May 25 (1986, 2001, 2003, 2007)
Paleobotanist Trail ~ Extreme Trek into New York Canyon

May 25, 1986 Sunday morning. Let's see—financial crisis raises its ugly head once again. I found out I have a broken rib. I had a nasty encounter with [name of a Moody Ridge neighbor] wherein he tried to run me off the road, and when I stopped to talk, threatened to kill me and kicked my car, etc., etc., etc. I'm scared, which is exactly what he wants. Told the deputy sheriff about it. He was going to go have a talk with [the guy], but I asked him not to, fearing to make matters worse. I begin to wish I had a pistol.

On the brighter side of things: Otis Wollan stopped by yesterday, and we went over to see Newsom about an ad in the Auburn Journal.”

Russell Towle's journal
* [This person was disgruntled about non-residents’ use of the privately maintained Moody Ridge Road to access the Lovers Leap viewpoint—which is itself on public BLM land—and he was very angry at Russell for calling attention to it.  – Gay ]

Date: Fri, 25 May 2001 22:01:42 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: The Paleobotanist Trail

Hi all,

Today I GPSed the Paleobotanist Trail, which leads down into the Gold Run Diggings and provides one way of getting to the head of the Canyon Creek Trail. I also GPSed the positions of twenty or so petrified wood sites in that part of the diggings. On the pine-clad bluffs near the trailhead I saw a group of 50 to 100 Phantom Orchids. I have never seen more than seven at one place before, and actually, I think of them as quite rare.

I made a web page with some photos of the trail and of some of the petrified wood, and some descriptions of the area. It is at
[That link is now defunct; find the page archived here: ]

Russell Towle

Map and Key to the Paleobotanist Trail
Garrett Rd. is accessed off Magra Rd., reached from the Gold Run exit,
south side of I-80 west of Dutch Flat.

Date: Sun, 25 May 2003 13:28:33 -0800
To: North Fork Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Return to New York Canyon
[There are excellent photos to illustrate the following adventure account, on Russell's compilation CD, “Nine Expeditions to New York Canyon”. I'm about to publish that, in digital book form. Watch the right sidebar. –Gay ]
Hi all,

The 567-foot waterfall in New York Canyon is difficult to approach. It is even difficult to obtain a view of the thing, as it crashes down a west-facing cliff, a mile removed from the main canyon of the North Fork American. Since the beginning of April I have been planning a return; a year past I had climbed to a knoll half a mile distant, with most of the falls in view. "This time," I promised myself, "this time I will reach the very base of the waterfall, be drenched in its spray, admire rainbows from many different points, and photograph it again and again."

But no.

Part of the problem with this gigantic hidden waterfall is simply gaining access to its general vicinity. If one waits for the snow to melt, drives up the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road to Sailor Flat, and uses the trail of that name, the falls will have ebbed into quiescence. They are on the east branch of New York Canyon, perhaps one quarter mile above its confluence with the west branch; both branches flow north, as does the main trunk of the creek, which joins the North Fork American a scant mile west from Sailor Canyon. The basin feeding these falls is small, only a few square miles at best. The Foresthill Divide, at the headwaters, runs just shy of 7000' elevation.

The rest of the problem has to do with the cliff-bound majesty of the terrain surrounding the falls, and the almost untracked wilderness of New York Canyon.

The wonderful North Fork American River Trail, which runs from Mumford Bar on the west to Sailor Canyon on the east, and measures a good deal longer than the seven miles indicated on the Forest Service signs, makes for the lowest-elevation approach. The Mumford trailhead is at 5400' elevation, the river below at 2600', a descent, then, of nearly 2800'.

The storms of all April and early May kept me from this adventure. Two weeks ago I learned that the Foresthill road up to the Mumford Bar Trail was open. Attempts to interest others in hiking up to the falls failed. Finally, with the recent hot weather making drastic inroads upon our snowpack, I had to act. With my stepson, Gus, I drove to the trailhead Thursday afternoon, and at 3:30 p.m. we were striding down the rocky path, forty-two switchbacks between us and the river below.

A few patches of snow persisted near the top of the trail. It descends north-facing slopes and stays almost entirely within the shelter of forests: old-growth forests at top and bottom, with giant Douglas Fir and Ponderosa and Sugar pines; and Kelloggs Black Oak groves being overwhelmed by shade-tolerant Douglas Fir over much of the middle reaches. In some areas the conifers have won the war, and almost all oaks are just dead ghostly grey trunks. Elsewhere the conifers have not yet fully overtopped the oaks, and they will live, for some few more years, side by side. This is the legacy of fire suppression. The same scene is being enacted throughout the Sierra.

