NORTH FORK AMERICAN RIVER: 100 Hours of Solitude in the Pristine Wilderness @ Big Granite Creek
Once you’re down in the canyon, at floor elevations of 3000 to 4000 feet, you’ll be lucky to see anybody — mostly day hikers high above on the trail, adventuresome fishermen, or the occasion large group of young Christian warriors — so don’t plan on getting injured. On this backpacking trip we did not see a single other two-legged critter during four+ days at one of my favorite wilderness settings anywhere on earth.
Despite being very close to Interstate 80 as the crow flies — no more than three or four miles — you feel much more remote. (I know of a guy from Alaska who every summer makes a two-week pilgrimage to specifically take on the joys and rigorous challenges of North Fork canyon country.) The canyon, hidden from view as you’re zooming up I-80 toward the High Sierra, is surprisingly deep and so rugged, with trail pitches leading down (and out) exceeding 35% for long stretches, that once you’re down in its peerless depths, you have left behind the world above and have entered a pristine and enchanting riparian canyon wonderland.
It may sound like I’m writing about the Grand Canyon, and I wouldn’t be far off — the North Fork has carved, with the help of glacial activity over thousands of years, one of the most spectacular canyons in North America, with heights and depths ranging from 2000 to 4500 feet! The free-flowing river, a ribbon of emerald green winding for 60 miles from its alpine watershed west of Lake Tahoe to the confluence at Auburn with the Middle Fork, hosts a myriad of hidden waterfalls and tributaries, most of them inaccessible due to impossibly rugged terrain. (Remember one of my recent narratives, in search of the 500 foot New York Canyon waterfall?)
In these upper stretches of the river canyon, there are only three or four ways down — each a brutal descent with anywhere from 1600 to 3000 feet of elevation loss, depending on where you’re able to park. We chose to enter via the “easiest” and closest (driving) route, Mumford Bar Trail off Foresthill Road. Turns out, it was terribly arduous and much longer than I recalled from three years ago. Nearly nine miles one way, the first stage comprises a grueling three and a half mile 2700 feet trudge down to the river over the course of dozens of switchbacks through a dense forest.
We were trashed by 7 pm when we hit bottom, so we spent the night right there. The mosquitoes were demonic little pests, but we made do with their swarming presence. Luckily, I had hauled in the old 7-pound tent, which, owing to no breeze and fire restrictions in effect, served us well during the mosquito onslaught of early evening and the next morning. (We are vehemently anti-DEET! I have not used insecticide spray in over 30 years of hiking, camping and backcountry wilderness exploration. The thought of allowing this poisonous substance to seep through our pores is more abhorrent than getting bitten. Yes, we survived, proving that, whatever they tell you, DEET-related insecticides are not a necessary component of the wilderness experience. Besides, from what I hear, they don’t even keep mosquitoes entirely at bay.)
The next morning we arose bright and early and took in a swim and breakfast at a lovely pool (riverside is a great place to escape the little buggers), then hauled butt to Big Granite Creek — about a five mile trek on the American River Trail through gorgeous forests of giant Sugar and Ponderosa pines and Kellogg’s Black Oak. We passed several old cabins and mining sites as well which merited brief exploration. (The history of this area is replete with mining, miners, and 49-ers.)
Carrying a ludicrous load of seventy pounds on my back (don’t ask!), this distance seemed like ten miles and eternity! The trail, no doubt “easy” for a day hiker, winds up and down, gaining and losing hundreds feet more of elevation. By the time we got to Big Granite Creek — HALLELUJA! — I collapsed at the camp site and didn’t move for hours. (Point of fact for backpackers: no matter which way you come in, your calves, ankles, thighs, and feet will be sore for a day or two.)
We set up camp at the confluence of the creek and the North Fork. What a lovely, secluded place, amid tall stands of pines and groves of oak trees. Willows, alders, and a big leaf maple or two lined the river banks, while wild grape, wild blackberry and other rambling brambles created a rich understory of vegetation.
