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Following Muir's First Summer Route

by John Fiske


(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter Vol. 5, no.1, Winter 1994-95)


(Editor's note: John Fiske, retired engineer and Muir aficionado, lives near Coulterville and has thoroughly explored the region, tracking Muir's 1869 route as described in My First Summer in the Sierra. A year ago he accompanied a group of Muir enthusiasts from Japan on an excursion that began near Snelling and ended in Tuolumne Meadows. Fiske's trail notes are reprinted below. His meticulous research, and his careful delineation of the current topography and nomenclature, are valuable contributions to modern Muir scholarship).

June 3, 1869
Delaney Bottoms: My Japanese guests and I started near Basso Bridge (Basso Ferry in Muir's time) to follow closely the path taken by Muir and his companions while herding 2,050 sheep to their summer pasture in Tuolumne Meadows. We succeeded in viewing or visiting all their campsites except that of Hazel Green. Yosemite Park has closed to entry all routes leaving Hazel Green on the park side. Between Tamarack Flat and Tenaya Lake, we were forced to look down on those camps 8,9,10,11,12, from Olmsted Point and to pick up the route again from the western meadows of Tenaya Lake (now tourist camp sites) to the watershed divide between Mariposa and Tuolumne Counties, and then to Soda Springs, Tuolumne Meadows.

June 4, Camp 1
The shepards and their flock left camp 1 early in the day while it was still cool. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. the heat of the day is usually intense and in the hot dry, dusty, environment animals and people suffer. Where the fields a few miles in the San Joaquin Valley had been converted to grain, when harvesting wheat by pulling harvesting machines, the mules would die in the harness. Mercifully the mules were eventually replaced by steam tractors. Setting a moderate pace, the party traveled from 12 to 18 miles in a 12-hour day.

June 5, Camp 2
The trail took them through the Sonoran Lifezone where the Blue Oak and the chaparral were dominant. As they rose into the hills, the brush became an impenetrable barrier sometimes called the Elfin Forest.

The Sonoran is divided into 3 zones: the lower, middle and the upper. Following Muir's trail, we went through the latter two. The middle Sonoran dominant tree is the Blue Oak. We climbed over the first great land uplift at Peno Blanco lookout. The Sabine Pine appears and oaks, still dominant, become more varied. This we found on the Haigh Ranch. We had been following the trail by taking the road from La Grange to Coulterville. Muir's party went by the Haigh Ranch by way of the Peno Blanco Road.

Camp 2 is not defined by Muir and although we know his route accurately we do not know where he made camp along that route. I have arbitrarily shown Camp 2 en route at a position that will quickly allow access to the crest of the second geological uplift where the flora is in marked contrast to the upper Sonoran Zone.

June 6, Camp 3
We left the Haigh Ranch and turned right on the Priest-Coulterville Road (Boneyard Road in the old days). About a mile and a half later we turned left on the Cuneo Road which took us quickly up the second uplift. Just over the summit the flora changes immediately. Blue and Live Oak are replaced by Black Oak, the Sabine Pine by the Sugar and Ponderosa Pines. The height of the trees is much greater. The Sabine, reaching 80 feet, is surpassed by the Sugar and Ponderosa Pines at 100 to 200 feet. The Black Oak is three to four times more massive than the Blue or White Oaks. The Lifezone here is called transition and the line of demarcation is so sharp from upper Sonoran to Transition that you can step across it on the ridge that separates the two.

Turning right on Dexter Road we enter a settled area where retired people come to avoid valley heat. This was the road to Savage's Diggings or later Big Oak Flat in Muir's time. Continuing on for several miles, Dexter Road runs into Fiske Road and that into Greeley Hill Road where we turned right on the latter and went several hundred yards to Holtzel Road. At that point we identified the location of Greeley's Sawmill close by, mentioned by Muir. He spoke of the very pleasant smell of sawdust and lumber of the Sugar Pine that the mill was cutting.

Muir also noted that Sugar Pines were getting scarce. I have from other sources confirmed that these meadows from Fiske to McCarthy contained one of the finest stands of Sugar Pine in California. That it was a premium wood is shown by an ad about 1856 indicating that the mill would deliver to Fresno first grade lumber. To move the lumber this distance over then existing narrow dirt roads suggests both need and demand (the round trip distance is 200 miles).

One of Muir's sketches on page 14 of the first edition of My First Summer portrays 'Second bench.' The pyramid shape bordering the skyline at the left edge of the picture is Pilot Peak, a third uplift. The sketch shows that Muir was standing a little southwest of the intersection of Holtzel and Greeley Hill Roads, about 200 yards southwest of the Greeley Hill Market.

The other sketch on that page is a view of Horseshoe Bend. We found the spot where Muir made the sketch on top of a rise on Peno Blanco lookout.

Reversing direction on Greeley Hill Road we followed it for about 3 miles. We had now gone down a grade and come to a meadow on our left. The end of this meadow borders the North Fork of the Merced River. The sheep, shepherds and Muir camped back of the North fork, crossing it in the forenoon of the next day.

