Saturday morning Gay Wiseman and I threw packs and sleeping bags into the Subaru and drove up I-80 to Soda Springs, thence to the Serene Lakes subdivision (at Ice Lakes, also known as Serena and Dulzura, supposedly so named by Mark Twain), thence on Pahatsi Road west to Cascade Lakes, where we parked.
Our goal was the West Summit of Snow Mountain. It had been ten years, no, closer to twenty years since I had last visited Snow Mountain, on skis with PARC's Eric Peach, in one eternally long spring day, beginning and ending near Kingvale on I-80. My first visit had been in 1972, also by way of Kingvale and the old Devils Peak road.
Although its summit barely exceeds 8000' in elevation, Snow Mountain is blasted by powerful winds, and what little forest clings to its bald crown (Western White Pine, Mountain Hemlock, etc.), is stunted and gnarled and the limbs often "flag" to the northeast. The mountain has the form of a long ridge, trending east and west, and on the south, a long line of ragged cliffs falls away 4000 feet into the Royal Gorge. The East Summit, being a few hundred feet below the storm-ravaged crest, has the only real forest on the mountain, a grove of Red Fir. I camped there once, almost accidentally, abandoning my first choice because it was haunted by bears, but there was no escaping the bears of Snow Mountain. When dawn's first light struck the East Summit, I realized I had slept within a few yards of a bear bed.
The Main Summit has a few little towers of rock rising above the main crest. There are some deep beds of talus on the summit, and I have always suspected that Tioga-age ice, of the most recent glaciation, ending 12,000 years ago, never covered the summit of Snow. No, in my imagination I could see the summit ridge poking up above a sea of ice. Under such conditions the summit would be exposed to severe frost wedging, hence the deep beds of talus; and with no ice flowing directly over the summit, the talus was never scraped away.
I have seen rattlesnakes on the Main Summit, where the deep talus conceals an infinitude of rodents, and also, on the Main Summit, I found two Indian hunting blinds, rough circles of rock stacked up, with chips of obsidian, quartz, basalt, and chert within the circle. I have only seen the like in the Great Basin, also on windswept summits. Perhaps Bighorn Sheep once frequented Snow.
From the Main Summit the ridge drops gently west until the many West Summits are met, a series of rock knolls at about 7600' elevation, the most westerly offering wonderful views of Big Granite Canyon, Big Valley Bluff and Sugar Pine Point, the main North Fork canyon, and more. Gay and I wished to visit these West Summits and, also, find and follow the "jeep trail" shown on the USGS 7.5 minute Royal Gorge quadrangle, said trail crossing the summit ridge from north to south just east of the rocky West Summit knolls, and dropping away south into a large flat. I had never tried to follow the jeep trail beyond its crossing of the Summit Ridge.
We marched south on the Palisade Creek Trail from Cascade Lakes, and veered west onto the old trail to the north end of Devils Peak. Or rather, sometimes we were on that trail, and other times we lost it, for it is not maintained and is overgrown in places, but it was easy going over glaciated granite, passing just north of two deep tarns, before reaching the pass on the Palisade-Big Granite divide. Here all signs of the old trail disappear in the aftermath of timber harvests of fifteen or twenty years ago. Once again, it was the sudden sale of the old railroad lands which triggered the harvests which destroyed the trails.
The trail history in this area is complicated. Somehow we've arrived at today, in which most of the old trails, the historic Tahoe National Forest trails, have been ruined by logging or closed off to the public in some way. So. Here we are. And just a few decades ago, the trails were intact. Or mostly so ... by the late 1930s a sawmill was erected back by Snow Mountain at Huntley Mill Lake. So roads had penetrated as far as the lake, seven decades ago. This road paralleled, and sometimes coincided with, the historic Snow Mountain Trail.