This area is certainly a sacred and beautiful stretch of the river, always worth the effort and pain of getting here. Big Granite Creek tumbles in from the high country at our camp site, spilling through smooth-cut rock channels into big granite bowls of bracingly cold water. Upstream, Snow Mountain’s massive contours form the northern border, with its western most spur ridges extending right to Big Granite Creek. The south side of the river is all high peaks and divides — New York Canyon, Sailor Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, Wabena Canyon and Royal Gorge, all holding immense secrets, thundering waterfalls, petroglyph mysteries, and geological conundrums. An area I call Red Gorge is especially luscious — stained by red iron oxide drippings and red-orange lichen encrusting the walls, it appears like an anomalous geological formation, nothing like it elsewhere on the river. This year the industrious Christian warriors had dammed it up (bored?) — at first, I felt like tearing the low rock structure down, but it turned out that the back up of water in the gorge created lovely pools. Red Gorge is a unique spot on the North Fork. Its 100 foot high wall on the south and lesser northern rim wall create a 200 yard long, 30 feet wide channel of barely moving sometimes turquoise sometimes emerald green water, whose clarity is unmatched: shimmering stones line the shallow river bed like a treasure chest of gems overflowing, in places pooling to swimmable depths. Big green-blue dragonflies (darners) flit about in virtuoso aerial antics, patrolling the canyon in constant predator mode. These “primitive” creatures are endlessly fascinating. I even saved one from drowning by rescuing the poor critter from the surface before a trout could gobble it up. Waterlogged and slightly wing-damaged, the dragonfly stayed by my side for several minutes drying out before taking off in an attempt to fly away, but could not remain airborne and fluttered helplessly back to the water. Again, I jumped in to save it. Why am I doing this? What difference could it possibly make? (Well, I have been known to save tiny ants and spiders, too, from perilous conditions.) Finally completely dried out this time, the dragonfly made another attempt to fly away and this time managed to stay aloft, soaring up to perch high on the canyon wall. That was the last I saw of it.
What does one do out there? Naked as savages, sitting around, relaxing, soaking in cool pools, exploring, eating, drinking, communing with nature, reading Ed Abbey and John Muir passages aloud to Mary, that’s what. Admiring the vastness of the country, the blueness of the big sky, the purity of the river. Minutes turned into hours, hours into languorous stretches of timelessness. One Hundred Hours of Solitude.
One by one the animals came to say hello. Hummingbird visited briefly one day, and then Kingfisher showed up, actually perching momentarily on a craggy dead branch right above my head. Later on, I watched her dive-bomb for fish in the calm flat waters of Red Gorge — quite a rare showing. Two baby rattlesnakes made an appearance, shying away from me to their rocky dens. The yellow-legged frogs were jumping and the trout were looking up curiously at us from clear deep channels. Although we never saw any large mammals, this is home to bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and deer; if you’re lucky, you might also see owls, falcons, eagles, red-tailed hawks, goshawks and ospreys, all of which I’ve seen on past occasions but not this time.
One day, lounging in the gorge, a small irony presented itself. There I was sprawled out on a rock, arms and legs splayed wide. I could see the cross above me jutting into the sky. Scraped and cut from a recent bushwhack (read on!), I also had “stigmata” marks from gardening wounds in the middle of both palms and both wrists! Like I said, just a small irony, and no crucifying comparisons intended.
Another morning, Mary and I were lounging about in the red gorge when, suddenly, out of nowhere, without warning or noise, a bizarre mechanized flying contraption appeared, swooping out of the cleft of Big Granite Creek canyon, dipping quite low overhead, then disappearing just as suddenly out of view and earshot. It was like, five seconds there and then gone, almost an apparition.
The thing sounded like a twin-engine prop type airplane, but looked like nothing I’ve ever seen — something retro on the one hand, as though from another era, and on the other, rather futuristic-looking. How can I describe it? It looked like a kite construction, like it was made of balsa wood or something light, wood-like, and it was red. It must have had great controlling power the way it deftly maneuvered in the tight air space. It looked like some kind of home-made aero-plane thing, V-shaped, stealth-shaped, but primitive in appearance somehow. I didn’t even see propellers. It never returned, as though it came from another dimension and returned to it. What on earth did Mary and I see in the skies above the North Fork coming out of Big Granite Creek canyon?
