Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Pickering Bar Trail

Yesterday I joined Ron Gould for a hike on the Pickering Bar Trail, near Gold Run. From the Gold Run exit on I-80, south side, we drove west on Magra Road and then almost immediately turned south on Garrett Road, which parallels the Diggings for a mile and some before reaching the rim of the North Fork Canyon. There it bears east and a large BLM gate blocks further travel, except by foot or OHV.

There are no signs indicating that this is public (BLM) land, nor that a trail to the river exists nearby. In fact, on the last stretch of the road before it bends east to the gate, on has the distinct sense that one is trespassing, for the road also gives access to private property, and one sign boldly proclaims "No River Access."

I had never obtained GPS coordinates for the Pickering Bar Trail. Until a few years ago, one could drive to the trailhead, but now the gate must stand for the head of the trail, so I switched my little Garmin unit on right there, and, in the open, manzanita-cloaked terrain, soon obtained excellent satellite coverage. Off we went, loppers in hand.

It was a cool but sunny morning, just a few wisps of cirrus cloud here and there, and, with the sun angle so low now, near the solstice, much of the great canyon was in shadow, and was a vast blue depth beside us, only half-seen through a screen of trees and bushes. The road is ancient, in California terms, already existing at the time of the 1866 General Land Office map, when the section lines were laid out. It is marked as "Road to the Mines" on that map, and is shown terminating at the Secret World, at the head of Indiana Ravine, which is the very site of the discovery of gold at Gold Run. This is where the road ends to this day. It is becoming badly blocked up with fallen Knobcone Pines, which seeded in thickly after the 1960 wildfire, and now die in their dozens and topple over in windstorms. The storms hit hard along the rim of the North Fork canyon.

There have been many fires in this area, many fires raging up the canyon wall, as evidenced by the gigantic expanses of manzanita (all the White Manzanita, Arctostaphylos viscida), the preponderance of Sugar Pine over Ponderosa Pine, and the high incidence of Knobcone Pine. The road winds in and out of various ravines all tributary to Sheldon Ravine, and in a quarter-mile one passes a road left into the Diggings, close, but screened from view by manzanita all along the way. After another turn in and out of a ravine, the road levels and a bad old bunch of hefty Knobcones bars the way. The OHV users have cut a side trail around the fallen trees, and in another fifty yards one reaches the trailhead, a large sunny flat becoming choked with a million young manzanita bushes, seeded after semi-recent bulldozer activity, by the looks of things. The trail leads away to the south, past two middling large pines, and over the first several hundred yards, follows a bulldozed fire trail right down the spine of a ridge. This would seem to have obliterated the original trail, which may have followed a gentler line, winding back and forth across the slope, rather than straight down the ridge-crest.

The Pickering Bar Trail not depicted on the USGS 7.5 minute Dutch Flat quadrangle. If you have that map, note the words "Sheldon Ravine," on the north side of the river, and west of Pickering Bar itself. The old trailhead on the road is near the southern end of the 3000-foot contour, and the trail drops away south right through the word "Sheldon."

At about 2750' elevation, just after leaving all traces of the bulldozed fire trail behind and entering upon the Pickering Bar Trail proper, one reaches a rocky outcrop of chert, laced with quartz veins. A truly marvelous view of the canyon is had from here. One might well hike the Pickering Bar Trail just to reach this one viewpoint. It might be called Chert Point. Quartz crystals sparkle in the sun. One can see from Iowa Hill on the west to and through Giant Gap on the east, and beyond to Sawtooth Ridge, and Monumental Ridge, with its snow.

Continuing down the very steep trail, at about the 2640' elevation, a faint trail leads away west. Others like it are in the area, but are blocked by brush; this side trail is open, and in a short distance one reaches Sheldon Ravine, a narrow slot cut in parallel to the strike of the vaguely slaty bedrock, which here I take to be part of the metasedimentary portion of the Calaveras Complex, a Paleozoic "terrane" accreted to North American long ago. The strata are near-vertical and strike south. A faint game trail which might just be a human trail continues west across the ravine; we did not explore it.

Sheldon Ravine might have had its own "tailings claims" once upon a time, with sluice boxes set to extract gold which escaped the sluice boxes of the hydraulic mines in the Diggings, above. We saw tailings lodged in the bed of the creek (now dry), which the signature rounded white quartz cobbles which betray their origin in the Eocene-age river gravels of the Ancestral Yuba, which flowed north here, from Iowa Hill to the south, through Gold Run to Dutch Flat, and then on to Little York and You Bet, etc. etc.