Various trails linked to the Snow Mountain Trail; the Long Valley Trail connected down to the Palisade Creek Trail, east of Huntley Mill Lake; the Big Bend-Devils Peak Trail intersected near the north end of Devils Peak, as did the Palisade-Devils Peak Trail, which Gay and I followed. So. All four of these trails have either been ruined by logging, or have been abandoned, or have become roads. The final indignity was the construction of a house at Huntley Mill Lake.
I wish the house would be torn down and every vestige of its existence removed, and the whole region around Devils Peak, Snow Mountain, Cherry Point and Sugar Pine Point and the Loch Levens, etc., be managed for the preservation of wilderness and open space and non-motorized recreation. To do this will require much land acquisition. But it is worth it.
I had dreaded visiting Snow Mountain for fear of this one house. But there has been another dread. With Ed Pandolfino and Terry Davis, seven or eight years ago, I was involved with a group trying to identify areas in Placer County suitable for Wilderness designation. The North Fork American River Roadless Area was our largest potential Wilderness. We were unsure whether to include Section 13 of T16N R13E, up on Snow Mountain, within the potential Wilderness boundaries, for fear that timber harvests might have marred the area; and I was supposed to hike in and see for myself. But I never did. I dreaded to see the ancient giants of Snow Mountain's north slopes reduced to stumps.
These two dreads have kept me away from Snow Mountain, never an easy destination in any circumstances, for those four or five miles one sees on the map somehow propagate into, well, almost any number of miles.
So. Gay and I hit the logged forest in the pass and just blundered through stumps and slash, and skirted wet meadows and alder thickets, westbound, until we reached the Devils Peak road, and turned south.
Devils Peak is a funny edge-up axe blade of a mountain, made of columnar basalts from two separate flows. I was pleased, on this hike, to scan the mountain carefully enough to distinguish between the two flows, a discernment always beyond me in times past. But from the west the two flows are fairly easily seen. The upper, younger flow makes up both of the two main summits and almost the entirety of the summit ridge to the north as well, but as the axe blade falls away to the north, the lower, older flow takes over. It makes a kind of secondary, lower summit at the north end of Devils Peak. The lower flow is characterized by long thin columns, mostly vertical, and a darker, browner color. The upper flow is also columnar, but the columns are larger and blockier and less regular, and are also of a slighter lighter and grayer color.
A ridge a few miles long connects Devils Peak and Snow Mountain. In this area, the shallow upper South Yuba basin could not by any means contain its ice-fields, during glacial maxima, and ice a thousand feet thick overflowed south into the much deeper North Fork American. This tremendous escape of ice from the Yuba into the American occurred over at least ten miles of the dividing ridge. Devils Peak, however, split the flow; a more easterly lobe of ice in Palisade Creek, a more westerly lobe in Big Granite Creek. Only the upper few hundred feet of Devils Peak protruded above the ice.
A sedimentary feature sometimes observed in glaciated regions is the so-called "crag and tail." A mass of resistant bedrock, forming a knoll or peak, is flowed over by a glacier. On the up-ice side the knoll or crag is abraded, and to either side it is steepened; but on the down-ice side, a mass of bouldery till may extend quite ways, protected by the crag. This is the "tail."
Devils Peak presents the case of a crag-and tail where the peak itself is the crag, of course, and the ridge of andesitic mudflow extending south to the bedrock high of Snow Mountain is the "tail." But the Devils Peak tail was not detritus deposited by the ice, merely mudflow protected from deep-scouring erosion by the crag of Devils Peak.
The height or depth of the ice surrounding Devils Peak is marked by the many glacial erratics, nearly white granite boulders up to twenty feet in diameter, quarried from the higher terrain to the north and east, towards Castle Peak and the Sierra crest. These granite boulders can be found right up to the summit axe blade of Devils Peak. It is not impossible that the entire mountain was under ice, but the erratics, fresh, unweathered granite boulders, can only be found up to about 7500', and the summit of Devils is at 7704'.
