Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Visit to Heath Springs

Tho pressed by a ton of work around the home front, on Friday I contrived to escape for an adventure on the upper North Fork, with Michael Joyce of Dutch Flat. We planned to visit Heath Springs. These mineral springs are along an old trail which parallels the North Fork closely for a few miles, beginning at The Cedars, on the east

The Cedars is a private club comprising some twenty-five families which dates back to around 1905, and has large land holdings in the upper North Fork. I am ignorant of the details concerning how The Cedars acquired these lands. The usual checkerboard pattern of ownership, in which the odd-numbered sections had been granted to the Central Pacific Railroad, but the even-numbered sections remain public land, does not obtain near The Cedars. To the east, the Chickering family own very much land around the Old Soda Springs, that meadowy wonderland of petroglyphs, cascades, springs, and rich forests, all hemmed around by high peaks. The Chickering lands include the site of the old Soda Springs Hotel, and Mark Hopkins' log cabin still stands nearby.

What we now call Soda Springs was just the train stop where visitors would change to stage coaches for the ten-mile drive down into the upper basin of the North Fork, to the hotel.

Of course, Mark Hopkins was one of the Big Four, along with Stanford, Huntington, and hard-driving Charles Crocker, who built the CPRR. And the power of these railroad men grew and grew until the reins of government were firmly in their too-capable hands. Finally, in an effort to give the people of California a chance to wrest political power away from the railroad men and their cronies, the device of a recall election was added to our state constitution. Ergo Arnold.

I don't know how or even if the political power invested in the heirs of Mark Hopkins and the wealthy families who began The Cedars acted to consolidate and expand their land holdings in the upper North Fork. It happened. The Cedars, Chickerings, and a few other private parties in the area comprise the North Fork Association. Altogether, the NFA holds some eight or ten thousand acres. The old stage road from the CPRR down to the North Fork is now part of the Soda Springs-Foresthill Road. This road makes for one of the prettiest drives in California, but the upper twenty-five miles is unpaved, rough, bouldery, and often dusty. A high-clearance vehicle helps. It is slow going, slow, but pretty.

Now, the old public trails which thread the upper North Fork perforce cross the private lands of the North Fork Association. A hundred years ago there was no question that these trails were indeed public trails, and as recently as 1962, the trail from The Cedars down the river to Heath Springs is depicted on official Tahoe National Forest (TNF) maps. It also shows, as one would expect, on older TNF maps. But at some point, The Cedars determined that they wanted no strangers in their private paradise, and closed the public trail to the public. Here again I am ignorant of the details. I have heard of some kind of "deal" struck with TNF, in which the North Fork Association formally conceded the public's right to use the public trail up the river--the Painted Rock Trail--and over the crest into Squaw Valley, and in exchange, TNF conceded The Cedars' right to close the public trail down the river.

Thus as one drives down the rough old stage road into the wondrous upper basin of the North Fork, one begins to see "No Trespassing" signs everywhere, special, expensive, custom-made signs, nailed to the trunks of giant trees. If one ventures away from the road, still more custom signs, signs which befit the wealth of the North Fork Association, are found, in the most obscure and outlandish places. I wouldn't doubt but that there are literally hundreds of these signs up there.

Now, Michael and I were determined to hike the old public trail down to Heath Springs, and I saw on my TNF map that, where the road crosses Onion Creek, there was some public land. We parked there and followed a logging road down the creek. From the well-rotted appearance of the stumps it seems this harvest occurred some forty years ago.

In this part of the Sierra the rocks are divided into the younger "Superjacent" and the old "Subjacent" series. The Superjacent series includes all the relatively young volcanics, such as comprise most all the high peaks encircling the upper North Fork. These form roughly horizontal layers of (from lowest to highest, oldest to youngest) rhyolite ash, welded rhyolite tuffs, andesitic mudflows, and basaltic and andesitic-basaltic lava flows, capping some of the summits, such as Needles Peak. The oldest rhyolites date to near 30 million years ago while the youngest basalts date to as little as three million years. Add to these Superjacent rocks very much in the way of glacial till, occasional moraines, and locally large glacial outwash terraces. Beneath the oldest of the young volcanics is an old river channel, probably at least 55 million years old; but I am unaware of where, if anywhere, these river gravels are exposed in the upper North Fork. Very much of the lower ground is covered in glacial till.

