Category Archives: Historical Essays

Short stories or essays telling about facets of the history of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Sometimes the focus is on a place; sometimes on a person.

Historic People And Places: GORDON WALLACE

Since 1900, when the first summer rangers were hired at Sequoia National Park, thousands of young men and women have spent summers “rangering” in both Sequoia and its younger twin, Kings Canyon National Park.  For more than a century, these mostly young folks have made life-long friends, fallen in love, enjoyed great adventures, and done all those things that humans do when they are having fun. Surprisingly, however, young rangers have left us almost nothing in written form about their many experiences. This is why Gordon Wallace deserves a moment of appreciation.

Gordon Wallace first came to Sequoia as a twenty-five-year-old in June 1934, when, in desperation, he signed on with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Los Angeles. This Great Depression program put jobless young men to work for a dollar a day, and Wallace was glad to get the work in that grim economic time. After a few weeks at Fort McArthur in Los Angeles, Wallace was sent to the Salt Creek CCC camp two miles outside the Ash Mountain entrance to Sequoia National Park.

Wallace, working as a crew leader, spent the summer helping construct a fire road up to Salt Creek Ridge. He also had periodic opportunities to visit the nearby national park and get to know some of the personnel there. Wallace liked what he saw in the park, and the following April he walked up to Ash Mountain and knocked on the door of the superintendent’s residence there. (This building is now known as the “Research Center”)

When Superintendent John White answered, Wallace explained that he would like to become a park ranger. White, working in a system much more flexible than the modern one, invited Wallace in and talked to him for a while.  Liking what he found in the young man, White told him to come back in a day or two and talk to chief ranger Ford Spigelmyre.

Wallace did as he was told, and the park’s chief ranger offered him a summer position. After a quick visit to the B. B. McGinnis uniform store in Merced, where Wallace bought his knee-high boots, riding breeches, and Stetson on credit, he entered on duty as a park ranger on May 1, 1935.

Temporary park ranger Gordon Wallace spent his first summer working in the Giant Forest, where in the tradition of NPS rangers, he did a little bit of everything.  Living at the dormitory at Last Hill, just below Giant Forest Village, he shoveled snow, worked in the information booth, policed the campgrounds, cleaned restrooms, patrolled the highway, and generally had a great time. He even had time to fall in love with Hilda, the assistant postmistress. (The Last Hill dormitory still exists and is now the [relocated] small house at the western end of the Wolverton parking loop.)

Wallace spent the following winter working in the then-new Death Valley National Monument (also managed by Superintendent John White) and returned to Sequoia for a second season in 1936. To his surprise, he found himself assigned not to Giant Forest but rather to the Redwood Meadow Ranger Station, the primary backcountry station in the park’s Great Western Divide area.

Hilda had by this time moved on in her affections, and Wallace found at first solace and then real challenge in his backcountry assignment. Patrolling back and forth on horseback from Black Rock Pass in the south to Kaweah Gap and Elizabeth Pass in the north, Wallace reveled in the work and the freedom it offered.  The following summer, 1937, he came back to Redwood Meadow for another wonderful season along the Great Western Divide.

Pursuing a pattern that still sounds familiar, Wallace left the Park Service at the end of the 1937 season to take a permanent position with the Border Patrol. Two-and-a-half years later he was able to arrange a transfer between his new agency and the Park Service, and he returned to Sequoia, this time as a permanent ranger.

Wallace spent the spring of 1941 working as a ranger at Ash Mountain, dividing his time between the entrance station (then at Ash Mountain), road patrol, and projects in the chief ranger’s office. In June, responding to orders from the chief ranger, Wallace moved to the Kern Canyon Ranger Station, where he assumed responsibility for the eastern half of the park as sub-district ranger and spent the next two summers.  After that, joining many of his fellow rangers, Wallace volunteered for military service in the Second World War.

Wallace came back to Sequoia in 1946 and spent two additional summers in the Kern River backcountry. We know all this, and much more, about Wallace’s adventures because unlike nearly everyone else who has served as a temporary park ranger in the southern Sierra, Wallace eventually wrote down his story so that others could share it.

Wallace’s book, My Ranger Years, didn’t come out until 1993, by which time Wallace was in his mid-eighties and writing about events a full half-century earlier. The book nevertheless evocatively captures the detail and feel of a long-ago era.

If you’re enjoying your ranger summer, find a copy of Wallace’s book and follow him through his adventures. You’ll find him an engaging companion.

(My Ranger Years was published by the Sequoia Natural History Association in 1993. The book is out of print but available in most park libraries and through used book services on the web.)

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: BILL TUTTLE

The story of Bill Tuttle tells us about how things were done in the backcountry of Sequoia National Park in the days before helicopters and modern communications.

