Willow Creek Canyon (South Fork) Descent


By: Steve Smith


Continuing our quest to explore canyons in the Inyo Mountains, Friends of the Inyo Mountains Wilderness headed northward for a descent of the South Fork of Willow Creek. Willow Creek is a major drainage on the east side of the Inyo Mountains lying between Paiute Canyon to the north and Cougar Canyon on the south. It extends from the crest of the Inyos at 9,200' down to Willow Creek Camp at 2,200' in Saline Valley and its entire length is within the Inyo Mountains Wilderness. Volunteers Tom Budlong, Morgan Irby, Marty Dickes, Don Pederson, Derham Giuliani and I decided to descend Willow Creek by traversing over from the Betty Jumbo mine road in Owens Valley which provided the easiest access to the top of the canyon.

Shuttling a couple of vehicles out to Willow Creek Camp in Saline Valley, we returned to Independence and drove the steep but passable Betty Jumbo mine road up to the Black Eagle mine at 7,200'. This is a great approach into the Inyos since it gets you to within 2,000' of the Inyo crest. After changing a flat tire, it was late Friday afternoon when we started our trip by backpacking past a fairly intact cabin at the Black Eagle mine. There is a fairly open ridgeline with a moderate grade which leads nicely to the Inyo crest from the Black Eagle mine. We reached the crest and made camp at the top of the Willow Creek drainage which great views into both Saline Valley and Owens Valley. We were at a point about four miles north of the Pat Keyes Pass and found several old horse and mule shoes in the area - which caused us to theorize on what route had been used to get there. Our best guess was that they had ventured north from Pat Keyes Pass while exploring for minerals. We did have some vague information about a possible old trail which had come up Willow Canyon during the 19th century but never found any solid evidence of its existence.

On the second day, we began the descent of Willow Creek. The upper part of the canyon was steep with loose rock and some brush to push through but nothing difficult. At 6,200', the canyon opened up and became more gradual. For .5 mile we passed several sites where there was evidence of historic camping by miners, several old sets of Bighorn horns, and a riparian covered hillside where a small amount of surface water was observed. The evidence of old mining camps supported the theory that there is a historic trail through this canyon but we never spotted any trail crossing into the canyon - and as we later determined, no trail could come up from the canyon bottom.

At 5,200', we left the Inyo National Forest and entered BLM administered land. It was late afternoon, the canyon had become narrow and deep and at 4,900' we encountered a 110' high dry waterfall. It was a great campsite, high on a perch looking down canyon and out to Saline Valley. While enjoying the evening views, Tom and Morgan scouted out a route we could use the next day to bypass the falls on the north side.

The next morning, it took us awhile to climb around the waterfall due to the steepness of the canyon and rather loose rock. Moving carefully with our full backpacks, we used a rope belay for down climbing at one point. Finally back to the canyon floor, our third day was pleasant hiking down the canyon bottom with generally easy terrain and little brush as we moved lower. For a short distance in the canyon below 4,300', we observed several examples of the rare Dedeckera perennial plant (mainly endemic in the South Eureka Valley Corridor) and some more Bighorn sheep horns. We encountered three more dry waterfalls which we could not climb around and had to rappel:

Rappel No. 1
4,600': A 100' high waterfall which with some careful effort can be bypassed by climbing around the north side.

Rappel No. 2
4,200': A 25' high waterfall which with a perfectly vertical wall and water sculptured slot which we named "Chimney Fall".

Rappel No. 3
4,150': A 20' open face waterfall.

Rappel No. 4
4,050': A 75' vertical, perfectly smooth waterfall in a narrow, deep canyon. This is an impressive waterfall situated in a narrow canyon with high vertical sidewalls.

After the last rappel, it was a quick walk down to the main Willow Creek channel at 3,000' where there was a good flow of water. We camped here and in addition to replenishing with water, it felt good to clean off some in the stream water as we rehydrated. Next day, Monday, several of the group explored up canyon for awhile before we hiked on down canyon to the Willow Creek Camp on the Saline Road. The caretaker for the White Eagle mine had their swimming pool all fixed up and invited us to jump in. It was a great midday break relaxing around the pool before making the long shuttle drive back around to get our vehicles up on the Betty Jumbo mine road.

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