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Length 15.5 miles
Time 3.5 hours
Total Climb 2450 feet
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Lower Rock Creek Trail

Lower Rock Creek Trail is a fun, fairly narrow, nearly eight-mile-long, singletrack descent that closely follows its namesake creek through a narrow canyon it has carved into the plains near Bishop, California. The trail is part of the Inyo National Forest (except the last quarter of its length) and, while I don't have any specifics about its history, judging at least by a sign at its beginning that introduces it as the "Lower Rock Creek Mountain Bike Trail", it seems to have been built primarily with mountain biking in mind. If that leads you to expect that it's a fun trail, you wouldn't be wrong. The terrain is rocky, the canyon narrow, the trail usually twisty, and the creek bed it follows is quite pretty. This results in a ride route that provides a good amount technical mountain biking fun, and can be tailored to one's skill level to a certain extent.

Let me start by elaborating on that last remark first. The trail shares the space in this canyon with Lower Rock Creek Road (Old Sherwin Grade) for about half of its length. As you enter the second half of the descent down the canyon, Lower Rock Creek Road climbs out of the canyon to follow the much easier path down the higher flats alongside the canyon instead, because the canyon becomes even narrower and its sides get even steeper in its lower half. This also marks a significant switch in the character of the trail. The ride down Lower Rock Creek Trail can be considered to have two parts that are distinctly different from each other. The part of the trail up to its second crossing of Lower Rock Creek Road is intermediate level at best, in terms of technical difficulty. Not long after that second road crossing, however, things start getting a bit hairier. The trail is much more frequently interrupted with boulder steps and goes over clusters of large rocks. The going was slow for me around this part. There is about a mile or a mile-and-a-quarter long segment of trail that's pretty rocky. Still, things don't get too bad with the exception of one section perhaps a quarter mile in length where my ride turned more into a rock scramble while shouldering my bike. This was the point in the ride where I started worrying about how much my estimated time of finishing the ride would be affected if the entire remainder of the trail were just like this. Thankfully, it doesn't take long for the trail to regain a good flow and things end on a positive note. Overall, the technical trail features on this ride are only of two kinds: (1) piles or clusters of large rocks you have to go over or through, (2) trail surfaces soft and slippery enough to impact your stability.

Having said that, the split personality of the two halves of the trail is not as extreme as some written descriptions had originally led me to believe. I was originally set up to expect the difference to be like that between beginner level and expert level. After trying the ride myself, I'd be more inclined to describe the two parts of the trail to be more like intermediate level and advanced intermediate level instead. The section of the trail before the second road crossing isn't strictly beginner-level necessarily; there were a number of techy obstacles even in that part, and that portion was still very fun and twisty. Meanwhile, although the second part got seriously tough, it only did so mainly in a limited stretch, and the rest of it was manageable for any riders at intermediate level or above. So, it wouldn't be unreasonable for a less experienced rider to attempt only the relatively easy part of the trail and return via road from the second road crossing on the trail, while more confident riders can go for the whole enchilada.

While I don't know the area well enough to claim there aren't too many other mountain bike trails in this vicinity, I can at least attest that no other trails seem to connect to Lower Rock Creek Trail directly. Therefore, there are only a handful of meaningful ways of riding this trail in its entirety: you can either descend it by doing a shuttle ride, or you can do just the trail itself as an out-and-back ride, or you can turn it into a loop by including a road segment on Lower Rock Creek Road. As far as I understand, shuttle rides on Lower Rock Creek Trail are pretty popular. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option for me since I didn't have anyone joining me for this ride whose car could be used for the return trip. Doing a 15-plus-mile out-and-back ride on this trail was something I didn't have time for and I would worry about how strenuous that would be anyway. So, I opted to ride the trail as part of a mixed loop where I returned via the road. Even when considering the loop option, you have a choice between starting at the bottom to do the road climb first and starting at the top to do the road climb as a return. I chose the latter, and this was mainly to avoid extending my drive back home by another 13 miles (to drive to the southern end of the trail), but also because I don't exactly savor the thought of doing the technical descent down the difficult portion of Lower Rock Creek with semi-tired legs after a significant climb. Starting the loop at the top also leaves the door open for a rider to decide that they want to bail out before finishing the trail and start the return climb up the road early (e.g., at the second crossing), rather than being forced to finish the technical part of the trail just to be able to return to the car.

