Intrepid hikers atop Neely Dome

Stargazer Rock Camp 2016


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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 it here. There are links to all Stargazer Rock reports here.

This 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.

Teri 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.

Making 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 them.

Jim 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 there.

We had 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).

There 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 Mountain, but 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.

Teri 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.

After 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.

We 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 Dome. This 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 the Chupacabra 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 to camp.

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 Sandi made their appearance. They and Brittany and Jack were all making their first visit to the place. We now had our compete party assembled - except for a surprise visitor, which I'll get to later.

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 any meteors.

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 further problems.

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 winter.

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 own.

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 fish."

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 Pines, 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 pine. 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 hand 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


Photos (Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window) 

Flowers waiting to be identified Shooting stars, just finishing
their season at 7,000 feet
Probably a type of goldenrod
A tranquil spot on Rock Creek
We identified this one as fireweed,
of the evening primrose family
Bright magenta pussy paws
by the Dinkey Lakes Trail
A tranquil spot on Rock Creek
Mikie and Lizzie at the creek Sunset glow on the forest-covered hills Neely Dome
Mikie and Lizzie at the creek

Sunset glow on the forest-covered hills

Neely Dome
Teri practices log crossing for when it's the only way Jennifer and Teri at the Chupacabra Tree Intrepid hikers atop Neely Dome
Teri practices log crossing
for when it's the only way
Jennifer and Teri at the Chupacabra Tree Intrepid hikers atop Neely Dome
Jennifer was first to notice this "frosted" pine cone Teri and Jennifer on top of the dome Distant view of the Kings Canyon National Park back country
Jennifer was first to notice
this "frosted" pine cone

Teri and Jennifer on top of the dome

Distant view of the Kings Canyon
National Park back country
Jennifer by the exfoliating granite slabs along Rock Creek Our camp Beach ball in the mountains with Mikie and Jack
Jennifer by the exfoliating granite
slabs along Rock Creek
Our camp Beach ball in the mountains with Mikie and Jack
Jack dives deep for a chip Colton learned at a young age how to eat an Oreo Teri, Colton, Johnny, Jack, Brittany, Monica, Sandy, Dick,  Mikie, Lizzie, Jim, and Jennifer
Jack dives deep for a chip Colton learned at a young
age how to eat an Oreo
Teri, Colton , Johnny, Jack, Brittany, Monica, Sandy, Dick,  Mikie, Lizzie, Jim, and Jennifer 
A dirty face is a normal hazard of camping Kicking back with a snack Looking for more rocks to throw in the creek

A dirty face is a normal hazard of camping

Kicking back with a snack Looking for more rocks to throw in the creek
Colton, Johnny and Dick Rest stop on the way back from the creek Colton gives Grandma Teri a drink
Colton, Johnny and Dick Rest stop on the way back from the creek Colton gives Grandma Teri a drink
Teri and Monica The Upshaw Brothers What a great way to hike (for Jack, that is)
Teri and Monica The Upshaw Brothers

What a great way to hike (for Jack, that is)

Teri, Jackie and Monica Mystery Lake, with horse campers across the water Cold water kept Colton from getting any deeper than this
Teri, Jackie and Monica Mystery Lake, with horse
campers across the water
Cold water kept Colton from
getting any deeper than this
Mikie fishing... ...and Johnny fishing (no one catching) Jack looking at frogs or shooting stars, or both
Mikie fishing...

...and Johnny fishing (no one catching)

Jack looking at frogs or shooting stars, or both
Colton contemplates the water snake Sandy, Teri and Monica at the Big Sugar Pine Tree Jim and Teri

Colton contemplates the water snake

Sandy, Teri and Monica at
the Big Sugar Pine Tree
Jim and Teri
Teri on the way up Jeffrey Pine Hill
The morning sun caught these
sugar pine cones just right
You could see sap drip from
this trio every minute or so
Teri on the way up Jeffrey Pine Hill
Teri and Dick by the dwarf tree
A stately Jeffrey pine... ...and its badly stunted little relative Teri and Dick by the dwarf tree
A fabulous multi-colored boulder on the hill
Checking out the water bugs A fabulous multi-colored boulder on the hill Big Rock Eats Little Rock,
on the way to Neely Dome
Newly fallen Jeffrey Pine... ...and the way it looked a year earlier

All that wood, and none can be burned

Related Links
Dinkey Lakes Hike Dinkey Lakes Trailhead Dinkey Lakes Wilderness
Bald Mountain Trail Dinkey Creek Falls Mystery Lake
Summer Triangle Perseid Meteor Shower Arcturus
Bald Mountain Links to all Stargazer Rock Trips  
A tranquil spot on Rock Creek

A dirty face is a normal hazard of camping

Rest stop on the way back from the creek

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