Dick's Travel Roundup #1


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Three short trips, taken by car rather than truck & trailer or motor home, in 2007

More Mother Lode          A Stormy Night at Grant Grove          Yosemite in the Cold


More Mother Lode

At the end of September and the beginning of October 2007, I was in Mariposa for a longer time than usual, three nights. Although my trips up there were mainly to work on cleaning out my late parents' house, I was in a “Mother Lode” mood from my recent trip down state highway 49 (see Bluegrass in the Foothills 2007). I decided to do a little touring in the Mariposa area, checking out some places I had driven by dozens of times throughout my life, but hadn’t really visited.

In the early Gold Rush days, Agua Fria was a bustling city of several thousand, and was the first county seat of Mariposa County. Today it is marked by a “point of historic interest” sign, but there is nothing whatsoever left of the town. In fact, the area where the markers are located is in a rather narrow creek canyon, and I’ve always wondered where the town was.

Heading west on Highway 140, the markers (there are actually two of them) are about four miles from town. Just past the markers is Agua Fria Road, which cuts across from Highway 140 to Mt. Bullion on Highway 49. And about a quarter mile in from 140 is another sign which marks the actual town site. Here the creek valley is about 200 yards wide and completely flat – a great place to put a gold rush town.

Agua Fria Road is narrow and winding, but not steep, and is a pleasant drive of about two miles. Mt. Bullion was also a key mining town, and the site of a major hard rock mine which operated well into the 20th Century. Both town and mine were originally named Princeton, and though the mine is gone, a few houses, a restaurant, and the county airport keep the town going.

Another two miles north from Mt. Bullion is Mt. Ophir, the site of what we always knew as the Mt. Ophir mint. It was actually a small community, surrounding a mine. We were always told that during the gold rush, this was the site of a mint which produced octagonal $50 gold pieces. In honor of this, 8-sided gold-colored "coins" were created and sold as souvenirs during the courthouse centennial in 1954. One side depicted the court house and the other a printing press, saluting the 100th anniversary of the local newspaper.

More recently the “mint” status of this operation has been called into question (you can check the sites listed below if you want). I checked with Mariposa County historian Leroy Radanovich, who replied as follows:

The best that we can make of the story is that eight sided ingots were poured in the smelter of the office building at the Mt. Ophir mine for shipment to the Moffett Mint in San Francisco. No actual coin was struck at the mine. In fact I have not known of any mine smelter that actually struck coinage. A mark was struck on the ingot to tell of its supposed fineness, that is the percentage of pure gold. Other than that, nothing else is known for sure. The size, worth and shape of the $50 slugs do not seem to be in question, only whether they were used as "coin," which information on the website seems to indicate. Remember, placer gold was used as a medium of exchange without any standards of fineness.

The crumbling rock walls of a building, and some other rock work nearby, are all that is left of the Mt. Ophir operation. The building is said to have been a store owned by a member of the Trabucco family, who were merchants in several area towns. Their involvement in local commerce did not end till around 1980.

The walls present at Mt. Ophir are reportedly made of quarried slabs of schist set in mud mortar.

Although I grew up in Mariposa County, and have visited there probably once a month or so ever since, I had never before stopped at Agua Fria or Mt. Ophir, and I drove across on the Agua Fria Road for the first time a year or so ago, without stopping. Now I’m ready to be a tourist in my own home town and check out some other things I’ve missed.


A Stormy Night at Grant Grove  

Fresno has many claims to fame, the most dubious of which is that it is the second smoggiest place in the country. But when a breeze or a rainstorm cleans the air, you get a nice view of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east. Driving around running errands in late October of 2007, I noticed the view, and asked myself, why I don’t go there? So I did.

Forsaking my normal modus operandi, I made a reservation at the John Muir Lodge in Grant Grove Village in Kings Canyon National Park, and on October 29 took off by car for the 55 mile drive up state Highway 180. I’ve been in the park many times, but had not been there for at least ten years.

During the planning period the weather had been perfect – highs in the mid 80s in Fresno, and no clouds in sight. Of course, as departure time approached, a storm threatened, but it was expected to be light and short. I did have a few drops of rain going up the mountain out of the valley, and in fact had drops of rain off and on all day, but nothing to cause a problem.

