Sunday, September 14, 2003

Big Granite Trail

Saturday I returned to Four Horse Flat for a reconnaissance of problematic parts of the Big Granite Trail. This trail once began at Cisco on the railroad--tho it may well be older than Cisco, which only dates to 1866--and climbed to the pass between the South Yuba and the North Fork American at Huysink Lake (named for Bernard Huysink, a 19th-century outdoorsman of Dutch Flat), skirted the headwaters of Big Valley, and entered the basin of Little Granite Creek through another pass. The trail descended Little Granite Creek, crossed to Big Granite Creek, and finally dropped to the North Fork American, where a ford led to the American River Trail. A short distance upstream, the Sailor Flat Trail was thought of as the continuation of the Big Granite Trail, and one could climb past the La Trinidad Mine, and on beyond Sailor Flat to Robinson Flat.

The Big Granite Trail is one of the sixty-odd historic trails declared to be "county roads" in the notorious yet abortive 1953 Placer County BOS ordinance which intended to preserve public access to public trails. This ordinance was repealed in 1954, and replaced by a weaker ordinance, which mentioned no trail specifically, but only provided that all "public trails" were declared to be "county roads." But who is to say which trail is public? Not Placer County. Not Tahoe National Forest.

At any rate, Four Horse Flat is south of the Loch Leven Lakes, in the glaciated valley of Little Granite Creek. The most detailed map of the region is the USGS 7.5 minute Cisco Grove quadrangle. The Flat is a meadowy area on the north side of the creek, at about 6000' in elevation, with an odd mixture of trees more often found at lower elevations, such as White Fir and Incense Cedar, and trees of the out-and-out high country, such as Aspen and Lodgepole Pine. This is where the Cherry Point Trail meets the Big Granite Trail. Very unfortunately, the area (within Section 9) was logged some fifteen or twenty years ago, and the original lines of the various trails disrupted and obliterated, by logging roads, skid trails, and log decks.

A few weeks ago, with Catherine O'Riley et. al., I had walked past Four Horse Flat on a logging road, and noted a fairly new sign on a tree reading "Big Granite Trail." Yet a tangle of brush and logging slash separated this sign from the old foot trail itself, a few yards away. So my first order of business was to resolve this issue.

The rest of my family was heading for Salmon Lake with friends Neil and Cindy and I dropped them off at the Salmon Lake Trail. There were all of ten vehicles parked there. Then I drove a scant half-mile further to the pass between Big Valley and Little Granite Creek--a TNF sign gives distances to Husink Lake, Pelham Flat, and Big Valley, here, at an elevation of about 6600'--and started off down the unmarked road, or jeep trail, which skirts a mass of Mountain Alders as it descends a small valley. Blazes showed this to be the line of the BGT. These groves of shrubby alders grow in wet areas and are for all intents and purposes impenetrable to humans. The courses of trails are often governed by these alder thickets.

The jeep trail ends at an elaborate hunters' camp, with sleeping platforms, and even piped water! From there the foot trail drops into a grove of large Incense Cedar, only lightly logged, and still impressive. A few weeks ago it showed no signs of recent use, but yesterday I was angered to see that some four-wheeled ATVs had been on the trail, tearing it up a bit, scattering small boulders and leaving heaps of dust. There ought to be a vehicle closure on this trail.

The Cisco Grove quadrangle shows the Big Granite Trail following this tiny tributary of Little Granite Creek southeast into Four Horse Flat, but this course has been abandoned in favor of a logging road. I searched without success for the original line of the trail, and then took the logging road, which drops gently to the southwest, and intersects another logging road at the aforementioned sign.

Here the old trail reappears just a few yards below, yet the most direct route is blocked. Yesterday I saw that, just at the sign, one switches back northeast--the wrong direction--on the lower logging road, and then almost immediately, one switches back sharply southwest, on the original trail. Old blazes on the trees confirmed this to be, in fact, the Big Granite Trail, and there is also a second sign, just where the trail is reached.

I decided to scout back north into Four Horse Flat and see if I could discover more of the original line of the trail. Soon I saw a duck, and a blaze, and a bit of undisturbed trail, and another duck, and wondered who it was, who had apparently, just like me, tried to find the old trail. The path climbed slowly into a meadow, and then, just as it would seem to have climbed higher, into the forest, I lost it. In the general scheme of things, this particular trail does not show on the Cisco Grove quadrangle; it is a "short-cut" which avoids *two* crossings of Little Granite Creek, by simply staying to the west of the creek.

For, the way the map has it, the BGT drops steeply down the little tributary, skirts Four Horse Flat on the north, crosses Little Granite Creek to meet the Cherry Point Trail, and then turns sharply southwest and crosses the creek again.

