June 20 (1982, 1987, 2001, 2003, 2005)
Double Rainbow ~ “Talus Sea” of Royal Gorge

6/20/82 [...]

There've been thunderstorms three days in a row. The day before yesterday H. And I saw a glorious rainbow as we struggled out of Ginseng Ravine, drenched by huge warm raindrops. It was a double bow, and persisted for over an hour, quite bright, with the primary bow showing an odd series of additional bands along its inner edge. Ron La Lande said the inner bands were green and purple. Perhaps sunlight reflecting off the forest caused them to appear.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

6/20/87 [...]

Yesterday's meeting with TNF officials seemed to go well; Matt Bailey and Eric Peach were in attendance. Geri Larson didn't make it; there's been a shakeup in the Regional Office and she had to attend a meeting there; but Frank Waldo, deputy supervisor, Bill Davis, Landscape architect, and Rich Johnson, Foresthill District Ranger, listened patiently to our concerns and offered advice about how best to proceed.

We went out to Big Valley Bluff and then to Iron Point, and then later Lovers Leap. Waldo opined that he preferred the former to the latter. Quite a few clearcuts have now come into view from Big Valley Bluff.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Wed, 20 Jun 2001 10:01:09 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Lost Camp Hike

Hi all,

A hike is planned from Lost Camp (near Blue Canyon), down to the North Fork of the North Fork American, on Saturday, June 23. We will meet at the Dutch Flat exit on I-80 at 10 A.M., in the gas station parking area, near the pay phone and picnic tables on the "island" there. From there it is about ten miles up to Blue Canyon and then a couple of miles in on a somewhat rough dirt road, passable for passenger cars if driven with care.

Lost Camp is a ghost town which had its gold mining "boom" in 1858-59. There are deposits of Eocene-age river gravels there, and several hydraulic mine pits. It is about 4500 feet in elevation. The trail switches back and forth down to the river. It used to continue across to Sawtooth Ridge and Texas Hill, but on the far side of the river the old trail has been obliterated by logging roads and landings.

The trail drops about 1500 feet and is perhaps a mile long or so. It is thus comparable to the Canyon Creek Trail, but is mostly in the shade. The plan is to rock-hop upstream to a remarkable gorge area with a couple of deep pools and quite a few waterfalls. Depending on how ambitious you are, you can either stay at the first pool or explore further to see the waterfalls. This part of the North Fork of the North Fork is eroded into the ancient slates and metasandstones of the Shoo Fly Complex. Despite the logging on the east side of the river, the canyon retains a very wild aspect and has been proposed for inclusion in the federal Wild & Scenic Rivers program.

The hike is probably best thought of as moderately strenuous to strenuous. I'm going to try to talk my kids into going, ages 9 and 11. They've been there before.

There is a little uncertainty about the Lost Camp area; there may be an active timber harvest going on there. I have urged Tahoe National Forest to try to acquire the private lands at the head of the trail for years. Maybe we can write a group letter to TNF while we're relaxing down by the river.

Hope to see you!

Date: Fri, 20 Jun 2003 13:46:07 -0800
To: North Fork Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Expedition to Royal Gorge

Hi all,

Throughout this spring I have planned and imagined two hikes in the upper North Fork: an approach to New York Canyon's big waterfall via Mumford Bar Trail and the North Fork American River Trail; and an ascent of the canyon through the Royal Gorge, to Palisade Creek if possible.

In both cases, the idea was to get in there while the snow-melt was still in full swing, so that the waterfalls would be seen at near maximum flows. In both cases I arrived a little late, but, better late than never. Today I am stiff and sore, scratched, mosquito-chomped, and sunburned, all signs that another adventure on the North Fork has been completed.

Son Greg and I met Ron Gould at ten Tuesday morning and made the long drive up to Sailor Flat in Ron's 4WD truck. Near Canada Hill we saw an old gent on the road, with a bit of a French-Foreign-Legion-style head-dress, gone native, as it were, and, having seen him just a few days past in that same area, we paused to chat. He is an Auburnite who escapes almost daily, drives to Ford Point, and then walks up to Robinson Flat and back. Learning we were on the way to Sailor Flat, he warned us of a schoolbus-load of young Christians, parked at the Flat.

Sure enough, a large white gleaming bus with the insignia of some church in San Diego stood beside the road, and fresh truck tracks down the Sailor Flat Road suggested that the kids had been ferried down to the trailhead. This was confirmed when we arrived at the end of the sometimes-steep jeep trail, to find several 4WD vehicles, and the last few stragglers just setting out, including one adult, who said there were fifty kids from two or more churches in the party. He said he had been bringing church youth groups in on the Sailor Flat Trail for seventeen years.