In the summer of 1946, twenty-seven-year-old Tuttle set out on a John Muir Trail hike with his brother Mark and friend Sam Siegel. All three thought they were entitled to a bit of wilderness escape. They had served as naval officers in the Pacific and had just been mustered out of the service in San Francisco. After several years of war, a hike in the High Sierra undoubtedly sounded attractive.

During the month of August, the three, all of whom had hiked in the Sierra before the war, worked their way southward along the Muir Trail and eventually found themselves in the Wallace Creek area, where they left the trail and set up a camp at Wallace Lake.

The next day, Bill and Sam set out to climb Mt. Carillon, which they succeeded in doing. On the way back down, Bill announced that he also wanted to try Mt. Russell, and the two parted. Sam waited near Tulainyo Lake for the other climber to return. Finally, as darkness approached and Bill still had not come down from Mt. Russell, a worried Sam scrambled back down to camp at Wallace Lake.

Sam and Mark Tuttle spent a restless night waiting for their missing partner to return, and when he had still not showed up by dawn, they initiated a search. The two spent the morning looking over the northern slopes of the peak, and finding nothing, they decided that it was time to call in assistance.

Returning to camp at Wallace Lake, Mark remained there while Sam jogged down some four miles to the John Muir Trail. From there, still moving as fast as he could, Siegel continued down Wallace Creek on the High Sierra Trail. By 3:30 pm he had arrived at Junction Meadow. He had traveled nearly eight miles in the past two hours and dropped 3,000 vertical feet.

At Junction Meadow, Sam Spiegel opened the emergency telephone box and rang up the two-long-two-short signal for the Kern Canyon Ranger Station, located almost twenty trail miles to the south. Ranger Gordon Wallace answered the call.

Wallace heard Siegel’s story and immediately went to work. Using the park’s backcountry phone system, the ranger called the Forest Service in Lone Pine and had them initiate a search to see if Bill Tuttle had somehow made his way to Whitney Portal or Lone Pine.  Also present at the Kern Station was seasonal ranger Richard Hester, who worked for Wallace at the summer post then known as the “Mt. Whitney Ranger Station.” (Today we call the station Crabtree Meadow.)

Once the Forest Service confirmed that Bill Tuttle did not seem to have come out at Whitney Portal, Wallace sent Hester toward Wallace Lake. The ranger rode all night and arrived at the camp the following morning after a twenty-six mile horseback trip. Confirming that Tuttle was still missing, Hester initiated his own search effort to find the missing climber.

Siegel accompanied Hester up to where Tuttle had last been seen, and the ranger started up the mountain. Finding tracks, Hester confirmed that Tuttle had made his way initially to Russell’s eastern summit. The mountain’s western summit is a bit higher, however, and Tuttle’s tracks headed in that direction.  There, Hester found evidence that Tuttle had made it to this summit as well.  His tracks then started down the extremely precipitous northern side of the peak.

Using his field glasses to scan the rocks, Hester eventually sighted Tuttle’s body. The young naval officer had fallen at least six hundred feet.  Later that afternoon, Hester and Siegel made it to the badly battered remains, placing them in the climber’s own sleeping bag but leaving them, for the moment, where they had landed.

Meanwhile, ranger Wallace had by now also made the twenty-six mile ride to Wallace Lake, arriving late in the afternoon. Hester briefed him, and the next morning, the two rangers took a mule up the rugged mountain, getting it to within a few hundred yards of the body. With the help of some other campers, they recovered Tuttle’s remains and tied them to the mule. By the end of the day, the entire party, now functioning as a funeral cortege, had moved on to the Mt. Whitney (Crabtree Meadow) Ranger Station.

The next morning, the proper disposition of Tuttle’s remains became the question. Wallace, taking into account the condition the body and what further damage it would suffer if it were to be packed all the way to the desert floor of the Owens Valley, suggested interment on site, and Mark Tuttle concurred. This is where his brother would like to remain, the younger man concluded.

Using the single-wire telephone, Mark Tuttle broke the news of his brother’s death to their father and received family permission to bury him in the mountains. Wallace then called park superintendent John White, who agreed with the plan and called the national headquarters office to get the required authorizations. Amazingly, all this proceeded quickly, and by lunchtime, permission to bury Tuttle had been granted. Wallace and Hester spent the afternoon digging a grave a few hundred yards from the ranger station.

Late that same day, with ranger Gordon Wallace saying the prayers, they buried Bill Tuttle, a young man who had survived the Pacific War but not the High Sierra. He is still there.

