Paddling To The Crowley Lake Columns

Whenever I see green (public lands) and blue (natural bodies of water) spaces surrounding our location on the map , I search online to learn more about them. This is exactly how I came across what’s known as the “Crowley Lake Columns”. I saw the lake on Google maps and just wanted to find out if paddling was allowed.

Tyki checking out the columns at Crowley Lake.
Tyki paddling with us.
There are some small and shallow caves to check out.

Crowley Lake is 15 miles from Mammoth Lakes and is actually a reservoir that was created in 1941 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (300 miles away and still owns the lake today!) when they built the Long Valley Dam. The lake is extremely popular for trout fishing and there’s a marina on the south end.

These helical columns were formed after a volcanic eruption that occurred over 760,000 years ago. Snowmelt seeped into the still hot tuff (porous rocks formed from consolidated volcanic ash), causing the water to boil and create even spaces between the columns. But they remained buried until the reservoir was built. It was the constant pounding of waves that slowly carved out the softer material at the base of the cliffs, which are made up of pumice. Since its discovery, scientists have counted over 5,000 columns covering over a mile of shoreline on the east side of the lake, varying in color, height, and shape.

A different style of columns.
Crowley Lake columns
Crowley Lake columns
More strange looking rock features.

 Through our own trial and error, we learned that there are three ways to access the lake to see them; two require you to paddle there.

 

North Landing

The first one is from North Landing of Crowley Lake. The downside to this access is that you can only put-in inflatable boats. All hard-sided boats are required to be inspected at the main lake entrance off of Hwy 395 at South Landing. The road from North Landing to the lake is blocked off with offset concrete barriers.  The sign says it’s there to keep vehicles with boat trailers from accessing the lake in an effort to prevent the spread of invasive mussels, which is why non-inflatable boats have to be inspected before entering the lake. We couldn’t drive through those barriers in our shuttle bus; our F-250 truck (with a supercab and long bed) wouldn’t have made it either. Smaller vehicles can zig-zag through the barriers without hitting them. From North Landing, it’d be about a mile-long paddle across Crowley to the columns.

Road to North Landing is blocked by these off-set barriers.

Road to North Landing is blocked by these off-set barriers.

The sign states that all boats (except for inflatables, we called to check) need to be inspected.

The sign states that all boats (except for inflatables, we called to check) need to be inspected.

 

Crowley Lake Boat Launch

The second and, in our opinion, best option is to access the lake is from the boat launch on South Landing Rd. There is a $10 parking fee if you want to park near the boat launch. Otherwise you can park outside the gate and walk in. Power boats and kayaks can be rented from the Crowley Lake Fish Camp, located near the launch. The paddle from the boat launch to the columns will be around 2 miles (one-way).

The columns seen from afar.
Jerud standing inside a bunch of columns.

 

BLM Jeep Road

If you don’t want to paddle, this last option is for you. There is a jeep road that leads to shore on the east side of the lake. From there, you can hike the rest of the way down to the columns. I don’t know how far of a hike it is to the lake since we didn’t make it out on that road. This article in Wander provides clear directions. According to Mono County visitor center and our own experience, only vehicles with high clearance and 4WD should drive on this road. Seriously.

Crowley Lake columns and caves
Paddling on Crowley Lake.

We chose to paddle out to see the Crowley Lake columns and think it’s definitely the best way to see them. Staying close to shore, we could see all the various formations along the edge of the lake. Some columns were fully exposed, while others were only unhidden in sections, and others looked like fossils buried in the cliffside. There were two beach areas where we could pull our Alpacka packraft up on shore and walk up to the columns. You can actually walk through one of the sets of columns, which also happens to be on a wide beach that’s great for hanging out and swimming. Oh, and if you see anything that looks like soggy bread floating in the lake – it’s actually pumice rocks!!!

These columns are still in the process of being revealed.
Jerud standing amongst them.
Lots of these type of columns high above the water.

 

Tips on visiting Crowley Lake

  • Paddlers, keep in mind that the wind often picks up at the lake in the afternoons.

  • Be prepared with the proper paddling clothing and gear in case the weather changes last minute. It may be hot and sunny, but the clouds can quickly roll in and the water is cold.

  • Remember to pack it in, pack it out. This includes food, drinks, personal belongings, and human/dog feces.

  • Don’t remove any obsidian or pumice rocks from this area. Leave it so others can also enjoy it.

  • Please don’t damage the columns in any way. It only takes a handful of bad eggs for a place to become off-limits.

  • There are swift nests in the ceilings of the columns, and they constantly fly in and out of the area. Be respectful of them and any other wildlife you come across.

  • Remember to pee at least 200 ft. away from natural water sources.

  • The beach areas may change depending on water levels.

  • The rocks and sand are pretty rough to walk on barefoot, you may want to bring closed-toe shoes if you’re paddling.

We visited the lake on June 11, 2019.

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