January 27 (2002, 2003)
Green Valley West, with Gem and Gus

Sunset from Moody Ridge, January 27, 2002

Date: Mon, 27 Jan 2003 08:13:55 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Green Valley West

Dawn Saturday revealed various banks and strands of fog hanging almost motionless in the North Fork canyon at Green Valley. The sun rose, gilding the fog patches, and immediately they began to boil skyward. In the meantime, mid-level clouds banded the sky above, but appeared to be gliding rapidly south. Within a few hours a clear blue sky, fog-free canyon, and warm sun inspired me and my two stepsons, Gem and Gus, both of college age and home on a visit, to venture down the Green Valley Trail.

We decided to explore the west end of Green Valley, and took the Low West Trail, which I have not been using since the gentler High West Trail became passable a year or two ago. The lower trail has become overgrown, but needs only a little lopping. We descended into shady Ginseng Ravine, crossed the dry creek—here deep accumulations of Ice Age outwash gravels allow its waters to sink below the surface, except in high flows, during major storm events—and followed the ditch of the Green Valley Blue Gravel Mine south and west out of the ravine, into the extensive flat where the high and low trails meet, and where a spring flows from an ancient pipe into a rugged wooden trough, now too rotten to hold water. This trough once had an exact mate at the head of the trail, and both hark back to the days when mules were still used to pack supplies into the canyon. That era likely ended about 1920.

The trail bears south towards the river, and at a certain point a fork is reached. On the left, the main trail is minor, rather than major, in appearance, and I have often wrongly taken the right trail. We rightly took the right trail and soon found ourselves at Pyramid Camp, where homeless “miners” made a home and left an incredible, disheartening mess of garbage, pots, pans, rotting clothes and sleeping bags, plastic buckets, tarps, etc. etc.

We passed the camp and bore west on a lovely little trail which follows an old mining ditch right at the tops of the hydraulic mine bluffs. One can see across the mine and its huge piles of huge boulders to the river, running high and swift in the frigid shadows which cling to it all day long, for a month to either side of the winter solstice, and we could see the mossy north-facing cliffs on the far side.

We were in the warm sun nearly 200 feet above river level. In two hundred yards or so we reached Pyramid Ravine, and stopped to scout for a crossing. The walls of the ravine are quite high and steep here. Soon we discovered an old trail which followed a gentle line across the slopes, bearing upstream, and at the creek, flowing in a series of pools and small falls over polished serpentine bedrock, some more scouting revealed another trail, climbing out in the downstream (southerly) direction. Once upon a time these little trails may have had boulders cunningly placed like giant steps to allow an easy transition in and out of the creek bed; now, it is an awkward scramble, in which one must step with cat-like tread up steep mossy rock, while deciding in a moment’s time whether the slender branch one depends on for balance is, or is not, poison oak.

We soon gained the crest of a little ridge just to the west, sun-scalded serpentine with a few stunted live oaks and bay laurels, and some manzanita, but very open, with incredible views of Lovers Leap and the Pinnacles in Giant Gap, just to the west. A long reach of the river could be seen, bank-full, loudly rushing in its shadowy chasm towards the strangely steep cliffs ahead. They appear to close off the canyon so completely that the river poses some great mystery, a miracle, perhaps, in which it must surely plunge into some bottomless cavern, rather than by any means find a path through such cliffs. Again, the far side of the river was cliffy and green with moss, while our side was sunny and dry and almost sterile in comparison.

We rested, about 300 feet, now, above the river, and took photographs. I mentioned that an old mine tunnel was somewhere in the near vicinity, that one could see it from various points across the river, but that I had never visited it, so high and lonely on the serpentine cliffs. I also wished to see whether we could find any vestige of a high trail leading down and into Giant Gap, which is shown on a certain 1928 General Land Office map. The trail we had followed out of Pyramid Ravine had disappeared altogether as we gained the easier open slopes. We struck out west between a bush and a shrub and, strangely, immediately found ourselves on an old human trail.

Following this, we came to a steep slope of fractured serpentine, suspiciously like mine tailings, and soon enough, the tunnel appeared, at the base of a cliff, and still well above us. We made a circuitous approach and discovered the tunnel to be what had always seemed likely: a small asbestos prospect. The serpentine in the vicinity is highly sheared and serpentinized, and in the tailings, one could find masses of light-colored, tightly-bonded asbestos fibers. In fact, I have never seen asbestos quite like this; it was denser, harder, heavier than usual, and even, in some pieces, suffused with some almost-clear, crystalline something, which I could not identify.

The tunnel is only 25 feet deep. A couple of old cans, suggesting a date of perhaps 1900 to 1915, were inside. Most of the interior surface of the tunnel was covered with a rind of roughly botryoidal white minerals, which must have formed from the evaporation of groundwater percolating through the sheared serpentine.

From the tunnel one can look directly across the canyon to the log cabin at the Gold Ring Mine.

We left the tunnel and bore west and down, hoping to strike the supposed high trail. Around 100 feet above the surging river, we struck a faint trail, quite plausibly a game trail, and followed it west. A knife-edge ridge of more competent serpentine barred further easy progress, and all signs of a trail ended. The sun was lowering, and time did not permit further exploration west. We climbed a blade of rock and took in the stunning views of cliffs and river, before turning east and upstream.

In places a thin mist was forming in the cold air hugging the shadowy flood. We attempted to follow our faint trail-thread, but it did not seem to be continuous. We found a place where a minor deposit of Ice Age gravels had been worked by ground-sluicing. At times we crawled along beneath manzanita, or stepped quite cautiously across very steep slopes dropping even more steeply down to the heaving hissing danger of the river itself. Then we struck a tiny bench cut in the serpentine, which must have once formed the basis for a wooden flume carrying the waters of Pyramid Creek to the aforementioned ground-sluicing operation. We followed this little ledge into the ravine, found a mossy spur to climb up and out on the far side, and reached the end of the trail from Pyramid Camp.

It had been a pretty rough scramble. My shirt was soaked with sweat, my hands scratched and torn. After a brief rest we started the long slow march up and out of the canyon.

It was a great day in Green Valley.

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