Wednesday, April 21, 2004

East Green Valley

Near Alta and Dutch Flat is one of the most scenic reaches of the North Fork American canyon, spanning Euchre Bar, Green Valley and Giant Gap. In 1866 the Central Pacific Railroad reached Alta, and the huge Chinese work force pushed rapidly upcountry towards Cisco. The original line of the railroad, as envisioned by Theodore Judah, would have entered the Bear River canyon near Alta, and followed it up to Yuba Gap. However, survey crews, in 1865, were able to improve upon Judah's route, by turning across Canyon Creek and through Hogback Gap into the main North Fork canyon, thence bearing northeast past Blue Canyon to Emigrant Gap.

Thus America at large became acquainted with the American River Canyon, with Green Valley, with Giant Gap (only the North Fork, historically, was called "the" American River Canyon). The view across Green Valley and through Giant Gap was celebrated as the very best of the scenery along the entire 3000 miles of the Pacific Railroad.

Americans in the Eastern states had been hearing about the wild and deep canyons of the Sierra for two decades, since the Gold Rush. Sensible folk realized that the 49ers, like other humans, were given to exaggeration; the canyons were not that deep, not that steep, not that wild. But to ride the train into California, to break free of the snowsheds, at Blue Canyon, to reach the promontory at Casa Loma, then called Green Bluffs, was to see Giant Gap. And to see Giant Gap was to realize that, if anything, the 49ers had understated the case for Sierran canyons. The guidebooks to California lavished praise upon this view; famed landscape artist Thomas Moran executed a fine etching of Green Valley and Giant Gap; and the awesome scene even inspired a brief effort to rename that amazing gorge "Jehovah Gap."

So. Has Placer County acted to preserve the historic, God-given scenic grandeur of Green Valley and Giant Gap? No, of course not. For there are "parcels" of land here, and in Placer County, the parcel trumps everything else. We might as well change the name to Parcel County. It is more fitting. Today's gold is in the form of 'view parcels', where one can build a house which does not merely enjoy, but dominates the scenery. Witness the houses recently built out towards Lovers Leap, where with chainsaw and bulldozer the vegetation has been stripped down to the dirt, well down below the canyon rim, so that the egomaniacs there can see the North Fork itself from their living rooms.

Thus those of us who hike in Green Valley, especially in the eastern area, must walk about with our eyes downcast, for if we raise them to the canyon rim, we must see, we cannot escape, the vulture-houses feasting on Placer County's, California's, and America's heritage.

I myself find that if I stop to rest and enjoy the view, a carefully chosen tree can block my view of the vulture-houses, but allows me, just barely, to see Lovers Leap.

The main northside Green Valley Trail drops off the canyon rim from Moody Ridge, near Hogback Gap. However, another trail forks away west from the Euchre Bar Trail, into the east end of Green Valley. This trail is a little difficult to find and follow, and does not always match up well, on the ground, with its depiction on the USGS 7.5 minute Dutch Flat quadrangle. Just where the main Euchre Bar Trail leaves the ridge-crest for the sequence of switchbacks dropping away east, this "East Green Valley Trail" (EGVT) drops away west, also in switchbacks, at first.

After crossing a small ravine, the EGVT levels out and bears roughly south, seeming to exploit the line of an old mining ditch, perhaps, and then bends more westerly into a pass or saddle, between the main canyon wall and an oak-crowned little peak I call East Knoll--for it stands at the very eastern end of Green Valley.

There is a lot happening, geologically, in the area of the East Knoll. Green Valley is the result, as it were, of the North Fork crossing the weak serpentine of the Melones Fault Zone. The relative weakness of the serpentine is expressed in the relative wideness of the canyon. Giant Gap, in contrast, a narrow gorge, is incised into the much tougher and more massive metavolcanics of the Calaveras Complex. That's on the west. On the east the Melones serpentine is in faulted contact with the Shoo Fly Complex, rather old metasediments. However (isn't there always a "however"?), there are some exotic, mysterious rocks thinly sandwiched between the Melones serpentine and the Shoo Fly. I have seen these mapped as Mesozoic in age, that is, younger than everything else in the vicinity, so far as bedrock goes. A thin body of limestone is involved in this Mesozoic screen separating the serpentine and the Shoo Fly. This can be seen plunging in light gray cliffs to the North Fork, at the very east end of Green Valley. With a little daring one can follow the line of the Green Valley Blue Gravel ditch out onto these cliffs, and be rewarded by one of the greatest views to be found in this great canyon.

