Chimney Rock & Devils Post Pile: Mother Nature’s sculptures |

Chimney Rock & Devils Post Pile: Mother Nature’s sculptures

Mother Nature sculpted the fanciful creations of Chimney Rock and Devils Post Pile with hot volcanic magma. Today they are cold, lifeless rocks, but visitors view them with a warm satisfying glow of appreciation. Both offer unique geologic displays found in few places in the Sierra Nevada; nowhere else near here.

Within their region, in most years early July is spring on the crests forming the south rim of Canyon Creek of the North Yuba River. Hiking, biking and equestrian

seasons extend into late fall when rustic browns of oaks and sprinkles of red and yellow undergrowth provide colorful highlights. Pictures for this visit were taken last fall.

Chimney Rock is a massive, stovepipe of nearly black breccia jutting into blue skies above Canyon Creek. Geologically the breccia formation consists of sharp-edged, angular fragments of native rock cemented together by volcanic tuff into consolidated rubble protruding up from the heart of the earth. Visitors just think of it as photogenic.

At 6700-feet elevation, the formation sits near the top of the knife-edged ridge astraddle Canyon Creek to the north and Downey River to the south. The trail cuts along open ridge top meadows and offers impressive panoramas in all directions including Beartrap and Gibraltar mountains cut by the Pacific Crest Trail on its way

to Canada. Numerous rock clusters provide imaginative shapes along the trail that switchbacks up to the impressive Needle Point formation and then tracks through the forest to the base of Rattlesnake Peak. A quick scramble up the additional 470-

feet climb provides views of Lassen and Mount Shasta. Spring flowers are awesome, fall colors muted but warm.

The trailhead is a dusty, sometimes arduous 13-mile drive from Downieville. Only the last 3/4 mile is rated a 4-wheel drive road. Here, sharp climbs with loose rock narrowly edge along the ridge – separated in places with nothing against sheer

slopes falling into the canyon. One short piece where the outside tread is dramatically lower than the inside is noted for its seat-puckering moment of chills – or thrills.

Most of us choose to park in the saddle along the eastern flank of Democrat Peak. Well below lies “Cloud Splitter” and both formations offer poorly developed but distinct examples of columnar jointing. The Devils Post Pile is the perfect example. What remains of a Forest Service sign advises “..earance ..ort base vehicles recommended” on a base enjoyed by porcupines standing on the top of the snow and gnawing the upper-left corner off to get the salty resin from the plywood glue.

Mother Nature’s artwork of Chimney Rock is a suggestive pallet of modernism; the Devils Post Pile offers intricate details of realism, yet on a grandiose scale evoking the Devil at play.

Very few volcanic flows in the world match these post pile formations for geometric regularity. Cracks in a fiery hot, up-thrust of rock developed more or less instantly. Conditions at that moment millions of years ago were uniform throughout; all parts of it reached crack-forming stress at the same time. On a geologic clock, the entire magma plug cracked at once. Millions of years later time has pealed away broken posts and scattered pieces below the Devil’s handiwork to reveal the heart of the pile thrust into blue skies above Canyon Creek.

Small clumps of brush and grass have rooted themselves into intricate cracks within stark rock and provide pastel highlights against rich gray andesite posts.

Most of the rock posts are 6-sided although others have 4-8 sides. The phenomenon is not rare, although unusual, in the Sierra Nevada. This example is the only one in our backyard and provides a concise example of the famous Devils Post Pile National Monument near Mammoth Lakes.

The drive to our local Post Pile is still long and often dusty. The “trail” is a poor excuse for a rather steep 400-feet scramble from the poorly marked parking area. Don’t make this a destination itself; combine it with outings to Chimney Rock or Saddleback Peak Lookout. All three add into a fine day given a steady pursuit of timetables.

These formations lie in a remote section of the Tahoe National Forest. Directions are complicated. Take a good forest map (530-265-4531). Road signs are sparse but can be followed using either the mostly paved FS #25 road above Indian Valley and Cal-Ida above Highway 49. Or the shorter, somewhat more rugged Saddleback

Road #S509 from Downieville. Detailed directions can be printed at and maps are available.

Chimney Rock Trail to Empire Creek: 3.8 miles one-way from the trailhead at the end of the 4-WD segment; moderately difficult; elevations proceeding from 6,340′, 7000′ and 6720′; available to hikers, mountain bikes, motorcycles – not ATVs or 4WDs. For 2-WDs, add 0.7 miles from that parking area. Described within this article is access from the west with a suggestion to combine a day’s outing with Saddleback Look Out and Devils Post Pile.

Turnaround: either Needle Point or Rattlesnake Peak.

The trail can also be accessed from the west using the Empire Creek Trail, a tributary of Lavezzola Creek northeast above Downieville. The climb is greater, but Empire Creek is a pleasant excursion through monstrous old-growth trees.

Turnaround: ridge just west of Chimney Rock. Chimney Rock Trail is challenging but a favorite link for mountain biking. The entire 28-mile loop from Downieville requires an arduous 5000′ elevation gain up gravel roads and single-track, but hardy enthusiasts ride it in 3-5 hours. Reservation-only shuttle buses will take riders up much of the elevation climb from either end.

Sleepy, little Downieville sits astride one of the richest placer gold claims in the earliest years of the Gold Rush. Summer weekends, and holidays, Downieville barely sleeps. Tourists, especially mountain bike enthusiasts, and anglers love the charismatic charm of Gold Rush fever with modern amenities.(

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