Discover the adventures near this basalt wonder in Mammoth Lakes

By Leonie Sherman

Devils Postpile’s waves in columnar basalt.

The seasonally gated road. Where frustrated motorists see a barrier, intrepid cyclists see an invitation. Those thin metal bars keep out cars and create the perfect avenue for two-wheeled adventure.

Every year there’s a magical moment when the road to Devils Postpile is closed to traffic but free of snow. That’s the time to grab a trusty chromoly companion and saddle up for a day or three of Mammoth back-country adventure. Devils Postpile was formed about 100,000 years ago by the slow cooling of a lava flow, leaving behind symmetrical columns of basalt up to 60 feet high. After plans to blast the dark cliff into the San Joaquin to make a hydroelectric dam were defeated, President Taft declared the area a National Monument in 1911.

A hundred years ago traffic wasn’t a major concern, but over the decades the popularity of the monument became its undoing. Thousands of people wanted to visit every day, but with only 200 parking places along the road, people began parking off roadways, damaging plants and creating your basic traffic jam in the wilderness.

In 1980, a regional effort introduced the first mandatory public transportation system; since then most visitors need to take a shuttle to access Devils Postpile. As a result, there are fewer accidents, less pollution, and the whole valley is more peaceful. Denali and Zion have imitated this system, and any frequently visited park can benefit from banning private cars and instituting a compulsory shuttle system. But it does make for a wilderness experience shared with dozens of others. For those who want to explore Devils Postpile in less company, timing is everything.

From the town of Mammoth Lakes, a gentle mile-long climb brings you to Minaret Summit; the remnants of the range that preceded the Sierra form jagged gothic spires that loom out of a forested hill. Banner Peak and Mount Ritter dominate the skyline. Pause to take in the panorama and then enjoy a screaming 12-mile, 1,500-foot descent to the Postpile. After about five miles, the road makes a 180 degree hairpin turn at Agnew Meadows, the trailhead for Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes.

For a cold-tolerant adventurer, the potential of seeing these iconic high Sierra lakes buried in snow is hard to resist. The River Trail holds a steady contour between 8,000-8,500 feet for about six miles before climbing 700 feet in a steep mile to the shores of Garnet Lake. From there, two and a half miles and another few hundred feet of climbing bring you to Thousand Island Lake. Both are likely to be frozen when you arrive. Following the trail will likely involve miles of tedious post holing. The shoulder season, when there’s not enough snow for skiing and too much to backpack comfortably, may last into July this year.

Why not save the high country for high season and keep on the joy ride another seven miles all the way to Devils Postpile? The ride is a worthy objective in and of itself. Locals love this sweet spot in the year and will ride down just to test their aerobic fitness on the climb out.

But before you make that climb back out, why not stroll into the monument and gawk at the cliffs of symmetrical columnar basalt? At 7,300 feet, even in this record year of moisture the walk should be snow-free. Climb to the top of the cliffs and marvel at the hexagonal patterns polished smooth by glacial action. Or stand at the bottom and admire the wave-like curves in solid rock.

Thundering Rainbow Falls, 101 feet tall, is about an hour hike from the entrance station. It spills over a sharp cliff; mist creates rainbows near the impact zone. Viewing platforms provide different angles of the tallest falls on Middle Fork of the San Joaquin. Massive volumes of water constantly spilling down a cliff never fail to mesmerize. Bike ride, hike, waterfalls … how could the day get better?

Hot springs, of course. Twelve miles from Rainbow Falls lie the fabled pools of Iva Bell. The trail drops 1,200 feet in the first nine miles, through pumice flats, along gleaming granite slabs, with stunning views, numerous creek crossings and fields of brilliant paintbrush and lupine. A sturdy bridge crosses roaring Fish Creek. Three and a half miles of muddy trail, bush whacking, and hand to limb combat deposit a hiker at another junction after gaining 700 feet. Head north for the briefest of moments and then follow a well worn trail to a highly impacted horse camp. Deposit your gear, grab a water bottle, put on your camp shoes and head up the hill.

Four pools are scattered above a steep meadow. At 7,100 feet, mid-summer is the time to fully enjoy Iva Bell Hot Springs. By the high season, in August and September, the mountains are calling and daytime temperatures in the forested zone are too warm for an inviting soak.  The few other folks willing to brave snow and a gated road to get to Iva Bell Hot Springs will become fast friends. This is a feasible overnight trip, but why not stay a little longer?

From Iva Bell, the Lost Keys Lakes are an excellent day trip, just four miles and 2,000 feet of climbing away. More dedicated adventurers can head for 10,797-foot Duck Pass, 14 miles away, and hike out through the Mammoth Lakes Basin, emerging at Lake Mary Road, where a shuttle will return you to your car at the ski resort. And the pansy badasses among us – you know who you are – can simply stick around Iva Bell, lolling in the shade, reading, and soaking in the remote back-country hot springs. Choose your own adventure.

The return hike is an easy cruise. Marvel at the changes a few days of melting bring to river levels and flower displays. Admire the creative destruction of a wildfire that ravaged the land recently and the wealth of new life that is returning to the burned area. Rejoice when you find your bike right where you left it. And then contemplate the long slow climb back to your car. You got this.

101-foot Rainbow Falls.

The road to Devils Postpile, Minaret Summit.

The author taking a break after an epic descent.

A blissful backcountry bath.