July 26 (1987, 1988, 2001, 2003)
The Eminence; or, Sunset Point

7/26/87 Sunday morning. Eric Peach just stopped by; he is taking a group of people into Giant Gap today. I went up and chatted with them for a while at the upper end of the meadow, where they're parking.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

7/26/88 morning, partly cloudy, vestiges of tropical moisture having endowed us with lightning, thunder, and enough rain to tantalize, not enough to lay dust. I haven't written herein for a while; the heat has been enervating, over 100 every day, and I have worked at Ed's only in the mornings, retreating to the shelter of the cabin afternoons. [...]

I finally began to lay flagstones at Ed's after laborious preparations involving six-by-sixes and boulders and wheelbarrow-loads of sand and the mixing of sack after sack of concrete. Getting muscular.

Trips to Salmon Lake, investigations of a large timber harvest proposed for the Castle Valley area, self-flailing's for not having done more, for not doing more.”

[Russell Towle's journal]

Shaded topographic map rendering by Russell Towle, July 26, 2001. Snow Mountain at upper left, defining the Royal Gorge section of the North Fork American River canyon. Duncan Canyon is lower left and middle; Middle Fork American River is lower right.
Click to enlarge.

Date: Sat, 26 Jul 2003 19:51:27 -0800
To: North Fork Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Giant Gap Ridge
Cc: Richard A Johnson, Rex Bloomfield

Hi all,

Last Thursday Catherine O'Riley and I took a look at some possible routes for the proposed Capitol-to-Capitol Trail. We want to see the trail located up along the canyon rim, on existing roads where suitable.

From Iowa Hill east, some excellent prospects are found. One problem is that the historic public road from Iowa Hill to Giant Gap Ridge, by way of Roach Hill and then along the south rim of the canyon in Giant Gap, has been gated closed, apparently within the last few years. This road dovetails neatly into Elliot Ranch Road, which continues along the south canyon rim above Green Valley, and then follows the rim of Humbug Canyon over to the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road.

Evidence that this is a historic public road include its depiction on old General Land Office maps, the first reasonably accurate government surveys of this part of the Sierra. My 1866 map of T15N R10E shows this very road from Iowa Hill to Giant Gap Ridge, by way of Roach Hill, as the principal road leading east from Iowa Hill. The road also appears on my 1929 GLO map.

At any rate, Catherine and I drove east on the Iowa Hill Road to Elliot Ranch Road (passing the left turn onto Roach Hill), turned left, and in about a mile Giant Gap Road forks left. After another mile, yet another road forks left again and heads west across the broad upland of Giant Gap Ridge. This is the road near the "a" and the "n" of the word "Giant" of "Giant Gap Ridge" on the Dutch Flat quadrangle. In something like half a mile this road reaches the canyon rim, and the line of the historic road. A sharp right leads back to the main Giant Gap Road (also part of the historic road). Turning left, the road closely parallels the canyon rim and descends gradually to the southwest.

The road had absolutely no tire tracks on it; it had not been driven yet this year. Much brush, mainly deerbrush, leaned out across our path, and we had to keep a sharp eye out for boulders. It would make for a lovely trail, and do quite well for horses, bikes and hikers. The great blue depths of Giant Gap are constantly in view, although usually masked by a screen of forest.

After a time another fork was reached. I believed we were in the vicinity of a particular cliff which juts into Giant Gap almost directly across from Big West Spur, and about a mile southwest of the Pinnacles. I have been calling this cliff The Eminence. We parked and I started scouting. I saw a promontory dimly through the thick forest of Kelloggs Black Oak, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, Canyon Live Oak, etc., and began thrashing down toward it, through much brush and poison oak. Eventually I struck an oddly broad game trail, and began exploring back and forth along it as Catherine picked her way through the poison oak above.

