Rock Creek Canyon, CA
For some lovely trail running, hiking, backpacking and climbing, Rock Creek Canyon offers that great back country experience at 10,000′ and above with parking. Rock Creek Canyon has a gorgeous series of lakes surrounded by mountain peaks, including the lovely and very climbable Bear Creek Spire.
Lets face it, the whole Eastern Sierra Crest is a place to get out and get happy. So many options in the hills, so many natural hot springs just south of Mammoth, so much bouldering by Bishop, and great food at the Mobil Station by Lee Vining. Rock Creek offers a lot of joy, with less work which means it is awesome, but more crowded than some other spots.
From the trail head to Bear Creek Spire is about 5 miles, with four of those being on lovely groomed trails next to idyllic lakes. For a bit of light trail running at 10,000′, this can not be beat. The last mile is on and off trails (or it was a number of years ago when I was last there), but not difficult at all.
There are also steeper and longer runs available by either going up the mono pass trail, or, if you are badass, exiting the canyon on the far side via a number of options. This can drop you into the Humphrey Basin area, which is also so scenic it hurts, but is a lot more work.
You can pack out to the various lakes – which would be great for a first time trip with the kids since the elevation gain is minimal for most of them. You will not always be able to get away from day hikers, fisherman and climbers who are legion out there. Like the trail running, you have options to exit the canyon and continue on via the Mono Pass Trail, or other more adventurous options.
There are permanent snow fields around the canyon that freeze into sun-cupped ice fields at night, so be prepared with gear and knowledge if you want to exit on the more adventurous routes. We rappelled across them at night once, and it was, well… comical wasn’t the word we thought of then, but not horrible. Going up would have been more interesting.
The only peak I have climbed in the canyon is Bear Creek Spire, and that is a great climb. I did the North Arete with my friend and mentor in climbing, Natasha (Hi, Natasha!). It was my first alpine climb, and in early September it was a very cold start. The route is pretty clean with the pitfalls of high sierra routes – like some loose rock.
Make sure you suss out the decent of you are new to this type of thing.
Rock Creek has a lot more climbing that this, though, and in ranges from easy to very hard, aid to free. Get the guide book to see more, but definitely give it a try!