Wednesday morning I met Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley on my driveway; we had a long drive ahead, up I-80 to Soda Springs and thence to Cascade Lakes, and an ambitious Plan: to circumambulate Devils Peak, also climbing the same, and to explore the Long Valley Trail.
So, wishing to avoid some kind of time-consuming social interlude on the home turf, I shouldered pack and loppers and started the day's hiking early.
A quarter-mile out I met them, jumped into the Land Rover, and off we went.
The drive up I-80 is plagued with construction delays. At the Alta exit the freeway is often reduced to one lane, and traffic backs up a mile down the hill to the Dutch Flat exit, and beyond. We swung around through Alta and Baxter and entered I-80 up there.
Devils Peak (7740') is a steep ridge of columnar basalt. Last year I gathered a sample of the Devils basalt and mailed it to Dr. Brian Cousens in Ottawa, who is investigating the petrochemistry of the most recent Tertiary and Quaternary volcanics of the Squaw Valley/Tahoe/Truckee area. I hope Brian can obtain a radiologic date from the sample. This basalt is similar to some on Boreal Ridge which was once dated to 7 million years old. The dating method involves the ratios of isotopes of potassium and argon.
Less than a mile in from the Soda Springs exit, we hung a right onto the old wagon road which led through Anderson Valley to Summit Soda Springs, on the North Fork. Reaching the Serene Lakes subdivision, we turned right onto Pahatsi, and in a couple of blocks left the pavement behind, and wound through the woods onto an open plateau atop the divide between the South Yuba to the north, and the North Fork American to the south.
Like the Sailor Meadow Terrace, but much more clearly here, this plateau is a child of the "pink welded tuff," a pyroclastic flow originating near Carson City, some twenty-four million years ago. The great depths of the North Fork canyon, a few miles south, and the relative shallowness of the upper South Yuba, to the north, combined to draw great volumes if ice across the divide. Here, as at so many points to the west, the South Yuba icefield overflowed into the North Fork.
The weaker andesitic mudflow which once blanketed the tuff, probably a thousand feet thick at one time, had been scoured away by repeated glaciations; but the pink welded tuff persists, so very tough and tightly consolidated it can resist the irresistible ice.
I wish to emphasize this point: the North Fork robbed ice from the South Yuba. Very much ice. Suppose it is true that the more ice in a glacier, the deeper it gouges; and that the more ice, the more meltwater, too, at the glacier's terminus, and thus here again, the more erosion, the more canyon deepening.
If this is the case (which only seems reasonable), then we have a positive feedback loop: the North Fork, being deeper, robs South Yuba ice; but this extra ice deepens the North Fork even more, and so even more ice is robbed.
Let a series of dozens of glaciations occur, of which only a few have left much tangible evidence in the forms of moraines and bodies of till and outwash. The North Fork deepens at the expense of the South Yuba and more and more Yuba ice is entrained into the southward flow to the North Fork.
There is much more than a positive feedback loop going on here, tho. The South Yuba is often cut into granite, and granite resists ice very well. The North Fork American is almost everywhere cut into metamorphic rock, which does not resist ice well.
So I guess one could say that a positive feedback loop, drawing ever-increasing amounts of ice into the North Fork, combined with a strong contrast in bedrock geology, have conspired to drastically deepen the North Fork. At Kingvale, the South Yuba is at about 6000' elevation. Just a few miles south, below Snow Mountain, the North Fork flows at 3500' elevation.
Well. The plateau has huge flat areas of the welded tuff exposed, and confusing the issue are many giant granite eggs, eggs from the South Yuba which were dropped on the spot as the glaciers melted away, say, twelve thousand years ago.
Some are fifteen feet through.
So it is easy to drive across the plateau and mistake the pink welded tuff itself for granite. It is a light creamy color here.
Passing the road left to Palisade Lake, at the head of the east fork of Palisade Creek--the "palisade" being, again, this same pink welded tuff, where exposed along the sides of this glacial lake; the tuff has a coarse (vertical) columnar structure--we followed along below Kidd Lake and through a fir forest to another patch of welded-tuff-plateau, near the dam separating Upper Cascade and Lower Cascade lakes.
This is the parking area and trailhead (6640') for the Palisade Creek Trail, which descends the west side of the Palisade basin at first, reaching the North Fork in about seven miles.
This is a wonderful trail, forming the uppermost access to the Wild & Scenic River, and actually crosses the river on a narrow bridge, at ~4400', and climbs out of the North Fork canyon to the south, between Latimer Point and Wabena Point.
