Crowley Lake Columns

On another series of dirt roads, Hopes End found ourselves with no cell service, trekking through the frozen landscape, with a local’s warning “you might not make it” racing through our heads…but the best adventures are born from trying times like these. After all, we had to see the mysterious phenomena of the Crowley Lake Columns for ourselves.



Bodies of water are like vaults of mystery. The uncharted land beneath…the new discoveries to be made…those things, both animal and not, that make their life there…Before the damming of Crowley Lake, what lurked beneath the waters was a compelling mystery for centuries. The only hints of which were laid around in the strange land of Mammoth Lakes–accented with the extreme dichotomy of sagebrush ridden valley and sawtooth ridgeline of the Sierra Nevada. The stoic surface left all to the imagination…was it mammoth fish, skeletons of fallen prehistoric beings, or something beyond the human imagination?

In 1941, the splendor of the old world was uncovered. Water drained to show odd, unnatural looking stone-like columns on the lake’s eastern shore. The columns rose from the ground, each decorated with a regular pattern of rings, climbing until the tops of each bent into the column next to it, creating narrow archways. Baffled by the landmark’s origins, some remarked the columns resemble the fossils of dinosaurs. Many likened it to Moorish Temples and it certainly looked as if an ancient people stacked cylindrical stone to create a sacred space. When we finally got to the Crowley Lake Columns, we felt like we journeyed to another planet.



It took a treacherous trip to find the columns. We had to ditch our RV for a 4-wheel drive car to manage the labyrinth of unmarked dirt paths to the eastern shores of Crowley. GPS was not an option, and as the easement of modern technology was ripped from us, we began to feel shaky. Maps didn’t cover the journey and locals advised us to reconsider. On our first attempt, nightfall approached without sign of the ancient wonder. Reluctant, but not defeated, we turned around. Before the sun rose, we set out on a second attempt. We were victorious. The site, magnificent and creepy, drove us nuts with wonder as to what stories history had hidden within its depths. What is more fascinating than that of the unknown. Of a clue that has no answer…and maybe even no question. There’s nothing better than diving head first into such mysteries, and, until recently, many concurred that the Crowley Lake Columns were a grand mystery.

As it turns out, the arched towers, that rose 20 feet into the sky above us, and the ensuing dark tunnels were fossils of the forming Earth. “These columns are spectacular products of a natural experiment in the physics of hydrothermal convection,” said Noah Randolph-Flagg, a PhD candidate and lead author of the UC Berkeley’s study of the columns. To put that in layman’s terms, a major volcanic blast–one 2,000 times larger than Mount Saint Helens–interrupted a winter in the valley we now know as Mammoth Lakes. The hot ground was broken in regular patterns by snowmelt and that snowmelt turned to boiling water. The combination of the percolating water, steam, and the right kinds of erosion-resistant minerals left this grand landmark behind.