In all the years I used to visit Mammoth with my parents and brother to ski during my teen years, I would see the signs for Devil’s Postpile National Monument, but the roads to get there were always closed for the winter, so we never got to visit it. Last year, Colleen and the kids and I traveled to Mammoth at the end of June (my first summer trip there), so I could finally see Devil’s Postpile and Rainbow Falls, which I’d heard was pretty awesome. Unfortunately, even at the end of June, we were once again foiled again by the snow–the road wasn’t even open yet!
So this summer, in the 100th year of the establishment of Devil’s Postpile National Monument, we decided to try again. And after Mammoth received more snow this year than they ever had before, and more than anyone else in the world at one point, it was announced they would be able to ski until July 4th, so we set our trip for August, to ensure we wouldn’t be snowed out yet again. This time we lucked out, and the roads and trails were indeed open.
When my wife had last been to Devil’s Postpile as a child, it was possible to drive back to the trailhead in a private vehicle, but these days, unless you are camping back there (and even then, private vehicles are very restricted), you now have to ride the shuttle from the Mammoth Adventure Center or the Village to the trailhead and other stops along that road. We purchased our tickets ($7 for adults, $4 for kids 3-15) at the Mammoth Adventure Center, where we would also purchase our gondola tickets for lunch at the top of the mountain later that week. Dogs are welcome on the shuttle, but they do require a muzzle on your dog–even for sweet, adorable trail dogs like ours.
The shuttle buses fill quickly, and while the ride took longer than I expected, the scenery was great and our bus driver pointed out sights such as Minaret Falls and a recent landslide/avalanche area along the way. The Devil’s Postpile Trailhead was the 6th shuttle stop after passing the Minaret Vista Ranger Station, and almost everyone on the bus got off here.
In the small parking lot there was a small ranger station with a small interpretive center in it, and a couple of Forest Service style restrooms. The trailhead was very clearly marked, and after we put some time between the initial crowd of hikers from the bus, we headed on down towards the Postpile, which the signpost told us was only 4/10 of a mile away, with Rainbow Falls being 2.5 miles away. The trail parallels and intersects with a section of trail where the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails overlap, a trail system that goes from the Mexican Border up to the Canadian Border.
We had intentionally chosen to make this hike during the week, rather than on the weekend, because it is probably the most popular hike in the Mammoth area, and we wanted to avoid the crowds as much as possible. In fact, the trail towards Postpile was remarkably free of crowds, and the trail very quickly got into beautiful scenery and the ability to feel like you were alone in the wilderness.
Just before you get to the Postpile itself, you’ll come to a junction in the trail that points left to the path to get on top of the Postpile. You’ll definitely want to go up there, but I recommend you stay straight right now, and see the Postpile from the bottom first. While it is an amazing geometric geological feature to see, I confess it was not nearly as big and grand as the pictures you always see appear to make it look. Colleen similarly remembered it being much larger when she had visited it as a child. That’s not to say that it wasn’t worth seeing–it was just smaller than I anticipated.
If your sole purpose for making this hike is to get awesome pictures of the Postpile, you may want to wait until the afternoon. It hadn’t occured to us, but the vertical face of the Postpile faces west, so when we got there in the morning (trying to beat the afternoon heat on the exposed stretch to Rainbow Falls), the famous basalt columns were shrouded in the shade, making our own pictures less than impressive.
After checking out the columns from below and reading the interpretive signs that explained the process by which lava flows turned into such a geological oddity, we backtracked 100 yards or so to the trail to the top of the Postpile. It’s about 500 feet (plus 100 or so feet in elevation) to the top, which I thought was cooler than the base. From above, you can see the remarkably regular pentagon shapes that the columns are made of. It really looks like someone placed carefully inlaid stone tiles in the woods, and it is wild to think that it occurs this way naturally, though the interpretive signs do a good job of explaining how these shapes regularly appear in nature in things like honeycombs and crystals (basalt columns are formed much like crystals).
The views from here were also nice, so even though we had really just gotten started on our hike, we took some time to rest and enjoy the scenery.
Rather than head back down the path we had already taken to the base of the Postpile, we continued on up the loop trail, which we knew would reconnect us with the main trail shortly. The entire stretch of the loop from before the Postpile to after the Postpile was about a third of a mile, and gets you up to the maximum elevation you’ll see on the entire hike, at 7788 ft. This backside of the Postpile also provided several other unique views of basalt columns.
Not long after you rejoin the main trail, you will have the opportunity to head left towards the Red’s Meadow Campground and Rainbow Falls Trailhead, but you want to stay straight. This stretch of trail has very nicely shaded areas and runs more or less along the North Fork of the San Joaquin River. At about 1.3 miles you’ll cross a small wood bridge over Red’s Creek, and very shortly thereafter come to a great view point over a narrow, whitewater stretch of the river.
While enjoying the view and the sound of the river here, and watering the dog (and Gatorading ourselves), we were blessed to see several bald eagles flying around, and two of them were even fighting/playing with each other, with one collision between them sending a shower of feathers through the air. We really wished some of the feathers had drifted to the ground near us, even though it would technically have been illegal with a fine of up to $100,000 to have actually kept any of them (did you know that?).
Even as we still were talking about how cool the eagles were as we headed on down the path, we had a young deer come walk all the way down the hillside in front of us, and then cross the trail right behind us. With a geological oddity, roaring whitewater, and two major wildlife sightings (and a host of chipmunks and squirrels) in less than two miles from the trailhead, this particular hike was getting good reviews from the kids at this point.