We marched along under partly cloudy skies, joking that, since we'd elected to leave the tent at home, we were now bound to get rained on. Immediately west of the main summit of Devils we left the main road to Huntley Mill Lake for the "high" road on the left, which, although somewhat longer, keeps one away from the horrible house at the lake.
At a second fork we kept to the lower of two roads, and watched Snow Mountain slowly grow near, and soon found ourselves on the old Snow Mountain Trail, with numerous blazes marking the large Red Fir and Western White Pine along the way.
Someone has been outlining the blazes in blue spray paint. Most of the blazes are not standard "small i" Forest Service blazes, but simple squares about four to six inches on a side. An unusual blaze began to appear, peculiar, one imagines, to this one old trail: a large "X" cut with a saw, each diagonal about eighteen inches or two feet long.
At about this time we entered Section 13, where I found what I had feared, stumps. However, thank God for small favors, the missing trees looked to have been all yarded with helicopters, not bulldozers, so if the slash and stumps were burned, the terrain would appear as wild as it ever was.
The Snow Mountain Trail climbed through rocky and meadowy terrain, with more and more of the X-blazes appearing, and fewer of the other types of blaze, until at last we reached the crest of the summit ridge, near point 7680', one of the West Summits.
We paused to explore, and found awesome views, north to the Sierra Buttes, south to the Crystal Range, with some excellent looks west into the North Fork canyon. All the terrain around the Loch Leven Lakes was in view, as was Big Valley, Castle Peak, Devils Peak, and even Mt. Rose.
Most all of Snow Mountain is made of the Tuttle Lake Formation, a series of volcaniclastic sediments, thousands of feet in overall thickness, now tipped up on edge, beds of sandstone made of volcanic ash, let us say, interlayered with beds of mudflows, and debris flows, and all these disparate types themselves intruded by coeval mafic magmas, of andesitic mineral composition, some of these intrusive igneous rocks cooling slowly, and becoming something like a diorite, and elsewhere, lenses and sills and pipes of andesite, which andesitic magma, at times, intruded soft wet sediments (it was coeval--remember?), and interacted explosively, producing a bizarre rock called peperite.
These Tuttle Lake Fm. rocks were deposited, and formed, in an ocean basin, near a line of volcanos. How they ended up here in the Sierra Nevada is not especially well understood. They are about the uppermost rocks in a quasi-stratigraphic column whose base is the (early Paleozoic) Shoo Fly Complex, separated by an unconformity from the overlying (middle-late Paleozoic) Taylorsville Sequence, over this are thin beds of Triassic conglomerate and limestone, separated by an unconformity with the (Middle Jurassic) Sailor Canyon Fm., and over this last somewhat conformably lies the (Middle Jurassic) Tuttle Lake Fm.; the whole ball of wax seems to have been rotated ninety degrees east and welded to the edge of North America, 145 million years ago.
There are spectacular glaciated exposures of these interesting metamorphic rocks all over Snow Mountain. The Tuttle Lake Fm. is only slightly younger than the Sailor Canyon Formation underlying it, to the west, about Middle Jurassic, say, 160 million years ago.
We had considered camping up among the West Summits, but there was no water, save a tiny tarn, almost evaporated, so we decided to keep with the original plan and follow the jeep trail down to the big flat at 7000', to the south. However, the trail had faded away to nothing at the crest. Scouting in the likely direction yielded no more blazes. We set off down the hill, hoping to find the jeep trail at some point.
We had fairly easy going, although big brushfields made us swerve drastically off-course several times. Finally we reached the flat. We were more than ready for a rest; most of the day had been given over to marching, and the sun was sagging into late afternoon, and we wished only to sag into a total recline. We stirred a bear from his afternoon siesta, fifty yards away at the base of a Red Fir, and the dark brown big-fellow went loping away through a brushy patch of woods, raising a tremendous clamor of breaking twigs and branches. The sound slowly faded as our scaredy-bear got farther and farther away.