This is quite a large number of people to take into this wild canyon at one time. I begin to understand the large cross erected on the edge of the inner gorge just above Big Granite Creek.

It was Greg's first time using a frame backpack, and he did fairly well. We passed a dozen or so of the church party kids on the way down, and then hove up behind another dozen as the trail began to near the creek and the one, most convenient waterfall began to be heard. We planned to stop there for our first break, and I began to indulge in fearful fantasies of evangelical zealots swarming around the pretty pool, raising flags perhaps, erecting crosses, perhaps intoning hymns. One of the kids ahead asked if that was the river, below, and an adult leader answered that it was "New York Canyon" and that there was a great swimming hole below, but that the only way to it was to slide straight down a long ways on your butt.

I pulled Greg and Ron back and whispered the Good News: some of them, at least, did not know of the secret trail, the old mining ditch which leads ever so directly to the pool below the falls. And when we got there, we had the place to ourselves. Thank God.

An active ouzel nest was beside the top of the falls, which plunge about twenty feet or so into a perfect pool with a large white log jammed cross-ways, about four to six feet above water level, forty or fifty feet long. This is fun to walk on.

Ron and I swam, if you could call it that: a plunge in followed immediately by a panicky scramble back out. It was cold. It was wonderful.

After a good long break, and with the steep part of the trail behind us, we sailed on down the trail to the river and bore sharp right on a faint track which winds back into Sailor Canyon just above the confluence with the North Fork. The river was clear as could be and running fairly high, boding well for the falls in the Royal Gorge. We scarcely paused at Sailor Canyon but climbed the faint track up and out to the east to the high trail up to Wildcat Canyon.

Two years ago, this trail was plagued by numerous fallen trees. The trees remain, but are much easier to cross, now that many side-branches have broken away. All in all, the Sailor-Wildcat trail is in excellent shape. Ron and I had our loppers out and took care of many an obnoxious Bay Laurel branch and young Douglas Fir.

At Wildcat Canyon we stopped for another break. It was perhaps 1:30 p.m., and the day had set up middling hot. I knew that just ahead we would find an extraordinary, gently sloping and rolling ocean of gigantic talus. There must be some best way to cross it, but where? Our trail had led us down to Wildcat creek itself, and an eastward continuation was likely. I followed the most obvious line, and saw that it was just so.

Hoping this trail would lead to an easy crossing of the Talus Sea, we followed it as it climbed steeply before leveling off. If you examine the Royal Gorge quadrangle you will see a large patch of gently-sloping terrain just east of the creek. Our trail led us up through this patch, and soon we realized that we were heading south, not east as we must, but south, and we could hear Wildcat Creek a couple hundred feet below us, on the right.

Finally we just turned away and struck out east through fairly open oak woodland to the Talus Sea. I stepped over a small rattlesnake without seeing it. No harm, no foul.

This Talus Sea is, I think, several thousand years old. The huge, sharply-angular blocks of rock are darkly encrusted with lichen. Across the canyon to the north, a large talus fan descends the side of Snow Mountain to the river; and this fan is notable because there is a large area at its foot of dark rock, and a large area at its center and top of very light rock.

The light rock is the younger, the dark the older part of the fan. So I think that the Talus Sea actually came from Snow Mountain in one catastrophic episode, who knows, maybe ten thousand years ago, just after the North Fork glacier retreated up the canyon.

It would be every interesting to do cosmogenic dating of the light- and dark-colored talus on the Snow Mountain side, and of blocks in the Talus Sea. Large rockslides are known to sometimes capture and entrain so much air, below and within the mass of moving rocks, that the air acts as a lubricating cushion and allows the millions of tons of stone to move long distances and even climb up slopes. This is how I imagine the Talus Sea to have formed. It originated in a cliff perhaps 1500 feet above the North Fork, on Snow Mountain. A terribly, terribly huge mass of rock fell away. In the first few seconds it reached the river and the leading edge of the rock storm instantly filled the inner gorge. The remaining ninety-nine one-hundredths of the rock storm crossed over and swept up the gentle slopes south of the river, came to rest, and left this strange rolling sea of stone prisms and tetrahedra and parallelepipeds, a sea about half a mile across. It is an amazing place.

