Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Back to the Spark Plug Mine - June 2014 Part Two

 please remember you can click on a photo to see a larger version
We started our climb.

The trail climbs very quickly.

Sections of the original mule trail are also missing on this route.

Further on a large rock slide has carried the old and the current trail away. Care is required crossing very steep, exposed, loose rocky ground. This may unnerve some hikers. In places the trail is merely small indentations less than boot sole size, a series of stepping spots crossing the most dangerous terrain. Find your inner peace and continue up. We finally crossed over and around the steep rocky ridge that is crowned with the prominent spire seen from below. The trail switch backs up a steep gully on the other side. "I see holes! I see holes in the mountain!" the Lady said.

We had arrived.

Vistas opened around us.

A small bench had been carved out of the gully. Remains of foundations and equipment littered the small area. The treacherous drop off at the edge was always in our minds. The Mine Manager's building perched above us.

The view from our rest spot.

We snacked, hydrated, and prepared ourselves for exploring this remarkable place. It is mind boggling to grasp the amount of effort it took to toil up here, all the mule trains up and down. Every piece of equipment, groceries, cement, everything was carried up by mules, even the long power poles supporting the wires carrying power from the mine's hydroelectric plant in the Chalfant Valley below. Amazing to think that this almost forgotten place, suspended high in impossible terrain,  played a key role in the young automotive and aviation industries supplying material for spark plugs. This was one of the most amazing places associated with modern man we have ever visited.

edit: I have found this 20 mine video with archival footage of work at the Spark Plug Mine - Champion Spark Plug Mine, The Mines/Ranch 

This piece of equipment had a central place on the main concrete pad. My guess is the air supply to power the drills?

A strong word of caution. Although we visit many old mine sites, we do not run around and explore deep into tunnels. Bad air, cave ins, rotten timber, etc., are very real risks. This mountain is honeycombed with tunnels and shafts, a potentially very dangerous place.

The long balconies carved out between adits were tempting. The Lady spotted a rock climbing route we could maybe use to  reach this ledge. We did not do it.

Many tunnels showed connections to shafts, most pretty scary.

We found a series of short tunnels with windows we could access - not the one pictured above.

These led to a long balcony.

Another tunnel brought us to "The Window."

Almost straight down was the Black Eagle Camp.

Far down canyon was our tiny camp.

We did notice what looked like an alternate trail up on the north canyon wall. Next time!

This was a place you can easily get lost in thought as you try to take it all in.

What an amazing place. Now we had to make it back down. We relaxed, talked to one another through the difficult sections and were very careful not to knock anything loose. There were friends to meet along the way like this collared lizard.

We soon were back to Black Eagle Camp.

Mom and daughter and Ringo were relaxing the day away. We did not disturb them. We quietly wandered about the buildings - the previous photos - and took a break at the Champion Hilton.

We headed back down the trail.

Well, where should we head to? The world was ours. The Lady had spotted a high point with a possible camp up at Chidago Flats. We headed that direction but didn't make it. "Look at that road!" the Lady said as we traveled Benton Crossing Road. "Drive down that!" It certainly looked like this small double track led to the kind of spot the Lady likes. I'll just let the photos tell the story...................

We spent a perfect evening alone at this spot, perfect except for the no see ums. Our repellent did nothing to stop them. Their appetite was ravenous. We persevered.  It was worth it.

Early Monday morning we had the trip home ahead of us. We figured the Long Valley series of hot springs ought to be quiet right? Wrong, and we were, apparently, going to liven things up a bit.

Little Hot Creek was packed including a guy with a tent camped in the meadow right at the pool. A young European couple with their shipped over motorhome happily showed us their young baby. A group of young people with four vehicles had a large camp just to the north. Too crowded, way too crowded. We decided to head back out to Hot Creek Road, the shortest way to 395. At the intersection we decided to see if anyone was at the rock tub at the turn off by the tree, it was close.

The rock pool was filled. There was a man in an overloaded Toyota SUV with Oregon plates, the only one here. Two bikes, one a motorcycle, hung on a receiver hitch. The vehicle was packed full. I could not see the driver from my vantage point near the passenger window.  The loaded roof rack was covered with a tarp. The Lady went around the vehicle and politely asked if he was using the pool and would he mind if we soaked. She said he was pleasant. I only heard part of his response, "I'm working on something now!" We went down to the pool. The inflow was stopped, the water warm. The pool was dirty with scum and a layer of algae. no way would we climb in. We had filled the tub before and found it filled fast. I found the tennis ball plug on a rope, it had a brush tied to the other end. I suggested to the Lady we clean the tub up. It was nice and clean the only time before we had visited. I pulled the tennis ball up. It was caked with algae. The tub did not drain. The water level did not change. I found no outflow. I told the Lady the drain was broken, we could not clean the tub. Another couple drove in and I motioned to them that we were done and the pool was theirs. I expect they also did not stay long. The fellow in the Toyota never left his vehicle.

A few minutes later we were at the developed overlook at Hot Creek when the fellow drove up and threw a bunch of trash in the dumpster. He approached me and asked if I pulled the drain on the tub. I said yes, we wanted to clean it. I could get no further. The middle finger on both hands were in my face, an amazing and practiced display.  He was an artist at it. His hands and fingers pumped the air. It was wild. He screamed at us, his language filled, littered, with profanity. Our attempts at apology or explanation were worthless. We immediately figured that out. It was obvious, in my experience, from his body language, eye contact, etc., this was all just for display. But, I hoped to god he would not be stupid, charge, and force us into physically defending ourselves.  I was very confident he would not. We stayed calm. This seemed to piss him off more. He  told us, "we have a website," and he was posting our license number. We calmly told him to do whatever he thought was right and would help him. He made a show of squatting a foot away from the back of our truck and taking notes. He told us he was reporting us to the sheriff as vandals. He continued hollering and marched around the parking area. This all probably lasted no more than five minutes. I felt so sorry for the couple, within earshot, getting ready to flyfish, who witnessed this display. The Lady was starting to reach her breaking point. This poor fellow had not a clue what would happen if the mother bear was unleashed. I kept her calm. "He's about done. In a few seconds he will be in his car and leave."  He did.

