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September 25, 2016 - Machado Postpile

The tops of the columns at Machado Postpile make for an otherworldly landscape. Eldorado National Forest, Sierra Nevada, Amador County, California. Stock Photo ID=SCE0162

The surreal landscape depicted above might lead one to believe that it was photographed on some obscure planet dreamt up by George Lucas, but I assure you my destinations have not been quite so exotic. What you are viewing is actually the top of Machado Postpile, an extraordinary collection of columnar diabase (volcanic rock similar to basalt) which lies east of Silver Lake within the Eldorado National Forest. Despite its close proximity to a very popular location, however, most people have no idea that this ancient geological wonder even exists. I hadn't heard of it either until very recently when the peculiar name just happened to catch my attention on Google's satellite view of the area. After doing a little research on the place, I knew I just had to try to find Machado Postpile for myself.

Machado Postpile trail marker.Try? My apologies to Master Yoda, but most of the resources I found did little to instill any confidence that I would actually make it to the elusive rock formation without the help of a GPS unit. Nevertheless, I gave it my best shot on August 14th. The beginning of the hike coincides with the well-established Granite Lake Trail, which is accessed via Kit Carson Road, 1.5 miles from highway 88. After about ten minutes of hiking, a path less traveled veers off to the left. There is also a tree at this junction into which someone has carved "PostPile." The trail gets a little sketchy after making this turn, requiring hikers to follow a series of cairns (piles of rocks) in order to stay on track. The cairns are insultingly close together in some areas, but there are also less obvious stretches during which I couldn't help but think, "I sure wouldn't want to do this after dark." Uh oh, that sounds like foreshadowing.

Massive diabase columns at Machado Postpile.The hike covers vast expanses of granite, weaves beneath pine forest canopies, and crosses a number of creeks...well, creek beds. Most of them were dry by mid-August, though I'm sure they would have presented exciting challenges earlier in the year. Overall, the elevation gain is fairly gradual, but there's a bit of a climb somewhere past the middle, and the steep ascent toward the end is downright strenuous. Thankfully, that final grueling stretch lasts less than ten minutes and eventually offers the first glimpse of Machado Postpile as a reward. The trail becomes less clear after that point, probably due to excited adventurers scampering off to explore whatever features are deemed to be the most interesting. So off I scampered. It's amazing how quickly pain and exhaustion melt away when the prize is right before one's eyes. Unfortunately, the grandeur of that prize can also cloud one's judgment. Yeah, definitely foreshadowing.

Unusual lava deposit at Machado Postpile.I arrived at the base of the columns in the afternoon with four hours left to explore before I would need to start heading back. I pulled out my camera and proceeded to experiment with various compositions as I slowly made my way to the top of the ancient rock formation. This place is truly amazing, but I was having a hard time really capturing its magnificence on film (okay, I haven't used film for a long time, but "on CMOS sensor" just doesn't have the same ring to it). The problem was obvious: harsh, directional sunlight. I avoid it at all costs during macro photography, but that's much more easily accomplished on a small scale than it is with a 900-foot expanse of solidified lava surrounded by miles of granite and pine trees. I had known ahead of time that the lighting would be far from ideal, but I figured I would simply enjoy a nice hike and take some touristy shots just for fun.

Downward view from the top of Machado Postpile.I definitely wasn't thrilled with the images I'd accumulated, but I had pretty much come to terms with their mediocrity by the time I finished exploring the area. At 6:30, my alarm sounded, signaling that it was time to leave in order to avoid wandering through the forest in complete darkness. I packed up my things, diligently obeying the insistent beep. However, as I was making my way back across the top of Machado Postpile, I found myself wonderstruck by its unique beauty. I was certainly impressed prior to that point, but something was different now. The colors seemed more vibrant, the shadows between the columns were no longer devoid of details, and the sky was kissed with a faint purple hue. I looked to the west and did not see the sun; I could tell it had not reached the true horizon just yet, but its harsh rays were blocked by a mountain of granite.

Snowman shaped lava deposit at Machado Postpile.I finally had the soft lighting I wanted, but it was clearly time to leave. What to do, what to do? Justify a bad decision, of course! It had taken me an hour and a half to reach the postpile, but I had also stopped to check a few things out on the way, and the trail was mostly uphill. Therefore, I would surely be able to make it back to my car in only an hour since I would be traveling downhill and wouldn't be taking any breaks. I didn't give the haloed being on my shoulder a chance to present a counterargument; I seized that extra time and ran with it, making newly-inspired photographs that would ultimately replace my sad offerings from earlier in the day. Before I knew it, my extra 30 minutes were up. Okay, so I took more like 40 minutes, but I figured that I really only needed to make it back to the Granite Lake Trail before dark, since that last stretch is well worn and should be easy enough to follow with my emergency flashlight. So once again, I packed up my things and began hiking back. Now, if I could just figure out which way was "back"...

Top of hexagonal columns at Machado Postpile.A word of advice to the wise: if you decide to embark on this hike, do take the time to turn around and properly survey the area when Machado Postpile finally comes into view. The point in the forest from which you just emerged is practically indistinguishable from the surroundings and will be exceedingly difficult to find later on without making note of some kind of landmark. In the interest of brevity (and to save some face), I will glaze over several details, but suffice it to say that it took me significantly longer than anticipated to make my way down the postpile and locate the actual trail again. In fact, nearly the entire trip back to my car was accomplished after the last glimmers of daylight had given way to darkness. I'm no stranger to solo night hikes, but I usually only do so over fairly short distances, on very distinct trails, and with a powerful four D-cell Maglite. This was a three-mile trek on a "trail" that was difficult to follow even during in the day in some parts, illuminated by a flashlight barely brighter than my serviceless cell phone. Still, I made it back to my trusty Saturn Ion in about an hour without incident.

White-veined wintergreen.Despite not sticking to plan, it turned out to be an amazing day which produced some great pictures. I was satisfied with their quality, though I couldn't help but wish I had accumulated a greater quantity. That beautiful, end-of-day light is fleeting and really doesn't leave much time to properly set up too many different shots. By the following Saturday, I had decided to visit Machado Postpile Western fence lizard. again, only now with the intention of staying late. I took my time on the hike out, stopping to set up a few more cairns and to photograph a couple smaller subjects (I had to find some way to justify lugging around that heavy macro lens after all). Most of the plants were past their prime, but I did see some photogenic white-veined wintergreen near the base of the postpile. I also came across a very boldly patterned western fence lizard on one of the ancient lava rocks. One obviously doesn't need to venture so far out into the wilderness to photograph one of these common reptiles, but how could I resist with such a cooperative subject on such a beautiful backdrop?

By the time I had finished up with the lizard, the light was starting to become soft enough for landscape work. I switched to my wide-angle lens and photographed some of the features I had omitted during my first outing, paying particular attention to the vibrant colors and unusual structures on the northwestern section. Alas, it wasn't long before the setting sun declared an end to the photo session and a beginning to the long, dark hike back to my car. But at least this time I was ready for it.
Northern tip of Machado Postpile.
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