We contoured along in all the intricacy of path and progress a Talus Sea demands, up, down, left, right, balancing for instants on razor-thin rock blades before swerving to find the next instantaneous stance on some other impossible perch. It was rather hot and shade was rarer than rare. Nearing the eastern edge of the talus, we saw some cairns, and were led down to the river, near a lovely grove of Incense Cedar and pine, at the west end of a long barren gravel bar. Here we found the only sign that other people had entered this part of the canyon so far this year: a fire-ring, and some footprints. The spot was in the bleakest, most barren part of the long narrow spit of boulders, sand and gravel. We did not at first understand why. For the view?

The view was amazing. To the north, the ragged cliffs of Snow Mountain rose three thousand feet before bending out of view, the upper one thousand feet below the summit hidden. To the south, the even steeper and more well-formed cliffs of Wildcat Point. To the east, Wabena Point with its petroglyphs, and Wabena Canyon implied, but not yet really visible, entering from the right; and on the left, the several huge talus fans along the base of Snow, just downstream from Wabena. We planned to camp at Wabena.

It was more fun to follow the river than to search for some possible high trail, so we scooted along low, and did quite well for a long ways. We were forced high onto a talus fan, but soon regained the river and only just managed to follow it on up to Wabena. There was quite a bit of almost-acrobatics and climbing up and down and by now we were all in a haze of exhaustion and overheating. At last we reached the Wabena flood plain, an area of some twenty acres or so which contains multiple channels amid rocky debris, with some sandy flats, and a fairly open forest of Canyon Live Oak, Incense Cedar, and Bigleaf Maple. We found a little alcove of sand opening to the river's edge and set up camp. It was about five p.m.

I had expected little trouble from mosquitoes, as this area is so very rocky, with cliffs everywhere, and the desolate flood plain beside us, and only a little forest. However, that little forest proved to be more than enough to breed an astounding population of frisky young mosquitoes, and as sunset approached we were swarmed. The bare gravel at water's edge made for our best refuge, and we slathered on repellent to seemingly little effect. The sunset was nice, and we watched as the sky slowly darkened, and first Venus, and then real stars, appeared. The North Star sat just above the east shoulder of Snow Mountain, 3000 feet above us.

The night was very warm. I should think it scarcely dropped to 70 degrees, there at 3700 feet. I awoke around two in the morning to find Greg sleeping soundly beside me, entirely out of his sleeping bag. Fortunately the mosquitos had also gone to bed.

After a leisurely breakfast Wednesday morning, we left most of our gear at camp and set out up the Royal Gorge with only a little food and drink and our cameras. It was a little after eight. Wabena Falls was awesome, still in shadow, with no real chance of an approach from below, as is easily done later in the summer. We found a nice perch atop the cliffs to the south and took many pictures. The falls make a drop of about forty feet into a large round pool almost encircled by cliffs. Great masses of spray were whirling up, and the sound was very loud.

Continuing east, we stayed high and could see a pair of falls upstream, side-by-side; we called them Twin Falls, and found a way down to them. As we followed on up the canyon, we were often forced high above the river, and occasionally found segments of old human trail. There are a couple of talus slides which must be crossed. The several times I had been in the Royal Gorge before had all been later in the year, when the river is low enough to be forded easily. Right now it cannot be easily forded, and there is no way to jump across from boulder to boulder. This adds to the difficulty of traversing the Royal Gorge.

We came to Double Falls, one atop the other, very very impressive in sheer power and sound and fury of white water. Amid the heat of the day we would be bathed in great sudden masses of cold air from the waterfalls. It was wonderful. We saw a large garter snake swollen and misshapen from a recent meal.

Greg was all for turning back, but Ron and I wanted to continue, so we just outvoted him and picked our way up the gorge. Eventually we reached the contact zone between the metamorphosed diorites of the east part of the Tuttle Lake formation, and the unmetamorphosed granodiorite of Palisade Creek.

The contact is quite sharp, although a large mass of the Tuttle Lake fm. appeared a few yards east, entirely within the granite, which had penetrated it in thin dikes. Snow Mountain Falls, a long series of waterfalls in the one-hundred up to maybe two-hundred-foot range, dropping 3000 feet down the east face of Snow Mountain, came in view. Advancing another quarter-mile, perhaps, we reached Curtain Falls, which drop about twenty feet over a width of forty feet, into a large pool.

Here we rested long and well and climbed around and about. During our return to Wabena Creek we found more well-defined remnants of an old human trail, cut right in to the two principal talus slides, and even paved with smaller blocks, after fashion, within those slides. We did our best to open up the old trail with our loppers, but were unable to follow it in its entirety.

