Rush Creek & Gem Lake (Sierra Nevada, CA) 06-Aug-2022

June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and Grant Lake form a curved line of waterbodies that drain melting snow from the Sierra Nevada into nearby Mono Lake. Rush Creek connects the High Sierra lakes of Waugh, Gem, and Agnew and funnels their waters into Silver Lake. The Rush Creek drainage, and its lakes, hasn’t been fully “natural” since the early 1900s, when dams, penstocks, and a power house were built to channel it’s water and hydroelectricity to Los Angeles.

I hadn’t been back to Rush Creek since we ice climbed there in the mid-1980s and I’d never gone far enough up in its drainage to see either Agnew Lake or Gem Lake. So, after waiting out a day of rain 🌧😁 with visits to nearby Lee Vining (Mono Basin Visitor Center, Mono Lake Committee) and Mammoth Lake (Mammoth Mountaineering Supply), we were ready to tackle the short, but steep, hike up to Gem Lake.

The popular Rush Creek Trailhead is located at the north end of Silver Lake, tucked in between an RV park and a pack station. An early start gave us the trail mostly to ourselves on the way up; it was considerably busier as we were coming down.

Rush Creek Trailhead, with Carson Peak in the distance

The trail climbs gradually, but steadily, from the trailhead to where it crosses the cable tram tracks at about 8,000 feet (2,438 m). Not much of this trail is shaded, so going up in the cool of the morning was a plus. 😊 Along the way, we had a good view of anglers maneuvering their boats on mist-shrouded Silver Lake.

Going up
Rowing for fish
Sparkles on the lake
Trudging upward
Carson Peak looms over the trail
First crossing of the tramway

This cable tramway was built in 1915 to haul all the materials and supplies needed to build the three arch dams in the Rush Creek drainage. With an 18% grade in some places – and no way to stop if the cable broke – this looks like the scariest roller coaster ride you can imagine. 🥺 It was more than amazing that they hauled tons and tons of heavy stuff up this grade one little carload at a time. The system was supposed to be upgraded to a self-contained diesel-powered tram but, since the cable was still there, we couldn’t tell if that actually happened.

Cable-shaped groves worn in the rollers

Past this first crossing of the tram rails, the trail steepens as it surmounts granite buttresses. It crosses the tram again, then levels out a bit before finally reaching Agnew Lake.

The trail is carved through granite buttresses
Paralleling the tram line to Agnew Lake
The dam at Agnew Lake
An ancient juniper holds the sign announcing your arrival at Agnew Lake

We rested in the shade of an ancient, twisted old juniper to gather our strength for the final push up to Gem Lake. Getting there was one of those illusory situations where we could see our goal which, despite heavy breathing and much sweat, never seemed to get any closer. 🙄

Part of the trail between Agnew and Gem runs on top of the penstocks that feed water from Gem Lake to the power house below near Silver Lake. As we plodded upward, it was hard not to think about the effort expended, 100 years ago, to dig a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) long ditch in solid rock up a steep slope at altitude – then haul up sections of large diameter pipe to stuff in that ditch. 😲 Not exactly a wilderness experience, but an amazing piece of history nonetheless.

The Gem Lake Dam from above Agnew Lake
The Gem Lake Dam (arrow) from above Agnew Lake
Onward to Gem Lake
Rivets holding the penstock together

Illusions aside, we did soon reach Gem Lake and the eastern boundary of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. We took a lengthy snack break on a rocky ridge overlooking the lake, marveling at the stunning scenery before us. Yesterday all of this had been shrouded in mists and (welcome) rain; today it was full bluebird for as far as the eye could see. 😎😍 We counted ourselves fortunate that today there were no wildfires nearby (as had been the case in past years) befouling the skies with smoke.

Gem Lake and its multi-arch dam
Gem Lake and its multi-arch dam
The LovedOne contemplates the scenery (inside her eyelids)
On the edge of the wilderness

The third dam in this system is at Waugh Lake, about three miles (4.2 km) farther along. Since going there would have made today’s hike a lot longer than we wanted, we passed on visiting yet another dam. So, as other runners, hikers, and backpackers started arriving, we decided it was time for us to head down – an activity which gave our knees a good workout.

