Sunday, August 24, 2003

The Big Granite Trail

Friday dawned amid thunder, lightning, and much rain, and the exploration of the Big Granite Trail Catherine O'Riley and I had planned seemed much in doubt. However, the weather people all agreed that this storm would pass quickly, with clear skies Friday night and warming temperatures on Saturday. So with a bit of our usual devil-may-care spirit urging us along, Catherine swung by the little cabins near Dutch Flat around eleven, and off we went. Gus Wiseman and Greg Towle rounded out the party. We hoped to find Tom and Mary McGuire at the confluence of the North Fork with Big Granite Creek. They had hiked in Wednesday from the Sailor Flat Trail.

Through masses of fog and occasional sprinkles we wound our way in from the Yuba Gap exit, past Huysink Lake and the Salmon Lake trailhead, to a pass on the crest of the ridge dividing Big Valley on the west from Little Granite Creek on the east. A TNF sign there showed Pelham Flat ahead, Huysink Lake behind, and we parked in a log landing beside the road.

The Big Granite Trail seems to have once stemmed from Cisco, on the railroad, and by way of Huysink Lake crossed that very pass where we parked, before descending to Four Horse Flat and Little Granite Creek. It crossed the North Fork at a ford and climbed Sailor Canyon to the La Trinidad Mine and Sailor Flat, up on the Foresthill Divide. So at some point, perhaps the crossing of the North Fork, its name should change to "Sailor Flat Trail."

Gradually roads penetrated this lovely part of the Placer County high country--I have a 1900-era map showing a road from Cisco up to Huysink, for instance--and then in a sustained frenzy of timber harvests and road-building many of the old trails on the area were obliterated, such as the Sugar Pine Point Trail and the Big Valley Trail. Much of this occurred about twenty years ago. There is the usual "checkerboard" pattern of even-numbered TNF sections interspersed with the odd-numbered "railroad" sections, with a few local variations.

Most all if not all of these old railroad sections had been purchased by lumber companies, most notably, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). This alone caused an increase in timber harvests in the area.

As Rich Johnson of the Foresthill Ranger District recounted to us the other night, at the NFARA meeting, quite a few of the old railroad sections have been purchased by TNF in recent years. I would like to see these land acquisitions continue. For instance, considering only T16N, R13E, sections 7, 17, and 9 would stand at the top of my list. And of these, how much could be said about section 9.

From our parking place in the pass, at 6600' elevation, a steep jeep trail drops to the east, bears south into section 9, and in a few hundred yards ends at a hunters' camp, where there is enough room to turn around. The only time I had ever hiked this part of the Big Granite Trail was in pitch darkness--some six years ago, perhaps--feeling my way with my feet, for the trail itself was firm and compacted, while the rich forest floor was soft. Dave Lawler and I had taken a "short cut" to the trail from Sugar Pine Point, hitting it a couple miles down. We explored the lower part of Big Granite Creek and then ventured a mile or so down the North Fork all the way to the inner gorge below Big Valley Bluff. Then, on our way back up from the river, leg cramps struck, and our pace slowed until finally the fullness of night embraced our little world of gurgling brooks and dense stands of mountain alder and occasional meadows and gigantic ancient trees. With rare and unusual luck, we found the critical fork in the trail by feel alone, and had climbed out of Four Horse Flat, to the hunters' camp, and on up the jeep trail to the road above.

Catherine, Greg, Gus and I were glad to find the foot trail itself and plunged down into a very remarkable grove of huge old Incense Cedar. A fairly light "selective harvest" had been executed, perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, but the stumps were few, and the forest giants, everywhere, running up to five and six feet in diameter, some flaring out to near ten feet in diameter at ground level. The trail actually goes through the fire-hollowed center of one ancient cedar.

As Four Horse Flat is neared the trail suddenly merges with a logging road, often clothed in brush, various species of Ceanothus and Prunus being prominent. Here and there log landings held stacks of Incense Cedar sawlogs, left behind because they were too "pecky"--for a fungus will invade the heartwood of this species, and riddle it with little patches of "rot." Then the loggers come, and one can never tell from the outside just how "pecky" any one ancient Incense Cedar will be. So, you just cut it down, and look and see. It is very very irritating to me that this area was ever logged, and then, to see this--to see that a tree likely all of 500 years old is felled just on the chance the wood is sound--it is just infuriating.

