There are times when a hike is just not a hike. It’s something else, maybe many things else; an adventure, a discovery, a meditation, a love song.
So it is with the hike up Hilton Creek in early May after the biggest winter on record; a winter when the Long Valley area received 195 percent of its normal snowfall.
The fact that most people don’t even know there is a Hilton Creek hereabouts only adds to this hike being a bit more of a mystery.
But there is. Hilton Creek is one of the main feeder creeks into Crowley Lake. To those that know and love it, Hilton Creek is the beloved source of the verdant green life of the community of Crowley, a wild and lovely symphony that is the background music of life in Crowley.
So following it is something of the same, a bit of an adventure, a love song, a time to slow down and notice the very small beginning of things; a tiny green furled rose leaf, a catkin blowing in the breeze, the evening sun glinting off the tree tips.
Spring has finally come to the Eastern Sierra. Life is good.
So go on. Get out there.
Drive south on U.S. 395 from Mammoth to the McGee Creek exit, about nine miles south of Mammoth’s S.R. 203. Drive south on the frontage road to the Hilton Creek Road, almost two miles where it heads west to the trailhead (just before you reach the Crowley Lake fire station in town).
Go west on this dirt road about half a mile and park your car at the big open area that marks the trailhead. Walk to the farthest left of the open area and pick up the old road that heads up the little hill paralleling the creek. Begin your hike here.
Begin your hike at the parking lot below the trailhead. Instead of heading up the zigzag trail that goes high into the Hilton Creek Lakes backcountry in many steep miles, instead, bear left, or south, toward the creek. You will hit the creek right away. Follow an old gravel road that parallels the creek. Follow this for the next quarter mile.
Hilton Creek crashes down from high up in the snowbound Hilton Creek Lakes drainage nestled below 12,000 foot peaks that tower above the tiny community of Crowley Lake.
Rushing, crashing, frothing, the spring runoff has just barely begun this week, and the creek is turning a light golden brown, the result of tree tannins and soil washed down the creek as snow begins its slow, inexorable melt.
In a few weeks, by the middle of June, the small creek will be a raging torrent of white, threatening to take out banks and old cabins built long ago. today far too close to the bank.
But today, the creek is still polite, rushing, but easy enough to cross if need be, something this hike does not do. Continue walking up the road.
Slow down, take a deep breath. It is the very first week of spring here and the world is changing right before your eyes.
To the right, by the creek, the rose bushes are beginning to blush green. The green softens the spiked whipcord thin branches, but they are still sharp-edged and can hook the unwary walker. Their branches send forth tiny furled leaves, crinkled and tight, waiting for the sun. On the side of the road, gray-green Indian paintbrush spikes the earth, breaking ground just released from winter. The ground is rippled with the evidence of frost, still cracked and rumpled. A wild parsnip plant, more green than the paintbrush, breaks the ground.
Keep walking. Watch the white-barked aspens lining the creek catch the evening sun, turning white to gold. The aspens too are beginning to green, though it takes some work to see it. Look close at the tips of branches, where tight brown buds wait for their day in the sun.
The road aims steeply up, getting closer to the creek now. Patches of snow still litter the ground under the trees. Pinyon pines, spiky and sharp, give way to the big, gentle Jeffrey pines about a half mile in from the trailhead, the same trees lining the creek the way they have for hundreds of years.
Keep walking up. Overhead, a raven catches a breeze, swirls, shifts and banks and heads northwest toward Crowley Lake, aglimmer in the evening sun, turning gold and rose with the setting light.
At about one half-mile in, on a slow curve, bear left away from the road and pick up a faint trail along the creek.
The vanilla butterscotch smell of a Jeffrey pine hangs soft on the evening air, branches touching the setting sun, trunk base still deep in snow and cold shadows. The air smells of granite, snow and ice, the sharp incense of moldering leaves uncovered by the melting snow, the sharp tang of cool mountain air – the finest perfume, Eastside style.
Keep walking up the un-maintained trail. Look for the tiny nests of robins in the brush, the sharp spike of new growth along the trail: paintbrush, wild parsley and lupine. Listen to the creek, tumbling and racing, the pointed call of the chickadee, the poignant call of the quail on their evening forage run.
Continue walking up the trail, through rough ground, steepening as it climbs the creek heading up toward the sharp-toothed ramparts above, throwing its winter white cover down to the valley below, one frothing inch at a time, joining Hilton Creek at your feet.
Here, the Jeffrey pines replace some of the pinyons and the ground is more open; the sharp acid in the pine needles keeps new growth at a minimum under these big trees. Huge, granite boulders litter the ground, and the trees grow above them in graceful disarray, a perfect symmetry of line and branch, sky and sun. Walk until you reach a branch in the un-maintained trail. One side goes to the creek. Head over and take a break. Listen to the call of the water, lie beneath the setting sunlight gilding the treetops far above, dip a toe into the icy water. Take a deep breaths. If water has a smell, if mountains have a smell that can be bottled, this is it. Breathe deep, take it with you, remember it tomorrow and the next day and the next.
Head west on the trail junction if you want an easier way back to your car and follow a better trail down to the trailhead. It won’t follow the creek, but the going will be easier.
Drive south on U.S. 395 about four and a half miles to Toms Place and ask for a chocolate milkshake, then sit out on the deck and finish the evening as it began; with water and wind, tree and light. Look up for one more miracle; first glimmer of the spring stars above Wheeler Ridge.