[written June 1, 2007]
I joined Catherine O'Riley for an unexpected hike into the wilds of Monumental Creek, or, as we jokingly named it, the North Fork of the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River. The NFEFNFNFAR, as it were.
It is actually called Monumental Creek.
We began by driving up I-80 to the Emigrant Gap exit, and navigating through what little remains of that hamlet to enter upon narrow, paved Forest Road Nineteen.
Since both the Bear and the Yuba rivers are tributaries to the Feather, Emigrant Gap is actually a "gap" or pass on the ridge dividing the American River from the Feather River. Here, in 1849, the trusty wagons which had endured over a thousand miles of plains and mountains and deserts were lowered by ropes into the verdant meadow of Bear Valley, thence to climb from the Bear to the crest of Lowell Hill Ridge, and trundle over hill and dale to the southwest, only a few days' travel, now, from Sutter's Fort and nascent Sacramento City.
When one adopts a long ridge, like the American/Feather Divide, for the purposes of travel, the gaps or passes often constrain the route. Hence at Emigrant Gap we find quite a series of routes converging upon that one point: a trans-Sierran Indian trail, the Donner Trail of 1846-49, the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road of 1864, the Central Pacific Railroad of 1866, the Lincoln Highway of ca. 1915, Highway Forty, and now I-80; all these routes meet at Emigrant Gap.
By the 1890s Emigrant Gap had become a major shipping point for lumber. The primeval forests of giant pines were laid low. Much of this early logging was done using logging railroads, narrow-gauge lines carved into the various canyons so as to command the slopes above. The logs were, so often as possible, literally rolled down the hillsides, and on to waiting flat-cars, to be hauled to whichever sawmill.
Then there were the shake-splitters, who felled the giant Sugar Pines, sawed them into short lengths, and used the fro and the mallet to split their thousands of shakes, for roofs.
The early logging was followed by later logging and it never really stopped. Today, Tahoe National Forest's "American River Ranger District" is planning a major forest thinning project in the East Fork of the NFNFAR and Texas Hills area. I received a mailing from TNF notifying me of this "East Fork" project some time ago, and recently spoke with Karen Jones of TNF about what is planned. She told me that there will be a thinning of crowded stands of timber in that area, and that where the terrain permits, ground-based equipment will be used, but where the slopes are steep, helicopter yarding will bring out the thinned trees.
As always in such cases, I remarked upon the importance of protecting the historic trails and archeological sites of the area; I mentioned the Bradley & Gardner Ditch, or Placer County Canal, I mentioned Isaac Tibbetts Coffin, and his cabins at Texas Hill and in Burnett Canyon, and his tiny old mining ditch, and the Burnett Canyon Trail, and eventually Karen Jones lost patience and told me I should take all that up with Nolan Smith, the TNF archeologist overseeing the East Fork project. So, Nolan and I have made plans to visit the area on June 12th.
So much for prologue. Too much. But it bears upon what follows. I should say, tho, that the North Fork of the North Fork has many tributaries, which spread out like the fingers of a hand, and that Forest Road Nineteen, The Nineteen, as it were, winds in and out of several of these many canyons. It is a Complex of Many Canyons, which converge upon a Gorge of Many Gorges. First we crossed Fulda, and a few miles further brought us to the North Fork of the North Fork itself.
The Nineteen rarely drops below 5000' elevation, and rises to over 6000' on Monumental Ridge. It is covered in snow for much of each year. Once giant steam tractors hauled sawed lumber to Emigrant Gap on this road. That was a century or so ago. And decades before then, an army of men had hacked out the Bradley & Gardner Ditch. This ditch supplied water to the mines of Dutch Flat and Gold Run, reaching the former in 1859. Following, very nearly, a contour line, the Bradley & Gardner, or B&G, is all the more twisty and turny than The Nineteen, as it winds in and out of the Complex of Canyons. We first saw the B&G just a couple hundred yards shy of the NFNFAR. I pointed it out to Catherine, and then we crossed the river and parked just outside North Fork Campground, a popular drive-in TNF campground where one pays a fee every night.
Our objective was a beautiful waterfall, a scant quarter-mile or so down the river from the campground. Multiple trails lead down to the waterfall, really two waterfalls, each falling into deep pools ideal for swimming. It is quite a popular place. Nearing the falls, we saw a new OHV trail coming directly down the canyon wall to some toilet paper and miscellaneous garbage scattered above the waterfall.
The falls are spectacular. We clambered around on upturned strata of Shoo Fly Complex early-Paleozic metasedimentary rock, meta-sandstones, slates, etc. The Shoo Fly can vary wildly in a short distance, going from easily-eroded slate to massive and resistant meta-sandstone and chert. The waterfalls likely have to do with a stratum of this meta-sandstone. Downstream, a zone of slate has let the canyon deepen, but here, a resistant stratum has formed a step.
Hence the waterfalls. But as the North Fork of the North Fork proceeds downstream, to the south and west, the canyon steepens into a gorge and it becomes cliff upon cliff, waterfall upon waterfall, pool upon pool, and is pretty much impassable.
We gathered up the garbage as best we could and followed a different trail back up to the campground.
The overall idea of our day was to visit a number of different places, which, unaccountably, Catherine had never seen, to make a number of short hikes. The waterfalls were first. Next to come were the Monuments for which Monumental Creek and Monumental Ridge were named. To visit the Monuments we drove further along The Nineteen, past Onion Valley, to the East Fork, and parked near the entrance to Tunnel Mills Campground, a TNF reservation-only, group-camp area next to the river.