Just keep your eyes down.

When one combines fault zones with bodies of granite, even miles distant, quartz veins are common. An entire system of gold-bearing quartz veins striking parallel to the Melones Fault penetrates the Shoo Fly east of Green Valley (the Rawhide Mine and Pioneer Mine exploit these veins, along with many other old mines). And, when one adds limestone to the mix, conditions for gold deposition become even more favorable.

This is the most likely reason why a patented mining claim follows that little strip of limestone, from the river, up and over the summit of East Knoll.

By the way, once a claim has been patented, it becomes fully private property, and can be mined, or not mined, it can be sold, or bought, a house built, or whatever.

There are a number of such old patented mining claims in Green Valley, most having to do with the remarkable Ice Age (Pleistocene) bodies of gold-bearing glacial outwash sediments. Once they were ordinary mining claims. Then they were patented

And now, they are parcels. And in Placer County, the parcel trumps everything else. Does a historic public trail cross a parcel? Never mind, no matter: close the trail, gate it, put up "No Trespassing" signs, build a subdivision.

Well. I digress. Last Sunday Catherine O'Riley and I dropped down the Euchre Bar Trail and peeled away west on the EGVT into the east end of Green Valley. We reached the saddle beside East Knoll and stopped to rest and explore. A scrap of garbage lured me into a lovely little glade in an open forest of Kellogg's Black Oak, just east of the saddle. Then more garbage caught my eye.

We walked down to investigate.

What we found was puzzling. A bunch of brand-new gear had been abandoned. Camp chairs, tarps, a Coleman lantern, gas bottles, tools, and really all kinds of weird junk. Apparently it had all been packed into two rather large plastic bins, but one bin had contained some kind of food, and a bear had ripped it open and scattered stuff all over. It looked as tho it had been there a year, more or less. A fire-ring of boulders was nearby.

Among the debris were four "No Trespassing" signs and orange survey tape. And later, a reasonably careful plotting of the outlines of the East Knoll limestone parcel on the Dutch Flat quadrangle topo map revealed that the garbage site is on that parcel. I conclude that the garbage (camping gear) had been left there by the owner of the East Knoll parcel.

I had heard, a year or two ago, from a contact at Tahoe National Forest (TNF) who has been involved in land acquisition efforts over recent years in the North Fork, that this parcel had been the subject of inquiries by the (new?) owner, who wished to bulldoze a road down to East Knoll, from Iron Point. My TNF friend didn't seem to think there was much prospect of the road ever being built.

Now that I have seen the camp, the garbage, the "No Trespassing" signs, I wonder. After all, like the BLM, TNF is essentially required by law to grant access across its (our) lands to private property.

So, it seems progress is afoot at East Knoll. There is a parcel there, so it is time to ruin some more of our heritage. A few short years ago, TNF made a rather weak effort to purchase the private parcels in Green Valley. A fund of money (well over $100,000, as I recall), left over from other land acquisitions, allowed TNF to make the attempt.

However, not one parcel was acquired.

Catherine and I climbed to the summit of East Knoll, and enjoyed some really spectacular views over Green Valley into Giant Gap. I found a tree which hid the vulture-houses well enough, at one overlook spot, and kept my eyes averted elsewhere. Then we dropped into Green Valley on the sometimes confusing trails (for there are two separate trails from the saddle), and hit the line of the Green Valley Blue Gravel ditch. We turned right and followed the brushy ditch west, most of the way across eastern Green Valley, eventually being forced down onto the High East Trail, itself badly overgrown, which we followed to Joe Steiner's grave, and visited the meadow, with its wonderful Western Azalea bushes just breaking into bloom, fragrant large white flowers in the hundreds, and the hotel site, just above the river. This area is within several private parcels, again, old patented mining claims. From there we followed another trail, past a major garbage dump, back up to the main Green Valley Trail, and slogged on up to Moody Ridge, where we drove back to Iron Point and got Catherine's car.

Despite the vulture-houses on Moody Ridge (and the new vulture-house, directly above Iron Point), we should not give up on Green Valley and Giant Gap and one of the most scenic parts of the North Fork. Everything I have seen over the past thirty years or so in this part of the Sierra suggests that land acquisition, by the BLM and by TNF, is crucial to the future of our canyons and our historic trails.

There are some who seem to think we should be ashamed to ask Congress for more money, so that TNF and the BLM might pursue land acquisitions from willing sellers; that we should reassure Congressman Doolittle and Senators Boxer and Feinstein that the end is near, so far as purchases in the North Fork American goes.

