May 23 (1976, 2005)
Upper Canyon Adventures ~ Iowa Hill Ditch Trail

5/23/76 morning, the canyon. worked hard on the spring yesterday, dug out the hole to about 3 feet deep. my hands are sore, got blisters underneath the heavy calluses. just as i was starting to unroll the six-inch wire mesh that i am going to line the hole with preliminary to laying on the cement, susan, neil, and jeb came by and i took the rest of the day off. we sat on the rocks and smoked, hiked around to all the springs, and finally hiked out to lovers leap for the sunset. upon returning here, jeb's truck got stuck while trying to back out, and we had a hassle getting it out, finally managed to squeak willy past to tow it out… then out to monte vista inn for a sandwich, so tired ~ slept quite well, still kind of laid back. saw an orchid in an oak forest yesterday.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Iowa Hill Ditch Trail
[North Fork Trails blogpost, May 23, 2005: ]
Huge waterfalls casting plumes of rainbowed spray, the spicy air of true fir forests, a loud and rampant river, and snowy peaks. But first:

"Description of the Works - The company has already built about 27 miles of main canal, of the following dimensions; bottom, 8 feet; top, 11 feet; depth, 4 feet, with a grade of 10 feet to the mile and a capacity of about 8000 inches. This canal, so far as constructed, begins at a point in Section 29, Township 16 North, Range 13 East, Mount Diablo base and Meridian, marked "A" on the large map, and reaches the main reservoir in about 20 miles, receiving by the way the Secret Ravine branch, 4 miles long and 3000 inches capacity and the Eldorado branch, 3 1/2 miles long and not yet completed. The Lower Humbug Ditch, which controls the water supply at Damascus, is about 6 miles long and, and enters the reservoir direct. The South Shirt Tail Ditch is 2 miles long. These are all collectors and have an aggregated length of 34 1/2 miles."

Such is a portion of the material gathered by archeologist Nolan Smith of Tahoe National Forest's Foresthill-American River Ranger District, concerning the Iowa Hill Ditch (IHD). The ditch was intended to serve many hydraulic and drift mines.

This material dates, I think, from 1882. The 1884 "Sawyer" decision stopped hydraulic mining, and therefore stopped work on the IHD.

There is an error in the description above: the "point of beginning" actually lies to the south in the center of Section 32, of the same Township and Range. It was tough going, surveying in the North Fork canyon, in the good old days. The point in question is in the middle of a cliffy area, a mile west of New York Canyon, a mile east of Tadpole Canyon, and directly south and across the North Fork from Sugar Pine Point.

The ditch is close to the 5400' contour.

There is one other bit of confusion in the above description: the point of beginning is actually the point of ending, the last-constructed portion of the IHD. It would have continued farther up the North Fork, gathering the waters of all its southern tributaries (New York Canyon, Sailor Canyon, Wildcat Canyon and Wabena Canyon) before drawing from the North Fork itself high up towards Summit Soda Springs.

From the Sugar Pine Point cliffs, or from Big Valley Bluff, one obtains a good view of this old mining ditch; and in descending the Beacroft Trail, the IHD is crossed almost immedately. For years I had gazed across the canyon at this huge ditch, and for years I dreamed it would make a wonderful trail. The brush fields it crosses signified that it would be nearly impossible to actually follow the thing.

Then, a year ago, I obtained a copy of a 1962 TNF map, the same map I used to use for my explorations in the early 1970s, a map notable because it shows many of the historic trails, trails since ruined by logging or simply abandoned.

These were some of the same trails shown on still older TNF maps, a few of which Ron Gould and I had followed as best we could through a churned-up mess of slash and skid trails.

One trail which immediately caught our eyes (for Ron and I share digital forms of many old maps) branched from the top of the Beacroft and followed the IHD east across Tadpole Canyon to its Point of Beginning.

Today I finally got a look at this old-time trail. That wasn't the plan, tho. Once again Alex Henderson and I pondered the mysteries which attend upon remodeling his kitchen. Once again the better part of valor was to get into his sporty little Beamer convertible and drive to the North Fork canyon.

Our first stop was North Fork Dam, at Lake Clementine. Crossing the high Foresthill Bridge, a drive of a mile or so brings one to Lower Lake Clementine Road. Follow this road down until the dam comes in view, and then find and follow the use trails leading closer to one of the most spectacular spectacles in all Placer County: the entire flow of the North Fork American spilling over the broad arched top of the concrete dam, in a sort of Niagara Falls about one hundred feet high.

It was a gigantic, almost horrifying cauldron of white water, with spray exploding forth and streaming hundreds of feet down the canyon. The water is spilling across the entire length of the dam. Amazing.

I suggested that it would be a really cool thing to drive up the Foresthill Road to the snow. I've been wanting to get in to see the 500' waterfall in New York Canyon during these high flows, but access is difficult. Choice of route would depend on whether one could reach Canada Hill or not.

So up we drove on the long and winding road, through Foresthill, through Baker Ranch, past China Wall (which is on the IHD), past the Mumford Bar Trail, and snowdrifts began to dot the sunny forest.

The road stayed clear enough until we rounded the head of Little Secret Canyon at the beginning of the Beacroft Trail. Suddenly snow blocked further progress.

We adapted to the situation, parked a ways shy of the trailhead, and walked over snowbanks and waded shallow streams of meltwater until on the trail proper. A forest of mixed White and Red Fir scented the air. I wanted to get another look at the line of the IHD and see what remained, if anything, of the old trail.