We reached the river at five and scarcely paused before heading east on the North Fork Trail. The south canyon wall juts forth and recedes almost rhythmically. When it juts, the trail traverses sunny rocky openings, with wide views of the dramatic cliffs and spurs across the canyon. When the canyon wall stands back, glacial outwash terraces support rich forests, suffused with springs. Bigleaf Maples, of a size I have never seen elsewhere in the Sierra, form almost pure stands on some of these wet terraces. Their fresh new leaves were not yet at full size, and retained that luminous golden green, that wonderful glow of youth, which fades so quickly.

At the base of Beacroft Trail, which like the Mumford heads up along Foresthill road, Gus was fading fast. It was seven p.m. I unfolded my detailed geologic map of the area and showed him the camping spot I hoped to reach, one mere air mile east. It was rocky there, I explained. The mosquitos would be, well, not so bad. Since we were being absolutely swarmed at the time, we shouldered our packs and moved along.

A certain side trail, badly overgrown, had caught my eye a year ago, and I felt certain it would lead us to this fabled rocky area I had seen from afar. The river was bounded by an inner gorge, and several natural lawns were set above among ice-polished waves of rock, beside the gorge. It was directly below the east summit of Big Valley Bluff, a 3500' cliff on the north wall of the canyon, and near the confluence of Big Valley itself.

Across Tadpole Canyon on the monstrous bridge, in and out of ravines, up and down, and then just up, we trudged along. On the USGS Duncan Peak 7.5 minute quadrangle, the highest-resolution map available, this trail is drawn closely paralleling the river, without any ups and downs, without any ins and outs. This is so incredibly, so laughably, so sadly far from the truth. The map also errs in depicting the confluence of Big Valley Creek with the river; it enters slightly east of where the map would have it. The terrain there is complex, with many small dome-like masses of the siliceous metasandstones of the Shoo Fly Complex, all threaded through with white quartz veins, and the aerial photographs from which our topographic maps are made must be difficult to interpret.

I have contacted the USGS at both its Menlo Park and Denver offices, in an effort to correct some of the more drastic errors on local maps, but they have not replied. The important business of sitting at their computers doubtless leaves little time for improving the accuracy of their maps.

At any rate, heading east on the main trail, at a certain point a large waterfall in the lower gorge of Big Valley, across the river and slightly east and upcanyon, comes into partial view. This baby seems to be at least one hundred feet high, and a lot of spray boils up from its base. One is climbing through mixed Black Oak-Canyon Live Oak-Bay Laurel forest, with occasional Douglas Fir; the trail is often a ledge, cut from the rock. In another hundred yards or so the waterfall comes into full view. The secret trail is between those two viewpoints. While there is really nothing else like it, near, it could easily be missed. In order to more fully divulge the secret, on the Duncan Peak quadrangle, where the large word "Tahoe" (part of "Tahoe National Forest") intersects the small words "American River Trail," the "O" in Tahoe is very near the secret camp; but, as noted above, the American River Trail is actually much higher and to the south.

I made one pass with the loppers as we descended, on steep switchbacks, some two hundred feet to a terrace of glacial outwash, supporting a grove of Canyon Live Oaks. The fabled rocks were close by, the lawns, too wet for good camping, and too charming to mar by bad camping, so we set up within the grove, where mining relics of many eras were scattered about. Also scattered was more recent garbage: a bulky raft, a sleeping bag, three pairs of shoes, plastic grocery bags, bottles, cans, gas cans etc. etc. etc. It took about an hour just to get it rounded up in one place. About four backpack loads would do to haul it up and out. Every single steel can and old cooking pot had been riddled with bullet holes. The aluminum soda cans, meanwhile, had been pierced by the teeth of bears. Since the place is dominated by the ragged cliffs of Big Valley Bluff, I call it Bluff Camp. It has great views, and some of the best swimming holes along this entire reach of the North Fork. The 3000-foot contour crosses the river nearby.

The river was roaring and hissing, loud as could be, bank-full, and mated Mergansers were diving into a maelstrom of white water just below the camp. The last light of day lit up the summit of Snow Mountain, a few miles east, with a goodly amount of snow remaining on those warmest slopes which faced us; at least, above the 7000' level.

Several generations of cabins likely occupied Bluff Camp. The remains of several old wood stoves spoke to this, as did the two sets of bed springs, each propped up off the ground, dark with the rust of ages, offering a refuge from the teeming rattlesnakes. Gus slept on one set of springs, I chose to brave the vicious snakes on the ground.

A small spring flows nearby, in a sort of channel between the waves-of-polished-rock and the main canyon slope, and driftwood showed that during the January 1997 flood event the river had overtopped its thirty-foot-deep inner gorge and swept through the spring-channel and across part of the terrace.