Highway 180 goes east through fruit orchards and farmland, and crosses the Kings River at Centerville, turns south at Minkler, then makes a sharp left to the east, going through low foothills. As the road starts uphill, on the right there is a little tongue of the valley that goes in between some hills, and because it is relatively protected, it is the site of an extensive citrus orchard. The road climbs rather steeply, then levels off and drops gently down into Squaw Valley, which is a small village surrounded by cattle country.

The true uphill climb starts a few miles past here, winding up through brush-covered hills, gaining elevation quickly and taking you into pine covered mountains. The entrance to Kings Canyon Park is close to the 6,000 foot level, and is guarded by a hoary old redwood called the Methuselah Tree. Apparently the National Park Service is concerned about this tree falling down, since they have removed the entrance station and parking in the area is prohibited.

Kings Canyon National Park is divided into two sections, Cedar Grove and Grant Grove, plus many acres of backcountry wilderness. Entrance via Highway 180 takes you into the Grant Grove section, which is immediately adjacent to Giant Sequoia National Monument. The entrance to Sequoia National Park is several miles to the south on the General's Highway; the two parks are jointly administered. Grant Grove is a medium size grove of sequoias and the location of “the nation’s Christmas tree,” the General Grant (the park originally had the same name as the tree).

The entrance station is now located in Grant Grove Village, which includes a store, restaurant, visitor center and the lodge where I stayed. Check in time was 4 p.m., so I planned to spend the day sight-seeing before going to the lodge. I made a quick stop at the visitor center to ask about the weather, and got the same answer as before – a quick storm, probably late in the day.

Cedar Grove is the only other road-accessible part of the park, and is about 35 miles into the Sierra from the Grant Grove section. The road passes through Sequoia National Forest, part of which is also the recently created Giant Sequoia National Monument. Heading south and east from Grant Grove, the road soon begins the steep descent to the Kings River. Along the way I stopped and hiked up a small hill, hoping for a better view. I could see across to Spanish Mountain, which rises to almost 10,000 feet. With the river below at about 3,000, it is the deepest canyon in North America.

Nearby hills obscured the view into the canyon, so I continued my drive on down the mountain. When the road seems to have reached bottom, it is actually still about 100 feet above the river, which runs through a narrow gorge surmounted by steep, rocky hills. A short distance further the road reaches the actual river level, and parallels the river the rest of the way to Cedar Grove.

This area is a glacier-carved valley similar to Yosemite, but with no significant water falls, and without the high rock walls. Instead the rock in this area appears to have had multiple fractures, creating slightly sloping walls with no big granite faces like El Capitan or Glacier Point in Yosemite.

It also lacks the crowds of its more famous neighbor to the north, making a visit there a peaceful experience even in the summer time. In late October, I often drove for a mile without seeing another car. I stopped at one of two waterfalls in the area, Roaring River Falls, which drops perhaps 25 feet, then took a dirt road that goes down the south side of the valley close to the river. Here I stopped, got out my lunch, magazine and lawn chair, and enjoyed a solitary half hour.

The road eventually comes out through a residential area and rejoins the main road at the very entrance to the valley. On the way, I saw a bear strolling down the road in front of me. As soon as he realized I was behind him he took off at a gallop, then headed up the bank.

I returned to Grant Grove Village, stopping a number of times to take pictures. Along the way, signs of fall were everywhere. Many black oaks grow between about 3,000 and 6,000 feet, and in several places the breeze combined with trees that were down hill from the road to create the impressing of leaves falling up. I also noticed hundreds of buckeyes on the road, red-brown, golf ball size seeds from a tree which is very common to the California foothills. The Kings Canyon area below about 4,000 feet is also home to thousands of yucca plants. Although they bloom in the spring, the flower stalks were still in evidence on many plants.

While still in the national forest, I took the dirt road into Converse Basin. This was one of the largest redwood groves in the Sierra, but in the early part of the 20th century, thousands were cut down. Sequoia trees are very brittle, and many of the trees shattered as they hit the ground, rendering them useless for lumber. Although several different companies operated here for around 20 years, not one of them made a profit for their efforts. The basin is now home to hundreds of large stumps and big log sections lying on the ground. The story of this operation is told in an excellent and well-illustrated book by Hank Johnston, They Felled the Redwoods.