June 6, Camp 3
The flora continues to change. The Azalea with its beautiful blossoms contributes to the delight of flower lovers, but to the distress of sheep. The Alder becomes dominant as the tree of little rivers and streams, and the flowering dogwood seeks northern exposure if it is lacking the protection of little valleys. The Cedar an exist widely but prefers semi shade and the companionship of pines. Today it is scarce: its wood was prized for mine timber as it resists decay when in damp places.

June 7, Camp 4
Bowers Cave is left of the road after crossing the North Fork. After leaving Greely Hill Market, in about 3/4ths of a mile we entered the Stanislaus Complex Fire Burn of August, 1987. To the East the forest was destroyed clear to the Yosemite Park line. To the West the fire had crossed the Tuolumne River and burned to Cottonwood Road fifteen miles away. Much of Muir's country was spared but the area to Brown's flat and beyond to the park line was burned. The Altar Stone area just below Brown's Flat was damaged by the fire and then more so by the beetles and the drought which followed.

At the camp the shepherds had the advantage of a corral. (Delaney established his permanent camp down on the North Fork of the Merced where it was cooler and quieter.) The Indian bed rock mortars are still in evidence. The natives camped around the meadow's perimeter, gathering acorns in season.

Brown's Flat is now known as McCauley's. John McCauley built the Four Mile Trail and the McCauley Hotel at Glacier Point. He traded Bowers Cave to the Wengers who owned Brown's Flat. Clarence McCauley, John's son, inherited Brown's Flat. I knew Clarence McCauley and asked him if Muir had been to Brown's Flat. He had heard of Muir but practically nothing about him. He did confirm that Brown had squatter's rights which Wenger's procured and which were traded to McCauley's. With this I was able to locate and verify the Altar Stone.

June 8, Camp 5
(Includes Altar Stone, Delaney's camp, Brown's Flat and Corral.) Delaney's first permanent camp was situated northwest of Brown's Flat in the North Fork canyon. One of several eastern forks of the North Fork is upstream from Delaney's Camp halfway up to the Altar Stone.

Muir's poignant description of the Altar Stone environment is anthropomorphic. It is as if he is shown Nature's treasures in miniature to prepare him for the grand macroscopic view soon to be revealed. His perspective was enhanced by contrasting it with the experience of his recent walk of the past few days from Delaney Bottoms. That had been a hot, dry, dusty, journey where both man and beast suffered, particularly Carlo, Muir's St. Bernard dog, for whose sake his owners had sent him with Muir to find a cooler climate.

The treasures of the eastern fork include three falls, cataracts and other rewards. The first fall is a 40 foot vertical drop onto an immense carpet of moss of varying shades of green a study in green and white. The second is a twenty foot drop dispersed across its cliff face in several curtains changing with the breeze. The third is symmetrical in form. Above its brink straight, uniform trunks of alders add to the height of the scene. The falls are alternated with cataracts. The Eastern Fork, like the Altar Stone, is a study in miniature and a promise of greater things to come. Though lacking in power and size of greater displays they are no less in beauty.

Hazel Green Camp 6, Tamarack Camp 7
From the Altar Stone we detoured to Crane Flat and picked up the Mono Trail North at Crane Flat. This has been made necessary by closure of the park to all entrances from Hazel Green on the old Coulterville Road. Fire has severely damaged this area, especially camp 13, Hazel Green. Proceeding to Tamarack Flat, the Tioga Road, particularly the old Tioga Road, follows the Mono Trail North accurately. The deviations did not bother us: from Tamarack Flat North we were on the Mono Trail, or more accurately, Mono Trail and Tioga Road combined. Where the trail only marks the path of Muir's progress we could not follow with an automobile. We had to be content to go by auto to Olmsted Point and look at Indian Canyon summit to get an idea of where Delaney's July 17, permanent camp was. Indeed, all of Muir's campsites between July 12 to August 8, 1869, from Tamarack to the west meadows of Lake Tenaya are inaccessible today by auto. All remaining sites of the 1869 trek, including those of August 8, 9, 10, can be reached by automobile and by foot.

Olmsted Point
From here we were able to look down on the country from Tamarack Flat to Tenaya, encompassing all of the adventures and wanderings of Muir from July 12 to August 8. The view includes the watersheds of Tamarack, Cascade, Yosemite and Indian Canyon Creeks, plus several others. It was at the head of Indian Canyon near the summit that Delaney established his second permanent camp July 17, 1869.

Tuolumne Meadows, Camp 15
We arrived at Tuolumne Meadows and took the short trail west from the parking lot to Soda Springs. Here Delaney established his third permanent camp. At a bend in the river they drove their sheep into the inside of a horseshoe bend and with the usual difficulty forced the sheep to cross to the north side of the Tuolumne River.

Our objective to follow Muir's 1869 route to the high Yosemite country was accomplished with two exceptions. We could not reach the Hazel Green campsite of July 8 because of the aftermath of the Stanislaus Complex Fire Burn. Neither could we reach, by auto, Muir's campsites between July 12 and August 8. Those sites will have to be revisited by foot, the way Muir and his sheepherding friends reached them nearly 126 years ago.


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