Sleep was uneven, and at four in the morning I awoke, stars glittering through the veil of branches, and after half an hour, gave up on repose and started the fire for coffee. Not long after, before five, the first sweet songs of the Black-headed Grosbeaks began. The stars were fading. After my usual two mugs of coffee I grabbed the loppers and worked on the trail leading out east along the spring-channel to the waves-of-polished-rock. Returning, I traded loppers for camera and was back on the rock swells as dawn's first light hit the east summit of Big Valley Bluff. I took many photographs, and found a very pretty patch of Harlequin Lupine on one of the wet lawns.

Later, exploring all of the terrace, I found other fire-rings, more garbage, the remains of a cabin rotted to ground level, and more old iron relics. Visiting the river on the short trail from our camp, I noted that it had dropped perhaps six inches overnight.

Eventually Gus got up and we ate some Grape Nuts and gathered our gear and struggled up the steep switchbacks to the main trail. It was about 7:30. We had a bit more than three air miles to reach New York Canyon, and left Gus's pack, and my sleeping bag and pad, and some odds and ends of food, on the main trail. Striking out east, we soon reached the best viewpoint for the big falls in Big Valley canyon, and I engaged in some acrobatics, climbing Canyon Live Oaks with my loppers, holding on to trunks with my legs only, and lopping off branches to open the view. This was a rousing success. Then we were off again, climbing up higher and higher, crossing great glaciated outcrops of the Shoo Fly Complex, with wonderful views, admiring the two waterfalls issuing from the two hidden valleys of Sugar Pine Point, the lower, more easterly fall leaping quite clear of the cliff in a tiny plume of white. I wish I could see that waterfall at higher flows. Two or three weeks ago it would have been impressive to astounding.

Near the east edge of one of these sunny open areas, a large dark reddish-brown bear confronted me on the trail. It was such a fine figure of a bear, glossy fur, roly-poly, all of four hundred pounds I'd say, its head seeming too small in proportion to its great rounded bulk. Long before I could get my camera ready, in an instant, really, it turned and scampered off. I remarked to Gus that it was a good thing we were chasing Mr. Bear away from our gear and food, which out of haste I had not bothered to hang up out of reach.

We never saw our big bear again; he had scuffed up the ground in his haste to escape, ignoring switchbacks and making rapid steep descents, by the look of things.

In another opening, where flowers grew lushly from full sun and seeping springs combined, I saw hundreds of Death Camas, a lily-family native, with a somewhat conical inflorescence, of some dozens of small whitish six-petaled flowers (actually, three sepals, three petals, but, why get too precise). I rarely ever see this species, although I did see one solitary individual in Giant Gap a month ago, on some wet cliffs.

Finally the lovely meadows just west of New York Canyon appeared, marred by fire-rings and with heaps of garbage half hidden in the trees. Beyond, some lovely forest, a grove of large, fire-scarred, leaning Incense Cedar, a mining ditch, and then, at long last, New York Canyon.

We rested for a few minutes. I consulted my geologic map. My idea was to climb up the west side of New York Canyon, hoping to strike an old miners' trail climbing to the south. Setting off, we retreated west a ways before circling back towards the creek, and almost immediately found the very old trail I had dreamed might exist. With much lopping we pushed south, not so high above the creek as I had expected. The forest was rich, and of much the same makeup as we had been seeing, but with the addition of Pacific Dogwoods just entering upon full bloom. There were occasional ancient giants of Douglas Fir and pine. The creek was bank-full, quite pretty, with many short cascades which insensibly increased in sound and fury as we made our way into steeper parts of the canyon. Suddenly a few huge fallen trees confused the line of the trail, but we regained it, just as it began a steep climb of perhaps two hundred feet, to an old mining ditch. The trail then followed the ditch up the canyon to the south, badly overgrown, so that my tally of branches and small trees lopped was climbing into the hundreds. I especially detest small Douglas Fir on the uphill sides of trails. They will plague the trail with their branches for decades to come. Best just to take them out altogether. We only have about a hundred million too many small Douglas Fir in this part of the Sierra.

Finally the ditch converged upon its source, the creek. A suspiciously well-defined game trail switched back west and north up the hill, and we followed it until it split into multiple threads. We began contouring along southward again, hoping to regain a decent human trail, but instead ran into cliffs, and made the mistake of contriving our way in among them, with little feats of derring-do gradually becoming almost silly risks involving narrow ledges in very steep terrain. We began to debate whether to climb straight up and out of this rapidly intensifying nightmare, when two waterfalls, one above the other, came into partial view, not far ahead. So we stayed the course and visited the falls. They were quite impressive, each about forty feet, and each also quite broad. A very fine pool separated them. They are so deeply ensconced within this cliffy gorge, that they must be very rarely seen.