After checking into the lodge, I wanted to drive up to nearby Panoramic Point, which offers a view of the high Sierra peaks. Although I’ve been visiting these parks since the 1960s, I did not know about this location until my younger daughter and her husband worked in the park in the late 1980s.

It’s about a two-mile drive, all uphill on a narrow, winding paved road, followed by a 300 yard walk. Driving up the road, I saw two deer. Throughout the day there had been a few drops of rain now and then, not enough to even get wet in, but as soon as I got to the parking area, large cold drops started falling. Realizing (or rationalizing) that all I would see would be clouds, I decided to postpone this walk, and headed back down hill.

I had dinner in the restaurant, then settled in for the night. Not long after that the real storm began, and we had a good hard rain for two or three hours.

The next morning started out bright and clear, so I headed back to Panoramic Point. With a night’s rest, the trail was quickly conquered, and I was very glad I had returned. There were a few thin patches of snow along the trail, and the view of the high peaks was spectacular. I had caught glimpses of them from various locations the day before, and they were bare rock; today they sparkled with a layer of fresh snow.

After checking out of the motel, I visited the gift shop. I have a couple of friends still working who do their “traveling” via souvenir magnets that another retiree and I bring them, so I picked up a couple of those.

My next stop was Grant Grove. From the parking lot there is a short loop trail that goes up to the General Grant Tree, passing numerous other large redwoods and a fallen log that you can walk through. There is also a longer trail that goes up the hill above the Grant Tree, but I decided that the shorter trail was enough for me. By the time I left this area, low clouds or fog had drifted in, and soon the tops of the biggest trees were nearly hidden in the mist.

On my way out I stopped at the old entrance station (parking illegally), and walked a few hundred yards to the Mark Twain Stump. This tree was cut down in the 1800s, cut into sections, then exhibited in the east, to prove to skeptical folks back there that the tales of California’s giant trees were true. Although the goal was worthy, the destruction of this magnificent tree for any purpose could not be justified, and would be unthinkable today. Next to the stump is a plaque with an amazing photo of the tree as it fell. This photo also appears in They Felled the Redwoods.

When I had finished this short walk, I headed for home, vowing not to wait another ten years before my next return.


Yosemite Draws Crowds Even in the Cold

It was about time for another trip to Mariposa, so I decided to take the long way around, going through Yosemite National Park, and visiting Glacier Point. From Fresno this means heading north on California Highway 41 into the park, passing through the lower end of Yosemite Valley, and going west on Highway 140 to Mariposa.

The road to Glacier Point leaves the main road between the valley and the entrance, about 20 miles from the latter. The point is at the 7,200 foot elevation, right on the edge of the cliffs surrounding Yosemite Valley, and offers probably the best view of the high country and the valley that you can get without hiking.

The road is closed for the season when the winter snows begin, but we’ve had very few storms so far. There was probably some snow at the end of October, but it’s long gone everywhere below the highest peaks. Parking is difficult at Glacier Point in the summer, but there were plenty of spaces when I arrived about 12:30 on November 25, 2007. Even so, it seemed that there were a lot of people there.

If you have never been to Yosemite, words and pictures cannot capture it, and if you have been, your own memories are better than any words I can offer, so I will keep this report brief.

It was overcast and quite cold, but the clouds were high and did not hide the mountains. I wore four layers and a warm cap, and was quite comfortable. I have taken so many photos at Glacier Point in the past that it would seem there is nothing new to photograph. However, the last two times I was there I have tried to find some different angles, and I still took a photo of Half Dome for the 40th time or so.

We had a very dry winter last year, so the streams in Yosemite are at an all-time low. I've been to Glacier Point in November before, but I have never seen the two big waterfalls on the Merced River, Vernal and Nevada, so low.

I spent about an hour there, then headed down the road, which drops three thousand feet into Yosemite Valley, then west toward Mariposa. On the way I stopped at Washburn Point, about a mile from Glacier Point, and 200 feet higher. This place gives you a different view of things. Half Dome is almost in profile, and you seem to look straight down on North Dome and Basket Dome.