At camp we rested and rested and built up a good smoky fire to discourage the mosquitoes, in theory, had our suppers, and turned in early to sleep the sleep of the blessed, a cooler night helping us stay within our bags. Thursday morning I rose around five and made my two mugs of coffee and, loppers in hand, scouted west for a high trail which seemed only likely, considering the steep slides we had only barely managed to skirt along at river's edge on our way in, on Tuesday.

As I climbed higher above the floodplain, I found it, quite well-defined, but badly blocked by the ubiquitous Bay Laurel and the other usual culprits, Canyon Live Oak and Douglas Fir. I opened it up over the first hundred yards until it leveled out and all uncertainties as to its human provenance vanished. The deep hollows of bear-footprints, stepping again and again for years on end in the same spots, showed that this old human trail was the natural, easiest route west.

Returning, I found Ron and Greg still sound asleep. The sun rose unnoticed. After a good long while they emerged from their cocoons and, after breakfast, and some little explorations, in which Greg found a huge Mountain Kingsnake, we loaded up everything and set out down the canyon.

The old human trail stayed high and was easily followed at first, but at a certain talus slide we lost its thread and dropped briefly to the river before being forced higher and striking the old trail once again. Shortly it did in fact drop to near river level, and the long sequence of easy going between low ridges of gravel along the edge of the North Fork flood plain was a pleasure to walk. It looked much as though this was the true line of the old trail, subject only to the extremely high flows of flood events, otherwise dry.

We rested before climbing to the Talus Sea, and, so climbing, found more ancient cairns of rock stacked two and three feet high, in a line heading south and up towards the highest part of the rock ocean. From the highest cairn we could see no others, but Ron and I suspected that the route might well climb to the forest above the talus, and follow that very high line west to the Wildcat Trail.

We followed a somewhat higher line across than we had used on Tuesday, and without really trying, struck the exact point where we had entered the talus on the west, and after some twists and turns, regained Wildcat Trail. While Greg rested, Ron and I took the loppers and worked up the trail several hundred yards. At a certain point it suddenly became less well-defined, and a large forested flat opened to the east of us. Exploring this, we found the stump of a large Incense Cedar felled a century ago, and a lone old-time condensed milk can. A cabin site was likely near by, but Ron had heard some shouts from Greg, so we started back down, and found him worried by our long absence.

From Wildcat Creek it was easy going west to Sailor Canyon, and after more good long rests, stopping again at the same waterfall, we were on the ugly steeps of the upper trail.

Passing the La Trinidad Mine, we reached the second switchback from the top, and for the first time I explored on a short spur trail which appears to end immediately at a little prospect, but in fact continues another fifty yards or so to a wonderful overlook. For the first time ever I saw that part of Sailor Canyon is extremely barren and rocky, huge expanses of the Sailor Canyon formation scraped smooth by the glacier, and quite a long and lovely cascade in view on the creek. I took some photographs and then stood up to return to the main trail. To my horror, my camera case fell at my feet and tumbled slowly down the cliff.

"It will stop, there—no, there—it will stop, and I will, yes, horrors, climb down ten feet—no, twenty feet, no, thirty—damn! A hundred feet!" And I dashed to the side to keep the thing in view, as it slowly tumbled down and down and out of view. It contained 128 MB of photographs of our trip, the waterfalls, the snakes, the Talus Sea. It could not be just left behind. So I rushed back to Greg, explained I was climbing down to find the camera case, and told him to just wait.

Starting down the narrow gully where the case had disappeared, I dislodged loose rocks and realized that, supposing it had stopped, it might well be set off rolling again were a rock to bump it; so I stayed to one side and the other as I cautiously picked my way down extremely steep slopes. Around four hundred feet down, and not too far above Sailor Canyon creek itself, I found the thing. While slowly clambering up the cliffs and scree, I found several nice ammonite impressions in the rocks.

The last switchbacks seemed to take forever but we reached the truck at last and found that it had taken us seven hours, from Wabena Creek; surprisingly, a little longer than it had taken, going in on Tuesday.

Such was one of one of my all-time best adventures in the North Fork.


Russell Towle

Playing with a new camera, 6/20/05:


  1. Gay,

    Love the pictures of Greg ... if only he were as cute today as he was then ;-)

    The second entry is dated the 22nd but today is the 20th:
    “6/22/87 [...]
    Yesterday's meeting with TNF officials seemed to go well;

  2. What? Greg's even CUTER today, than he was then ;)

    Thanks for the typo-catch; I fixed it.