Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Rock Steps

Rock Step Clancy

Rock Step 'Clancy'

Instead of a bridge, my crew spent most of our time building rock steps, primarily on Duck Pass Trail in the Mammoth Lakes basin.

Arrowhead Lake

Arrowhead Lake

The trail to Duck Pass is one of the area’s quickest routes up into the high country, so it gets a ton of usage. The first section is a series of steep dusty switchbacks through lodgepole pine forest, but then you’re up in granite country the rest of the way to the pass. Arrowhead Lake is only a mile and a half in, with a fifteen foot high rock to jump from (unbelievably refreshing after a day of moving rock, jump at your own discretion), and then Skelton Lake’s another mile and Barney Lake’s another mile after that.

For some reason, this trail somehow became THE TRAIL for cross-country running teams from Los Angeles. Every day, we would have entire high school and college teams run through our work site, forty or fifty runners at a time, once on their way up and then again on their way back down an hour or two later. I’d never worked on such a popular trail. It was frustrating to have people constantly walking through our work site, but then, on the other hand, I’ve never had so many people thank me for anything I was doing. Literally hundreds of people thanked us. A much used and much loved trail.

high timber step

High Timber Step

The trail is slowly evolving into a giant staircase. Because it’s a steep trail, gullies form and then steps are installed to try and control the gullies. The steps hold the tread in place on their uphill side, but then the downhill side of each step slowly erodes and it becomes necessary to add another step in front of it, which inevitably needs another step in front it, and so on. My crew spent the bulk of our time building new steps in front of the steps that past crews had built, and future crews will no doubt build more steps in front of ours. At times it felt a bit sisyphean.

Rock Step Bigeasy

Rock Step 'Bigeasy'

The steps we built are western trail steps, designed for horses and mules. Each step is supposed to be 4-6 feet long so that a horse can have its front and back legs on each step before stepping onto the next one. This step, Bigeasy, we actually sited even further in front of the timber step above it because that step is overly close to the next step above it. When that timber step inevitably rots out and needs to be replaced, it can be relocated a couple of feet forward and then all three steps will have proper spacing.

Bigeasy in transit

'Bigeasy' in transit

Finding the rock, aka rock-shopping, is probably the most enjoyable part. Moving it to the work site is often the biggest chore. Did I mention Sisyphus?

moving Mastondon with rockbars

Rockbar Power Activate!

You do develop a good sense for the shape and size of each rock as you roll or skid it through the landscape, though. We gave names to most of the big ones. Basically, if you found the rock and spent enough time wrestling with it, if it was big enough and gravity-enfused enough, then it became ‘your’ rock and you got to choose a name for it. Names were usually descriptive, but sometimes random. For instance, Clancy (a big one fit snugly between Elton and John) was named after a forest service guy who had his macho turned up to eleven. Mammoth was an early 500 pounder. Bigeasy was surprisingly painless and easy to move. P.I.T.A. (Pain-in-the-Ass) was the opposite. Melon was low-hanging-fruit. Quickie was finished quickly. The macho, male names of our early rocks led to a series of less macho names, Howard and Jeffrey, then Fabio (very handsome), then Buttercup, Jewel, and Pearl. Showtime, the Three Musketeers, Mastodon, Alligator, and Shitzy round out the list, the last of the names I remember. A few of those steps and the view from near the top of Duck Pass are below.

Rock Step 'PITA'

Rock Step 'PITA'

P.I.T.A. replaced a rotted out timber step.

Rock Step Quickie

Rock Step 'Quickie'

Quickie rests on slickrock, somewhat visible beneath the dust.

Making Crush

Making Crush

Trail crews make their own gravel for backfill. It’s a surprisingly popular task.

Rock Step

Rock Step with Gargoyle

Horses and people don’t really like steps so it’s important to barricade the shoulders of each step to discourage everyone from going around it. The barricade rocks are called gargoyles.

Rock Step Melon

Rock Step 'Melon'

There’s a saying that good trail work is invisible. People are there to see the landscape rather than your work, and most of what you do gets buried out of site. But there is something really satisfying about a cleaned up section of trail and a dusty granite iceberg that most people will step over without ever noticing.

Barney Lake

Barney Lake

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6 Responses to “Rock Steps”

  1. September 3rd, 2009 at 8:33 am

    Susie says:

    Count me in as a big thank you from a group that has often used the trail. Wish we had made it up there this summer! But then, there is always fall color season!

  2. September 4th, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Town Mouse says:

    I’m so impressed! You know, the funny thing is that one never notices trails that are well built and in good shape. But one always notices the ones with problems…

    Glad you got at least a few Thank Yous.

    Aside from that, I’ve invited you to participate in the MeMe meme. The original meme asks you to list 7 things about yourself, and then list 7 blogs you like (I like your blog ;->). I’ve taken some liberties with the meme, and you are very welcome to do what you like (ignore, participate, modify…)

  3. September 4th, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    wiseacre says:

    Actually it sounds like fun. Except the making your own gravel.

  4. September 6th, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    tina says:

    Naming rocks-now that is a good one! I am sure it helps keep the mood light when you have fun. This looks like back breaking labor but is most neat. Thanks for sharing it. Oftentimes we don’t see the folks who do the work on parks though we all know someone is out there working! Kudos to you and your crew.

  5. September 7th, 2009 at 9:41 am

    Daffodil Planter says:

    Fascinating–congratulations on your work!

  6. September 7th, 2009 at 9:54 am

    ryan says:

    Thanks everyone. And thanks Town Mouse for the meme. I like your blog a a lot, too, jealous of the double posters sometimes. I’ll do the meme if I think of an interesting angle like you did.

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