We crashed on down to a tiny rock blade jutting just barely free of the Canyon Live Oaks. From this narrow perch I could see The Eminence, a scant tenth of a mile west. So we clambered back up to the Big Game Trail and, loppers at work, followed it west, on an almost level line. Soon we broke free of the forest onto a grassy flat with boulders of andesite scattered about. We were on the crest of the spur ridge which would turn into solid rock and sheer cliffs somewhere below us.

A large patch of manzanita blocked our way down the ridge crest, so we broke out to the west and followed along through a forest of young Black Oaks and poison oak until the chance offered to regain the ridge. From there it was only a short walk down to the cliffs, which are cunningly fitted with natural stone thrones, from which one can survey all of Giant Gap, Lovers Leap, the Pinnacles, parts of the North Fork itself, the Gold Run Diggings, etc. etc.

After a good long visit we struggled back up to the road, and continued down along the canyon rim. However, a switchback suddenly turned us to the northwest, and I recalled that I had seen, on the Dutch Flat 7.5 minute quadrangle, a road switching back and forth, above Pickering Bar; the wrong road. So we retreated to the last fork, and started following the main road south and only slightly west towards Roach Hill.

The brush became much worse and we had to clip back bushes just to drive through. Eventually we parked, and began walking. We hoped to reach the houses on Roach Hill where the old road has been blocked. But after half a mile, and the sun sinking low, and no houses, we gave up and returned to the vehicle.

I didn't get home until 9:30.

The next day, consulting my Dutch Flat quadrangle, I became convinced that we had not reached The Eminence itself, but a minor cliff to the east. I was anxious to return and settle the issue. Calls to one, two, three, four people ensued, but no one was able to get away.

This morning I carefully stored waypoints into my GPS unit for Phase II. By looking at my 1928 GLO map with a magnifying glass, I could see that, quite near The Eminence, only a little east of it, was something called the Sunset Mine, and another little bit east from that mine, a cabin. So, by interpolating between the 1928 map and my geo-referenced Dutch Flat quadrangle on my computer, I was able to set and store waypoints for the mine and cabin, as well as The Eminence and all forks in the road. I printed out a map, showing all of Giant Gap Ridge, with all my waypoints on it.

I drove out this afternoon, through Colfax and Iowa Hill, and in an hour was back on the old road on the canyon rim. Reaching the fork which led to the False Eminence and to the switchbacks high above Pickering Bar, I fired up the GPS and walked down the road until I was as close to The Eminence as I could be.

Now, I should say that all those roads out there look a lot alike; I didn't recognize that I was almost exactly where Catherine and I had parked and explored down the hill; so I went merrily along, lopping myself silly—for who could doubt but that this Eminence must be one of the greatest viewpoints on the entire North Fork, and of course one hopes to return—and after a hot and trying time of it, broke into a sunny little grassy flat littered with boulders of andesite, and with a faint track beaten into the grass, and—and I then knew that Catherine and I had found the True Eminence, not a False Eminence. So I just turned back up the hill and lopped yet another route up to the road.

I was drenched in sweat and scratched all over. It was about 90 degrees, and maybe 2:00 p.m. I drank some Gatorade and took off my wet shirt. Looking at the map, I realized I was quite close to the Sunset Mine and the cabin. So, GPS in hand, I set out up the road. I wasn't planning on visiting the mine, yet, but only finding what point on the road was closest to the mine. As I walked I kept on thinking a deerfly was biting me; eventually I realized it was just sweat, pouring into my many scratches.

I found the point-of-closest-approach, and kept on walking. The fork was just ahead. This fork is in the north-central part of Section 14, and a third road cuts across to connect the two branches; so there is a kind of triangle of roads right there. Just north of this fork, a ravine descends to the North Fork, and the Sunset Mine, near as I could tell, must be down in that ravine.

