Thursday morning the rain slacked off and the sun peeked through, so it was deemed time to drive up the Foresthill Road and, by hook or by crook, hike north to the cliffs above the Point of Beginning, or Point of Ending, of the Iowa Hill Canal. I do not know how to name these cliffs. They are on the divide between Tadpole Canyon, on the west, and New York Canyon, on the east, and stand a little over 3000 feet above the North Fork.
Ron and Catherine & I met and made the twisting odyssey across the North Fork on Ponderosa Road. Turning left, we followed up the Foresthill Divide past the Beacroft Trail and Ford Point to where snow still blocks the road, just shy of Canada Hill, at around 6400' elevation. We put on gaiters and packs and tromped off over patchy snow to the north, following a road which only occasionally could be seen. We were hugging the west rim of New York Canyon.
Our long drive upcountry had carried us out of the sunshine into clouds and light rain showers. To the east we could see the Royal Gorge and Wabena Point, appearing and disappearing amid swirling fog, with shafts of sunlight lighting up a patch of cliff or forest here and there. Only the lower one or two thousand feet of Snow Mountain was visible, below the cloud-deck. Everything pointed to continued clearing, more and more sunshine, and less and less clouds.
At times we walked through pure stands of Red Fir, with bright yellow-green Staghorn Lichen coating their trunks down to about six or ten feet above the ground; this would seem to be the average depth of the snow-pack, in such groves. Perhaps the lower parts of their trunks are subjected to scouring by wind-blown snow, and the lichen can't stand up to the punishment.
At other times we ranged closer to the steeps of New York Canyon, where brush and Sugar and Jeffrey pines were more dominant.
We began to see thin fog gathering over the little snowfields in the deep woods; wherever some shelter from wind allowed time for the moist air-mass to be chilled by the snow, it was plunged below the dew point and began condensing into fog.
So there was fog and cloud above, below, and all around us. The snow made for easy walking, being dense and fairly firm. There was much dirt and pollen and woody debris and the red bloom of algae on the snowfields.
A hike of about two miles brought us to the cliffs. We were in the Barney Cavanaugh Ridge Formation of the early-Paleozoic Shoo Fly Complex metasediments. Here the North Fork glacier was rather more than 3000 feet deep, and there were some nice exposures of glaciated slate and sandstone and chert.
The USGS's David Harwood mapped this area in 1993. He defined and described the Barney Cavanaugh Ridge Formation as follows:
"Devonian? to Ordivician?--Purple, green and gray slate interbedded with white-weathering, greenish-gray, parallel- and cross-laminated, fine-grained, quartz sandstone and quartz-rich siltstone; contains chaotic zones as thick as several hundred meters of disrupted quartz sandstone and siltstone in purple slate matrix; large blocks of gray ribbon chert, quartzite, and quartz-granule conglomerate occur in chaotic zones. Maximum thickness 500 meters."
At the cliffs, we were immediately amazed by the appearance of the big waterfall in lower Big Valley Canyon; from this new vantage we could see the top of the falls, but not the bottom, and tho difficult to estimate, I would not be surprised were it to measure 150 feet in height, maybe a little more.
This waterfall has to rank along with the biggest and best in all the North Fork.
But perhaps more startling were the other falls which came into view on the west wall of Big Valley, farther up its canyon. There was one thin stripe of whitewater which must have been hundreds of feet high. And higher, in the west fork of Big Valley, we saw another large waterfall, spreading fan-like over a steep cliff. The upper 500 feet of 3500-foot Big Valley Bluff was hidden in clouds.
Fog and clouds boiled everywhere. The river was visible directly below us, and here and there down the canyon streaks of silver showed it again and again. Away west the sun was shining. It was a spectacle of great beauty, constantly changing. Some 600 feet below, at the base of these cliffs, we could see little patches of the Iowa Hill Canal. We climbed out onto narrow rocky points, wet and slippery with their mosses and lichens. The chartreuse rock lichen was much in evidence. And while roaming east along the cliff-tops, we found some old gold mines, where quartz veins had been stoped out at the surface, in one place leaving a strange channel, cut twenty feet deep and four to six feet wide, in the gray ribbon chert.
To my dismay, roads had been cut down to these cliff-tops at several places. Checking my 1976 map of the North Fork American Roadless Area, I saw that the line had been drawn right at the cliff-tops; so the roads likely date back to the 1960s. They ought to be permanently closed well above the cliffs.
I had hoped that we could work our way east to a view of the New York Canyon 500-foot waterfall, but while at the Tadpole Point cliffs, a ray of sunshine hit the brushfields below and west, where we had been stopped a week ago, walking east on the Iowa Hill Canal from Beacroft Pass. Fog instantly boiled up and wafted past us. Charming! Mystic!
But it grew thicker and thicker until we were utterly encased and could scarcely see a hundred yards. Some invisible metereological boundary had been crossed, and rather than lifting and clearing, the clouds lowered, it began raining lightly, and our canyon views were almost lost completely.
So, although we did work along farther east, we were not as inspired as we might have been, and thought perhaps a bit more of the warmth of the car, than of crashing down the unknown brushfields in search of some presumed gap which would allow a view of the NYC falls. We were within a quarter-mile of what would have been The Spot, so far as I could read the Duncan Peak quadrangle, a spot near the center of Section 33; but we were all a little wet and a little cold and had a good two miles ahead of us, to get back to the car.
So in a fit of prudence we turned south and soon struck one of the pesky roads. This we followed higher and higher over deeper and deeper snow. At a certain point we found a Jeep Wagoneer which had been abandoned last fall. It had slid off the road, perhaps in a bit of snow. All kinds of gear was inside. The back window was broken out. Despite this, everything inside looked fairly dry and intact. Soon, I think, a bear will take care of that little anomaly.
Following the road, it eventually proved to be the Wrong Way, so we struck up through the Red Fir forest a few hundred yards east and hit our smaller road of our ingress, a few hours earlier. We were near a series of clearcuts on Tahoe National Forest lands which drape below the canyon rim of the main western tributary to the West Fork of New York Canyon. These clearcuts look fairly old--twenty years?--but show close to zero regeneration.
I would like to see a complete end to such clearcuts, and, again, a motorized vehicle closure enacted on the lower, more northern parts of the various roads which approach the Tadpole Point cliffs.
I don't want to put too fine a point on it: these cliffs form one of the greatest of all the amazing scenic overlooks in the North Fork canyon.
We slogged along over snow for a good while and reached the car about eight p.m., and were soon fogging up the windows with our wet clothes, and slowly zooming southwest. We stopped at Ford Point to drive down the ridge for a look at the Secret Canyon ditch, a tributary to the Iowa Hill Canal. We found that a logging road had been cut directly into the line of the ditch. There seemed to be some prospect that the ditch continued intact, going up Secret Canyon, but more exploration is needed.
All these old mining ditches were used as trails in the olden days; they often were critical parts of the whole complex of trails. So soon as they fell out of use, and wildfires consumed the wooden flumes which once spanned cliffy sections and small gorges, their use as trails was much reduced.
It seems obvious to me that many of these old mining ditches could once again become foot trails. Could, and should. Whether the berms could tolerate equestrian or mountain-bike use would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
While in the Ford Point area we were treated to a glory of reds and golds and pinks as the sun set into swirling clouds and fog. It was totally awesome.
Such was another visit to the great canyon, or as it was often named in the 19th century, The Great American Canyon.