After clambering around to gain different views of the falls, we pawed our way straight up another two hundred or three hundred feet and struck a seeming segment of old human trail. This, too, we managed to lose, and could not take the time to scout around and about, but just pressed on and up and to the south. Soon we reached the confluence of the east and west forks of New York Canyon. This is scarcely one mile above the North Fork, but seems like two miles, and counts as three, considering the difficulty of the scramble.

We could see a bit of the Big Falls, about a quarter-mile distant, and also had glimpses of large waterfalls very near to us in the west fork. Between the two forks stands a bulky, squared-off mass of very steep rock. It has the form of a glacially-truncated spur, a common landform in the upper North Fork. Cliffs were everywhere, surrounding this strange gigantic hollow of many waterfalls. We climbed higher in search of better views, and found a dome of glaciated chert which made for the perfect lookout, standing free of the gnarled forest of Canyon Live Oak.

For the first time I could see the main waterfalls of the West Fork of New York Canyon, dropping many hundreds of feet, in four or five giant steps, and with a dark deep pool at the base of each fall. One was a double waterfall, splitting around a rock near the top. It was all dauntingly steep, and climbing rope would be required, I should think, to reach some or most of the gem-like pools. Other fine waterfalls were undoubtedly hidden from our view, farther up the gorge.

We could also see the uppermost several hundred feet of the Big Falls on the East Fork. The topographic map suggests these falls face north, but they actually face much to the west. I doubt, even more now, the stories I've heard, that one can gain a view of them by veering off the Sailor Flat Trail near Oak Flat. If one did find a view, it would be quite from the side.

It was past noon. We had quite a long tramp ahead, to reach the car by sunset, with a strength-sapping climb of almost three thousand feet at day's end. Although the Big Falls seemed so close, experience had shown that it could easily take an hour to reach the falls and return. There was no possibility of following the creek itself; we would have to climb onto the broad truncated spur between the two forks, and traverse the cliffs somehow, and likely as not find it impossible to descend again to the base of the falls. Before settling the issue, we dropped down to the very confluence itself and I scouted around, unsuccessfully, for a tiny sliver of Triassic limestone shown on my map. After much hemming and hawing we finally decided against trying to get any closer to the Big Falls.

I was not much disappointed. What we had dared and done was so amazing in itself; the entire scene so drastically wild and hauntingly beautiful, so cloistered and hidden away and separate from the great canyon of the North Fork. A ton of lopping had weakened me, and Gus had started the day with very sore legs. It was time to head out.

We tried our best to hold the highest line of human trail and connect through to the ditch and the lower trail, but failed. Simple bushwhacking eventually dovetailed into the upper end of the ditch, and we made good time down to the main trail, and in a couple hours we reached our gear, all safe and unmolested by bears. I did note that Mr. Bear had indeed continued west down the trail, after his great fright, but veered off before reaching our cache, heading for Bluff Camp by the short short route, no trail, just right down the canyon wall.

After a rest, during which I checked my feet to confirm that, yes, blisters were indeed in progress, we set off west at a moderate pace. We met two pairs of fishermen, dripping with sweat, on their way in; one asked if there were any calm pools, higher in the canyon. I replied in the negative. The North Fork was really raging, Friday being especially hot; I'm sure it was in the mid-eighties down there in the canyon.

Finally we reached the base of the Mumford Bar Trail. Our humble desire to rest was thwarted by clouds of mosquitos. I had wisely left my mosquito repellent at home, you see. So we began the long climb. Gus had passed his limit of endurance, and was forced into a very very slow pace. I kept to my own slow pace, which was much faster than his. Around half-way up I stopped to wait. It was a little after seven, and a golden light lanced into the forest here and there. In half an hour he ambled up. I took his sleeping bag and added it to my load, gave him the flashlight just in case, and once again set off slowly, and once again soon left him far behind.

I reached the car around 8:30, rested, waited, backed the car down to the first patch of snow, shouted, waited, shouted, waited, and finally as darkness set in started back down the trail. I loathed the idea of taking one more step on level ground, and here I was going down! So I stopped and hollered. Then went further down. Hollered. Further. Hollered. Admired the masses of flowering dogwoods. Hollered. An answer! So I hustled on down and grabbed his pack and we slowly slowly climbed that last quarter-mile to the car. Gus was a complete wreck, and I was not much better. We had walked around eighteen miles, with something on the order of 4500' elevation gain, in one long day.

We skipped the Iowa Hill Road in favor of simplicity, driving down through Foresthill and Auburn before turning east on I-80, reaching home around 10:30. Such was an amazing, but too strenuous, adventure in the North Fork.


Russell Towle

Small Flying Creatures
May 25, 2007

California Tortoise-shell Butterfly, commonly found near ceanothus
(Nymphalis californica)

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