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The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann

Appendix II

As this is a more or less staggering compendium of related facts about the Yosemite National Park not to be found elsewhere between one set of covers, a thumbnail sketch of the available trails by which a man might, in the first decade after its discovery, make his way to and around Yosemite is pertinent.

Most important were the various ramifications of the Mono Trail : Coming west, this much-used Indian thoroughfare left the Mono Lake country; came through Bloody Canyon (which has its beginning in the Mono Pass immediately south of Mount Gibbs); through Tuolumne Meadows; split and went either side of Lake Tenaya. Shortly after the two sections separated, a branch trail forked from the section which led south of the lake and headed south of Yosemite, passing north of Cathedral Peak and south of Half Dome, crossing Little Yosemite Creek about 1 1/2 miles above Nevada Fall, continued southwest, crossing Illillouette and Bridal Veil Creeks. Near the latter, two sheep herders, Westfall and Ostrander, had their cabins and, in 1869, Charles F. Peregoy built his “Mountain View House,” used mainly as a noon stop by travelers. The trail forked here and a branch descended sharply nearly 3,000 feet, via what was later Inspiration Point, to the lower end of the Valley floor. This was the descent by which the discoverers entered, having worked their way eastward from the western portion of this trail. Reaching this fork near Bridal Veil Creek the westbound traveler who did not wish to go down into Yosemite might cross a divide; go south down Alder Creek; leaving it, go six miles farther south downhill to Galen Clark’s ranch; thence over a high ridge and down Chowchilla Creek southwest to White and Hatch’s; thence about 12 miles to the “Mariposa Estate,” owned by John Charles Fremont.

This was later roughly the course of the Mann brothers’ trail.

Getting back to Lake Tenaya and the trails that had split to go north and south of it: At the west end of the lake they met again and the reunited trail kept north of Yosemite, crossing Yosemite Creek about two miles above the falls; went southwest over a divide to a point just east of Ribbon (or Virgin’s Tears) Creek where it again divided. The southern fork proceeded to what was later Gentry’s Station and descended the cliff just west of El Capitan along a route which (being widened, graded and much improved) became approximately the “Zigzag,” the last lap of the Big Oak Flat Road to the floor of the Valley. The northern fork crossed Cascade Creek; thence through Tamarack Flat. Thence they kept on the ridge northeast of North Crane Creek; thence down to what was later Hodgdon’s from whence on northwest it assumed, in mining days, the name “Big Oak Flat Trail” and later “Big Oak Flat Road.”

At Crane Flat a branch broke away to travel westward along the backbone of Crane Flat Ridge and Pilot Peak Ridge; finally dipping into Bull Creek at or near Anderson Flat; thence on to the San Joaquin Valley. This was close to and the inspiration for the course of the Coulterville Free Trail.

According to Bunnell (Discovery of the Yosemite, p. 321) most of the Indian trails were originally unfit for pack animals. Forward-looking men soon began to widen and blaze them so they could be recognized even with snow on the ground. Some were toll trails, made for profit. Some were not. The year 1856 saw much activity along this line. The brothers, Houston and Milton Mann, a livery stable firm from Mariposa, slashed out a trail which followed the south fork of the Merced River, crossing it at what is now Wawona (old Clark’s Ranch) and forming a saddle trail from Mariposa to Yosemite. Hutchings (In the Heart of the Sierras, p. 98) states that it was completed as a toll trail in August, 1856. Whitney stated (in The Yosemite Book, p. 19) that the trail led from “White & Hatches” to Yosemite and was later purchased by the County of Mariposa for $200 and made toll free. It was more difficult but afforded the best views.

In the same year George Washington Coulter, Lafayette Bunnell and others cleared a path from Bull Creek (which was already connected with Coulterville by a crude road) via Hazel Green eastward to Crane Flat. It appears on maps of the time as “The Coulterville Free Trail.” Bunnell wrote (in Discovery of the Yosemite, pp. 315-316): “In locating the Coulterville trail little or no aid was afforded me by the Indian trails that existed at that time; for horses had not seemingly been taken into the valley on the north side, and the foot trails used by the Indians left no traces in the loose granite soil of the higher ridges, but what were soon obliterated by the wash from the melting snow. Where trails were found, they had been purposely run over ground impassable to horses, and they were, consequently, unavailable for our use.”

In the next year, 1857, the western part of the Mono Trail (leading through Big Oak Flat) was cleared and blazed by Tom McGee, following very closely in the original foot trail. Some of these blazes are still visible. They were so placed as only to be seen on the right-hand side of the trail no matter in which direction one passed. The earlier blazes—for instance those of Tom McGee—are simple slashes made with a hand ax. Later the cavalry made large and definite “T’s.” One of these is still prominent on the cliff-side trail beyond the log barrier at Gentry’s.

The combined Coulterville and Big Oak Flat Trail, after striking the Valley floor, proceeded, somewhat as does the modern north-side highway but closer to the river, to a point near the Three Brothers where the small stream called Eagle Creek flows into the river. Here, on the sand and gravel washed in by the creek, the pack trains forded and made their way up the south side of the Valley to where the habitations were beginning to be constructed.

After 1870 a low-level saddle trail was opened through the Merced Canyon and called “Hite’s Cove Route.”

This, with the addition through the years of a ferry and sundry bridges, was the picture until, in 1874, the Coulterville and the Big Oak Flat Roads made their respective entries into the Valley.

So much for the pre-road trails. Over them the Indians and then the early settlers came to Yosemite.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management