The morning of my 50th birthday — Saturday, August 20 — I set off early by myself to hike Big Granite Trail which comes down to the North Fork from the high country near I-80. My goal: get to the upper area above our camp site where I had been two years ago with friends who knew the trail well. We had espied lovely, tantalizing pools way below in the Big Granite Creek gorge that seemed inaccessible. My plan was to get to the stream / trail crossing and then just bushwhack down the gorge.
I was certain I could re-locate the obscure trail in the rugged terrain. Instead, I found myself climbing up and up over a massive dome feature — the terminus of Snow Mountain’s westernmost spur — at least 800 feet high and obstacle-laden with scree and boulders and prickly chaparral brush — very rough going! Of course, I was in shorts! I had been on a trail, but now it was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, I was at a precipice with about 100 more feet of sheer verticality to go. Where was that crazy trail? Did it snake around to the left, by Big Granite, or did it snake up and around to the east, through the gap between the dome and the massive spur ridge of Snow Mountain where the final stretch of Big Granite Trail takes you down to the ford at the North Fork? Should I turn around?
Certain to be rewarded with stunning views, I pushed upward to reach the top. Made it safely, yeah! The spectacular canyon country opened up, east and west. Looking straight down, I could see Big Granite Creek’s alluring depths and knew if I just could somehow scoot down there, I would hit the trail. So, I went down down down and . . .NO TRAIL! . . .until I was about 100 feet above Big Granite Creek, looking down into some lovely pools. I managed to make my way down, carefully, to the bedrock channel and stood in awe — I had entered some grand cathedral — surely not many if any had ever ventured to where I now stood!
And where I now stood was taking my breath away. I explored downstream a ways but was stopped dead in my tracks by sheer walls and pools, so I never managed to get to the lip of the big falls that spills through the narrow defile above the Big Granite Creek camp site. (Had my pack and camera, that’s why). I turned and went back the other way and explored more, but realized I could spend the entire day here. I was worried about poor Mary, left all alone back at the camp, and started to panic: what if I couldn’t get out of this gorge?
Well, I had to get back since I told her I’d be gone, oh, about an hour. What to do? Keep bushin’ upstream until I came to the crossing? I wasn’t sure how far that would be, or what insurmountable obstacles awaited. Big Granite Creek canyon continued to blow me away with its seeming inaccessibility. I knew that I had to scale back up the sheer walls somehow. At one point I was scrambling up and found myself clinging precarious to a vertical ledge sixty feet above the water. Still “certain” I’d stumble across the trail as I scrambled higher and higher, but never did find it! How can that be? (Turns out it was much higher up.) SO, I had no choice but to re-climb the 800 foot high dome again, through the same gnarly scree and manzanita — it just tore me up! — and returned back to camp the same way — all in under two hours! Mary barely missed me, enjoying a leisurely morning meditating, chanting, reading, relaxing in the early sunlight. After relating my adventure to her, I made straight for the cold water plunge.
Our return hike out the next day was sheer penance, for what past sins I cannot say, but it took everything out of us. I was of the notion that it would be twice as easy hiking out because of reduced weight. . .but still, with 50 pounds on my back and nine miles of slogging and having to re-gain all that steep elevation, well, it was a major killer.
We broke up the first five miles by swimming, eating, and relaxing. It took us five hours. Arriving at 6:15 pm at Mumford Bar Trail, we knew we didn’t have much time to get up and out of the canyon before darkness set in. Already tired as could be, we persevered through total switchback hell emerging from that canyon to the high ridge road.
We got caught in the dark the last hour — but finally, finally, made it to the car, a most welcome sight! We were limping, banged, bruised, scratched, nicked, sore, and utterly wiped out from exhaustion. All I could think of was the line from Robert Service: “What? — You’re tired and broken and beaten? Why, you’re rich! You’ve got the earth!”