For instance, where Michael and I began walking, there is a great thickness of glacial till. Onion Creek itself had subsided beneath the surface of this unsorted (unstratified) mass of boulders, cobbles, and sandy sediments, deposited during the last, "Tioga" glaciation, which ended ~12,000 years ago. As we walked downstream, it emerged at the surface, and soon the creek plunged abruptly into a little gorge, where rocks of the Subjacent Series are exposed.

The Subjacent Series comprises the vastly-older metamorphic rocks and granitic plutons which are exposed in all the canyons in this part of the Sierra, and over broad areas of the upland regions around the canyons. The young Subjacent volcanics etc. are mostly confined to the ridge crests between canyons, and to the Sierra Crest itself. Generally, the granites are younger, having welled up in enormous bubbles--plutons--into the older metamorphic rocks. And these older metamorphic rocks are everywhere turned up on edge, that is, whether originally sediments or igneous rocks, they have been rotated almost ninety degrees to the east.

I should mention that this complex arrangement of granitic plutons intruding metamorphic rocks has been exhumed from great depth and miles of its thickness had already been stripped away before the so-called "Ancestral Sierra" developed its system of sluggish, sediment-laden rivers more than 50 million years ago. The vestiges of these old rivers are the loci of our hydraulic mines, as at Malakoff, Dutch Flat, Gold Run, Lost Camp and Iowa Hill.

Michael and I might have stayed high and tried to avoid the gorge, but it looked brushy, so we dropped down a very steep gully to the creek. Here the fine-grained metamorphic rocks betrayed the proximity of a granite pluton, being seamed with dikes of granite, and in places, so throughly cooked that the metamorphic rock was re-crystallized into a granitic texture.

It was quite the pretty place, with cliffs rising a hundred feet high to either side of the creek, which formed a succession of deep pools and cascades. We were almost immediately confronted with some real rock-climbing, in order to follow the creek. Bears had abjured these steep rocks and waded right up the creek itself; we could see their footprints underwater, in a bed of silt. We slowly picked our way across the cliff, and found easier going below, a natural ramp of rock leading past a waterfall and a longer, deeper pool. Small trout darted about.

Soon we reached an interesting body of limestone. The strata were not so vertical as usual, tipped up scarcely 70 degrees, if that, from the horizontal. The limestone was metamorphosed into marble, of variegated colors, nicely polished near the creek, and rife with solution pockets, miniature caves and hollows with little arches. This rock would make some fine ornamental marble if quarried and polished. I saw no fossils. Presumably it is Paleozoic in age, say, 200 million years, but I do not know to what formation this rock might be assigned. At one point the strata of marble were cut by a dike of some dark brown igneous rock, very fine-grained to almost glassy, but with a hackly fracture, very old, metamorphosed right along with the marble it intruded.

We skirted along past the pretty marble for a couple hundred yards. Enormous boulders of granite increasingly littered the creek, quarried out by the glacier from somewhere higher to the east, and dropped here when the ice finally melted. Then we entered a sort of floodplain of glacial outwash, and Onion Creek subsided beneath the surface again. No more bedrock was exposed.

As we approached the North Fork, we reached the trail, and headed west, down the canyon. The trail climbs from Onion Creek to a gigantic glacial outwash terrace about 150' above the river. Glacial outwash is simply the sediment carried down by a valley glacier, the same as would be deposited in a ridge-like moraine or left scattered across large areas as glacial till. It differs from till and moraines in being sorted, not unsorted, that is, the boulders, sand, cobbles, silt, are at least weakly stratified, showing that they were laid down by water. Glacial outwash forms floodplains downstream from a valley glacier. Often, after the glacier has melted and is no longer delivering such an overabundance of sediment, the river will cut through the floodplain to bedrock, leaving terrace-like remnants on one or both sides of the valley.

Such was the case here. A rich forest of White Fir and Jeffrey Pine occupied the outwash terrace. Across the river, on slopes with a northern exposure, hence, colder, we say many tall Red Firs. There are quite abrupt and extreme variations in microclimate in these deep canyons.