It has been slightly realigned from its historic route in this northern area. The odd-numbered sections--the old railroad lands--have had timber harvests at varying times. The checkerboard pattern is much in force here. In Section 5, much of the old trail became a logging road. So Tahoe National Forest re-routed the trail, past Long Lake, and over great expanses of glaciated granite, offering great views of Devils Peak, directly above, and the entire upper North Fork. The upper Foresthill Divide peaks are often in view: Lyon, Needle, and Granite Chief.
We left the trail near Long Lake and struck west, aiming for a pass north of Devils Peak, ambling over easy terrain dotted with deep tarns. It is the land of the Red Fir and the Lodgepole Pine, and out in the rocky areas, which are vast, the Jeffrey Pine and Western Juniper reign. Wet grassy meadows are often ringed with Quaking Aspen trees.
The Devils Peak columnar basalt is easily seen to rest directly upon the Mehrten fm. andesitic mudflows. By the (geological) Principle of Superposition of Strata, this means that, unless somehow the strata were overturned, the basalt is younger than the mudflows.
The peak is also a good example of reverse topography: the basalt undoubtedly flowed here down a valley incised into the andesitic mudflows. Only later, in the Pleistocene, would the majority of the volcanic cover be ripped away by the glaciers, exposing the underlying bedrock, leaving only vestiges of the volcanics along the ridge crests.
It can happen that what was once the bottom of a valley becomes the crest of a ridge. Such is Devils Peak. It seems to have split the ice flowing south from the South Yuba like a giant cleaver. My geomorphologist friend, Allan James, was especially concerned, when we visited Devils Peak a couple years back, to find just how high, on the summit ridge, we could find granite erratics; this would make a decent proxy for the height of the ice surface, during the last, "Tioga" episode of glaciation. We found the granite eggs almost all the way up to the base of the columnar basalt cliffs, where they could not possibly find a resting place. And there is no room for giant granite eggs on the narrow summit itself.
So I regard it as an open question, this business of how high the Tioga ice surface was, at Devils Peak. Allan always wants to make the Tioga some kind of girly-man glaciation, so he would set the surface at the level of the highest egg we found, up around 7400'.
My observations at Snow Mountain suggest that some of its summit ridge stood above the ice surface in Tioga times. Perhaps a few hundred feet of Devils Peak also rose out of the ice.
Devils Peak has the distinction of being the only peak in this area which had a name, before the Gold Rush. It is quite distinctive, and can be seen from a long distance. The almost level, knife-edge summit rises into two horn-like knobs.
We passed the old Palisade Trail (road) and reached the Snow Mountain Trail, since the 1930s also a logging road as far in as Huntley Mill Lake. Some of the private lands in this area once belonged to the Nicholls family of Dutch Flat, who owned a bank. Then, around 1990, the Nicholls land passed to one Charlie Jones. He and his wife built a house at Huntley Mill Lake, and now people who try to hike the Snow Mountain Trail discover they are trespassing.
I rambled on about all this to Ron and Catherine as we hiked.
A trail sign made by a local Emigrant Trail historical society stood beside the Snow Mountain Trail where Devils Peak is seen to good advantage, and contains a quote from an 1849 diary, describing a lunch stop on the Donner Trail (a mile away near Kidd Lake), and mentioning Devils Peak by name.
These signs are nearly indestructible, being made from sections of railroad track!
Recently, the Snow Mountain Trail road has been paved all the way in to Huntley Mill Lake. We walked south on the road until an easy route towards the summit ridge beckoned, and made the short climb over logger terrain now colonized by some invasive weed with horrible sticking seeds, like Nature's Velcro, as Ron remarked, tho not in those exact words. Socks and shoelaces and pants became encrusted with dozens, hundreds of these spiky little masses.
We followed the summit ridge back north to the massive blade of columnar basalt, and found easy going to the steep west face to the crest. The view is quite wonderful. The Coast Range of Mendocino and Napa counties was outlined faintly in the summer haze west, while the Sierra crest from Mt. Lola on the north, down to the Crystal Range's Pyramid Peak on the south, stood to the east. Mt. Rose and the Heavenly Valley peaks were exposed, the great sentinel mountains at either end of Lake Tahoe. Farther south we saw little bits of the Carson Pass peaks.
Immediately below us, to the east, the basin of Palisade Creek, and the many lakes along the plateau-like crest of the Yuba/American divide. The broad sunny expanses of granite hid at least two petroglyph sites, visible from our high and palmy perch.
To the west, the upper basin of Big Granite Creek, with Fisher Lake, and various unnamed lakelets and tarns, many hidden from us. We could see well down the canyon to the vicinity of Cherry Point, where the biggest waterfall of Big Granite Creek spills over some of the loneliest cliffs in the Sierra.