No, no, no!

I say we need a lot more money and a lot more land acquisition. Every last little parcel in the canyon, not to speak of the entire 640-acre sections owned by lumber companies, ought to be purchased, if at all possible.

We are constantly being overtaken by events, to the great and lasting deteriment to one of the most beautiful and wild places in California, the American River Canyon. These purchases could have been made for pennies on the dollar when the North Fork was designated a Wild & Scenic River. Well, that was then. That was 1978. Right now, on what should be an emergency basis, TNF should be trying to get the Rawhide Mine, and the lands at Lost Camp, and the parcels in Green Valley, and the parcels along the canyon rim just east of the top of the Mumford Bar Trail, and the lumber company sections at Sugar Pine Point and Wildcat Point and--but don't even get me started on all that.

Well, I have burdened you all with too many words. The main gist of it is that, of course, the Sky is Falling, and Progress is reaching East Knoll.

And, if you haven't written Doolittle, Boxer, and Feinstein to ask for LWCF funds for the North Fork *and* for the North Fork of the North Fork (Rawhide Mine, Lost Camp, etc.), please do so. Beg a ton of money, and beg for it sooner rather than later.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Spring in the Royal Gorge

Waterfalls, waterfalls, waterfalls.

An old trail leads over the Sierra crest from Squaw Valley into the upper basin of the North Fork American, and follows the river downstream to the west. Above the Foresthill-Soda Springs road this is called the Painted Rock Trail, below, the Heath Springs Trail, which continues past the mineral springs into Palisade Creek. It is really one long trail, one historic, public trail, as suggested by its presence on official Tahoe National Forest maps, among these, maps from 1928, 1939, and 1962.

For some decades a section of this long old public trail has been posted with "No Trespassing" signs by the North Fork Association, a.k.a. The Cedars, which owns lands in the area. I hope to see this section re-opened to the public.

Last Sunday Ron Gould and I set off walking down hard-packed and frozen snow on the Foresthill-Soda Springs road at Serene Lakes, near 7000' elevation. It was just after dawn, with temperatures hovering around freezing, but bright sun promised warmth soon enough. Crunching along, in less than a mile views began to open westward: the gigantic massif of Snow Mountain; the broad axe blade of Devils Peak; the North Fork canyon itself, and points far downstream, in and west of the Royal Gorge, such as Wildcat Point and even a part of New York Canyon.

We were aiming that way, far beyond those distant cliffs, in fact, but first we had to wear off elevation, bearing roughly south towards the river, enjoying many views of the upper basin, all encircled by (north to south) Crows Nest, Mt. Disney, Mt. Lincoln, Anderson Peak, Tinkers Knob, Granite Chief, and Lyon Peak. Deep snow persisted above 7000', but as we descended, it thinned to a depth of two or three feet and became patchy. At a certain point we left the road and dropped into the valley of Serena Creek, picking our way through brush and snowbanks. Almost the last of the snow was soon behind us. A large glacial outwash terrace supporting a heavy forest was traversed until we met the old trail and turned west, down the canyon.

After crossing Serena Creek, boisterous and loud, but not nearly so high as I had feared--for far more of the snowpack had already been melted, by recent warm weather, than I had expected--we reached a lovely little inner gorge on the river, with some small waterfalls. The sun was bright and warm, almost hot, really, on our side of the North Fork; the other side, facing north, was still mantled with snow nearly to river level. It was growing late in the morning, and we had a fairly long hike ahead of us, to reach our first night's camp.

We enjoyed a good long break before saddling up and walking west. Occasionally, views opened to Snow Mountain, a little over 8000' in elevation, and rising all of 4000' above the Royal Gorge. The river roared along beside us, high, cold, fast, and presenting quite a barrier to travel. I would not want to ford the North Fork, these days. Something like two miles brought us to Heath Falls, a series of high waterfalls which drop into a fine chasm, all full of flourishing spray and thunder and rainbows. Another long break. Many photographs.

Microclimate is everything, almost. Where we had first reached the river, at about 5300' elevation, the contrast between the sunny and shady sides of the canyon was extreme. Red Firs grew along the shady side, White Firs and Jeffrey Pine on the sunny side. Our route followed the sunny side, and remarkably soon, considering the snow-mantled slopes across the river, we began to see Canyon Live Oak and California Bay Laurel and other classic trees of lower elevations. Mixed among these were occasional Western Junipers, that rock-loving tree of higher elevations. It was fascinating to observe the fine gradations and interfingerings of tree and shrub species and commmunities as we dropped lower and lower.

At Heath Springs--small mineral springs above the river, in a grove of Kellogg's Black Oak and Incense Cedar--the old trail climbs out of the inner canyon, avoiding a gorge area downstream, and crosses a pass into a forested flat with gigantic old Ponderosa Pines. Several of these had old trail blazes of the "small letter 'i'" type, long long since skinned over with bark.

We met the Palisade Creek Trail, hung a left, and dropped several hundred feet over a mile or so back to the North Fork. Here the trail keeps well away the creek's long succession of cascades and waterfalls; we could hear them, but not often see them. Approaching the river, large glaciated expanses of granite opened before us, and now Snow Mountain seemed rather close and terribly high, and the amazing waterfalls dropping down its east face became more visible. A snow-filled cirque high on the east face feeds those falls, some of which may exceed 200' in height.

Let us call this creek, of so many waterfalls, Cirque Creek.

This is a most amazing and scenic part of the North Fork canyon. It is the upper end of the Royal Gorge, that part of the canyon which turns around the base of Snow Mountain's main summit. From Palisade Creek, looking west, one sees the snowy east face of the mountain, and to the south, across the river, snow streaks the canyon walls, near Latimer Point and Wabena Point (Lorenzo Latimer was a watercolorist who painted landscapes, including the Royal Gorge, around 100 years ago).

It was very gratifying to be in the canyon with so much snow remaining on the cliffs and ridges above us. Here we were, in Summer, with Canyon Live Oak and Bay Laurel and, yes, Poison Oak, and even flowers in bloom, the sun so warm and bright we sought the shade, while all around us Winter still reigned.

A bridge spans the North Fork just above its confluence with Palisade Creek. The river is confined within a narrow inner gorge, a mere slot in the granite, while Palisade spreads widely in loud cascades, so it almost seems the creek exceeds the river; but it really falls far short of that.

After lunch, we crossed the bridge and strode downstream. Immediately we approached Palisade Falls, on the main river, a sheer drop of perhaps sixty feet, and perhaps twenty feet wide, thundering loudly, billowing spray, the first of several major waterfalls in the Royal Gorge. Many people hike the seven miles down the Palisade Creek Trail, from Cascade Lakes, just to camp near Palisade Falls. Usually this trail is not open for foot travel until early June, for the snow sets in deeply and is slow to melt, near the trailhead. After another break, we continued downstream, and reached Cirque Creek and our anticipated first night's camp, at the contact zone between the metavolcanic Tuttle Lake Formation of Snow Mountain on the west, and the granite of Palisade Creek on the east.

Contact Zone Camp was a good camp, at about 4200' elevation, where, as one sees on the 7.5 minute USGS Royal Gorge quadrangle, the river makes an abrupt turn to the south. Snow Mountain too soon consumes the afternoon sun. A sandy flat near the river is joined, by a granite sidewalk, to a sheltered alcove within a grove of Canyon Live Oaks just above. We built a fire and did our cooking in the alcove, and slept on the sand. No tents, just the stars above. Our first day covered about eight miles. We were glad to stop a little early, as our second day would be more strenuous.

High clouds drifted in as the afternoon waned away. We retired to our sleeping bags fairly early and as a result I was wide awake at four in the morning. I heroically squirmed out of my bag, dressed, and made for the alcove, where in a minute a fire blazed and my first cup of coffee was quick to follow. The long rainless period had left every scrap of wood on the ground bone-dry.

After a long time the faint glow of an unseen, deeply waning moon was enhanced by the first glow of pre-dawn light. The snowy east face of Wildcat Point (that north-jutting promontory on the divide between Wabena and Wildcat canyons, standing full 3000' above the North Fork, its cliffs incised with glacial striae to the very summit) gradually took form, two miles down the canyon; we would be at least trying to hike right past it, crossing one ragingly snow-fed tributary stream after another, all the way to New York Canyon.

At dawn I wandered the cliffs beside the river and visited what I call Curtain Falls, just upstream from the confluence of Cirque Creek. Last June 18th, Ron and my son Greg and I had hiked up through the Royal Gorge from Wabena, reaching Curtain Falls. The river's flow on this April 11 was only a little greater than that of last June 18th. Perhaps 125%, or 133%. Apparently the heat waves and warm weather of March and early April had worn off so much snow that flows had already subsided to late-spring levels. I began to feel less anxious about the rough section between Wabena and Wildcat.

The Royal Gorge is famed for its wildness and waterfalls and all-around rough terrain. However, there are remnants of an old trail through the Gorge. Perhaps it should be called the "Route." In some places the Route is forced high, and is an actual built trail, and in other places, let's say, a gravel bar parallels the river, and the Route drops low, and as one picks one's way over sand and boulders and dodges alders and willows there is no sign of any built trail.

Quite notable along this high-and-low river Route are the talus slides, on Wabena Point cliffs, and then again those talus slides along Wildcat Point between Wabena and Wildcat canyons, where large boulders had been carefully arranged to bolster a real trail. Ron and I are somewhat mystified by these sections. They so strongly speak of one long continuous high trail down the canyon (the "ideal form" or alignment a constructed trail would take), and yet, so often the Route drops to river level and follows a trackless gravel bar. When we consider how much work went into the talus slide sections, we are almost forced, we desperately want, to imagine a *continuous* high trail. But so far there is no sign of this.

What there is, is a continuous *route*, which sometimes follows the river, but more often stays well above it.

The sun leaves Contact Camp early and arrives late and it was only when the sun was within a few minutes of reaching us that we finally broke free and on down the canyon. A rocky knoll is reached, thunder is heard, and then a rough patch of trail leads back down to the river, to a camping spot on a forested flat, and one can look back upstream and see massive Double Falls, or Petroglyph Falls (for the fine petrogylphs, directly above, on Wabena Point). The East Summit of Snow can be seen 3600' above to the north, a sharp pyramid flanked by lower pyramids to either side, only 3000' above the waterfalls. It is an awesome, awesome place. I must camp there someday.

We made good time on down to Wabena Falls, glorious in sheer power, mystical in its circled theater of cliffs, aswarm with mist and rainbows. Ron gives it all of eighty feet; I think a little less. The geologist, Bronson, described it as 100 feet, in 1893. It is a big one.

Then came Wabena Creek, rather high and fast, and with no easy crossings. We scouted up and we scouted down and then, dreading an actual ford of the icy stream, I essayed to jump from wet boulder to wet boulder; then one jump-boulder moved, and I landed none too neatly in the midst of the torrent. I discovered fording wasn't so bad after all, especially, wearing shoes.

We advanced a couple hundred yards to the site of our last-June's camp, and I wrung out my socks, and changed into shorts from my soaked blue jeans. Then we were off again, eager to take on the rough section below Wabena, with its many talus slides, culminating in the Big Talus.

The Big Talus is a remarkable geological curiosity. It covers an area of somewhat more than a quarter-mile square, and is made of large angular boulders, dark with the lichen of ages. The slide appears to have formed in one cataclysmic event, perhaps several thousand years ago, originating on the side of Snow Mountain, and sweeping across the North Fork and *up* the south canyon wall, to a point about 400' above the river.

In this part of the canyon--the lower, western part of the Royal Gorge--there are even larger talus slides, draping the sides of Snow Mountain, gigantic cones a thousand feet high, all Holocene in age, that is, more recent than the last glaciation, which ended about 12,000 years ago. The talus comes right to river level, tho often screened there by a line of trees, White Alders, Bigleaf Maples, Cottonwoods, Douglas Fir, and Incense Cedar. It is a strange thing (or is it 'not-strange'?), that the entire North Fork sinks below ground over this reach of canyon, with its giant talus cones, in the summer.

The Route stays high at first, then drops to a long run at river level, before the gravel bars pinch out at a forested bluff and one climbs into the Big Talus. There are ancient cairns of rock marking a part of the Route over the Big Talus; the cairns lead one straight up the slide, and then seem to end. Last year, we had crossed this sea of talus in a long traverse; today, we "followed the cairns" as it were, and continued straight up the boulder-field, which steepens towards the top, and we bore west in a final climbing traverse and entered the mixed oak and coniferous forest on top.

There we found a well-defined trail, one we had suspected to exist since last June, and we followed its level course west to an area of broad terraces with an old cabin site, where the trail up the right bank of Wildcat Canyon creek is met. This we followed down towards the confluence with the North Fork and found, as I recall, a log to cross on.

Ron and I are tempted to formally include the trail-up-Wildcat-Canyon and the trail-across-the-top-of-the-Big-Talus *and* the rock-hop straight down past the cairns, in the Route.