William Penn Tuttle

August 24, 1946

© Wm. Tweed


Surprising to most is the fact that before Mt. Whitney was a part of Sequoia National Park, even before it was part of the Inyo and Sequoia national forests, the region was set aside as a military preserve. For almost a quarter century, Mt. Whitney and its surrounding terrain fell within the boundaries of the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation. How that now long-forgotten place came to exist, and what happened to it, is worth remembering.

The Langley Expedition of 1881 explored the potential of using the Whitney area, with its very high altitude and unusually dry atmosphere, for scientific purposes. Langley’s interests focused primarily on the measurement of solar energy, but his team also collected metrological data. At that time, very little weather data had yet been collected at very high altitudes, and Langley took advantage of his access to the summit of Mt. Whitney to capture at least a bit of information.

Throughout his expedition, Langley enjoyed support from the United States Army, including the participation of Captain Otho E. Michaelis, an ordnance officer on temporary assignment with the Signal Corps. A decade earlier, seeing the need for a program of nation-wide weather measurement, President Ulysses S. Grant had issued an executive order instructing the Army Signal Corps to begin collecting weather data throughout the United States. This was the mission that brought Captain Michaelis to Mt. Whitney.

Michaelis found the summit of Mt. Whitney an exposed and inhospitable place, and he collected little data, but the seed had been planted that the mountain’s extensive summit plateau presented an opportunity for further research. Langley’s final report reinforced the point, suggesting that studies continue on the summit of the Sierra’s highest summit.

Someone in the Signal Corps took this message to heart, and after due consideration the army acted, creating the Mt. Whitney Military reservation by executive order on September 20, 1883. The new reserve contained 84,480 acres, an area of about 132 square miles, and included the high peaks from Williamson on the north to modern Mt. Langley (then called Sheep Mountain) on the south. On the east side of the mountain, the reservation extended down almost to the outskirts of the town of Lone Pine.

And what did the Signal Corps do with this new research site? For the next twenty years, exactly nothing. The army placed no one on the ground and spent no time managing the area. The only significance of the reserve was that its lands remained outside the Sierra Forest Reserve when that protected area was defined in 1893.

Not until 1903 did the army finally notice the existence of the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation. That summer, the army assigned Captain Charles Young as the officer in charge at Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, and this most ambitious and capable of all the early cavalry officers to oversee the parks read the maps and discovered the presence of the military reservation a few dozen miles to the east of the national parks. Young, who seemed to have almost preternatural energy, was soon drawn to the long-neglected reservation.

By this time, the trail Langley had roughed out to the summit back in 1881 had largely disappeared, but tourist interest in the mountain was growing. Responding to this challenge late in the summer of 1903, Young diverted a portion of his command to the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation and began improving trails.

His primary improvement was the cutting through of a new and much shorter trail to the west base of the mountain, the route that is now known as (old) Army Pass. Prior to the opening of this cutoff, anyone traveling to the Crabtree area from Lone Pine crossed over Cottonwood Pass, and traveled south all the way to Tunnel Meadow on the South Fork of the Kern River before turning north and climbing to Siberian Pass and Rock Creek. Young’s new Army Pass route cut at least twenty miles off the old route, and not incidentally, opened up a new part of the military reservation to stock travel.

After Young, military interest in the area rapidly waned. The Signal Corps, for whom the reserve had been created, had no particular interest in managing the reservation, but another new organization did. In February 1905, responding to strong encouragement from President Theodore Roosevelt, Congress transferred responsibility for management of the federal forest reserve system from the General land Office of the Department of the Interior to the Forestry Bureau in the Department of Agriculture. A month later, this newly empowered USDA agency renamed itself the United States Forest Service.

Founding Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot immediately went to work to strengthen his new bureau, and one of his interests was in cleaning up anomalous public land designations. Pinchot soon discovered the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation and also the fact that it held no specific significance to the army. Pinchot put his staff to work, and the following year, 1906, the War Department abandoned the reservation and its lands became a part of the Sierra Forest Reserve, soon to be reorganized as the Sequoia and Inyo national forests.

Through the lens of hindsight, the significance of the Mt. Whitney Military Reservation appears minor. During its twenty-three-year existence, it attracted little attention and accomplishment nothing towards its original mission of meteorological research. It remains, however, the first part of the southern Sierra to be withdrawn from potential public sale and one of the building blocks out of which modern Sequoia National Park eventually emerged.

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: THE MT. WHITNEY CLUB

On the evening of May 11, 1901, a small group met in Visalia for a very specific purpose. The conversation centered on the mountains of Tulare County and how they might be both made more accessible for recreational purposes and better managed. By the time the evening ended, the diners had formed a club. To be a member one needed to have climbed Mt. Whitney. Thirty-two charter members met the criteria, including five women.