The parking area that I point out at the link on the left is a small roadside pocket right at the trailhead. This spot has space for only five or six cars, but there are at least two larger gravel clearings nearby that are suitable for parking, one on Route 395 and one just a few hundred feet down Lower Rock Creek Road. Those who would like to start the ride from the lower end of the trail or do it as a shuttle ride will be glad to know that there is a small, dedicated parking lot for the trail at that trailhead. That lot is just on the other side of the creek bed from the lower trailhead of Lower Rock Creek Trail. It formally has space for eight cars by my count, but a few more could fit in a pinch. There's also a portable toilet there, but no source of drinking water.

Lower Rock Creek Trail is never farther from the creek than 100 feet and is usually much closer to it than that. The descent down the canyon on the trail is essentially unbroken, though there are plenty of spots that require a good amount of pedaling effort for other reasons. Some of these reasons are the boulders on the trail that I've already mentioned. A few other cases are stretches of the trail where it temporarily transforms into a gravel bed of varying granularity. In fact, the trail surface is often soft, ranging from coarse sand to a layer of loose, fist-sized rocks (and usually closer to the former). But, this doesn't detract much from the fun of the ride, in my opinion. The soft trail surface is ordinarily not a constant problem; it's bad only in certain spots. But, there was one particular stretch that brought me to a dead stop as if I had braked.

The canyon that this trail passes through is almost completely devoid of vegetation with the exception of a strip of conifer trees right along the creek itself that is so narrow as to appear almost like a single row of trees when viewed from above. However, since the trail follows the creek so closely, you are often within this very narrow band of vegetation, which creates the impression that the ride has pretty good tree cover. And some of the trees in this narrow strip along the creek are ancient-looking, majestic specimens. In other words, you could get partial shade during much of the ride on hot and sunny days. It would be reasonable to expect that this area will get pretty hot in the summer, and I'm sure it does, but probably not as much you'd expect. A map I've seen of the average daily highs for July in California makes it look like it ranges around the same temperatures as the South Bay (at least in July).

I've read that the trail can stay snow free during the winter on years that are particularly dry, which tells me that it could get at least some snow during part of the winter on less exceptional years. Unfortunately, I don't have any firsthand information about this.

It should come as no surprise that a trail following a creek as closely as Lower Rock Creek Trail does will also cross that creek a number of times. I've counted seven such crossings via wooden bridges (or eight, if you include a narrower wooden crossing over what seems to be a minor tributary stream). But, I remember no point where you'll be fording the creek.

One nice thing about Lower Rock Creek Trail is that, possibly owing to being designed as a mountain bike trail from day one, it's never very steep. The tough trail obstacles are made less scary by this. You may frequently be faced with a cluster of boulders on the trail that look insurmountable, but at least you won't also have to worry about the momentum and slope of a descent with, say, -20% grade while negotiating such boulders.

The scenery changes relatively little on the ride down Lower Rock Creek Trail. You don't get to see any vistas of the surrounding areas until you exit the canyon at the end of the trail, because you're essentially at the bottom of a groove while you're on the trail. The canyon is noticeably wider in its upper half. After the second road crossing of the trail, the canyon begins to narrow down considerably while the trail starts becoming more technical. You also start seeing single-car-garage-sized boulders on the creek bed, as well as car-sized boulders that the trail squeezes past. But, you begin to encounter some open scenery only as you near the mouth of the canyon at the end of the descent. Thankfully, there's a good amount of scenery to be had during the return climb. The area surrounding the lower end of the canyon is flanked by some high and jagged peaks of the nearby Sierra Nevada range on one side and the more distant White Mountains on the opposite side.

Your descent on Lower Rock Creek Trail ends at a settlement called Paradise Camp. This is some sort of a private cabin resort that dates back to the early 20th century. While somewhat out of the way today, this place was originally on a major thoroughfare apparently, because I've read that Lower Rock Creek Road used to be part of Route 395, which served to connect San Diego to Canada as well as acting as the main road between Los Angeles and Reno. The straighter route of today's Route 395 along this stretch that bypasses Lower Rock Creek canyon must be a later change. Don't expect any shops or businesses in Paradise Camp, though. It appears to be strictly residential.

The road climb on the way back is not short but it's reasonable, with the average grade usually just below 7%, though there are short stretches where it maintains 8% or 9% for a while (with the worst spots no worse than 10%). During the early parts of the climb, make sure to take in the scenery behind you. This shouldn't be too difficult, since the road zig-zags a little in the earliest stretches of the climb, which are its most scenic parts. The climb is unfortunately broken by a short descent, which wastes a little of your gained elevation. At least that short descent provides some good views of the inside of the canyon for a brief moment. The road initially follows a plateau next to the canyon until that short descent, and then settles into the canyon for the rest of the way up where it follows the creek and the trail pretty closely.

© Ergin Guney


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