The last two times I’ve tried to go to the stupid Devil’s Postpile, the stupid roads have been closed. Why? Because there was still too much snow up there. In July. Curse you, Nature. Why do you have to be so danged inconvenient all the time?
Anyway, this meant the first day of Road Trip 2023 had to be redesigned, which actually wasn’t super hard to do given that, as it turns out, there’s a lot of cool stuff on Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierras. So instead of the Devil’s Postpile, we decided to check out the Crowley Lake Columns.
The Crowley Lake Columns are an unusual natural formation that remained kind of mysterious until sometime in 2015 when researchers from UC Berkeley figured out how they formed. They’re volcanic, and they got their start around 760,000 years ago as snowmelt dripped into hot volcanic ash. When the water met the hot ash, it boiled, forming “evenly spaced gravitational fingers.” The columns have persisted through the many centuries since then because they’re made from erosion-resistant material, sort of like a natural cement. Here’s a little light reading, if you want to know how researchers figured this out.
Now, there’s a lot of gatekeeping that goes on in the world of travel blogging. It usually looks something like this: “Hey look at this cool place I went but don’t even try to go there, haha, you will fail because you are nowhere near as worldly as I am.” In case you’re wondering, “Should I try going to the Crowley Lake Columns?” here is my honest assessment.
I’m middle-aged and I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer. I’m not an athlete and although I like hiking, I would not really call myself a hiker. I didn’t have any problems getting to the columns. Here’s the rundown:
There are two places to park at the Crowley Lake Columns. One (the closest to the columns) is only accessible via 4-wheel drive. Now, if you have a basic AWD SUV you might be tempted to drive to the closer parking lot, and you could try. I have a car like that, but I decided not to do it.
I did see one or two basic SUVs in the 4-wheel drive parking lot and driving back from the 4-wheel drive parking lot, so it can be done. On the other hand, I also saw a lifted pickup truck go down there and then turn around and come back, because the 4-wheel drive portion of the road is pretty ugly. It’s really steep and it’s uneven in a “you’re going to bottom out” kind of way. It’s probably fine for someone who goes offroad a lot, but probably not for someone whose offroad experience consists only of flat dirt roads. So choose to go down there or not based on your own assessment of your abilities.
If you don’t park at the 4-wheel drive parking lot, you’ll have to walk down that road. It’s roughly two miles in and another two miles back out. There’s no shade, so either pick a day when it’s going to be cool or time your visit for early morning or later afternoon. When we got there, it was late afternoon and about 85 degrees. It wasn’t even a scorcher, but it was still pretty miserable until a breeze picked up when we were about halfway down the road. Other than that, it was not a strenuous walk. If I could drag my middle-aged sedentary self down there without suffering a heart attack, you can too.
Once you arrive at the 4-wheel drive parking lot, it gets a bit tricky. AllTrails says this hike has a 515-foot gain (or loss, on the way down), and I’m pretty sure most of it is in the last half mile. The walk down to the beach where the columns are is really steep and sandy, so you’ll slip and slide a little and you may ponder your mortality once or twice on the way down. Then, when you’re done exploring the columns, you’ll have to do it in reverse. But I did it, so I’m going to say most people younger and less fit than I am won’t have a problem, and anyone older but fitter than I am will probably be fine, too.
The good news is, this is not a well-traveled trail and you’ll probably only meet a few other explorers once you get to the beach. The columns are peaceful, kinda eerie, and beautiful. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it before, so it’s worth the effort to get there, even if you have to stretch your legs a bit.