From here, I explained, one could work upstream towards Monumental Creek; a minor logging-railroad grade would provide a route, but eventually, we would reach the creek at the wrong place, and have to climb up in elevation a couple hundred feet, to a still-higher old road, from which we could reach the Monuments. And we would follow this higher road back out, and after a time drop cross-country to The Nineteen.
Just so it happened. We followed the old railroad grade, not far above the sparkling, murmuring East Fork, until at last the grade approached the river itself and we could see that Monumental Creek entered just above. But there is no following Monumental Creek up to the Monuments, from the East Fork: it is guarded by cliffs and waterfalls and deep pools. Years of experience had shown that one should approach the Monuments on the higher road, not on the railroad grade; but again and again I had ignored this wisdom, again and again I had been forced to make the haphazard bushwhack up steep slopes, from the end of the railroad grade. We made the climb, and found ourselves just above the creek and the Monuments. A very steep descent was needed to reach the foaming cascades almost ringing the base of the principal monument, a spire of rock perhaps a hundred feet high.
Here again, as at the North Fork Campground waterfalls, a stratum of quartzite, or chert, or of some resistant Shoo Fly rock, crossed the axis of Monumental Creek. An entire family of monuments rises at this place. It is picturesque and wild. Sharp crags of rock peek from the forest above, and among these crags one can see massive dry-laid stone walls along the line of the Bradley & Gardner Ditch. The principal Monument is crowned with white, quartz in part, but there seems to be a white stain extending down from the narrow flat summit, as tho an eagle nest had perched on that magic eyrie for many a century.
We took our lunch in that exceptional place, and then made the steep climb out, where the "high road" would lead us back west towards The Nineteen, and Catherine's truck. Gaining the road, we decided to follow it farther up Monumental Creek, rather than back towards the truck. Soon the road became overgrown with small trees and brush, but a path had been lopped in recent years, so we had easy going. It was clear that this road had been cut directly into the line of the Bradley & Gardner. We could look across Monumental Canyon to more cliffy terrain to the east, and we saw more and more of these huge old dry-laid stone walls along the Canal. I had only been over to see those walls once, more than twenty years ago.
I expected the Canal Road, then, would soon end, where a high wooden flume once crossed the canyon.
It did not soon end. It went on and on. We may have been the better part of half a mile above the Monuments, before at last the road did end, and yet the ditch continued, and in a couple hundred yards, it reached the creek itself. A small remnant of the concrete dam diverting Monumental Creek itself, into the Bradley & Gardner, was in the creek. The B&G was well-defined to the very crossing, but no sign of it persisted across the creek; it must have been led through a wooden flume, in that immediate area.
It has long been a dream of mine to open the Bradley & Gardner Ditch, the Placer Canal, as a hiking trail, from its source on the East Fork, west to Blue Canyon, at least.
Catherine and I had followed the Canal to Monumental Creek itself. This was enough for one day. We still had to visit Big Valley Bluff, and the sun was lowering. We were well pleased with our exploration, and talked of how excited Ron Gould would be, to see this place.
On our retreat to The Nineteen, we scared up a bear below the Canal Road, and stayed on the road farther than was necessary, eventually dropping to The Nineteen about a half-mile above Catherine's truck.
There were actually several other places, several other short hikes, I had had in mind, but time permitted only a visit to Big Valley Bluff, so we drove on out The Nineteen, crossing the East Fork, climbing Texas Hill, running out of pavement just where one turns right for Sawtooth Ridge, left for The Bluff; we made for The Bluff, and another four or five miles on the now rough and rocky road brought us to the End of the World.
A TNF fire lookout tower once stood here, but only the four cement piers remain.
Big Valley Bluff rises 3500' above the North Fork of the American, and stands directly across the canyon from the Beacroft Trail and Tadpole Canyon. It is an enormous mass of chaotic Shoo Fly Complex rocks, with more than the usual proportion of meta-sandstones and cherts, hence, it is very resistant, and has withstood the almost countless streams of ice which have scoured it, over the past million years or so.
The Bluff commands views which span much of Central California. It was too hazy, while we were there, to see the hundred miles of the Coast Range north of San Francisco, visible from The Bluff. To the south, snow-flecked peaks of the Crystal Range; to the east, the Sierra Crest, and the upper Foresthill Divide peaks, Lyon and Needle; to the north, Castle Peak, Basin Peak, and then closer by, Devils Peak and Snow Mountain.
We could see the Iowa Hill Canal and the Big Brush, the Ocean of Brush, very well, across the canyon.
It is the great canyon which enthralls one, there at The Bluff. I could go on and on, but it would be so much better for you to simply follow Forest Road Nineteen from Emigrant Gap, and in a reasonably high-clearance vehicle, persist and persist. It must be well over ten miles before the short side-road to The Bluff is reached. Go there in the late afternoon, when shadows are lengthening.
We saw a falcon and a hawk, there at The Bluff. I couldn't tell what species they were.
At last we left and made the long drive out to I-80, and thence to our homes. It was an exceptionally nice day in North Fork country, not down in the great canyon itself, for a change, but in its tributaries, and on the canyon rim, at the one, the only, Big Valley Bluff.