South Sierra Backpacking
Few creeks in the Sierra possess the simple, primitive appeal of Bear Creek. Never constant, it cascades, chutes and then tumbles down its rocky course, interrupted at graceful intervals by deep, slow-moving, sandy-bottomed pools. Golden, brook, and brown trout inhabit this stream.
First Hiking Day (Bear Dam Junction to Twin Falls, 5-1/2 miles): From the paved road, the unmaintained 4WD road to Bear Dam heads east through lichen-covered granite outcrops. This bedrock was glaciated during the Pleistocene epoch, from 2 million to 10 thousand years ago. Judging from the rounded shapes of the rocks it's clear that it's been a long time since glaciers were here. Actually, it was about 13,000 years. Today, our steps will retrace the path of a glacier that once flowed down Bear Creek Canyon.
Since a glacier retreats up canyon as it slowly melts, we will take a journey through time as we follow a path of retreat. The higher we go, the more recent is the landscape, because less time has passed since the glacier did its work there. Starting our hike in the oldest terrain, we see the effects of longstanding weathering: rocks have become darker due to oxidation and lichen growth, and they have eroded to become sand and gravel. Where soil can form, it gets deeper and richer overtime. Thus, you can tell the progress of glacial history at different locations just by looking. There are also places that have never experienced glaciers, such as the densely forested ridges you can see.
Our road descends to cross shadeless slabs before climbing 2 miles to its end. This stretch can be very hot and dry. At road's end is the trailhead above Bear Diversion Dam (7450') and with relief we begin hiking on a trail. Here we enter a rare and valuable space, a canyon without roads or dams: wilderness. We pass the John Muir Wilderness boundary, the political line that signifies the priority of Congress to keep this canyon wild. Humans created this arbitrary boundary, a line on a map. The other animals and plants know not of its existence, but they do know that they need habitat to live. We humans protect this area called John Muir Wilderness because we also need wild places. As a species we evolved in wilderness. Must it not also be a part of us?
The first mile of trail is gentle, and one can find beautiful pools and fine campsites by venturing over to the creek. Beyond the cutoff to the Bear Ridge Trail, branching left, our trail steepens and spends more time near the creek, which alternates between falls, rapids and long pools. Along the way we cross a section of dark-colored metamorphic rock and the last of the canyon live oaks, at the upper end of their elevation range.
Nearing Twin Falls, we cross some wet areas and pass through some inviting aspen groves. Twin Falls (8000') can be seen as two cascades rushing down granite slabs, with a wide pool at the base. On a summer day you can take a refreshing dip and then crawl onto the rocks or the beach to sun-dry yourself. There is a well-used campsite several hundred feet up the trail, near a grove of aspens. Other campsites are across the creek below the falls.
Second Hiking Day: Retrace your steps, 5-1/2 miles.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication