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.

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