We crossed Serena Creek, which drains Ice Lakes, up near the town of Soda Springs. Mark Twain himself named these two lakes Serena and Dulzura, hence, Serena Creek. Continuing west and down the canyon, more in the way of bedrock appeared, and much less in the way of outwash or till. The trail began to buck up and down quite a bit. We saw places where stone steps had been carefully built over a century ago, and where the cliffs had been drilled and blasted to make the trail. Few blazes were seen on the big trees, but ridiculously many "No Trespassing" signs. The bedrock was all metamorphic, the strata nearly vertical and striking north-south across the course of the river, and I was at a loss as to just what kind of rock it was. It may have been fine-grained metavolcanic rocks, say, beds of volcanic ash and debris flows laid down underwater, in the ocean, near some volcanic islands.

Kelloggs Black Oaks and Canyon Live Oaks began to appear, and Douglas Fir instead of White Fir. These harbingers of lower elevations were accompanied by a number of Western Juniper, trees one associates with the high country. We were dropping towards 5000' elevation across these sunny treeless cliffs interspersed with small forested bodies of glacial till, when a remarkable gorge and waterfall came into view on the North Fork, below us. This is Heath Falls. It had been all of fifteen years since I had been here. An impossibly deep and narrow pool is bound tightly by vertical cliffs, the pool perhaps two hundred feet long, and a waterfall plunging fifty feet or so into its upper end.

We took a quick look from near the trail and then pushed west to Heath Springs. Here the main trail climbs to a pass only a few hundred feet above, crosses a forested flat with gigantic, humongous, ancient Ponderosa Pines etc., and joins the Palisade Creek Trail. We had passed some springs, but I suspected that the true Heath Springs were still west, so we cast about in the forest until we found a faint old human trail leading west, and followed it to some sunny ledges where a small body of granite had intruded the metamorphic rocks.

Here we lunched and enjoyed fine views of the canyon walls, soaring 2000' above us. There was no sign of springs farther west, where a deep gorge separates Heath Falls from Palisade Creek, about a mile downstream, or less. We concluded that the springs we'd passed were "the" Heath Springs, and followed out faint old trail back to them.

These mineral springs are cold, rich in iron, and much frequented by bears, who wallow in the pools. We started back up the trail, but took a side trip to visit Heath Falls.

Gaining the cliffs directly above the long narrow pool, we saw that it is actually two pools, with a small waterfall between them. They are both very deep, the entire flow of the North Fork being so tightly bound between the cliffs, that it scours them out very efficiently. The river's inner gorge follows a sharply-bending zigzag course, and just upstream from the main waterfall is another high waterfall, perhaps thirty feet, which drops into its own deep, cliff-bound pool. These pools and waterfalls are very wild and lovely. The usual "No Trespassing" signs are nailed to the trees above the gorge.

There is little more to report from our adventure, except, we decided to try to find a logging road up and out near Onion Creek, so as to avoid the Marble Gorge. So, while on the great outwash terrace, we struck away to the north, and eventually, after some fairly intense bushwhacking, and some steep climbs, did indeed find a logging road, and followed it all the way to the last switchback on the old stage road, before the crossing of Onion Creek. We sauntered down the road to the car, and drove back to Dutch Flat, and dragged some folding chairs up to the railroad tracks, and drank a beer, and watched the sun set over the foothills south of Grass Valley. It had been another great day on the North Fork.


Scott Williamson said...

Sounds great. I had no idea that old trail existed. My goal is to hike from where the palisade creek trail hits the river up to and past the ceders. Seems ridiculous all the "no trespassing' sings. Just a bunch of wealthy people who are afraid someone might walk on 'their' land. The wealth of the bay area has ruined all of the Truckee-Tahoe region.

Dave said...

I've been to the area, and it is indeed beautiful, but i disagree with the comment (not in principle, but in application) that Scott left. If the north fork assoc has owned the land since the late 1800's or early 1900's since before the railroad parcels were allocated, it seems unreasonable to tag them as "the rich ruining truckee-tahoe," since the cedars was there before?