This morning I drove to Colfax and met Ron Gould, and we continued in his 4WD pickup via Grass Valley and Nevada City to Highway 20 and then on to the town of Washington, on the South Yuba river. Our goal was that major tributary of the South Yuba named Canyon Creek. Various maps showed a trail following the creek north towards Bowman Lake, and a few weeks ago geologist Dave Lawler and I had explored the uppermost part of this trail.
Retired Tahoe National Forest (TNF) Supervisor John Skinner had responded to my write-up of the Lawler Expedition with a detailed account of his own search for the west end of this same Canyon Creek Trail, near the Arctic Mine. John had explored the area well, without success.
I was confident that Ron and I would find the darn thing. We have found and followed many an old trail which has dropped off the modern maps, ruined by logging or buried in heavy brush, and we take a sort of simplistic approach, letting the terrain guide us, and often wondering, "which way would a bear go," for bears have good instincts for easy routes.
I was all the more inspired to revisit Canyon Creek because, only a few days ago, the lovely grandmother Michael Onewing and I had made our own way into this rugged area, following Canyon Creek up from its confluence with the South Yuba, and swimming the sparkling pools framed in massy polished slabs of Shoo Fly Complex metasediments. There is many an old gold mine in this area; Michael and I found several tunnels, a stamp mill foundation, and a water-wheel site. But it was the high and mighty steepness of the canyon walls, and the foaming waterfalls spilling into crystalline pools, which drew me back to see more.
The Melones Fault Zone and its serpentine belt cross the South Yuba just west of Washington, and just as in Green Valley, down on the North Fork American, the Shoo Fly Complex lies just east of the serpentine. The 2600' contour crosses the Yuba at Washington, and a few miles up the river, Canyon Creek is met a little above the 2800' contour. This is high enough to nearly ensure that the most recent "Tioga" glaciation, ending only 12,000 years ago, sent ice all the way down Canyon Creek to the Yuba, and all the way down the Yuba to Canyon Creek, or even to Washington.
However, to me the Yuba looks much infested with glacial outwash, and I saw no obvious moraines; but what moraines may have existed could easily have been flattened into formless glacial till in the last ten thousand years, and as the glacier retreated, it could have formed an outwash plain below its terminus, in those same areas which had previously been under ice; so both moraines, till, and outwash, are likely enough all mixed together in this area.
At any rate, enormous masses of glacial outwash had been mined for gold near Washington, as evidenced by huge piles of pure boulders, all the fine sediments having been washed through sluice boxes way back when. And it is a curiosity that here, where the bedrock is Shoo Fly, the Yuba itself is one continuous mass of granite boulders, dragged down-canyon by Tioga ice from the Lake Spaulding area, one suspects.
Similarly, Canyon Creek is so heavily populated with these giant granite eggs, that one rarely sees the Shoo Fly bedrock along the creek itself, especially in that reach which Ron and I visited, a couple miles above where Michael and I swam and basked the other day.
Ron and I drove over the bridge across Canyon Creek, following the Maybert road east, and at the Golden Quartz picnic area, found the road left which hooks back west and then north into Canyon Creek. A locked gate soon blocks this old old road, open to the public for so many years, a road giving access to at least two distinct historic National Forest trails, the Ridge Trail, climbing up the Canyon Creek-Yuba divide and bearing east up to Camp 19, and the Canyon Creek Trail, ascending the creek from the Arctic Mine for several miles before climbing to the Bowman Lake road near the Windy Point cliffs. This gate has probably been there for little more than twenty years, if that.
We trudged along, the road climbing slowly, and noted a brand new trail on the right, which TNF employee Joe Chavez had mentioned to me a year or two ago. Since the historic Ridge Trail had been blocked by the new gate, TNF felt it important to establish a new route. I complained to Joe, then, that TNF ought to be more determined to preserve its existing trails, and not give up on public access, which long since, many decades ago, had attained to the status of a prescriptive right, over whatsoever private lands might intervene.
The brand new trail was marked with a sign informing us that it reached a dead end in two miles.
Passing the gate, the road continued climbing and entered a dense stand of smallish Douglas Fir. It leveled out in an area where a few old-growth Ponderosa Pines stood, mute reminders of the more open forest of days gone by. We recognized that area as a prime candidate for the historic Ridge Trail route, but saw no sign of the thing, and soon the road entered into the main canyon of Canyon Creek proper, hugging steep cliffy slopes, with many an old dry-laid stone wall bolstering the road-bed. In somewhat more than a mile from the gate, we reached the crossing of Canyon Creek, where a massive concrete abutment records the existence of a bridge, once upon a time. We forded the creek by jumping from egg to granite egg, and continued up the right bank of Canyon Creek on the same old mining road.
