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Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls

Devils Postpile National Monument

June 21st, 2004

3.5 miles
680 vertical feet
Total Time: 3:20

Rating: 7/10

Directions: From Highway 395, take Highway 203 through the town of Mammoth Lakes. Turn right onto Minaret Road (still Highway 203). Follow the road up to the Mammoth Mountain ski area. Generally, you will have to park here and take the shuttle the rest of the way. Cost is $7 per person.   View Driving Map


Unless you enter the park before 7am or after 5:30pm, with few exceptions (such as, you're camping there), you can't drive into the Devils Postpile National Monument. Instead, you must take a shuttle bus from the Mammoth Mountain ski area. This prevents cars from clogging the narrow winding road down into the valley.

We got another late start, arriving at the ski area a bit after noon. The shuttle is basically like a school bus. In fact, our driver was an old school bus driver. The bus was about half full. After peaking at the park entrance, the trip is all downhill, about 1500 feet down. Along the way are great views of Minaret Falls and the surrounding mountains.

The bus has 10 stops. We took it to stop number 6, Devils Postpile. The night before I had thought about two options: (1) hike past Devils Postpile to Rainbow Falls, and back -- a 5 mile round trip; or (2) hike to Devils Postpile and back, about a 1 mile round trip, take the shuttle to the Rainbow Falls trailhead, then hike to Rainbow Falls and back (about 1.5 miles round trip). While on the shuttle I realized there was a much simpler option that wasn't mentioned in any of my hiking books. We would hike past Devils Postpile to Rainbow Falls, then hike back to the Rainbow Falls Trailhead. We'd take advantage of the shuttle, which we were required to use anyway. If you are planning a trip here, you can use the shuttles creatively to do longer hikes than you normally could without a shuttle, and without the hassle of having to arrange a car shuttle.

There's a small visitor's center, where we picked up a small map and refilled on water. It was quite a warm day, although our return bus driver said that it was about as hot as it gets (in the 80's). After putting Nathan in the baby carrier, we started off on the sandy, level trail. The trail roughly follows the San Joaquin River to the right, past typical Sierra forest.

Top of the Devils Postpile

Top of the Devils Postpile

After just 0.4 miles, we reached the Devils Postpile itself. Here's where I made my mistake. I could see some of the columnar basalt rising up in front of us. Instead of staying on the main trail, I decided we would head up to the top of the postpile, then double back a bit to see it from ground level. As it turned out, we never would.

Top of the Devils Postpile

Top of the Devils Postpile

The trail up to the top of the postpile is steep, but relatively short. Still, it will have you huffing and puffing by the time you reach the top. Here you will see what look like unnatural hexagonal tiles on the ground below you. After marveling at them, we continued on up the trail, which winds its way up a bit more, then steadily back down. There are a few other signs of columnar basalt, but nothing spectacular. The best display on this part of trail is near the bottom, where you can see a wall of diagonal columns (diagonal into the hillside, not across it).

Basalt columns

When we reached the intersection with the main trail, I decided I didn't want to torture Jean anymore, so we turned left instead of right, which would have given us a chance to see the main display of columnar basalt. We'll just have to return another time.

Many more columns

The trail still roughly follows the San Joaquin River, following it downstream. The trail is typical Sierra forest until it turns a corner and dumps you out into a surreal scene. A 1992 forest fire, dubbed the "Rainbow Fire", swept through the area. What's left is scattered surviving trees, a lot of burnt empty shells, and the beginnings of new life -- little trees no more than 4 or 5 feet tall. I had hiked through fire-damaged areas before, but nothing so large and devastating. It didn't feel like a real hike anymore. It reminded me of hiking in Bryce Canyon, where you feel like you're walking in a museum. It seemed eerily quiet.

Entering the burnt forest

More of the burnt forest

We trudged along the sandy trail until we turned right, descended some steps, and came to the first viewpoint of Rainbow Falls. The falls were impressive simply in terms of the power of the water falling 101 feet. As advertised, there was a rainbow at the bottom. At this time, the rainbow was only visible from the first and second view points, but not the bottom. A tree mars the view from the second view point, so if you don't have the energy to go down (and, inevitably, up) any more, you aren't missing much.

But we didn't know that at the time. So we kept going down. At the top of the steep steps leading down to the base of the falls, we talked to some people coming up. We asked them if there was a place to sit down to have lunch. They said yes, and we didn't press them on it. Unfortunately, it wasn't until we reached the bottom that we realized that there were places to eat, but no place for a 9-month old baby to crawl around safely. So we enjoyed the mist briefly before heading back up the steep steps.

Rainbow Falls

We settled under a tree near the second view point to have lunch. While we were there, a group of a dozen or so on horses came down. After lunch, I headed up to the first view point to take some photographs. I wasn't the only one -- a couple was already there, taking pictures with their digital cameras. The man next to me complained that he couldn't get a long exposure because his Nikon digital SLR only supported speeds of 200 - 3200. I didn't have the same problem, since I was shooting 50 speed film. Chalk one up for film. Still, I wasn't getting speeds as slow as I wanted, so I used my graduated neutral density filter a little creatively, angling it diagonally so as to darken the falls appropriately.

Rainbow Falls

As we were packing up to head back on the trail, the skies began to darken quickly. Clouds had snuck up on us from the north, and I knew the threat of thunderstorms was headed our way. We quickly finished packing and headed back onto the trail. Passing through the burned-out forest again, we took the right fork which would take us to the Rainbow Falls trailhead. As we walked slightly uphill, we could hear distant thunder. Fortunately for us, it never got close.

Back into the burnt forest

Jean in the burnt forest

Shortly, we reached the Rainbow Falls trailhead. The bus doesn't stop there, though. For that, you'll have to walk a little more, up the main road where there is a clearly marked bus stop sign. We just missed the bus headed uphill, but I knew it would return shortly, as we were at the second-to-last stop, stop 9 of 10. Soon the bus returned and we got on for the trip back up. The bus would be completely full, and the driver said that by July 1st, there would be 10 busses running, always packed.


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