Down toward Agnew Lake
Descending past another ancient juniper
Silver Lake and Reversed Peak from the trail
Silver Lake and Reversed Peak from the trail
Going down, with the town of June Lake in the valley ahead
The tortured geology in this area is nothing if not colorful
In places, the trail is carved out of a cliff
Arriving at the trailhead near the RV park

We got back to the trailhead around noon. This was good as the cool of the early morning had given way to a warm (but not too hot) day. We passed a number of hikers and backpackers – including a troop of Boy Scouts on an 8-day outing – all laboring up the trail in the sunshine and rising heat. 😅

So, at 6.3 miles (10.1 km) with 1,900 feet (580 m) of gain, another great hike on a wonderful day for one! Not exactly a pure wilderness experience, but nonetheless a good walk past some classic pieces of Sierra Nevada history. And the Rush Creek power house? Well, it continues to pump out 5 megawatts of carbon-free hydroelectric power, as it has for almost 100 years. 😁

Our out-and-back hike to Gem Lake

Days On Ice ~ High Sierra (January 1985)

Up until 2008, our past endeavors were retained only as memories and on 35mm slides. While our memories may have faded (just a bit), the slides haven’t – and we have a lot of them. So we’re digitizing a select few to bring a bit of our past into the 21st Century. The photos below are from a few of those old slides.

In the early 1990s, when we were living in Denver, I went ice climbing with a couple of sportsmen who had a different take on what “sport” entailed.  In the summer months, they played golf.  No hiking, rock climbing, mountaineering, etc. – just golf.  In the winter months, they did extreme ice climbing.  No skiing, snowshoeing, mountaineering, etc. – just ice climbing.  I went along on one of their milder winter excursions.  We started with a simple “warm-up” climb (literally and figuratively) of a 30-foot frozen cascade in Rocky Mountain National Park, then moved on to a 75-foot frozen waterfall.  This was an essentially freestanding frozen column of water – anchored at the bottom by gravity and at the top by ice entwined in some tree roots at the lip of the fall.

This stack of ice seemed precarious to the point that even these ice wizards decided to top-rope it lest it collapse beneath us.  Or on us.  I was admonished to climb carefully, using only the tips – if at all possible – of my crampons and ice tools.  No heroic axe swings or crampon kicks.  Every time I moved up – no matter how carefully – this column of solid water vibrated ever so slightly.  Hit it just a little harder and it twanged.  My chance to ever reach geezer-hood was hanging by an ice crystal.  Oh rapacious joy!  This was a long, long 75-foot climb, top rope or not.  While topping-out, I noticed the ice enmeshed in the roots had cracked…ever…so…slightly.  This was the last time I ever went ice climbing.  Never developed much interest in golf either…

A few years before my Colorado cavalcade on ice, John, Alan, and I had gone ice climbing at two locations in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada – Rush Creek (June Lake) and Lee Vining Canyon.  Unlike the extreme ice climbers, the three of us were climbing ice primarily to hone our skills in case we needed to climb a little ice on a mountaineering trip.  The ice in both these locations is the result of leakage from Southern California Edison (SCE) penstocks running across the cliffs above.  As a result of this source, the ice flows and cascades in sheets down the cliffs at angles between 45° and near vertical.  Rush Creek was a good place to practice, while Lee Vining was the place to try your axe at 2-3 pitches of real ice climbing. 

Climbing up to the ice at Rush Creek from the SCE power station
Alan and John, almost to the ice
The ice at Rush Creek
John at Rush Creek
Alan at Rush Creek
Alan and John practicing anchors in ice
Me at Rush Creek

After spending most of the day on the sheet of ice, Alan and I did a short climb of a frozen creek just to the north of it. After that it was back to our small, but warm, rented room in June Lake – a room suspiciously close to the nearby restaurant and bar. 🙂

Climbing to reach the frozen creek
Climbing the creek
Almost to the top
Rush Creek near June Lake (P: parking, I: ice-covered cliff, H: Horsetail Falls)

Early the next morning we drove north into Lee Vining Canyon, parked, and then walked up to where ice coated the cliffs. While sun graced the peaks above, the deep canyon with its wall of ice stayed in perpetual shade.

Morning in Lee Vining Canyon
Other climbers on one of the ice walls in Lee Vining Canyon
Other climbers on another wall of ice
Alan (yellow helmet) gets ready to climb
Going vertical
Considering a placement
Setting an ice screw
Moving on
Running it out
Lee Vining Canyon (P: parking, I: ice cliffs)

We had a lot of fun in these two places.  Both are still hugely popular locations in California for ice climbing but one can’t help but think that the consistency and longevity of the ice has declined somewhat as the climate has warmed.  And the routes at Lee Vining now have names (e.g., Zippo’s Frozen Booger) and ratings, features that hadn’t yet come into being (at least formally) back in our days of yore. 😉