The creek was absolutely slathered in these granite boulders, yet the roadcuts exposed only Shoo Fly. These Shoo Fly rocks are the oldest in the Sierra, are usually dated to that period of the Paleozoic named the Ordovician, and like most all our metamorphic rocks, the strata are tipped up into a vertical orientation. The Shoo Fly has been subjected to several episodes of deformation, the most recent being the "Nevadan Orogeny" of the Middle Jurassic; or so it is thought. It is this last transformation which tipped all our metamorphic rocks up on edge, as it were, about 145 million years ago.
These metamorphic rocks are divided into fault-bounded "terranes," but very much remains to be understood about these terranes, and how they were added to the western edge of North America, and what the directions and magnitudes of displacements on the terrane-bounding faults actually were. It is really rather exciting that so much is unknown. It makes a rich field for students of geology; students, teachers, all of them: we must map the terranes, and measure them, and date them, and it will not happen overnight.
The day was warming rapidly, yet a fresh breeze wafted up the canyon, ruffling the trees and cooling us a little, anyway. At a certain point we began to see a monstrous tower of granite, farther up the canyon, and I knew we must be approaching a contact between the Shoo Fly and this granite. Directly across the canyon from us was the high ridge of the Ridge Trail, attacked by glaciers on both sides again and again, with passes where ice flowed from the one side to the other; but I regard it as not at all obvious which side gave, and which side received, Yuba or Canyon Creek. The near side of the ridge showed many patches of Shoo Fly, rubbed raw by glaciation, but it takes a bit of imagination and practice to recognize the glacial provenance of such outcrops. The Shoo Fly responds much differently to glaciers than does granite, for the granite is so massive and relatively undivided by joints and strata, that it becomes notably rounded by ice, retains glacial striae well for ten or twelve thousand years,and just about shouts that "a glacier done it." The Shoo Fly is often left looking not too much different than it might, were it exposed only by the agencies of non-glacial erosion, i.e., if a slope is steep enough, as in, say, a canyon wall, some Shoo Fly will crop out in any case, glacier or no glacier. And the Shoo Fly does not retain striae well, not nearly so well as granite, nor does it often retain the smoothed and rounded forms imparted by the glaciers.
The granite is much younger than the Shoo Fly, and as elsewhere in the Sierra, appears to have melted its way into the older rock, leaving a sharp boundary or contact, with the older rocks essentially undeformed, and often scarcely altered at all by the heat. We began to realize that the Mountain View Mine and Arctic Mine, not far ahead of us, were in close proximity to the contact.
It turned out they were both just east of the Shoo Fly, in the granite, where quite an extensive system of gold-bearing quartz veins had arisen. Suddenly it was granite, exposed in the roadcuts, and mine buildings appeared, and tailings piles and all kinds of evidence of intense mining activity. Small roads began to climb away left from our river-road. At the Arctic Mine a large concrete building would seem to have been a powerhouse, but has since been used as a house, and peering through a window we saw a couch and sink and dining table.
We took a break, admiring some fine pools and waterfalls nearby, amid gigantic, nearly house-sized granite boulders. And now it was time to prove ourselves and employ our wonderful trail-finding skills and find the historic Canyon Creek Trail. Heh heh.
It seemed clear enough, as a little old road ramped off the flat with the concrete powerhouse, continuing upstream, and led us over a terraced area having to do with mining and/or old flume-lines, to a rather incredible flat bounded by a huge stone wall, which Ron felt certain was a dam site, and I would agree; tho the body of the dam itself is entirely gone. It may have been made from logs, from large tree trunks bolted together, as one sometimes sees in old photographs of this area. It would have stood about fifty feet high, perhaps more.
Encouragingly, a route continued, and reached a fine viewpoint, but disappointingly, it had nothing of the look of a old TNF trail, even one which had not been maintained for fifty years. We found ourselves directly below the enormous granite tower we had seen from half a mile down the canyon, and now we realized the tower did not stand alone, but framed one end of an impressive gorge with steep cliffs of granite on both sides of the creek. Glacial striae were evident everywhere on these glaciated surfaces. The Tower stood nearly a thousand feet above the creek, and so also did the other cliffs. With a bit of a groan we realized that our putative abandoned TNF trail could only follow a very high line, above the worst of these cliffs. We were too near the creek. We had merely exploited terrain made easy by these old mining and fluming terraces. Now our real work began.