The same glassy glossy white patches are slathered over the summit rocks, here and there, as one often sees in this part of the Sierra. I have long suggested that this could be that (hitherto unknown) geological curiosity, Lightning-Struck Eagle Poop.
It is after all a certainty that eagles roost on mountaintops, excrete excrement there, and that lightning strikes such places frequently.
Perhaps, tho, it is some mineral in the basalt which is fusing into a white glass under the thousands of degrees of temperature induced by lightning strokes. Petrochemical investigation is needed.
A long sunstruck interlude on the summit seemed too short, but we had miles of ground to cover outbound, and more miles on the inbound leg of our loop, so ... we scrambled down the giant rock stairs, and I tried a new route, a bit steeper but shorter, which worked well.
Snow Mountain lay athwart our view south; the divide between Palisade Creek on the east, and Big Granite Creek to the west, connects Snow to Devils. Just below Devils in the meadowy ground to the west, the road forks, and the more easterly of the two stays high on an almost level contour until it is rejoined by the lower, westerly, Huntley Mill Lake road.
All we had to do was aim south towards Snow and ramble through the Red Fir woods until we met the High Road.
I should say that the common Mule Ears is abundant now on the dry open slopes, and even at a distance of miles, one can see vast expanses of this plant, tingeing whole mountainsides with a yellow blush.
For a time we were on TNF lands, and the forest was pristine. An even-numbered section. All too soon we passed into Section 7, and stumps appeared. I recall when these stumps were fairly fresh, in 1972. Now they are rotting well.
Below us to the west, Huntley Mill Lake appeared, and the chalet-like house on its west side, built by Charlie Jones.
Between five and ten years ago I called Charlie Jones several times, hoping for a chance to visit his remote retreat, from which an exploration in detail of Snow Mountain and Big Granite Canyon would be possible. I explained my geological and hiking interest in the area. He had opened his property to several geologists, it turned out, who came from Texas and had published papers about the rocks, which he, Charlie, could show me. It all sounded so very wonderful, but it kept on coming down to, "Well, I'll have to get the backhoe out, and load the railroad crossing blocks onto the tracks, to let you in."
For the Snow Mountain Trail has long followed a certain road climbing from near Donner Trail Elementary School to Devils Peak. And of course the road must cross the railroad. In the old days, there was a regular crossing there, but at some point in time, the road was gated closed, just south (above) the tracks.
This was one of the historic trails explicitly declared a "public" trail in the 1953 Placer County Trails Ordinance, and, who knows but that its closure might have prompted the public outcry which led to the Trails Ordinance.
Unfortunately, large landowners filed suit to stop enforcement of the Ordinance, within minutes of its enactment by the Supervisors, and in 1954 it was repealed, and a much weaker version enacted in its place.
At any rate, it never quite worked out to visit Charlie Jones. Now I could look down and see his summer home. A home which I believe should never have been built. This was one of the wildest parts of the Placer County "high country," unsettled, remote, recovering well from moderate logging decades ago--and now, a house?
We snapped some photos of the oddly angled chalet and continued south.
Very fine flowers were in bloom on all sides; much Monardella, or Mustang Mint, swarming with Carpenter Bees and Bumblebees; lovely Lewis's Monkeyflower; species of Lupine, and Aster; it was High Spring, at ~7350 elevation.
At a certain point the long level High Road plunges down to meet the Low Road, and if one leaves the road on the left and contours along, one enters a pass on the Palisade/Big Granite divide. Here the Long Valley Trail is marked by an ancient "small i" blaze on a large fir, and here too one passes into Section 18, even-numbered, public land. The Long Valley and Snow Mountain trails meet a little ways to the west.
Although the trailbed could be seen dropping away east towards Palisade Creek, it was clear at once that the trail received very little use. On the USGS 7.5 minute Soda Springs quadrangle, it is marked "Jeep Trail," and there were signs of occasional 4WD use, probably several decades ago. Once again we were in pristine TNF lands, yet here and there a stump caught our eye, from the last ten to twenty years.
There were numerous tall firs with "small i" blazes along the trail, which crossed some nice meadowy areas. Ducks and small cairns had appeared, which did not look old: who was marking the trail?
At a certain meadow a duck led us astray, and we crossed the nascent stream of Long Valley to the north too soon, eventually recrossing to the south, and finding our blazes and ducks as before. Then the trail proper crosses to the north, and sadly, one passes from Section 18 into Section 17.