The trail is relentlessly steep and often hemmed in by heavy brush. We lopped hundreds and hundreds of branches. Around the 1800-foot contour, we saw still another faint trail leading away into Sheldon Ravine, and explored a little ways. There had been many such trails along the way, just barely too well-defined to pass as game trails. Ron then spotted a mining ditch below us, and he made for it directly, while I returned to the main trail to see if it cut the ditch-line. I had no memory of a ditch this high above the river. But, there it was, except, it seemed the ditch came from Sheldon Ravine and ended on the spine of the ridge, where it had been turned into some minor penstock of iron or canvas; a shallow gully went straight on down, and I recalled the last time I had hiked the trail, I had interpreted this shallow gully as the trace of a lumber slide, similar to the one over on Diving Board Ridge, across Indiana Ravine to the east.

The ditch was almost impossible to discern, from the trail itself, partly because rather large bushes nearly covered it. I forced a way through this snarl of Buckbrush and Toyon and Manzanita with my loppers and on the far side found a lovely broad terrace, winding away through the brushy forest, and mostly open and clear. It followed a much steeper line than most ditches, but was, unequivocally, a ditch. It had a bit of dry-laid stone wall bolstering it in many places, often all but hidden within masses of moss. I caught up with Ron and we slowly worked our way in to Sheldon Ravine. The last fifty yards were really beautiful; the ditch was formed a broad grassy terrace atop a cliff perhaps a hundred feet high, where quite a nice waterfall will form later in the winter. There was a faint suggestion of a trail continuing west across the ravine, but we did not explore it.

We returned to the main trail slowly, putting the finishing touches on our lopping job, and soon reached the place where the main trail bends sharply left, really more north than east, about 300 feet above the river, which hits the 1440' contour at Pickering Bar. Various trails lead away to the right, southwest, let us say, as one descends the main trail. I have followed a couple of these. One leads to the Flat of the Chinese Coin, as described by Mike Case recently here. Along this part of the trail, one suddenly begins to see the California Nutmeg, a strange conifer in the Yew family, with brash sharp needles about two inches long, and single seeds which resemble huge green olives. It might easily be mistaken for a fir.

The main trail becomes narrower and fainter and finally takes a drastic plunge right down to the river, where, just as we had seen high above in Sheldon Ravine, the river runs parallel to the strike of the bedrock. Some rather fantastically eroded sections of bedrock flank the river here, while across the river rises Pickering Bar, a large glacial outwash terrace. We were right across the river from the "B" in the words "Pickering Bar" on the Dutch Flat quadrangle.

After a lunch break, we lost our precious sun, but explored a bit before hitting the trail for the long slog out. Goodness gracious, that is a steep trail. It is probably not much more than a mile in length, from the old trailhead down to the river, but seems longer, and however long or short it may be, it is strenuous.

Reaching the top, we followed the old road for a ways, and then struck north into the Diggings, through one of the precious few gaps in the wall of manzanita. As soon as we entered the sacred precincts we heard voices, and after some wandering, caught glimpses of people over on the Bluffs, apparently hanging from ropes, and having a wonderful time, doing what, we had no idea.

We slowly approached. I wanted to show Ron the place where the last big log of petrified wood had been, before being stolen by a mining claimant, and as it happened, the rope-swinging cliff-climbing party had left their packs there. They were over on a sort of Macchu-Picchu-looking spire of sediments, near a secret trail up to Garrett Road. Ron and I turned to leave, and just then the distant cliff dwellers set up an even louder hue and cry, and we began to hear my name, "Russell Towle," and that hardly seemed likely. So we stopped and finally I shouted, "Who are you?" and it turned out to be my old friend Alex Henderson, now a fireman in Sacramento but for many years a resident of Dutch Flat. He had brought his children and a niece and nephew to the Diggings to explore and mess around on crumbling epic clifflets using ropes.

After a time they scrambled down into the Diggings and hiked over to us, and we had a pleasant chat before returning to the road and the trucks. Alex et. al. had actually ventured a little ways down the Pickering trail, earlier, and saw they were on my track by the lopped branches, but had been scared from following further when the trail steepened so badly, below Chert Point. So they entered the Diggings and swung around on ropes.

It had been a wonderfully sunny day, perfect hiking weather, great views, the river itself as beautiful as always--I got some nice photos of the sunny bluffs of Pickering Bar, reflected in the quiet low water of Fall. Water Ouzels and Canyon Wrens were much in evidence, down there.

And such was a great day in the great canyon. I especially liked finding the old mining ditch, now just a perfect terrace for resting and dreaming and taking the sun, and soon to be adorned with its own high waterfall.

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