We were quite taken, however, with what we saw of Canyon Creek. It was one waterfall after another, and a little ways up into the gorge there was a very pretty triple waterfall about twenty feet high, and just below it, a more ordinary waterfall perhaps twenty-five feet high. It looked next to impossible to follow the creek itself; well, if one were going downstream, and had ropes, and rappelled down the many waterfalls, one could do it. It was extremely wild and beautiful.
I was reluctant to give up on a possible lower alignment for our mystery trail, so I followed a bear trail closer to the creek, climbing over steep blades and cliffs of granite, while Ron took the sensible course and broke away from the steeps near the creek, hoping to strike something in the woods west, where a trail really ought to be.
I did find a trail, but definitely not "the" trail, and climbed a couple-few hundred feet, with a duck here and there showing me I was on track, and any amount of bear poop tending to support that notion, and eventually, stopping occasionally to rest in some rare patch of shade, the hot sun flaring down on the baking cliffs all around me, I won through to the creek again, at the triple falls we had seen, and saw a way existed to continue upstream, on a system of ledges with Canyon Live Oaks and Bay Laurels. So I forged ahead and made another couple hundred yards upstream, still clearly on a ducked route, and just as clearly, not on our mystery trail.
Where I was, tho, was wonderful. I reached a rather large and deep pool upstream from the Triple Falls, and I named it the Pool of All Pools, for its great depth, and the thirty-five-foot cliff rising sheer beside it from which, I am certain, many a brave or foolhardy young man has made the grand leap of faith. I rested for a while and wondered how Ron was doing. An occasional shout had elicited no reply, but he had been aiming away from the creek; that I heard no reply was to be expected. I had about totally ruled out any chance that our mystery trail could follow a lower line, for the gorge was essentially impassable, and my own little trail seemed at best a fisherman's route. I had climbed a few hundred feet, and saw another few hundred, maybe five hundred feet, of cliffs still above me.
The mystery trail could only be up there. Way, way, way up there. I felt rather thoroughly exercised already. So, I retreated back down my ducked fisherman's route to the Arctic Mine, but followed a slightly different combination of terraces, which eventually fed me onto one of the roads-left we had noticed while walking in, hours before.
And then I saw "the" trail. It was climbing fairly steeply in the down-canyon direction, and hence, would have to switch back somewhere above, in order to follow the canyon upstream. But I was certain that it was really and truly it. It was doing what "the" trail must do: climb high enough to pass above the high cliffs of the Gorge. There was not even the ghost of a sign where it left the main road.
I suspected that Ron had himself struck this trail, the true trail, well above me, and followed it north up the canyon. I waited for a while at the Arctic, and then made an arrow in the road and some silly little stone monuments to tell him I had started back out, and slowly wandered down the old road, taking time to savor the day and the spectacular views.
I crossed the creek again, at the bridge site, and soon enough I was back in the forested area with gentle slopes, where we had expected to find the historic line of the Ridge Trail. There was one little area beside a giant Ponderosa which merited a closer look, and I strolled a few yards above the road, and saw some old broken 2X6's and then a half-burned 4X4 post. I did not even need to read what was left of the sign: here was another historic trail, abandoned by Tahoe National Forest, and abandoned not all that long ago. Here, as Ron and I have seen at too many other places, the old signs are still there, but in pieces, on the ground.
I left the sign fragments propped up against a tree trunk so Ron could not miss them when he came out, and explored a little ways up the old trail, then returned to the road and walked slowly back to the truck. There I contrived to take a nap, lying down right on the rocky road, with my floppy straw hat serving for mattress, and my pack for pillow. No blankets needed. The shade of a Canyon Live Oak kept the cruel sun away from my hot and tired body.
Ron appeared about an hour later, and just as I'd imagined, he had struck the line of our mystery trail, the true Canyon Creek Trail, which after all could only climb and climb and climb to get above the cliffs which bounded the Gorge, and he had followed it a mile or so, until it began dropping slowly back down to the creek.
So, our expedition was a success, and we found, in fact, two historic trails, both abandoned by Tahoe National Forest, in their devoted respect for private property, and disrespect for public rights.
We stopped at dreamy little Washington for a cold one, and then made the long drive back to Colfax. It had been a great day, and merely to see the Tower, and the Gorge, and the Triple Falls, and the Pool of All Pools, would be more than enough reason to visit this area. I suspect that quite a number of other waterfalls grace the Gorge, and also, that very few people ever see them. It is difficult and dangerous ground, the Gorge is.