Nevertheless, for all the roads, log landings, and stacks of cull logs, the harvest here had been rather light. We have an opportunity, right now, to lobby TNF to acquire this Section 9, T16N R13E, and other sections close by. Both the Big Granite and Cherry Point trails traverse this Section 9. For an area which has been logged, this is as close to true old-growth forest as one will usually ever see. With some concerted volunteer work the cull logs and stumps could be burned, the roads maintained as trails or closed altogether, and in as little as a decade one could hike through on the Big Granite Trail and scarcely realize that any logging had ever occurred.

And this would be a good thing. A very very good thing, for, there is something quite special, quite exceptional about this trail. Or many special things. For just one, the descent, of 3,600 feet, to the North Fork, is like going from Canada to Mexico in four or five miles! You start out up in the Lodgepole Pines and Red Fir of the high montane forest, and end up among sun-blasted manzanita and Canyon Live Oaks at the river. And there are many delicate shades of changing vegetation, of ecotones and microclimates, along the old trail.

Four Horse Flat is just below 6000' and has many grassy, ferny, flowery meadows, and wet meadows all clogged with Mountain Alder. The Cherry Point Trail merges with the Big Granite Trail in this area. The logging, I guess, has forced a new intersection of the two trails, and moreover, the main trail now in use, as one continues south towards the North Fork, is on the east side of Little Granite Creek, while the true Big Granite Trail holds the west bank for half a mile before it crosses to the east side, at about 5200'.

The forest is rich with huge old trees, White Fir rather than Red Fir, some Douglas Fir, and quite a notable incidence of Incense Cedar. Where the east- and west-side trails merge, Kelloggs Black Oak begins to intermix. This is an area of sudden transition, from the shady groves of ancient conifers, to a mixed oak and coniferous forest on the steep slopes of the canyon of Little Granite Creek.

Little Granite Creek, in this area, flows through metamorphic bedrock, but one might never guess, since a million granite boulders were dragged down here by the ice from the Loch Leven Lakes area and stranded, 12,000 years ago. The creek flows over and around these giant white eggs of granite, and more eggs are embedded everywhere on the steep slopes. The underlying metamorphic rock is almost entirely masked by these glacial deposits.

Below about 5,000 feet, the forest thins and one begins to gain good views of the surrounding terrain. A particularly monstrous cliff over on Sugar Pine Point is seen again and again as one descends. Then the trail bends east towards Big Granite Creek and steepens drastically, with many switchbacks, and passes a very notable and rare old grove of monstrous Canyon Live Oaks. I doubt I've ever seen so many giant oaks in one area. One had several large trunks, and two of these trunks, each near three feet in diameter, were connected about twenty feet above the ground by an arch of living wood. I called it the Monstrosi-Tree.

Having already made a descent of over 2000 feet, these steep switchbacks began to really take their toll, with toes crammed forward in our shoes, and despite the otherwordly fog and mist which swirled throughout the canyons and cliffs around us, we were sweating. At last the trail levels and bears east to the crossing of Big Granite Creek.

We took a long rest, and I explored downstream about a quarter-mile to the confluence of Little Granite Creek, in search of some fossiliferous Triassic limestone. I found some isolated masses of limestone, delicately fluted by solution-type erosion, with myriad little ridges and channels and hollows, but no discernible fossils. Later, upon re-examining my map, I saw that I should have gone much higher into Little Granite Creek. Another time, then.

The bed of Big Granite Creek just like that of Little Granite Creek had been, at the crossing: giant rounded granite boulders everywhere. We shouldered our packs and continued down the trail towards the river. It follows a roughly level line for a time, on a southerly bearing, and soon one breaks free of the forest into glaciated barrens of metamorphic rock. Far below, within what looks to be the impassible inner gorge of Big Granite Creek--and here flowing directly over the bedrock, without any granite eggs--we could see waterfalls and deep deep pools.