First we stopped for lunch in a little clearing opening north, just below the canyon rim, offering a view to 3500' Big Valley Bluff, and also of several waterfalls across the canyon. We saw some of the major falls of Big Valley, Sugar Pine Point, and Big Granite Canyon. Snow Mountain was visible to the right, and Castle Peak to its left and much more distant. Devils Peak seemed to be hiding, but we had some Douglas Fir trees blocking a complete survey. Red Mountain was also visible, near Cisco Grove.

The North Fork roared loudly 2700' below us, out of our view. We could see some of the forested glacial outwash terraces near the river, tho.

One massive waterfall in Big Granite Canyon reminded me that, strangely, due to inexcusable laziness, I have never visited the thing, tho knowing of it since 1975. This waterfall is maybe two miles up Big Granite from the North Fork. More than one mile, certainly, and well above the crossing of the Big Granite Trail.

The line of the IHD is especially confused in the area of the Beacroft. The Beacroft heads up in a deep pass in the Foresthill Divide. Through this pass, beneath it, actually, in a tunnel, flowed the waters of one of the IHD's tributary ditches, the above-mentioned Scret Ravine Branch. One passes the downstream end of this short tunnel a few feet below where the Beacroft begins its descent. Another little ways brings one to the IHD. To the west, it runs along deep and wide through heavy timber until suddenly it opens directly into the North Fork canyon, appearing to end. This is one of what are likely very many areas where the water would have passed into a wooden flume.

Alex and I explored that area, then turned back and tried to follow the IHD east. Things quickly became problematic. We found two rather massive dry-laid stone walls running straight into a vertical rock-face, as tho this had been an earlier course planned for the tunnel under the pass. Then we lost all trace of the IHD as steep cliffs, streaming with snowmelt, appeared. We were able to pick our way along for a little ways, and then sheer wet rocks stopped us.

Presumably a large wooden flume had crossed this point. But the fragmentary character of the IHD had me a little spooked. Maybe it actually ran, who knows, one or two hundred feet lower on the canyon wall, and all I was seeing were remnants of the Secret Ravine Branch. I told Alex I wanted to settle the issue and would scout down the steep slopes below.

Shoe-skiing over little snowfields and clambering over fallen firs, I made my way into a deep little hollow which probably has a glacial origin: the heavy timber in the area is mostly growing in glacial till. As I left the hollow and neared the main canyon wall again to the north, a small trail-like thing led me east a ways before disappearing in heavy brush.

I hollered up to Alex that I wanted to scout a little more, and hearing an indistinct answer, I started up the steep slopes east of the hollow. An unnatural groove in the hillside betokened a ditch blow-out, a commonplace below mining ditches throughout this region. The berm of the ditch is breached, and the vagrant water cuts a channel straight down the slope below.

This boded well, and I eagerly pushed up higher and higher until I had regained every last inch of the over one hundred feet of elevation I had given up since leaving Alex. And there it was, huge, with large trees growing along the berm: the Iowa Hill Ditch.

I hollered again, Alex hollered back, the result being that I imagined he was coming to join me. I couldn't see how to save him the rough descent into The Hollow; the wet cliffs we had seen forbade following a contour around.

I decided to explore east along the giant berm. It was easy going; bears often walk this trail, and in the shade of the forest, there was little brush.

I saw no blazes to suggest that it had been a maintained TNF trail, but did not look too closely. There were such "small i" blazes, long healed over, near the head of the Beacroft, scarcely a tenth of a mile away.

Occasionally, brush blocked the berm and neat little bear trails angled down into the bed of the ditch itself for fifty yards or so, and then just as neatly climbed back up to the berm. After a quarter-mile or so I reached another blow-out, or perhaps, a flumed section: the ditch ended, and a game trail continued along steep brushy slopes. But Alex might have arrived, farther back, so I retreated. I was probably within a half-mile of Tadpole Canyon.

There was no Alex, so I walked to the west end of my ditch-section, where it ended near the wet cliffs. A steep and broad ramp led down through brush and fallen trees. I distrusted the ramp and scouted back for another, better trail. Finally, dropping over the side, I wandered a bit until the ramp came into view again, and seeing it was longer than I had thought, I joined it, and followed it down and down until suddenly it leveled out entirely, and contoured along the forested hillside.

I was just above the deepest part of The Hollow, and the level, road-like bench curved right around the thing. Bits and pieces of old flume timbering began to appear, with square nails showing that they likely dated from before 1900.

It was not a ditch: it was rather, I think, the foundation bench-cut for the massive flume which would have been needed for a canal of the IHD's capacity. I followed it all the way west to a point on the Beacroft Trail, and then followed the Beacroft back up into the scented forest above.

Time was growing short, I knew, so I hastened back to the car, where Alex awaited me. I am puzzled by the various ditch levels I observed, and by the bench cut. Why would it have continued so far west, as to intersect the Beacroft?

More exploration is needed. I would love to see the crossing of Tadpole, and to reach the "point-of-beginning" terminus in Section 32. I fear the brush out that way. It could prove impassable.

Russell took this photo from directly across the canyon at Big Valley Bluff.
This is a 2012 image from Google Earth. The landscape was altered by the 2008 fire
and  the subsequent salvage logging of the formerly forested areas.

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