Saturday morning I met Tom McGuire at the Monte Vista Inn, Dutch Flat exit, I-80, and after a drive of a few miles we set off down the Green Valley Trail towards certain large bags of garbage, away down, and down and down, in the North Fork canyon.
It was Tom's first visit to Green Valley. He is more familiar with the upper canyon, between Mumford Bar and the Royal Gorge, usually entering on the Sailor Flat Trail and camping at Big Granite Creek. In that area the American River Canyon is over 3000 feet deep, and since Green Valley is a scant 2000 to 2400 feet deep, Tom was full of optimism and even a little scorn, for the good old Green Valley Trail.
"This is easy," he kept on remarking as we descended, "strenuous, on the way back up, yes--but not 'overly' strenuous, or 'very' strenuous--it is just plain strenuous, without any need for a qualifier."
Tom, you see, is a writer. If a word has a qualifier, needs a qualifier, or doesn't need a qualifier, he will be quick to take note. He is a tall rugged man in the prime of life.
We took the High West Trail and paused to look at the garbage we would be carrying up the hill and all too soon. We contoured over to the Pyramid Ridge, where the forest of Ponderosa Pine with its understory of Canyon Live Oak gives way to ancient manzanita on the sun-scorched ridge. We then struck south along the crest, winding through groves of manzanita, and enjoying ever better views of Giant Gap, until we reached The Pyramid.
Tom had approached Giant Gap from the west on the HOUT last year, and was awed all over again by those plunging cliffs and monumental pinnacles. We decided to follow the trail on down to the Green Valley Blue Gravel hydraulic mine, where a suspension bridge once crossed, connecting to the Green Valley Trail climbing away south from the river, and to the Gold Ring Mine. From trail's end we would boulder-hop down the North Fork and scramble to the HOUT and to the East Tunnel.
A pair of hawks of uncertain species sailed past us, and landed in some trees. Soon some kayakers appeared, who said they'd been (inadvertently) chasing the hawks downstream. Ouzels were zooming up and down the river and chattering their songs. The river was high and cold and clear and very fast, higher than it had been last Sunday. We made it on down to the faint little trail which climbs, in most ridiculous, meandering fashion, to the HOUT, and soon were striding along the sheer cliffs on that impossible threadlike path. In the late 1890s one E.L. Dunn had tried to sell the idea of using the North Fork as *the* principal water supply for San Francisco, and had hired on men to survey the line of a canal from Green Valley to Canyon Creek, right through Giant Gap. They blasted out many a ledge from the cliffs, and drove two large tunnels, but never succeeded in building one continuous trail through this astounding gorge.
And San Francisco never bought Dunn's idea.
Still, remnants are everywhere, narrow terraces often lush with grasses and flowers and moss. At East Tunnel we decided to forge ahead to the Giant Overhang, and so, we retreated east a hundred yards or so and dropped down the steep slopes, following an intricate course I'd hiked several times in the past, but which is easily lost. However, we found the way, and climbed steeply back up to the HOUT, which reappears just about where East Tunnel would have broken back out to the cliff-face. There are especially fine views east into Green Valley here, and a few yards west, the Giant Overhang has truly magnificent views of The Pinnacles. Here one is fully within Giant Gap. Another hundred yards or so west is one of the worst obstacles along the HOUT, the traverse of a broad, water-polished cliff. We stopped there. The cliff is mostly dry after this warm weather, and one could follow the HOUT right through Giant Gap in these conditions.
With some fairly serious rock-climbing here and there.
A Golden Eagle soared by a few hundred feet above us. At the Giant Overhang we admired some moss-gardens where water seeped from wells hidden within Lovers Leap; Waterfall False Buttercup was in full bloom, here. After a good long break we started back to Green Valley. Tom paused to swim in the icy river, while I made for the shade at the great pool at the end of the trail. When Tom approached, he hailed me back across the sunny boulders to see a snake. It was a rather large snake, somewhat resembling a rattler, but a bit more greenish; we could not see its tail. I found a long stick and teased it a little; it coiled upon itself and slithered quickly into its hidden galleries beneath the huge boulders. As it did so, we saw its tail; it was a Gopher Snake.
Gopher Snakes will imitate rattlesnakes, coiling and vibrating their tail; in dry grass, a rattling sound is made. Their markings are similar to those of rattlesnakes.
After a time we started up. The day was quite warm, perhaps in the upper 80s. It is a climb of near 400 feet to the garbage, where we took another long rest, and then we each lashed on a large bag, and started up again.
In the first few steps Tom's endearing enthusiasm broke forth, not for the first time that day, for Giant Gap is a miracle, and so is the rest of the great canyon, and neither Tom nor I know why there should not be a North Fork American National Park, but at any rate, here was Tom again, "This is easy! Russell, this is really easy! I don't know if I have even twenty-five pounds on my back! Oh, well, maybe thirty pounds--but, what a nice trail!"
I laughed and replied that he had taken scarcely ten steps, if that, since we shouldered our packs; we were still refreshed: heart rate, normal; breathing, easy; body, cool.
So up and up and up and up we wound along, stopping at The Anvil, and at a number of other nice places, the Echo Tree, and so on, and with its usual heartless inevitability the trail more or less wrecked us. We sweated, we staggered, and Tom began to mutter all kinds of qualifiers, none at all kind, about the Green Valley Trail.
Finally, a mile or so after one might well have hoped, we reached the top and could rest the good rest.
It was another great day in the North Fork canyon.