The right bank trail reappears on the west side of Wildcat and makes easy going down to Sailor Canyon, where we crossed and continued west, aiming for New York Canyon. We were now on the North Fork American River Trail. A sign indicated Mumford Bar to be eight miles away, downstream. The sun was lowering in the west, and a mellow light struck into the deep woods, and it was a perfectly lovely time to be out on the trail, somewhat later than usual. It had been a long hard day. We crossed New York Canyon without difficulty and, about three hundred yards beyond, made camp in a small meadowy area with an old cabin site.

I managed to sleep to at least five on the morning, and built the fire and drank coffee. I a few hours we left our packs in camp, our food hung from a tree, and started up New York Canyon towards the Big Waterfall, 560 feet high, which hides there, almost unknown, and rarely seen.

At first an old trail from the mining days makes for quick progress south and up the west side of the canyon, but soon steep climbs are required, on game trails or no trails, and it is a bit of a tough scramble to make that more than one mile, and about 600 feet of elevation, needed to reach the confluence of the East and West forks of New York Canyon. There, the upper few hundred feet of the Big Waterfall were in view, somewhat disappointing, for the flow had diminished to early-summer levels. I have never seen these falls when the creek was truly big.

We crossed the West Fork, pausing to admire the lowest of its many waterfalls, a twin falls, maybe sixty feet high, and struck a game trail leading steeply up onto the dividing ridge. Chert of the Shoo Fly Complex of metasediments dominates this divide; a kind of dome of chert stood several hundred feet above us. This fine-grained quartzose rock was often used for arrowheads by the Indians of this area. There is good chert and bad chert when it comes to arrowheads, and my guess is, the New York Canyon chert is bad chert.

Our game trail led us higher and closer and closer to the Big Waterfall. The trail led onto a sloping ledge of rock with very steep ground below; and the sloping ledge was peculiarly free of moss and lichen, where the trail would cross. We crossed, turned a corner, and behold, there it was: the neatest little bear bed I have seen. This very spring the bear, a young bear, perhaps, had renovated an old bear bed by chomping off branchlets of Canyon Live Oak and carefully arranging them around the edge and floor of the bed.

Either that, or the Emperor of All Vultures, with a size befitting his rank, had nested there.

We admired the nest and then just beyond saw an even nastier ledge, sloping both away from the cliff and down, this ledge not clean and bare but strewn with dirt and small rocks, all well-scuffed by our young bear. So we ventured along, trusting to the bear as it were, and soon arrived at a most amazing viewpoint, directly at the base of the Big Waterfall, or rather, one 30-foot waterfall below the big one. The late-morning sun hung above the cliff near the waterfall, making for difficult photography. A cloud of boiling mist alternately billowed out into the sun-beamed abyss from the top of the falls, or was blown back into the East Fork gorge above the falls. Quite an amazing place. We rested and scrambled about a little and then turned down the canyon towards camp, striving to connect bits and pieces of game trails and human trails into one continuous New York Canyon Waterfalls Route.

After lunch we broke camp, climbed to the main trail, and sauntered two easy miles down to Bluff Camp. Along the way, Big Granite Creek makes raging giant cascades, across the canyon to the north, and just above its confluence with the North Fork--cascades which later in the year will subside into two distinct waterfalls. Then, a mile further, and but a little east of the side trail leading down to Bluff Camp, is the best view of a large, perhaps 200-foot waterfall across the canyon on Big Valley Creek. Big Valley Bluff soars around 3500' above the North Fork, just west of the creek.

Bluff Camp is over two hundred feet below the level of the North Fork American River Trail (which is sometimes called the American River Trail). It is a good-sized flat forested with Canyon Live Oaks, about thirty feet above river level, interesting in that it is not a glacial outwash terrace, but a bedrock terrace, called a strath terrace. There are old cabin sites here which may date to the Gold Rush, or as late as the Depression, maybe even later. The river flows through an inner gorge beside the strath terrace, and on the terrace itself there are wide areas of bare rock, with small rock ridges rounded and polished by the river as the outwash plain in this area was eroded slowly away, ten thousand years ago or so.

Between the ridges are tiny lawns and wildflower gardens and some springs. The gorge there is amazing, cut sheer-walled into the metasandstones of the Shoo Fly Complex, here and there seamed with slate or with chert, and threaded every which way by quartz veins. Big Valley Creek enters the North Fork at one sharp bend within the gorge.

It would be nice to try to ascend Big Valley canyon to the big waterfall. All of the side canyons along this part of the North Fork (Palisade, Cirque, Wabena, Wildcat, Sailor, New York, Big Granite, and Big Valley) are rich in waterfalls, some quite difficult to reach, due to the many cliffs and gorges.