Almost instantly the trail was badly damaged and close to obliterated, but someone--who?--had placed many ducks. The trees which had once held "small i" blazes were now stumps with no blazes, only bulldozer scars. We stumbled along over slash and dirt piles, occasionally reassured by an intact bit of trail, and soon enough passed from Section 17 into TNF's Section 8. The logging stopped, the blazes resumed, and the ducks continued unabated. Large Incense Cedars graced the forest.
Dropping more steeply, the trail brought us to some large Aspen trees, their trunks inscribed with many names and dates, just as those others on the Aspen Trail in Four Horse Flat had been. A lush little meadow was skirted and there was the Palisade Trail, a "small i" blaze on a huge Jeffrey Pine facing directly up the Long Valley Trail. There were also blazes on the aspens, and bear scratches.
We went from one aspen to another, examining the names and dates. To my amusement, I saw the same name, Lee DeBusk, I had seen in Four Horse Flat, over on Little Granite Creek, on the Big Granite Trail. At Four Horse Flat there had also been an Anne DeBusk, with a date in the middle 1950s.
For more on the DeBusks, see the Sequel, below.
After a long rest we marched north on the Palisade Trail, pausing again at a lovely tarn near the north boundary of Section 8. I had a bit of a swim in the shallow water, and Catherine even went in.
Proceeding north, we soon passed into Section 5, and saw many stumps; but the impact of the logging has been softened over the last twenty years. A large sloping expanse of granite suddenly appears on the east, where some petroglyphs are located. We made a rough little piece of cross-country travel to reach the granite, whereas if we'd just stayed on the trail, we'd have reached it quite easily.
The designs are scattered over an area a hundred yards long, in several groups. There are star motifs, and bear footprints, and small grids, and circles with arms to one side which, I always think, may represent comets. To the south, Ron showed us one group of parallel lines, with a feather-like, arrowed, pinnate design alongside. Elsewhere we saw parallel double zig-zags; some speculate that these are stylized representations of mountains.
Devils Peak looms right above, and to the south, across the Royal Gorge, one sees another amazing petroglyph site, Wabena Point. Petroglyph sites often seem to offer great views. Sometimes they seem to mark trails; the Donner Trail follows the line of an old trans-Sierran Indian trail, and is marked by petroglyphs across the high country.
These faded designs in stone are thought to have been made by Martis people, between 1500 and 4500 years ago, before the bow and arrow arrived in California. The Martis-era points we would tend to call arrowheads, are in fact spearheads, and the hunting spears were thrown with an atlatl, or spear-thrower.
It was another mile or so north from the glyphs to the Rover, at Cascade Lakes, and we straggled in at sunset. The waxing crescent moon was in conjunction with a planet, likely Mars or Saturn, while both Jupiter and Venus shone brightly nearby. Four heavenly bodies in a row, beads on the Zodiac. We piled into the SUV and Catherine powered her up. I made some exclamation of satisfaction and relief at sitting in a comfortable seat, after a long day on the trail. Catherine went to shift into reverse, and ... nothing happened. The shifter would not budge.
So we went into Fix the Rover mode, found the owner's manual, looked at fuses, turned the thing on and turned it off, and the stubborn thing would not shift one iota out of Park.
Ron noticed that the brake lights would not come on, either, and Catherine knew that there was an interlock between brake and transmission: one could not shift out of Park unless the brake was on.
However, we could not see how to make repairs in the field, without tools.
No cell phone. So, it only remained to walk out to Civilization, under the starry sky and the bright heavenly bodies. Catherine stalked along in a shivering cold fury, promising to rain death and destruction upon the poor Rover, perhaps even abandoning it to its fate. "Let it sit forever at Cascade Lakes, and see how *that* feels!"
Unaware of an old road dropping from Cascade Lakes directly to Kingvale, we headed towards Soda Springs, a few miles east. Ron and Catherine were in shorts and light shirts; I at least had long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. We discovered a road leading down towards the Yuba near Kidd Lake and abandoned Soda Springs in favor of Kingvale. This worked out, tho we had to walk all the way west across Cascade Creek Bridge to the Devils Peak road (Snow Mountain Trail), before we could descend to I-80.
As we finally neared I-80, around 10:30 p.m., a truck came up the road towards us. It turned out to be Charlie Jones himself, with his wife, both very friendly; they let us use their cell phone, to call for help. Answering machines! So they gave us a ride to Kingvale, where a gas station would remain open all night.
A wonderful stroke of luck. I reminded Charlie of our conversations of years past, and he said, "But you never came out to visit," to which I replied, "Because you always said something about having to drive your backhoe to the railroad, to put the crossing in; so ...," and we left it at that.
