My first camping trip to
the place we named Stargazer Rock was a weekend outing in July 2000,
with daughter Teri, son-in-law Tim, and grandson Mikie, then just a
week short of his 3rd birthday. We have tried to make it an annual
event, and some years have had as many as 20 people there for part
of the time, but in the last few years we've either had to skip it,
or had very small groups. Last year it was just five.
The origin and location of this event, and general description of the
area are included in my
report from 2005, so I won't repeat them here. There are reports
on other years' events below.
year Teri and I agreed to make an effort to get as many people, old
and new, to enjoy a few days at this marvelous spot, especially
since Saturday of the chosen time would be Mikie's 19th birthday. We
ended up with 13, whose names will be listed as they appear at camp.
drove up in her motor home on Wednesday, July 20, with her younger
son Mikie and his girlfriend
Lizzie, who was making her first visit
to the area. I had a retirement association lunch on Thursday, so I
got everything ready in the motor home except refrigerator items and
went to the lunch. When it was over, I picked up my younger
daughter's nephew, Jim Neely, who lives near the banquet location,
went to my house, and finished loading the motor home.
the 60 mile drive to camp, I kept careful track of the time
for future reference. The total trip took just over two hours, but one
third of the time, or the last 40 minutes, was spent traveling the
seven miles from the Dinkey Creek Road to our camp. This is a sort
of paved road, with many huge potholes, so it requires careful
observation, skillful maneuvering, and some luck to miss most of
and I got to camp at 4:10, and found that my younger daughter
Jennifer had also arrived, so for the first night we had six people
already checked on the campfire situation, and not surprisingly
learned that no fires were permitted outside of designated
campgrounds, which does not include Stargazer Rock. This was doubly
disappointing, because there were piles of firewood all over the
area, with perfect size chunks piled up by nearly every fire ring
(and there are a LOT of fire rings at this location).
are all kinds of places to walk and explore around the camp, so for
our first outing of that day, we started back a 4-wheel drive road
that runs from the "main" road along the west side of the
area down to Rock
Creek, about 3/4 of a mile. The road crosses the
creek and runs up a challenging hill, and on to Bald
we stopped at the creek. Actually Jennifer and Jim stopped when we
reached a steep, rocky section of the road, since both were having some
problems walking on the rough terrain.
crossed the creek and went up the road on the south side for a short
distance, while Mikie, Lizzie and I went down the creek. This stream
starts a fairly steep descent at this point, but it is fairly easy
to make your way down over the rock layers. Mikie and Lizzie,
serious fishermen, spotted one small trout in the creek, but it did
not look promising as a fishing destination (older grandson Johnny
has caught a fish or two in that location). Teri joined us as we
started back up to the road, and we made our way back to camp,
enjoying the striking color of the sunset on the tree-covered ridges
to the east of us, above the Dinkey Creek canyon.
dinner, with the sky nearly dark, it was time to visit the heart of
Stargazer Rock. Although we apply the name to the entire relatively
flat 20-acre bench, the main stargazing place is in the center of a
flat slab of granite, perhaps 30 feet wide and 200 feet long, where
you can lie down and look at the sky with relatively little light
pollution. We had a good view of the Big Dipper and Scorpio, as well
as Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Arcturus
and the "summer
triangle" of stars consisting of Vega, Deneb and Altair.
used to try to schedule this camping trip for the time of the Perseid
Meteor Shower, around August 10, but of course, there's the
possibility of seeing "shooting stars" any night of the
year. Unfortunately, none made their appearance while we were
looking up, but we still enjoyed the view. We also had good timing
as far as the moon was concerned, with it coming up fairly late, so
it did not wash out the stars.
After breakfast on Friday
Teri, Jennifer and I set out to hike to the top of Neely
is a low rock hill to the west of the camp, with Rock Creek and a
fair amount of up and down territory in between. By getting to the
top of a land form, we allow ourselves to name it, and both Jennifer
and her husband "conquered" Neely Dome in the early years
of our visits here.
Rather than go down the
steep hill to the creek just west of Stargazer Rock, we went to the
road and walked up to a rough side road that goes down to the creek.