I planned to ascend the Cherry Point Trail later, and deferred further explorations in this area until I had visited another "problem" on the trail, well downstream.

As I walked back south on the "short-cut" trail, I was able to recognize its exact course more accurately. Soon I was back on the main trail, and followed along southerly, through forests and meadows, where the ATVs had flattened the late-season wildflowers. It was a lovely warm day, and butterflies were everywhere. There were blues and checkerspots and Lorquin's Admirals. I noted the recent tracks of perhaps half a dozen mountain bikes.

At a certain point, a little ways south into Section 16, at an elevation of about 5800', the most-used line of the BGT crosses Little Granite Creek to the east side, where it remains. However, the Cisco Grove quadrangle shows it staying on the west side for another half-mile south. I have walked both routes. The west-side trail is the old, original trail. I don't quite know why it was abandoned. Mule trains used this trail in the olden days, and in places, it was eroded into a narrow, bouldery trench. Add to this that the old trail crosses the creek in what might be considered a more hazardous route, over huge granite boulders, and I guess we have the reason for the new crossing.

The new crossing is a little awkward in its own right, impeded by alders, and everyone tries to make it across without getting their feet wet, and what with the alders, the banks of fine-grained weak sediments get broken down. I did a little lopping to help open the crossing, and then took a lunch break. Exploring a bit on the east side of the creek, I saw some six-foot-diameter Incense Cedar and White Fir. No logging had ever occurred here, in TNF-owned Section 16.

It was time to start back north towards Salmon Lake. I had stored waypoints for the two crossings of Little Granite Creek up by Four Horse Flat on my GPS unit, and found that that area had been heavily impacted by logging. A logging road had been carried across the creek, either directly on the line of the old trail, or quite near it, and then this new road became directly superimposed upon the old trail. As I walked along and neared the northern crossing, I guessed that the road diverged very slightly from the old trail, so, I dropped away toward the creek, and found the crossing. This is just where the old BGT and Cherry Point Trail joined. The creek was dry here, and spread wide over a bouldery floodplain. I crossed, and followed along what I took to be the BGT to the northwest for a while, but the large trees which might have held blazes had been all cut down, and the faint trail-like groove in the ground might have been no more than a skid trail. I returned, re-crossed, and followed a faint trace of the Cherry Point Trail east. I found a nice old aspen tree with not only a blaze, but initials carved into the trunk, as well as the claw marks of bears, who often scar aspens to mark their territories.

However, immediately to the north the trail seemed to coincide with the logging road. The creek itself was inviting, since it flowed directly over the metasediments of the Sailor Canyon Formation, although the flow was almost non-existent. The water-polished rocks were lovely, and I scampered higher and higher. Just a little ways north these Jurassic metasediments abruptly terminate at the granite pluton of Loch Leven Lakes. I was intrigued to see evidence of contact metamorphism in the Sailor Canyon fm. rocks: little zones of granitoid texture here and there. I wanted to follow right up to the contact itself, but Mountain Alders began to close in tightly, and I didn't want to get too far off the line of the Cherry Point Trail. So I left the creek and struck away uphill to the east until I hit the logging road which now counts as the Cherry Point Trail.

This proved to be the trail by which the half-dozen mountain bikes had descended, perhaps aiming for the North Fork, the American River Trail, and then climbing out of the canyon at Mumford Bar. These bikes cause quite a bit of erosion on steep trails. I saw a pair of large grouse along the way. There are some rather scenic escarpments of granite, and wet meadows, and nice views of Cherry Point Ridge, its north face all cloaked in Red Fir. Eventually I got far enough north to strike out west, cross-country, to Salmon Lake, and the rest of my party. Up there, in the highlands, the northeast wind was brisk, and although the kids swam, the adults stayed dry. We saw a Goshawk and a falcon in the area, along with numerous birds I did not recognize, with dark greenish wings, given to perching on tree-tops, and making sudden hawklike forays out for flying insects, and then resuming their perch. There were dozens of these. Sometimes they would flock together, sometimes they would spread out widely to their individual perches.

A large party was camping above the lake, with all of ten tents. We thought that they might be Boy Scouts.

From the lake one can see parts of Snow Mountain, and even Lyon Peak and Tinkers Knob, in the distance. From an eminence south of the lake a much wider view embraces the length of Little Granite Creek, Sugar Pine Point and its Little Slate Ridge, and the main North Fork canyon itself.

Around four o'clock we hiked back out to Forest Road 38 and the cars.

Summing up, logging has severely impacted both the Big Granite and Cherry Point trails, especially near Four Horse Flat. Both trails now follow logging roads in this area. It seems possible that the "short-cut" portion of the BGT, in Four Horse Flat, might be reestablished, offering an alternative to the logging road now in use.

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