Devil’s Postpile and Alpine Lakes

Rosalie Lake Through Devil’s Postpile to Lake Virginia: 23 miles in two days

August 14th: 11 miles from Rosalie Lake to Red Cones

August 15th: 12 miles from Red Cones to Lake Virginia

spence here: arriving once more over the ridge in bright sun to devil’s postpile, i looked forward to some different food and a good view of the monument.  even though we had passed through before, (taking the shuttle and re-supplying at the van), we still hadn’t seen said “postpile”. trying to find our trail, we looked across the valley and saw huge columns of basalt cooled thousands of years ago…that’s it!  we found our trail and hiked down through the monument, taking pictures and exploring. the columns were much larger than i had thought! billy took a picture of me next to one of the columns for comparison! there is a “resort” there, called red’s meadow, which boasts the oldest continuous delivery of goods via mule train, stating they still use pack trains to this day.  red’s meadow is a frequent, popular stop for the shuttle buses and has a store, cabins and a small cafe. first up for us, a good ‘ol meal at the cafe.  we were craving fresh food and we weren’t sure what was going to be available or how expensive it was going to be. well, the garden-burgers were a nice surprise, along with side salads and pitchers of water! even with all the rain we had endured the past few days, everything felt as parched as the high desert, our gear and ourselves covered in multiple layers of dust. a smiley thin man was waiting to get some grub and was seated near us at the cafe bar. after looking us over and eyeing our packs he struck up a trail conversation–his group was dropping off some food buckets at red’s meadow to re-supply on their way through in a week or so and were about to take the shuttle to start the jmt in yosemite NP.  he was all excitement and wanted to know if we had any thoughts about the trail thus far. we filled him in on a few of our adventures, some weather talk, some gear talk and eventual re-supply talk. i knew we probably wouldn’t run into him again, but i wished we would have. he had a curious enthusiasm, and the energy of someone just about to get on the trail!  he said goodbye and we wished each other good trail luck.  as billy and i were getting ready to head out, we stopped to pay the bill, only to find out this nice smiley thin man had paid our bill already!  thank you random man! sadly, we never did catch his name, or see him again.

onto the store to buy a few dinner meals and snacks to add to our food supply.  we didn’t need much, after completing our previous loop in record time. good thing we didn’t need much, since there was only a small amount of food in the store to be had, and for an exorbitant price!  some pasta-roni, beans and rice, chips of course and some cold beer for a reward. we walked down to the campground behind red’s with gleeful anticipation–our guidebook had stated the campground had a free backpackers camp, hot showers and hot springs.  alas, we wandered around looking for the oasis, only come to find out from the camp host the springs had been capped! something about “risky” minerals in the water and not wanting to incur a law suit, although the host said the springs had been feeding the showers at the campground without incident for many many years.  she shrugged her shoulders and said there also wasn’t a cheaper backpacker camp, we could pay $20 like everyone else but could stay in any site we wanted.  she was very nice, but we opted to continue on down the trail.  i think i mumbled something about hiking another 6 miles after already hiking a bunch, as was our defaulted routine!  oh well, save the $20.  we got water, rallied up and went on to tour rainbow falls on our way out of the park

we hiked through a region outside the park which was been part of the rainbow forest fire in the 90s. it was hot and dry and we could see for miles all the way to  mammoth mountain, past burned trees and newly sprouting grasses.  the hardest part was walking through the sandy-like pumice. eventually, we set up camp off the side of a steep ridge–basically the first flat spot outside the park’s boundary. not the prettiest, but flat and safe! we piled in the tent for sleep before it was even dark out.

the next day we hiked through what i called a pumice forest. the ground felt a bit sandy again, but was actually small off-white colored rounded rocks, packed down, that treated my feet well.  there were lots of trees but you could see through the forest for many yards, as the pumice kept any ground cover from growing. it was hot but we passed a few refreshing streams and meadows on our way past the red cones. they looked like giant ant hills. that night we camped at purple lake, which indeed seemed purple.  very deep and very beautiful.  i loved this alpine lake, but did not enjoy so many backpackers crammed in along the lake’s edges. whatever happened to camping at least 100 yards from the water?  my first look of the lake was a man washing his under arms in his underwear 10 feet from where another man was getting water–not cool. (this is yet another case for issuing only a few permits a day to back country campers.) it was still a great view past the lake up into the mountains, which contained duck lake and duck pass, another trail i would love to hike sometime.  we found a site up and away from the masses at the lake and had a nice batch of soup before bed. the next day it was onward and upward to lake virginia, and one of my favorite vistas of the trip.