Crossing the Big Southwest Spur of Snow Mountain, the North Fork itself finally was in view, and after a few switchbacks we found our side trail leading west to the confluence of Big Granite Creek. Right at the fork there is an ancient TNF sign reading "Ford" and "Sailor Flat Trail" (and possibly "Robinson Flat") with an arrow pointing left. The post stands but the sign has split and lies on the rocks. We hustled on down to the river. Tom and Mary were not in camp, but we spotted them picking their way down cliffy areas beside the waterfalls just upstream. They looked a little shocked that strangers would arrive at their camp. However, Greg zoomed up there and identified our party, and soon we were lazing around the camp and chatting. Tom and Mary were there in the depths of the great rock-bound canyon during the several thunderstorms and were almost but not quite driven into a headlong retreat.

The fog was lifting, the clouds thinning, and we struck up a cozy little fire using more or less sodden wood. Supper was a matter of roasting vegetarian hot dogs and other delicacies. We turned in around ten under starry skies. Mars so bright had risen just above the forested ridges near New York Canyon to the southeast.

I rose before dawn and built a new fire and heated water for coffee. Tom joined me and then Greg and Gus and what with coffee and cocoa and a modest little breakfast of Grape Nuts etc. hours passed. The sun struck the canyon rim and the slowly entered the canyon depths. Yet Catherine O'Riley remained snugly wrapped in her one-man tent. I took off downriver with my loppers and worked on the fine old trail, which never appears on maps. By the time I returned the sun was about blazing and everyone was stirring.

We explored west on the trail, which stays high for a quarter-mile before dropping to river level at a large gravel bar with a lovely deep pool. Here a few of us swam, the others strangely indulging in fears of how very cold the water might be. The water was cool but not bitingly cold. Some rocks rose in tiny cliffs along one side and allowed easy jumps and dives from about ten feet up.

An osprey flew over us twice while at the pool, and from the trees nearby a peeping was heard, which might have been a second osprey.

Regrouping and reclothing, we continued west on the trail, and another quarter mile or less brought us to a large sandy flat with a grove of oaks and some ancient wheelbarrows and a huge fire ring littered with garbage. A small cross had been erected where the trail reached the camp, and I have little doubt but that this had been the camp of the large Christian youth group party, of fifty kids and five or six adults, Ron Gould and Greg and I had seen on the Sailor Flat Trail in June. They need to do a *much* better job of picking up their trash and also in using basic sanitary practices, so that wads of toilet paper are not scattered through the area.

A little ways beyond the camp, the trail appears to ford the river. We followed it a short distance past the ford, where a line of boulders allows an easy crossing, and found the path not only indistinct but overgrown, so, the retreat was sounded, and we made the easy walk back east to Big Granite Creek.

After lunch we scrambled up the creek to an amazing pool and waterfall surrounded by cliffs with one just gigantic overhang. Some swam and some scrambled around on the water-polished metasediments of the Sierra Buttes Formation. The waterfall occupies a twisted little inner gorge, a gorge within a gorge, a spiralling slot in the cliff.

Finally it was time to leave. Around two p.m. we shouldered our packs and started up the side trail. Tom came along for a ways, since he had never been on the Big Granite Trail. We had the benefit of the warmest part of the day combined with the least possible shade as we switched back and forth up the almost bare rock of Snow Mountain Spur. A rather quick and brutal climb of 500 feet carries one across the spur and into the canyon of Big Granite Creek.

At the crossing we had a long rest, and Tom left us at a trot to get back to lovely Mary, who had stayed at the camp, alone. Then the long slog up and out really kicked into gear, if you can call a deadly slow trudge, punctuated by numerous stops, "in gear." That trail is a killer. That 3,600 feet is a terrible terrible thing. We did stop often and long and as a result reached the car at 7:20, with the shadows growing very long and the sun almost setting.

One curiosity of the ascent was a sign, reading "Big Granite Trail," the words nicely routed into a slab of wood and bolted to a tree, in the Four Horse Flat area. We had seen no sign the day before. And, following the logging road reach just above the sign, I saw a peculiar patch of trail which had been freshly dug out wider. And I saw that some of the branches I had lopped the day before had been neatly stowed off the trail; and yet no one in our party had been stowing the cut branches, that I was aware. Then, in a mud puddle, two bootprints were seen, leading up and out. So it all gave every indication that that very day, Saturday, someone had walked in and bolted up the sign and did a little trail work.

I will call the ranger station at Big Bend and ask Phil Sexton. Maybe he knows about the sign.

Such was a wonderful visit to the North Fork by way of the Big Granite Trail.

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