Unfortunately, we were about to enter the Rainbow Fire burn area, where a massive fire burned in 1992. All the trees were gone here, and the sun beat on us pretty good through this stretch. The pumice dust on the trail also seemed, errr, “dustier” here, combining to make this portion of the trail not a lot of fun. The lack of trees did allow for large fields of wildflowers, which were colorful and in full bloom, but it made the last mile to Upper Rainbow Falls seem further than it really was. Colleen and I had also made a possibly unwise decision to wear hiking sandals on this trip, partially to break in a new pair before we re-hike Bridge to Nowhere, and partially because we planned to do some wading and feet soaking below the Lower Falls. The pumice dust/sand/rocks were very abrasive (duh!) on our feet when it got inside the sandals, and made the walking more uncomfortable than it needed to be.
A half mile before the upper falls, you hit another trail junction on the left that will take you back to either the Rainbow Falls Trailhead, or Reds Meadow Resort. Stay straight. You’ll cross another bridge over (or wade through) Boundary Creek, the falls for which may or may not (depending on the season and the rainfall) have been visible off to the left on the hillside as you approached it.
Just before the falls, you’ll hit one more trail junction. If you stay straight, you’ll go on to Fish Creek, but you’ll want to turn right toward Rainbow Falls (pretty hard to miss this sign). The trail descends pretty rapidly, and you’ll soon see the river on the right side, and then not much further you’ll first hear, then see the beautiful Upper Rainbow Falls.
There is a viewing platform that gives a nice perspective from the top of the falls, with the almost always visible rainbow that gives the falls its name quite apparent from this vantage point. It is a very impressive waterfall, almost certainly the largest waterfall by volume that we’d ever hiked to. And the spray coming off the bottom of the falls felt nice! By walking a just a little bit further down the trail, you come to another viewpoint that gives you more of a head-on view of the falls, and if you are so motivated (we weren’t), you can walk down a steep stone staircase to get to the base of the falls.
This area was pretty crowded with tourists, most of whom had apparently taken the shortcut from Rainbow Falls Trailhead, so we didn’t linger too long here, especially since we’d heard you could swim and play in the water below the lower falls, and planned to eat lunch there.
The trail to the lower falls was not very clearly marked, but it was located on the other side of the hitching post adjacent to the second lookout point for the upper falls. This trail was narrower than the rest of the trail had been, but still very well maintained and easy to follow. About a half mile from the upper falls (and almost 200 feet further down in elevation–to the lowest elevation on the trail) you come to Lower Rainbow Falls.
There is a view from above the falls, but to really appreciate it, make a short, steep scramble down the loose rock and dirt trail to the bottom of the falls.
There is not a lot of usable space down here, so the two or three groups of hikers made it feel more crowded than it really was. But we were able to find some big flat rocks to eat lunch on, and by then most of the hikers had left, allowing us to move around a bit more. We had grand visions of swimming in the beautiful clear water below the falls, but IT WAS FRIGGIN’ FREEZIN’ COLD!!!! We waded a bit at the edge, but it was so cold that it really hurt to stand in it, and while we were able to bribe our son into going out until he was neck deep in the frigid water for $20, that was the extent of the frolicking we did in the water.
As we headed back up towards the main trail, it seemed steeper and longer than it did coming down. The heat, distance, and elevation was starting to get to us. Our dog was starting to seek out the shady areas along the trail to rest in, and spent some time at each of the little creek crossings trying to cool off as we went. It was also quite crowded, with large groups of hikers both coming and going in the afternoon sun.
We decided for several reasons to take the “short cut” trail back to Red’s Meadow Resort: 1) We prefer loop hikes to out-and-back hikes, so you can avoid re-hiking the exact same stretch of trail; 2) It was a bit shorter back to the shuttle this way; and 3) We knew there was a store there and ice cream sounded like a really good idea!
The junction for Red’s Meadow Resort and the Rainbow Falls Trailhead (two different places) was almost exactly a mile from the lower falls, and then the resort itself was about another mile from there. Nearly the entire trail was uphill, but not particularly steep, and once you hit the trail junction to Red’s Meadow Resort, the trail was mostly shaded, which we were quite grateful for.
When you crest at the top of the trail, you come to the stables and packhouse for the horses, and then the main road that goes back to Mammoth. Follow the road to the right/straight ahead/north and you’ll quickly hit the loop where the road ends and the shuttle stops. This is also where the general store and restaurant are. The general store was very well supplied for campers, hikers, and fisherman, and most importantly, had cold drinks and ice cream in the freezer.
Reds Meadow Resort looked like a neat place to stay, offering horseback trips, pack mules, cabins, motel rooms, and a campground that features natural hot spring-fed showers!
Unfortunately, this being the end of the day and the end of the road, there was a big crowd waiting to catch the shuttle buses back to Mammoth, and the shuttles were already near capacity when they got to our stop. As a result, we had to wait a bit longer for a shuttle than we would have preferred and it was standing room only when we did finally get on one, so we had to stand all the way back to town. The trip to town was actually a little sketchy, as this particular bus appeared to be very near death. It was having a very difficult time making it up the steep stretches and started spewing smoke out of the exhaust near the end. As we got of the bus, our driver told us to wave good-bye to the bus, because he was quite certain it had just made its last trip!
Even with the shuttle bus from hell, the crowds, and the exposed trail, this really was worthwhile, and probably is the quintessential Mammoth area hike, with trees, wildflowers, wildlife, waterfalls, and volcanic formations all in the same hike and all within view of the snow-capped Sierras above us to the west. If you can only make one hike on your visit, this is probably the one. If we did it again, we might start at Reds Meadow in the morning, and hit the falls first, so that we could do the exposed portions of the trail before it got too hot. Then we would leave by taking the trail to Devil’s Postpile, so that we might catch the basalt columns lit up in the afternoon sun, rather than shrouded in the morning shade.
View Devil’s Postpile to Rainbow Falls.kml in a larger map