Even if you have been to Yosemite, you may not have seen the Ferguson Rock Slide, which is worthy of mention. The slide began in late April 2006, following an unusually wet winter, and blocked several hundred feet of Highway 140 on the north side of the river, about 20 miles below Yosemite.

Slide material was removed and a rock barrier erected, and the road reopened, but within twelve hours additional material fell and the road was closed again. The slide remained active for many months, and the road remained closed during this time, a devastating blow for the town of Mariposa, which is highly dependent on tourists passing through to Yosemite. In addition, children from Yosemite who attend school in Mariposa were forced to go through Oakhurst, more than doubling the commute length. The same problem applied to people working in Yosemite but living in Mariposa.

By the end of July a temporary bridge was installed, and limited one-way escorted traffic was allowed through the route. Several weeks later a second bridge opened, and one-way traffic, controlled by a light, was permitted for vehicles 28 feet in length or less. The temporary road lies on the old Yosemite Valley Railroad grade.

While this helped, it still did not bring things back to normal. Lots of tourist traffic into Yosemite is via bus, and large buses cannot cross the temporary bridges. Several options are under discussion for a permanent fix, the latest of which is a high viaduct over the area. This is the cheapest and quickest method, and probably the best. Other options include abandoning the road and building a tunnel, a long and very expensive proposition. The earliest possible target mentioned is usually 2010. (September 2013 update: The issue is still not resolved, although larger temporary bridges now allow bus traffic. It now appears that a rock shed is the most likely option. September 2020 update: This is the latest information I could find on this long-delayed project. There's no guarantee this is what will actually happen)

I could not take pictures, because no stopping is allowed on the detour, but some of the links below have photos.

Continuing down Highway 140, I stopped at Briceburg, where the highway leaves the river. When I was a kid we came to this area for fishing and swimming, and the old suspension bridge that crosses the river is still in place. After crossing, you can follow the old railroad grade downstream to several nice spots. When I was going there we just called it “Briceburg,” but now it is the Merced River Recreation Area, with several named campgrounds downstream about two to three miles from Briceburg. The area is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

I finished my 160 mile trip to Mariposa just as it was getting dark; ate dinner at the Miner’s Inn, and headed for the house to get to work.

--Dick Estel


Photos (pictures open in a new window)

Agua Fria Town Site sign Location of Agua Fria Mt. Ophir Sign
Rock wall at Mt. Ophir Octagonal souvenir "coins" honor the Mariposa Courthouse and Mariposa Gazette newspaper's 100th year
   View east from Mt. Bullion Two of Mariposa's historic buildings, the Masonic Hall and the Oddfellows Hall
Orange orchard by Highway 180 Thick grove of live oaks in Sequoia Forest

South Fork of the Kings, about a half mile above the confluence with the Middle Fork

Marble Mountain above the river

Roaring River Falls in Cedar Grove

A study in gray, green and orange 
Big stump in Converse Basin Abandoned log section in Converse Bsin View from Panoramic Point, above Grant Grove Village
The General Grant Tree A closer view of the General Grant Redwoods by  the Grant Grove parking lot
The Mark Twain Stump Top of the Mark Twain Mist in the forest
Vernal & Nevada Falls, almost dry, November 2007 North Dome & Basket Dome from Glacier Point The Overhanging Rock (people used to pose
on this, but it's discouraged and illegal)
Half Dome, classic view from Glacier Point From Washburn Point, Half Dome is nearly in profile Mt. Starr-King
Suspension Bridge at Briceburg on Merced River Remains of trestle on Yosemite Valley Railroad grade Holly berries add a touch of holiday color to the foothills

Related Links

Mt. Ophir Gold Country Site Mt. Ophir Wikipedia Entry Mt. Ophir Info
Agua Fria Gold Country Site Agua Fria History Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Purchase They Felled the Redwoods

Sequoia National Forest

Dick’s Redwood Gallery

Ferguson Slide Photos Sierra National Forest Merced River Recreation Area
Yosemite National Park Vernal Falls photo Glacier Point
Briceburg Giant Sequoia National Monument Ferguson Rock Slide

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