Thursday, December 19, 2013

Day hike amid eerie gargoyle-shaped rock formations in Sierra Nevada

Trail of the Gargoyles. Photo
courtesy U.S. Forest Service.
An otherworldly array of rock formations await day hikers on the Trail of the Gargoyles in California’s Stanislaus National Forest.

The national forest consists of more than 900,000 acres bordering Yosemite National Park’s north side. With 480 miles of marked hiking trails, the national forest makes a great alternative for those wishing to avoid Yosemite’s crowds.

The 3-mile round trip (1.5-miles one way) Trail of the Gargoyles stands as among the national forest’s best. A number of different volcanic rock formations here resemble the monsters that the trail is named for.

At a starting elevation of 7,436 feet, the trail is best hiked during summer. Late June and early July is an excellent time to see wildflowers.

To reach the trailhead, from Sonora, Calif., take Calif. Hwy. 108 (also known as Mono Way) northwest into the national forest. About three miles after passing Pinecrest, turn right on Herring Creek Road (also known as Forest Route 4N12). Drive about six miles and turn left at the Gargoyles sign, stopping at the parking lot.

Sculptures 10 million years in the making
From the lot, head west on a stem trail. When you reach the T-junction, the trail splits into the North Rim Trail and the South Rim Trail, both of which run atop a cliff high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Both are out-and-back trails, with the South Rim the significantly longer of the two.

Several bands of rock form the canyon below, with the oldest granite dating to about 100 million years ago when dinosaurs walked the Earth.

About 10 million years, volcanic activity in the Little Walker Caldera, located east of Sonora Pass, filled the area with lava, mud flows known as lahars, and volcanic ash, in some areas up to 2000 feet deep. Basalt columns are located where the lava flowed and hardened into black rock.

Most of the volcanic activity ended about 5 million years ago, just as the Sierra Nevada Mountains were born. Weathering since has shaped the basalt into fantastic shapes, such as the Wall of Noses, and the gargoyle heads.

Glaciers during the last ice age also made their impact, leaving behind boulders, known as glacial erratics. Most of these boulders were carried here by the glacier as they advanced then dropped as the ice melted and retreated.

Brilliant wildflower displays
The volcanic soils provide excellent growing conditions for wildflowers. Among the many you can see here are white mariposa lily, lupines, showy yellow mule’s ears, the primary red paintbrush, the light purple penny royal and Sierra onion, spreading phlox, and sulphur buckwheat.

You’ll definitely want good hiking boots for this trail, as the rocks can be sharp. In addition, avoid getting close to the cliff’s edges, for they can crumble. If climbing rocks, be careful where you place your hands, as rattlesnakes can be found even at this high altitude.

With an elevation change of 100 feet, the trail isn’t particularly trying, but you’ll still want to pace yourself, especially if driving in from a significantly lower elevation.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.