Wednesday I met Julie Carville and Karen Callahan at the Dutch Flat exit on I-80, and we drove up to Emigrant Gap, and in Forest Road 19 to Big Valley Bluff.
Julie Carville is a botanist and author who has written books about the wildflowers of the Tahoe area; see "Lingering in Tahoe's Wild Gardens," in which she describes many hikes and many flowers. Karen Callahan is a botanist active in our local Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
Big Valley Bluff is a cliff of Shoo Fly Complex metasediments rearing 3500 feet above the North Fork of the American River, east of Emigrant Gap. This monstrous mass of rock presents an almost El-Capitan-like appearance as seen from up and down the canyon; the views *of* Big Valley Bluff are very fine; but the views *from* Big Valley Bluff are truly exceptional.
I remember it was Matt Bailey of Dutch Flat who told me about the Bluff, lo these twenty-five years ago. Matt and others, such as Gene Markley and Eric Gerstung, worked long and hard to obtain Wild & Scenic River designation for the North Fork.
So we drove out Forest Road 19, in part at least called the Texas Hill Road, out beyond the pretty East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork American River with its multitudes of giant Indian Rhubarbs, out beyond the pavement and past the road right to Sawtooth Ridge and Helester Point and the elusive Sawbug Trail, and kicking up dust, some few more miles to the road right to the Bluff.
The Bluff projects far into the canyon and a road follows along the top of the ridge to where the World suddenly ends and the Yosemite-like vastness of the "upper middle" North Fork canyon break into view. A Forest Service lookout tower once stood on the very edge of the cliff; only some large concrete piers remain.
Snow Mountain looms to the east, standing all of 4500 feet above the river; its monstrous mass hides Tinkers Knob and Anderson Peak, yet farther east on the Sierra crest; but also in view, peak-wise, from north to south, are Red Mountain, Mt. Lola, Basin Peak, Castle Peak, Devils Peak, Mt. Lyon, Needle Peak, Squaw Peak, Little Needle Peak, Mt. Mildred, and summits of the Crystal Range, far to the southeast.
In clear weather over one hundred miles of the Coast Range is in view to the west. It was hazy while we were there.
Within the main theater of the canyon one sees Wabena Point, where petroglyphs are inscribed high above the waterfalls of the Royal Gorge, and Wildcat Point, an enormous glacially-truncated spur; Cherry and Sugar Pine points share the north wall of the canyon with the Bluff; Sawtooth Ridge winds away to the west; and one sees portions of many side-canyons, including Big Valley, Little and Big Granite creeks on the north, Wabena, Wildcat, Sailor, New York and Tadpole canyons on the south.
Directly across the canyon from Big Valley Bluff one sees the pass of the Beacroft Trail, the Iowa Hill Canal, and the unnamed eminences of sheer rock between Tadpole and New York canyons.
Three thousand feet below, the American River Trail can be seen from some vantage points, threading high above the river.
So the Bluff has a phenomenal view. I had enticed the botanists there with promises of Juniperus communis, or Common Juniper, which is a ground-hugging sub-shrub of a conifer. It is "common" because it is found all around the Northern Hemisphere, in the higher elevations and latitudes. And it is common within the North Fork, seeming firmly wedded to rocky, sunny, storm-battered knolls and cliffs.
The main summit of the Bluff is around 6500' in elevation. Storm-twisted Jeffrey and Sugar pines are scattered widely about, with low masses of Huckleberry Oak and manzanita, and much in the way of raw rocky areas, and weirdly-shaped pillars of rock rising along the verges of the cliffs. The humble junipers, not even a foot high, sprawl over the rocky ground here and there.
There are interesting ecotones and gradations and discontinuities of microclimate at Big Valley Bluff. For instance, it is warmer along the edge of the cliffs. Not only Jeffrey and Sugar pines, but storm- and elevation-stunted Douglas Fir are found. A short distance north is the broad summit of the spur ridge leading south to the Bluff; and by its broadness, and its gentle slopes, it is less able to shed heavy cold air. Here the contrast between warmer, western exposures, and cooler, eastern exposures, is evidenced by Western White Pines east of the crest, and Sugar Pines to the warmer west.
I am concerned about 4WD activity out at Big Valley Bluff. Over the past ten years jeeps trails have proliferated and spread, and huge fire-rings have been built, and the usual beer bottles and cans scattered about. I think Tahoe National Forest ought to enforce a vehicle closure somewhere along the access road to the north, perhaps a quarter-mile north from the old lookout tower site. Let people walk in from there. For there is something quite extraordinary about Big Valley Bluff, and its storm-beaten almost elfin forest, and its awesome views, its hawks and eagles and falcons, its lowly little junipers.
One wonders why the North Fork canyon is not a National Park.
I wrote a letter to Forest Supervisor Steve Eubanks some years ago urging a vehicle closure. Perhaps it is time for a more concerted effort.
We wandered up along the crest of the cliffs and then down to the East Summit of Big Valley Bluff. Around 1987 I tried but failed to get Tahoe National Forest to deny permission to Sierra Pacific Industries to build a road across TNF lands down to SPI lands (old railroad lands) at the East Summit. I have been scared to go down there and see the stumps and skid trails and log landings and roads since then. Julie and Karen and I walked through the logged area, which was not so drastically torn up as I feared, and lunched on East Summit, with more marvelous views down into the great canyon.
Later we meandered farther down the ridge, to a cliff which offered the best views I have ever had of the lower reaches of Big Valley itself.
Heading at Huysink Lake, Big Valley runs due south some several miles to the North Fork. Ice spilling south over the divide from the South Yuba Icefield deepened Big Valley far beyond any proportion to its length or basinal area. As the valley approaches the North Fork, it steepens dreadfully and narrows into a gorge, with some unknown number of waterfalls hidden within shady chasms, and every sign that it is totally impassable. No one walks down Big Valley to the North Fork. With a long rope and nerves of steel one might rappel down the waterfalls and win through.
I could see the dark slots of inner gorges, and ragged cliffs and pinnacles painted with lichen, and flocks of Band-Tailed pigeons zooming around far below me. I felt confident that I could advance another mile south within Big Valley, from my previous most-southerly point limit of exploration. It looked exceptionally wild and pristine and cliffy. Just my kind of place, really.
We walked slowly back to the main summit and the car and drove back out, stopping at Onion Valley, a large meadow of glacial origins with a weak moraine on its west side. Almost all its lush complex of flowers had died away, but along a shallow stream-course we found some unusual flowers of the Broom-Rape family, probably in the genus Orobanche, flowers none of us had ever seen. These Orobanche are root-parisitic on various plants, and have no leaves and no chlorophyll. So--once again--out came the cameras, the hand lens, the manuals, and we botanized long enough to make me slightly late in picking up my daughter Janet from the school bus stop at Alta.
All was well despite my tardiness and it was a fine fine day in the upper middle North Fork.