Here we crossed and made our way up to the rock slope above the
creek. Beyond this area there is a wide, semi-level area where we
had to go down and then up out of a couple of shallow drainage channels.
The route takes us past
Tree, a twisted dwarf lodgepole pine that gives the appearance of a
strange animal. Also in this area is Big Rock Eats Little Rock,
explained best by this photo.
The last part of our hike
was a fairly strenuous climb up the gently sloping east side of the
dome, but we eventually reached the
top, where we had a good view
down at our camp area, and southeast into the back country of Kings
Canyon National Park. Near the top we found a "frosted"
pine cone, covered with what we assumed was some type of webbing,
produced by an insect or spider.
I've made a number of
trips to the top of the dome, and in the past always returned by
going down the east side, close to where I came up, then pretty much
backtracking my way back down to Rock Creek. This time Teri and I
both agreed that we could get back by a different way, going down
the north end of the dome. Jennifer was neutral, having not hiked
the area for some time.
We got down to the bottom
of the rock, then continued north toward where the creek should have
been. We did get down into a broad, level area, with a lot of
flowers, but the way turned to damp, meadow-like terrain, so we made
our way back to the lower edge of the rock and went in a
southeasterly direction. Jennifer later admitted she suspected we
were going to be lost in the wilderness, but Teri and I knew if we
continued in the general direction we were headed, we would get back to where we needed
to be. We ended up walking along the creek quite a bit farther
than we had expected, finally arriving at a familiar area where we could
cross and walk up a fairly good side road to the main road and back
While we were hiking,
Mikie and Lizzie had driven to the Dinkey Creek camp area, where the
creek is easily accessible, for some fishing, while Jim relaxed and
kept an eye on things. We were expecting the rest of our party any
time after 3 p.m., although it was after 4 before the Upshaw's
arrived - Johnny, Brittany, Colton and Jack. Soon after that, Teri's
friends Monica and Sandy made their appearance. They and Brittany
and Jack were all making their first visit to the place. We now had
party assembled - except for a surprise visitor, which I'll get
It was Mikie's birthday,
so after proper greetings, Johnny and Teri got the barbecue started
to prepare dinner, with two meat choices. Teri took charge of the
cooking, while some of us made the short trip down to Rock Creek.
The party included all the Upshaw's plus Sandy and me. We went up
the main road and took what we call the "good" dirt track
down to the creek. There is a very nice camping spot just above the
creek, with a well-made fire ring, and we discussed this as a
possible spot for the future, since it offers more privacy. One
drawback is that it is a longer walk to an open star-viewing area.
We went to the
creek, then made our way slowly down stream from pool to pool.
There were some rocks near the creek that were much too dry, so
Colton and Jack took care of this problem by throwing them in the
water. There were no rocks near some of the pools, so it became the
job of the adults to find and gather rocks for the boys to throw.
Along this section of the
creek it descends gradually over a long series of granite slabs,
which are actually part of the exfoliating granite bedrock that
constitutes many acres of the terrain west of camp. At each
"step" there is usually a small pool, and on our journey
each one acquired new loose rocks on the bottom.
We made our way
downstream, crossing back and forth where the going was difficult on
one side, until we reached the point below the stargazing location.
Here we climbed slowly up the steep hillside, often taking advantage
of more granite "steps," until we got back on top, then
made the easy walk to camp just in time for a delicious dinner. The
meal was topped off with ice cream, one of the many advantages of
motor home camping over just tenting.
As expected, the youngest
two members of our party had a great time, playing
ball with Uncle Mikie, kicking
up dust, eating,
and just enjoying the outdoors.
As it got dark, everyone
made the walk out to Stargazer Rock to enjoy the night sky. Once
again the view was fantastic, although we still did not get to see
When it came time for
bed, we had the first of a series of mishaps to my motor home.
Jennifer had slept in Teri's unit Thursday night, but that bed was
reserved for Monica the rest of the time, so it had been
arranged that Jennifer would use the bed in my vehicle that converts
from the dining table. We've had problems with this bed in the past,
because the table is placed between the two bench seats, held up by
a narrow "ledge" on each side. The bed had collapsed when
Teri's husband Tim used it a few years ago, but he outweighs anyone
else who has used it. Mikie made it fall once when he flung himself
onto the bed, but normal use seemed to cause no problems, and
Jennifer promised not to do any flinging.
