The hunt for Machado’s Postpile

Cairns mark the trail to Machado’s Postpile. | Lisa Henry

Out of breath at the top of the posts, I stop. The surface is an alien world, the red of Mars and a blatant contradiction to the surrounding wilderness. Wind breathes through the forest canopy and bounces off granite canyon walls, echoing shhhhhh. At nearly 8,000 feet in elevation, the oxygen is cool and curative.

Watch Lisa’s video of the hike with directions

It took two days of hiking in circles and miles of backtracking to realize that the sweet old woman who directed me to the mysterious Machado’s Postpile misinterpreted her recollection of the actual location. I should have recognized that possibility the moment she told and retold the entire story of how her father built their Silver Lake cabin 80 years ago. Her grizzled husband backed up the existence of the ancient postpile and cured my doubt with a detailed story of its discovery by Jesse Machado in 1934.

Mass stacks of posts stretch out before me the length of two football fields. Forty-foot-high columns cut clean and velvety — superior to ancient Rome.

The man claimed that Machado, a lifelong employee at Camp Silver Lake, near Kirkwood Ski Resort, and avid explorer of the surrounding area, disliked people and kept the formation a secret for decades. According to the husband, “Like a lot of folks who share that bond with wilderness, Machado figured no good could come from sharin’ what he found. He finally reported it to the Forest Service. They searched, couldn’t find it and didn’t believe the old kook.”

The old man’s detailed saga of Jesse Machado and his 60-year love affair with the Sierra was legendary. The story inspired my quest to find the postpile and know the mountains like Machado. After a third failed attempt at finding the mysterious postpile, divine intervention sent a messenger in the form of a woman eating a late lunch at the Kirkwood Inn.

A frozen lava bed of bubbles the size of cauldrons. | Lisa Michelle

“Machado’s Postpile,” the woman said, and her words spun me around, shot me across the 140-year-old cabin and straight to her table. I had asked every old-timer from Kirkwood to South Lake Tahoe and not one of them had ever heard of the place. With a polite smile, the woman listened as I rattled off my story, my desperation and the impossibility of this encounter being a coincidence. She had a vague idea of where the first trail marker hid and offered to help me find it.

The route to Machado’s Postpile is a treasure hunt, a search for hidden cairns (stacked rocks), a slalom course of junipers, boulders, streams and downed trees. I scan for cairn after cairn along polished granite slopes. The hike concludes by scaling two sharp steeps. Within 2.5 hours, I’m standing below thousands of 13-million-year-old hexagon columns, formed before the Sierra peaks were born — considered ancient by the time Devil’s Postpile was formed more than 100,000 years ago. I’m astonished, in complete awe at what Jesse Machado saw in 1934. Historian Hiram Bingham himself could not have been more excited when he made public the existence of Machu Picchu.

I look up 200 feet. Mass stacks of posts stretch out before me the length of two football fields. Forty-foot-high columns cut clean and velvety — superior to ancient Rome. Soft drops of florescent orange, yellow and green lichen splatter the dolerite pillars.

Machado’s Postpile. | Lisa Henry

Topping the postpile, I take in the vast expanse from all sides: Thunder Mountain and Thimble Peak in the distance. Skeletons of giant junipers stand guard at the north, south and west. Behind me are voices of a melting snowpack spilling from a higher source. I cross a debris-laden field of faded mauve slabs, rusted shards and grains of iodized rock. I climb a boulder glittering with specs of silver and look down. Breaking the surface below, a frozen lava bed of bubbles the size of cauldrons, petrified and silent. Warmth from atop the calloused boulder swaddles me as I stretch out. Clouds move on leaving a flawless sky. I’m alone captivated and absorbing the secret of Machado’s Postpile.

Keep an eye out for the “PP” carved on the tree marking the fork for the trail to Machado’s Postpile. | Lisa Henry

The adventure begins at Silver Lake on State Route 88, which is 5 miles west of Kirkwood Ski Resort. Head toward Kit Carson Lodge and park just past the Granite Lake trailhead. On the trail to Granite Lake, you will come to a fork within a half mile. Look for the postpile carved into a tree trunk and go left. There are downed trees that you have to climb over or under so be prepared. The last portion of the trail is steep and rocky and can be considered difficult.

Be aware that runoff creeks from snowmelt are still a possibility but can usually be crossed without much difficulty. I recommend lunch atop the postpile, but please pack out your trash. Don’t be the reason Machado kept this remarkable place a secret for so long.