect rectangle bricks. Others diamond-shaped, cube shaped, shingle-like. Just don't bring any home to use as a doorstop. You're supposed to leave nature as you found it. Also, the rangers won't tell you which trees are the oldest. It's a well-kept secret. Nobody wants to see the world's oldest living organism with "BERNARD WAS HERE" carved into it.

Lots of red rocks

Mammoth Lakes is aptly named. Besides being known as a bountiful ski destination (and now summer sports as well, including mountain biking, golf, hiking and drinking fancy coffee), there are quite a few lakes to explore. Here's June Lake of the famous "June Lake Loop" (nicknamed The Switzerland of the U.S.—it actually does seem very alpine Swiss). You can camp, lodge and fish all around this area and there are three more beautiful lakes just down the road.

This is just the view from the highway—not bad

And of course, when in Mammoth, do take the bus ride down to the Devil's Postpile National Monument and Rainbow Falls sites. You can hike to these places after you disembark (Mammoth has a very enlightened public-transit system and discourages too much auto traffic on delicate mountain roads) and they are strange and wonderful. If you do so in the summer as we did, be prepared for HUMANITY. As in, oh, the humanity. But really, it wasn't as crowded as Yosemite and it was worth seeing. Check it out—Devil's Postpile:

What the-- WHA?

To give you an idea of the scale of this thing, also known as columnar basalt

 At midday, Rainbow Falls has an actual rainbow in it.

After a walk through meadows and forest, one of two outlooks overlooking Rainbow Falls

Pull up a rock, have a seat and a snack
The rainbow shows up best in person, or if not possible, on video. An excerpt of Rainbow Falls, with rainbow:

But what of Yosemite, you say (if you've made it this far and if so, congratulations). I know, I know. I promised some Yosemite. Here's a random glacial lake. I think it's Tenaya Lake. It's right on Highway 129 (Tioga Rd.). You can't miss it.

The fact is, we really blew through Yosemite after traveling for four days, so it was a late-afternoon destination. The best time of year to blow through Yosemite along Tuolumne Meadows is in the spring when wildflowers are exploding everywhere and the deer practically frolic in front of you like something out of Bambi. As it was, in late-August—not so many wild flowers.

Still, Yosemite is a beaut, of course. Although Jackson calls it "overrated," being mostly made of "granite mountains" with a few "interesting water features." I think the key word here is "popular." Yosemite is very populated and if you're trying to get out of that situation, this is not the place. Still, Olmsted Point is worth a visit for some fabulous granite views.

Hmmm, this is overrated...

...What? Oh, HI! Yes, fabulous, indeed

The thing I remember was we stopped and got burgers at the Tuolumne Grill near the meadow and that was good because we had run out of snacks at that point. It was decent eats and though bustling, wasn't the typical mob scene of Yosemite eateries. And Keith found a discarded bike wheel on top of a dumpster with two broken spokes, so that went into the car with us and is awaiting his repair. If you are the cyclist who left your wheel behind because of two broken spokes, know that it ended up in good and appreciative hands.

P.S. Keith wanted to give a shout-out to the Sonora Pass, our gateway to the Eastern Sierras. He says this is the "indie rock" route to Mammoth because it's not exactly a major-destination hub, unless you count Bodie as a major destination (I do). This was also the highest elevation we had ever been, until we visited the bristlecones a couple days later. Those bristlecones have got it going on. Also, pioneers—how did they survive all this?

At 9,600+ feet, headaches and shortness of breath do occur—great views though
Two cheerful guys parked by the Sonora Pass sign were unloading a mountain bike so one could bike 15 miles down the highway while the other followed in the car. They explained they would then drive back up the mountain and trade places, so each would get a chance to bike it. That's something to do.

More advice: don't forget your golf clubs.

Au revoir, summer.

1 comment:

Samantha Byrd said...

Those trees were quite interesting and beautiful. I never really saw the beauty in a tree before until now. The fact that the Bristlecone Pines are so old is amazing also. They have been alive for so long and they are still standing! I enjoyed reading about this place that I have never heard of before. I didn't care for the "music video" however. It is perhaps someone else's cup of tea.