Jim was sleeping in the
bed above the cab, I retired to the "master" bedroom, and
just as I got into bed I heard a crash. The narrow wood slat that
held up the table on one side had come loose, and proved to be held
in with several very short, tiny screws. During the incident with
Tim, we had placed some jacks under the bed, holding up several 2 x
6 blocks, and this provides all the support needed. Fortunately I
was able to quickly find these items, and they were still set at the
right height, so we soon had everything fixed and there were no
Mikie and Lizzie, the
Upshaw's, and Sandy each had their own tents, and were warm and
comfortable every night.
Saturday's big activity
was to be a hike on the Dinkey
Lakes Trail to Mystery
Lake, the same
route Johnny, Teri, Colton and I took last year. The drive to the
trailhead is seven very rough, slow miles, and ideally a trip of
this magnitude would start soon after breakfast. However, with the
boys dictating the schedule, we didn't leave camp till nearly 1
p.m. Before this we had an unexpected additional arrival, Teri and
Jennifer's mother, Jackie Taggart. Jennifer had to leave early, but
met and talked with her mom along the road, and of course, everyone
else was glad to have an additional guest. She arrived in plenty of
time to join us on the hike, so we had four people who had done it
last year, Mikie who did the hike two or three years ago with
Johnny; and Brittany, Jack, Jackie, Lizzie, Sandy and Monica who
were new to the area.
While the road is not
quite 4-wheel drive, it was a special challenge for Mikie, driving
Teri's Toyota Avalon. Monica did OK with her Toyota RAV-4.but went
very slowly. All who had been on the trip last year agreed that the
road was in worse condition following the heavy rains of this past
The drive took a fairly long time for such a short distance, but we made it and got
started on the trail. Jack rode in a
backpack, with Brittany and
Johnny taking turns carrying him. Colton once again hiked more than
half the total distance, but got carried on some of the more
difficult sections. The rest of us just had to struggle along on our
I seem to have the
ability to forget the hard parts of a trail or road, and had told
the newcomers that the trail was mostly fairly easy, with a couple
of short uphill sections, and a final stretch of switchbacks. Johnny
heard me say this and said something to the effect that
"it's not all THAT easy." I soon saw how much I had
suppressed as we reached the first very rough, rocky uphill section.
Then the next one. But we finally reached the part that I
remembered, which is a level walk on a good well-shaded dirt trail
along the creek.
This was followed by the
switchbacks, which are not terribly long, but again were more
difficult than I remembered. None of the hikers who were new to the
trail actually asked "are we there yet," but there were
some variations on this classic, such as "does this trail ever
end," and "is that the top of the hill there?"
Fortunately, the answer
to both questions was "yes," and we finally emerged on the
plateau where Mystery Lake is located, and everyone agreed that the
effort was eventually worth the prize. Johnny said he thought that
the trail was in worse condition than last year, so perhaps that
justifies my optimism at the start.
Johnny, Mikie and Lizzie
had all brought their fishing equipment, and were soon knee-deep in
the lake. Colton waded out a ways with Teri, and Jack splashed along
the shore with Brittany. The rest of us enjoyed the scenery,
including a meadow full of shooting stars right next to the lake.
Some of us also wandered around the area close to our stopping
place, attempting a nap on some of the huge boulders, and just
resting our weary feet.
Brittany was walking
along the edge of the lake in the water carrying Jack when she let
out a yell. Most of us hurried to where she was, only to find that
her alarm was caused by a small water snake slowly making his way
along, sometimes on land and sometimes in water. Most of us got a
look at him, and I was able to take some nice photos, including one
of Colton observing the creature with great interest. Eventually he
went into the water and out of sight.
The snake was not the
only wildlife seen during our trip. After walking around the meadow
a while we realized that we were in danger of stepping on a bunch of
tiny frogs, less than an inch long, that were hiding in the grass.
On the drive home a deer ran across in front of our cars, and we all
saw deer near the camp most days.