These big flats, call it the Flat, making a couple hundred acres in TNF's Section 14, are a mixture of wet meadows, dry meadows, forests, and thickets of Mountain Alder. Lee DeBusk, an Alta man who has hiked all these old trails, beginning in his childhood in the 1940s, had told me that the "jeep trail" led to "old Doc what-his-name's camp," at a spring. Doc was a shepherd. A cattle man maybe. The thickets of alder and the wet meadows showed there was plenty of water in the Flat; but where was old Doc's camp, where was the spring, where was the jeep trail?
After a short break we started scouting and, after ten minutes or so, we felt drawn to some huge Red Firs near a certain alder thicket. We found a blaze on a large Lodgepole Pine, and this blaze was outlined in orange paint. Suppose this was the jeep trail? I forged through the alder thicket near the blaze, and soon popped free beside another grove of tall firs, some quite large and ancient. A pair of giants stood a few feet away, and between them, a Lodgepole scarred with many bear claw scratches. I walked over for a closer look, and right behind the bear claw tree, a well-beaten trail led into the thicket.
"Ah ha!" thought I, and followed the trail to a pool of open water, with a slow flow down the thicket.
I should say that the bear-claw tree was quite amazing. It looked as though it had been climbed many many times, by bears, frisky bears delighting in their ability to leave deep scratches in the thin bark. The claw marks were thick for the first twenty feet above ground, and continued up to forty feet.
OK. We had water. But where was Doc's camp? A wide search turned up nothing. We determined to camp along the fringes of a huge open dry meadow, a hundred yards away. There were no more distant views than the stars themselves, which was enough, and we felt lucky to camp in such an obscure and recondite place.
This area forms the headwaters basin, as it were, for West Snow Mountain Falls, which Tom McGuire and I saw this spring, and are about 600 feet high. The Flat is both hemmed in by a terminal moraine and dotted with vestiges of other moraines. Often the slightly higher moraine crests are of the "drained-down" type, so porous they cannot retain ground water, hence cannot grow trees, hence are bouldery quasi-meadows threaded through a million times over by gopher tunnels. In places the moraine vestiges are just beds of raw talus, scattered at random, no cliff or outcrop visible as a source.
We explored that Flat rather throughly that evening and the next morning, and found that we were quite close to Section 23 to the south, which as I understand it is owned by Croman Lumber Company; I have long advocated that this Section 23 should be acquired by Tahoe National Forest; but nothing has ever happened in that way, and yesterday, I found "Timber Harvest Boundary" flagging, near the section line.
In fact, it began to seem that the one blaze I had found in the Flat had only to do with the section line, for I found more blazes of that type, a few hundred yards west.
I found and explored two different possible alignments for the seemingly mythical jeep trail, but was unable to settle on one over the other. We followed the one which ran along level in the Flat for quite a ways before climbing steeply out to the northeast. But we were unable to follow it all the way up. Once on the ridge crest, we made for Point 7680 and took a prolonged break, eating lunch and sketching and exploring the various summits. I took a serious peek at my map and deduced that the jeep trail ought to be scarcely more than a couple hundred yards away, and when we walked over there, sure enough, we found a blazed tree, the blazes outlined in blue paint, and were able to follow the jeep trail down a little ways. The thing is almost completely formless, now, and has been overgrown in many places; not even an old cut branch is to be seen, showing that it had ever been cleared. There are no ruts or anything like ruts. In fact, over the dry meadows, the gophers stir up the dirt so well, that no trace whatsoever would be visible.
It is quite possible that the jeep trail has more than one alignment. We found two X-blazes high on the West Summit ridge, which are difficult to reconcile with the map.
So we had some gratification at discovering at least one small part of the west-side jeep trail. It was time to start back out to civilization, a hike of several hours, which we enjoyed, taking it slow. We stopped for a few minutes while Gay swam at Long Lake.
It was quite a nice camp-out in North Fork country.