For now. I should call him and thank him. Giving help to utter strangers late at night! A good man.
Tho I wish he'd never built a house at Huntley Mill Lake.
So we piled into the convenience market at the gas station, where a tall young man stood behind the counter. We were the only customers, and we were hungry, having skipped dinner to hike an extra couple-few miles, and we each chose some selection of snacks and drinks and stayed inside the warm store; tho Ron put in some more calls, from the pay phone outside. No luck.
The young man overheard all our chatter, and spoke up: "I can give you a ride to Alta; I close up at eleven o'clock, in a few minutes."
Saved! We were saved! This fine young man proved to be one Kyle Wells, of Gold Run. His family owns both the Nyack and Kingvale gas stations/stores.
Kyle ran us in close to my place, where we walked the last bit beneath stars which glittered almost as brightly, down at 4000', as they had at 6800'. I took a peek at my sleeping children and then drove Ron down to Weimar to his truck, and Catherine to her place across the Bear in Nevada County.
I was home by 1:15 a.m.
It was another great day in the greater basin of the North Fork, looping all the way around the iconic Devils Peak, visiting petroglyphs, and following abandoned trails.
Two weeks ago, following my visit to Four Horse Flat with Catherine, and the hieroglyphic aspen trees, I had Googled the surname DeBusk, and found that one Wilbur DeBusk was buried in Colfax Cemetery, having been killed in action in the Korean War, in 1952.
Now, having seen the name Lee DeBusk a second time, I went after him, too, using Google.
All I found was his telephone number--in Alta!
So I called upon the instant, and found myself speaking to the very Anne DeBusk who'd hiked through Four Horse Flat in 1956, or whatever! She said that she had been hoping to speak to me (!), to see if I knew anything of the history of their house in Alta, which, Anne told me, was built in 1867.
But I knew nothing.
I told her about the aspen trees, and asked to speak to Lee. He was tending his garden, but she waved him in to the house, and I spent half an hour on the phone with the man.
I have known several extraordinary hikers. I'm no slouch myself. But Lee DeBusk--he's in a different realm of hiking altogether.
When 17 years old, Lee DeBusk hiked from Weimar to Ely, Nevada.
He followed that up with a hike from Weimar up to the Surprise Valley, near the Oregon border, and from Big Basin, near Santa Cruz, up the coast to Oregon.
Beyond this, he knew every trail in the North Fork, and had followed the river itself from Mumford Bar to Auburn, once. In particular, he knew the Royal Gorge area, as his family had owned the Lost Emigrant Mine, up in the Wabena Creek area, from 1917 down to around 1950.
Lee DeBusk used to hike into the Lost Emigrant Mine from Cisco, on the Big Granite Trail, in the spring, to do the assessment work which kept the claim valid. The hike started and ended in snow, but the North Fork itself would be below the snow by that time. He had cables strung across the river at the ford, and used the various unmarked and unmapped trails which run up the North Fork from Sailor Canyon, to reach Wabena Creek and the last leg of the journey, a 2700-foot climb up what I call the Wabena Trail.
Now, just above the Royal Gorge, the Heath Springs Trail follows the right bank of the North Fork up to The Cedars, a private club. Not too many decades ago, The Cedars closed the Heath Springs Trail to the public. It is littered with noxious "no trespassing" signs.
Yet this trail is really a part of the Tahoe National Forest trails system, and appears on TN maps dating to 1928, 1939, 1947, and 1962.
I asked Lee DeBusk if he was familiar with the Heath Springs Trail.
"Oh yeah, sure," he replied, "my friends and I used to walk down there to hunt bear."
Were there any "no trespassing" signs, back then, asked I.
"None at all; the trail was wide open, everybody used it."
So, I had a very pleasant talk with Mr. Lee DeBusk. He too had served in Korea. He told me how Wilbur, his younger brother, born at the Lost Emigrant Mine, had died, in Korea, fighting a rearguard action in which his company had run out of ammunition; Wilbur had been shot, literally, to pieces.
Such was the gist of my conversation. Oh, there was more; a dozen names of men who had done this or that, somewhere in the North Fork, perhaps at the Lost Emigrant Mine, or at The Cedars; Lee remembered when the ore-bucket cable was in operation, at Wabena Creek. Now all one sees are some thick cables mostly buried in the brush. Lee remembers when it was working, and the name of the man who built it.
I hope to talk wth him more. An amazing man.
And such was a visit to Devils Peak, a walk on yet another mangled trail, a miracle at Kingvale, and a man named Lee DeBusk.