Continuing back up the main road to the northeast, towards the cabin, I saw a lovely flat to the left, right on the rim of the canyon, and noted that someone had lopped many branches, in order to drive in there. I walked on in and found a neat hunters' camp. Was this also the cabin site? I saw no artifacts, and ranged gradually wider and wider, until I reached two huge Sugar Pines on the very edge of the canyon, right next to one another. A faint game trail led west, and I followed it, noting a somewhat rare, at this low elevation, direct and natural exposure of andesitic mudflow of the Mehrten Formation. I saw that I was barely within Sunset Ravine, and began scouting down. With no shirt, I had to be more cautious than usual. This caution really paid off, I have only one scratch more than six inches long, on my side.

At any rate, beguiled as usual by game trails which resembled human trails, I dropped lower and lower and then, voila, I found the mine. Three tunnels, about a hundred feet apart, are aligned at the same elevation, and cut into the pure bedrock, the Calaveras Complex metavolcanics of Giant Gap; only the tunnel in the main axis of the ravine is still open, the two others have caved in. There is no indication of a quartz vein; it looks to be a certainty that these tunnels were driven in hopes of reaching pay gravel under Giant Gap Ridge, where an ancient river channel is known to exist.

From the first tunnel, a well-defined trail led west to the second, and then to the third. The trail continued. There was no question but that it was an old human trail, and I began to wonder ... could this be the very same trail as the Big Game Trail Catherine and I had followed to The Eminence?

Soon enough I found lopped branches; yes, it is the very same trail. This trail had grown somewhat fainter as it approached The Eminence; surely it would switch back, or follow a steeper line, to gain the canyon rim? But I could find no evidence of that. It looks as though it may have just contoured right along to the Grassy Flat of the Andesite Boulders. From there, maybe, it finally climbed.

I saw no river gravels in the tailings. They probably never reached the old channel.

Once again I climbed to the road, rested at the car, and once again set off shirtless into the wilderness. This time Sunset Cabin was my objective. When I reached my waypoint, I found that I was near the twin giant Sugar Pines, and there was a grove of several huge old Black Oaks, beside the road. This must be the cabin site. I saw no artifacts.

I knew that one branch of Indian Canyon lay just to the south, and began winding through the woods in search of it. Soon I found a strange low, narrow ridge, about six feet high and ten feet across, at the base; it extended out of sight in both directions. I had no idea what it could be. I crossed it and headed toward the creek, if creek it would be, and soon crossed another ridge, and then another. I guess that these ridges are from an effort to build a fire break, probably at least thirty years ago, judging by the size of the pine trees growing on the ridges.

The forest was very dense, and mostly very young, but a few fairly large trees were scattered about. When I reached the bottom of the valley, I found a few small pools and springs. There was a charming mix of vegetation, with the large conifers, and an understory of Pacific dogwood, Madrone, White Alder, and so on. I was pleased to see a patch of Trilliums. But the going was very rough and tough and I broke back out the quarter-mile to the road. This is all BLM land, in the northern part of Section 14.

Examining the sacred grove of Black Oaks where Sunset Cabin had once stood, I saw that the BLM had flagged the site on three sides. So, they must be aware of the cabin. Of course there is nothing left in the way of wood; there have been several wildfires since, say, 1928, and one can see the big fire scars on most of the older trees.

Returning to the car, I drove back to Giant Gap Road, followed it out to the ultimate point of Giant Gap Ridge, and then hiked down the faint trail to the fine fine viewpoints, where one can look either east to the high country, or north into Giant Gap itself, or west to the Pinnacles, Gold Run, etc. etc. I could see the line of the Giant Gap Survey far below me, and see the east entrance to the West Tunnel. I took many photographs.

As I was about to leave I heard the sharp peeping of a bird, and wondered whether I might be close to a Goshawk nest. Looking above, I saw an immature Golden Eagle, with much white in the tail and wings, circling above. It stopped peeping and circled for a while. Then I slogged up the steep trail.

Thus concluded a very rewarding visit to Giant Gap Ridge.

Maybe The Eminence should be called Sunset Point.


Russell Towle

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