So we could now be enjoying our 15 minutes of fame as evil incarnate on the hot springs soakers' forums. Mono County deputies still may be arriving at our doors. But we are happy. We know we have great friends who would post bail!

It was upsetting. How could it not be? In the big picture, in all our adventures we have met so many neat people. They far outnumber the bad. It is good to keep that perspective.

We journeyed forth toward home. Our moods improved as we stopped along Hot Creek again.

So that's the trip. That's the story. And, giving it further thought, being the simple people we are - if the need arises we'll take the file in the cake!  


  1. Great adventure, except for the encounter with the crazy person. You handled it well!

  2. Those mines are amazing. Imagine the fear and desperation of the miners! Thanks for the adventure.

  3. Fantastic story, the pictures are awesome ! You're one gutsy lady ! Thanks for sharing this adventure. I would love to hike up to the Black Eagle Camp while we're here in Bishop, no way I would even try the upper camp. But the more I read about it , I'm afraid I'm not fit enough to do it. The lower trail head doesn't look as scary as the upper one, I'm afraid of heights. How would you describe the longer trail , easy, moderate or strenuous ? Thanks. Zsuzsa

    1. We would describe the longer trail from the bottom as moderate. The road in is slow and rough but doable. With your fear of heights, the road to the upper trailhead would definitely be a challenge along with with the foot trail.

    2. Better yet, where the road ends ata the start of the trail, if you look to the left and back you will notice the road to the upper trail to the lower camp begins. I've done it in a Saab 900t, but most people would probably prefer a 4wd vehicle. It's about 2.5 mile drive up 3-4 switchbacks to the upper trail head which is basically at the same level as the lower camp and so it's just a 1.3 mile long traverse with a slight elevation gain. Very simple, very easy, though there is one section that is slightly washed out for a dozen feet or so, but there are foot steps carved into the hillside so it's no big deal. I'm 52 and was there a couple years ago and it didn't cause my mother to slow her rate of speech in the least, in fact she didn't stop talking at any point between the car and the lower camp, which is a good indication of how easy the trail is.

      From the lower camp there are two other trails worth exploring: On the north canyon wall the trail to the high campgoes towards the East and then up, but there is another trail that goes towards the west and climbs up the north canyon to a level area with a mine entrance. I suggest not going in very far as you will notice the noxious gases will make you light headed. Follow the trail up the canyon wall and you will come to an area where one can find Rutile crystals, I have found 3 complete sixlets here and many partials. The trail eventually leads to the high camp via the back way around and up the Western canyon spur though it is washed out near the top where it's fairly steep.

      In the Fall and Winter the scree slope that is the canyon wall is about concrete hard, however in the Spring it's often nice and soft scree and it's about 45 degrees or so near the top, and if you are like my younger sister and I this is just perfect for scree-skiing back down to the lower camp (Leather soled penny loafers with the heels removed are the best! :)

      The other trail of interest is the trail that begins across the little creek spring and climbs the southern canyon wall and heads around the spur to the south (Beautiful and steep scree chute as you round the spur, you can get a good running start and jump a good 20-30 feet of air!). Otherwise follow the trail southwards a few hundred feet and it begins a series of short switchbacks that lead to a couple of shallow bore holes., Stop and look at the rocks around you, you will notice they are white quartz with beautiful dark blue nuggets of Lazulite.

      Of other interest are the numerous pockets of hexagonal quartz (and many other mineral) crystals to be found in the stopes of the high camp mine. They range in color from pink, orange, yellow, clear, and light brown.

      If you want a sample of Siliminite/Andulusite, it's easy, it's mottled white/blue/grey/green and is the heaviest rock for it size around, very hard, solid, and DENSE, though all phosphates are somewhat such in nature. The first thing one notices is all the rocks are remarkably dense and heavy.


    3. If you continue back up the canyon a quarter mile or so there are another couple adits.

      Oh yeah, almost forgot, the place is haunted, especially the Hilton Cabin which can be a bit annoying at times if you are sensitive to such things. Some people love it some don't. I have never believed in such things but I've also never had a good night's sleep there either and have learned to sleep in one of the other cabins. Nobody seems to like the large cabin back towards the out-house either, dogs definitely avoid it..

      Best time of year is very late Fall when there is snow higher up the mountain. Plenty of water in the creek, no people and those cabins are so cozy with a fire in the little stove after a nice dinner cooked on the woodstove in the kitchen. You can easily do a nice oven roasted whatever. We did a turkey with friends one Thanksgiving, built up the fire banked the coals, fed it some fuel put the bird inside and headed to the high camp and were back in time for hot showers, bake a pie and such and had a WONDERFUL dinner with a couple bottles of Chateaux Margeaux as we watched the sun set over Mt Tom and the Wheeler Crest with music by Miles and Mozart...

      I've been going there since 1969 and I am always so happy when I get there and so reluctant to leave. We actually lived there full time from the end of October until mid February one a very late snow year in the early 80's (1983-84 I believe) and commuted from there to Bishop for work 3-4 days a week. If it hadn't finally started snowing seriously we would have happily spent the whole Winter there...

      In fact White Mountain Canyon/Jeffrey Canyon is a geological wonderland and you can find an amazing variety of rare phosphates, see this PDF for more info:

  4. Karen, thank you for your comments and information!