We enjoyed a snack, and
probably spent an hour at the lake before starting the long trip
back. Although the downhill hike was easier on the lungs, it is
still necessary to walk carefully over the steep, rocky sections.
The fishermen had no luck at the lake, but Mikie fished in Dinkey
Creek during the hike back, and finally caught his "birthday
Mikie and Lizzie had to
start home, and had loaded up their stuff before leaving camp. I
rode with them to the junction with Rock Creek Road, then squeezed
into the Upshaw's Jeep for the last mile back to camp.
Jackie had made a spur of
the moment decision to drive up and had no equipment for an
overnight stay, and the Upshaw's also had to head home. They still
had to take down the tent and gather everything up, but they didn't
have to watch Colton, who fell asleep near the beginning of
the return trip, and was still conked out. Jack was
wide awake and lively, but mostly played in the dirt with his trucks
until time to say goodbye. These departures left us at less than
half strength, with Teri, Monica, Sandy, Jim and I there for
Saturday night. I felt we had enjoyed enough walking for the day, so
we did not make a trip out to Stargazer Rock.
Sandy and Monica were
planning to leave around noon on Sunday, so we scheduled a short
walk near the camp after breakfast. First we went to an area just
off the road where there is a huge sugar pine tree, probably the
biggest one anywhere along the road. Near the tree, camp sites have
been developed in the last few years, including fire rings and
picnic tables. When we first started coming here the only
"development" was rock fire rings.
After enjoying this
magnificent tree for awhile, we continued up the road to the east,
then took a dirt track that goes south and curves around behind the
campground. We stopped at another sugar pine tree, smaller but in
a more open area where we could get a good look at it and
admire the excellent crop of cones that were growing this year.
We went on around the
road, checking out rocks, flowers, and trees along the way, and
finally making our way back through the woods to camp. Sandy and
Monica finished packing up and said their goodbyes, and Jim, Teri
and I had lunch and loafed around camp for much of the afternoon.
Late in the day Teri and I took a final hike, not very long, but
with some steep uphill walking. Across the road from the camp area a
jeep road goes about 200 yards along the lower part of the slope,
although access is blocked by some large boulders. The road doesn't
really go anywhere, and fizzles out, so we started up to the top of
the hill. This is an open, rocky slope, occasionally shaded by
widely scatted Jeffrey
so I have named it Jeffrey Pine Hill.
The top offers a good
view to the south and west, with higher hills nearby in the other
directions. On our way down we came across a low, gnarled Jeffrey
Pine, which reminded us of the famous
example of this species that graced the top of Sentinel Dome in
Yosemite for many years.
Going back down the hill
was much easier than the walk up, and we came out near the big sugar
pine, so walked up and around the track behind camp, taking a
slightly different route. Along this way, sort of at the edge of the
Stargazer Rock vista area, there was a large fallen Jeffrey
Back home I realized that I had photographed this tree last year
when it was
leaning, but had not yet fallen.
We did our star gazing
from camp, where we had a fairly large section of sky, but Jim and I
ended up going out to the rock while it was still light, enjoying a
fantastic multi-colored sunset over Neely Dome.
We had excellent weather
throughout the weekend, a bit warmer than usual for that elevation
but still comfortable. At night it got down only to 48 or 50
degrees. Going outside late at night I heard an owl, and Jim heard
coyotes a couple of times.
On Monday morning we had
breakfast and got everything ready to travel, then made one final
walk to Stargazer Rock, and out to the end of the ridge. From here
you can walk off the rock on either side, but it's a bit of an
effort. We did it once when going to the creek, but this final
morning we just returned the way we had come.
After the broken bed
incident I decided that I would have it looked at the next time I
had to take the motor home in for repairs. I did not have to wait
long. On Saturday the toilet flush handle broke off. We were still
able to use it, but had to turn a tiny knob to run water through it.
On the way home I hit one of the steel posts that line the paved
road to show where the road is when it's covered by four feet of
snow. The impact totally destroyed my right had mirror, so I had a
fairly good list of repairs at the end of this trip.
Despite these mishaps,
everyone had a great time, and I think they will all be ready to
return next year.
--Dick Estel, August 2016