The garbage noted last year at Bluff Camp remains; my noble intentions of getting some friends together and hauling it all out were never realized. A bear had strewn the shoes and sleeping bags and raft and stuff around, and so I picked it all up and piled it, again. Maybe this summer. Haul it up the Beacroft Trail. There's some more up near New York Canyon, along the main trail.

The exertions of the past two days caught up with me and nothing seemed so nice as to just lay around. An old iron bedsprings was set at the river edge of the grove, and I stretched out there on my sleeping pad and bag and dreamed good dreams.

Another cheery campfire, more simple food, and I was ready for bed, and slept until six the next morning, rising to find a cloudy sky and fog wreathing the cliffs a few thousand feet above. Was this the Storm forecast to rain on our parade? But after a time the clouds thinned and sun began to filter into the canyon. We shouldered our packs and set off for Mumford Bar.

A mile or so brought us to Tadpole Canyon and the Beacroft Trail, where a sign proclaimed us 2 1/4 miles above Mumford, and 4 1/4 miles below Sailor. Somehow the eight miles shrank to six. We reached Mumford Bar, and its old cabin of square-hewn cedar logs, around noon, and stopped for lunch. Here a third sign puts the distance up to Sailor Canyon at seven miles.

The climb out is long and tedious but the grade is gentle and the upper parts of the trail made for pleasant walking. Pleasant, and slow. Still, we reached the top around 3:00 p.m., only the upper quarter-mile of the trail covered in snow, and found the Foresthill-Soda Springs road almost bare. Ron's truck was less than half a mile down the road, and soon we were zooming slowly back to civilization. We took the back roads through Iowa Hill to soften the impending shock of traffic and people, and were rewarded by seeing a Bald Eagle try to steal a fish from a duck, at Sugar Pine Reservoir.

Such was a great, although too short, visit to the American River Canyon.

Sunday, April 4, 2004

The High Ditch Trail

Saturday morning, Catherine O'Riley and Dave Lawler kindly picked me up and we drove to the Euchre Bar Trail (EBT), on our way to the High Ditch Trail (HDT) leading away upcanyon from the Bar, where we would meet Julie and her sister, Kasa, and Ron Gould.

Sun bright and sky blue, clear and cool, shrubs a-flower, and work to be done. We carried loppers and small saws. I struck off fast down the trail, GPS unit in hand, with propitious satellites favoring high accuracy, aiming to pause at the invisible trail to East Green Valley, and scout its route. It leaves the EBT at the top of the switchback section, where a grove of Kellogg's Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) adorns the ridge crest. I recorded a waypoint on the GPS (I was very close to the 3080' contour) and slung my pack off.

This trail is always hard to find, and where the Dutch Flat quadrangle would have it running straight, it actually switches sharply back and forth through oak woods, and these switchbacks easily become lost in the accumulating litter of leaves and branches, and are even guarded aggressively by poison oak. I kicked leaves and rotten old limbs around, threw bigger branches off the trail, lopped poison oak, and then, hearing voices above, left, content to have restored not the bed of the trail itself, but at least its line, over the first few switchbacks.

More work is needed. This trail drops down to the pass between Green Valley's East Knoll (a fine viewpoint) and the main canyon wall, and then descends a broad, poison-oak-infested ravine to the Valley itself. It course becomes again confused in these lower reaches.

I rejoined Dave and Catherine and, GPS unit tracking my course, immediately left them again on an intermittent jog down the EBT. I found that it is less than one mile down to the house site near the base of the trail, at the 2200' contour, and covered the distance in fourteen minutes, or a little less. The true course of the trail is perhaps a sixth of a mile north from where depicted on the Dutch Flat quadrangle. I recorded a waypoint and continued towards the bridge.

A hundred yards or so down the EBT brings one to the trail forking left to the High Ditch Trail. I put my pack down and did some serious lopping. Hundreds of small conifers are sprouting up in an area largely given to Canyon Live Oak over recent centuries; and now, without wildifire, about to become a crowded stand of Douglas Fir with a weakening Canyon Live Oak understory. I felt little remorse at felling some dozens of these coniferous weeds. A distinct trail connects the EBT to the HDT alog the shortest possible route, and in a few minutes, with Catherine and Dave and I all lopping away, we had this old trail exposed to view and easily passable.