Billy here. It’s Geology time! The Devil’s Postpile National Monument website has a nice little geological introduction to the back story on the formation. Since I’m a geology nerd (I still prize a rock hammer given to me for my 10th birthday) I’ll outline it here.

500 million years ago…Eastern California was a shallow sea and the massive supercontinent Pangaea was still intact.

About 200 million years ago Pangaea began to split, washing eroding sediments from present day Utah and Nevada into the California sea. At the same time, the North American continent drifted west, which slammed the oceanic crust underneath the moving continent, creating a subduction zone (that’s Fancy for one crust plate being pushed under another into the mantle of the Earth). However, sometimes pieces of crust would be thrust upward, creating more land mass on the western edge of the continent in a process called accretion (Fancy for growth). Over millions of years, the land mass that is known as California today was created in this way.

At a disputed time ago, perhaps the pressure between the drifting continent and the adjacent plate created a massive crumpling up east of the subduction zone, warping the sedimentary layers and the accreted land mass up together, metamorphosing the rock into a great mountain range, the Sierra Nevadas. The pressure of the forming Sierra Nevadas pushed subducted crust closer to the molten mantle of the Earth, causing the rock to melt into magma. Some of the magma rose higher into the crust, forming huge magma chambers. Granite was formed by magma cooling under the ground and then being thrust up over millions of years after cooling. The area was highly volcanic at the time and the climate also began to cool over millions of years, forming glaciers.

About 80,000 to 100,000 years ago the stage was finally set for the formation of the basaltic columns. A lava vent began spurting basaltic lava into Reds Meadow Valley. Basaltic lava, rich in iron and magnesium, is hotter, thinner and faster flowing than other types of lava, which allowed the lava to flood the valley until it hit a natural dam, probably a glacial moraine and fill the valley with an uncommonly deep lava lake, in some places 400 feet deep. This lava lake then began to cool and contract. The stresses from cooling relatively rapidly caused the basalt to crack in columns as it cooled, forming the hexagonal columns exposed today from erosion. The quicker basalt cools, the smaller the columns. Some columns have been found smaller than a centimeter. Obviously, the columns at Devil’s Postpile cooled relatively slower since they are a couple of feet wide! Since the cooling of the basalt columns, rivers, earthquakes and glaciers have eroded away the once much taller formation and exposed it to air.

One of the main reasons why I love geology so much is that it is such a concrete reminder that the spots where we now stand have once been undersea, volcanic, rain forest, arid desert or all of the above sequentially, and will be once again something else through the dynamic changes that the Earth undergoes. Even in a seemingly geologically boring place like North Texas, my early interest was sparked by finding marine fossils in the plains. Something that seemed so sure or solid as rock and shoreline I learned is fluid over millennia. It’s somehow comforting, like the vastness of the stars, that we are such small creatures in what seems to be a infinitely expanding and morphing mulitverse. Rocks to me seem to be just as alive as any other creature, they just live on much slower timelines!

The Sierra Nevadas are still rapidly rising today, being pushed up by forces still unknown to scientists. Some features of the range show great age of 40 to 60 million years while some features show youth of only 3 million years.

Another interesting aspect of the Monument was seeing the effects of the Rainbow Fire in the 1990s: while the fire had devastated the taller trees, it allowed for the propagation of smaller vegetation and thus habitats for birds of all kinds.

Speaking of change, the climate in the Sierras was obvious here on the trail. The dramatic loss of half the usual snow this last winter was now falling on us in the summer as rain. The switchback trail up to the volcanic Red Cones had been washed away precariously, turning portions of the trail into slippery washes falling down the slope, hardly stable enough to walk across, taking the soil-stabilizing plants with them. Finally the active rainfall was lessening for a few days and the sun was drying things out, so we were able to cross this pumice gravel portion of the trail. I wondered too if the warmth of the lakes had anything to do with the early snow melt. A sobering fact: the Sierra Nevada snow pack supplies 65 percent of California’s water. California provides half of the nation’s fruit and nuts and at least a quarter of its vegetables.

For some reason I felt like we were leaving the Shire and into the great unknown in passing out of Devil’s Postpile, perhaps because we were leaving the vicinity of the parked van and heading toward some truly massive mountain passes. The kind stranger buying our lunch at the resort humbled me. I couldn’t thank him in person, but I could wish for his safe passage through these mysterious mountain grandmothers. Wildflowers of purple lupine and hemlock filled the meadows. Thunderheads loomed over peaks across the valley below. I could finally feel the metal bands of city life unsnapping from around my heart.

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