The HDT itself has benefitted from lopping, much, recently, by Julie, and we added our mite while making good time on the easy, nearly level ditch. This ditch was blasted out from cliffs in places; it is rather large, and yet appears only to have brought water to the diggings at Euchre Bar itself. It must have cost someone, or more likely some company of someones, quite dearly in its day. I wonder whether their golden harvest ever settled that expense. The HDT very nearly coincides with the 2000' contour.

About a quarter mile on the HDT brings one to the confluence of the NFAR, and the NFNFAR. The latter stream suddenly appears directly beside the HDT, and near 100' below, blending an emerald crystalline clarity with foaming white rapids. In general, the HDT traverses steep slopes studded with rocky outcrops and draped with a fine old gnarled forest of Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepsis).

We caught up with Kasa and Julie just past a springy area where trees have fallen and blocked the HDT. Julie found a way to lop through masses of shrubs and avoid the trees, and she and Kasa had just then roughed in an excellent path, through what had been a major obstacle.

A half mile in on the HDT brings one to a major garbage site, a gravel bar gold miner's camp with all kinds of gear and garbage and strange debris. The magnitude of the problem is shocking and sickening. One despairs of every carrying all that mess out. A helicopter?

A well-defined old trail drops down the steeps above the HDT to this bar.

But we forged ahead, towards the upstream end of the ditch, and soon arrived at a long broad pool roiled by a small waterfall, and found sunny boulders beside the pool, and had lunch. The ditch was still all of 25 feet above the river, but just there a rocky eminence jutted into the canyon, making sheer cliffs along the line of the ditch, and no trace at all of a blasted ledge, or any continuation.

Julie and Kasa left us soon after Ron Gould (who had hiked to Humbug Canyon) joined us.

Ouzels zoomed up and down the river, chattering. Sawtooth Ridge soared 2000' above us, across the NFNFAR.

We decided to scout upstream, having heard from the good Steve Hunter that a road dropped down to the NFNFAR about a quarter mile up, from the Rawhide Mine Road. Perhaps we could pull off a loop. Turning the base of the cliff through dense willows and alders and over large boulders, we broke free onto a long and broad expanse of bedrock. The up-ended quasi-slates of the Shoo Fly Complex had been planed nearly flat, like a giant's sidewalk, and we could just stroll along and admire the view. A marvelous little stretch of river. A giant boulder of white quartz marked the beginning of the Giants' Sidewalk.

It looks much as tho the High Ditch took its water from the NFNFAR in the Giants' Sidewalk area, and carried it in a wooden flume down around Cliff Corner to where the ditch itself began.

Passing a side canyon, really a ravine, we saw an old bridge, with massive dry-laid stone abutments, a little ways above. We climbed to inspect it and found Steve's road, a curious little thing, just barely too narrow for a jeep, and often bolstered with old-looking dry-laid stone walls, along the downhill side. The bridge itself is made from three tree trunks, decked with two-by-fours nailed across. Following the road down, to the north, we reached some minor miner shacks, in a fairyland of dry-laid stone retaining walls, strangely perfect and made with an artistic flair, all overhung and hidden within the live oak forest. We dropped our packs and explored up and down and sideways.

Several gold dredges were in the area, and we found evidence that this is a mining claim on Tahoe National Forest lands. We were near a section line, as I found later, when I plotted my GPS track data on the Dutch Flat quadrangle, on my computer, at home. A rope and cable spanned the river just upstream, with a kind of trolley hanging from pulleys. Glacial outwash deposits across the river had been mined for gold in days long gone by.

After a time we hit the road and followed the narrow little thing on up the canyon wall, occasionally observing traces of an older mule trail, and in less than half a mile reached the Rawhide road, the last few hundred yards looking like nothing more than someone's aimless exercise with a bulldozer. We had stumbled upon a historic trail, or trail-and-road, one I had really never heard of, tho long suspecting the aimless bulldozing must really have aimed at the river.

Afternoon shadows lengthened and sheltered us from the sun as we slowly climbed the rough road. I observed little patches of glacial outwash, or maybe re-worked till, in two locations during our climb, at elevations 2400 and 3000 feet. The river below is at about 2000 feet.

Soon enough we passed the Rawhide gate and then another half mile brought us to our cars. On the way out, Catherine and Dave and I stopped at Casa Loma and walked down to the railroad tracks to enjoy the view of Giant Gap in the afternoon. It is one of the greatest views in California.

All in all, a very nice day, and I must say, that High Ditch Trail is a real winner. Thanks Julie!