Looking back today at the list of charter members, two names stand out: George W. Stewart and Ben Maddox. By this time, both men had been involved in the mountains for many years. Stewart had led the campaign to create both Sequoia National Park and the Sierra Forest Reserve (the ancestor of the Sierra’s modern national forests). Maddox, for his part, had politicked to get adequate government funding to manage and improve these reservations.

In many ways, the formation of the club was a logical next step in an ongoing effort by these Tulare County men to protect and market the scenic wonders of the southern Sierra.  Their effort to improve conditions in the Tulare County mountains had started in July 1899, when Maddox organized a trip into the mountains for Congressman J. C. Needham, a resident of Modesto who held the seat for Central California. That trip began in Mineral King, visited Mt. Whitney, and ended at the Giant Forest.

Throughout the trip, Maddox showed Needham both the grandeur of the scenery and the appalling conditions along the trails. Needham got the message, and the following year the annual budget for the Department of the Interior included $10,000 for improvements at Sequoia National Park and another $2,500 for General Grant. These appropriations marked the beginning of annual funding to support facilities in the two parks.

The new club built on this success, seeking trail-building funds from Congress for the Sierra Forest Reserve and raising money locally from the Visalia Board of Trade, the Tulare County government, and interested Inyo County citizens.  Early efforts included a trail north from Sequoia National Park via JO Pass to connect with the route into the Kings Canyon and improved trails to the Kern Canyon.

Not surprisingly, the club paid special attention to Mt. Whitney and worked closely with several partners to improve trails in the immediate vicinity of the peak. The summer of 1903 witnessed real progress there, with cavalry troops from Sequoia National Park opening up a trail over Army Pass and an Inyo County effort pushing a stock trail up the east side of the mountain to within half a mile of the summit.

For several years, the club grew and seemingly prospered. Each May, for three consecutive years, the organization published an annual edition of the Mt. Whitney Club Journal, a paperback book-length effort that strongly resembled the Sierra Club Bulletin. Today, these publications offer us a wealth of information about the southern Sierra at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The third annual issue of the Journal came out in the spring of 1904, but then the club’s trail goes cold. The Mt. Whitney Club simply disappears from the public record. A century later, it is not easy to figure out what happened. Neither Stewart nor Maddox left the region, and both continued to work on issues related to the mountains.

Judging from the individuals involved and the issues they pursued, it is possible that the club decided to merge its efforts into those of the Sierra Club, then a Bay-Area based organization with very similar interests and a membership that overlapped considerably with the Visalia club.  The two clubs had gone together into the Kern Canyon the previous summer on what is remembered today as the third annual outing of the Sierra Club.

What we can say for sure is that for a few short years the Mt. Whitney Club played a critical role on laying out and building the recreational trails system of the southern Sierra.  And for that, at least, they should be remembered.

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: CLOUD CANYON

Few locales in Kings Canyon National Park have early histories as confused as that of Cloud Canyon. Fortunately, Judge William Wallace wrote a letter in 1924 to the Sierra Club Bulletin that captured and corrected most of these errors.

In the summer of 1880, Wallace was visiting the then-booming Mineral King mining district. While there, he heard a story from a “semi-civilized Indian” named Jim Buck about an area with mineral outcrops on the divide between the Kaweah and Kings rivers.

Setting out to explore this remote area with miner friends Jo Palmer and William Course, Wallace crossed over from Mineral King into the Big Arroyo. The three, traveling with pack stock, made their way to the head of the trees in that canyon and established a base camp.

On foot now, Wallace “took to the crags” along the Kings-Kaweah Divide, where he found an “attractive-looking ledge of gray copper ore outcropping in the face of the mountain…” In conformance with the federal mining law of 1872, Wallace staked out a mining claim in the name of his party. Because it was a cool and cloudy day, and the clouds were hanging low on the peaks, Wallace called the claim “The Cloud Mine.” He also named the creek flowing north from the claim, giving it the name Cloud Creek.

Wallace’s claim appears to be the first to be filed in the never-very-successful mining district in and around what we now call Copper Mine Pass.  In his account Wallace makes no mention of either previous mining activity or any trails in that area. The trail over the summit of Copper Mine Pass came later.

Wallace did little to develop the Cloud Mine, abandoning his claim after only a few years, but the name he applied to the region remained in use, at least for those who approached it from the south. This is where the confusion began.

As students of Kings Canyon National Park geography know, what Wallace called Cloud Creek flows northward into a stream known as the Roaring River, which itself drops into the Kings Canyon and merges into the South Fork of the Kings River. Early sheepman Frank Lewis had named the Roaring River in the 1870s, but the connection between that stream in Kings Canyon and Wallace’s Cloud Creek on the Kings-Kaweah Divide was not yet understood.

In the early 1890s, Joseph N. (“Little Joe”) Le Conte began his momentous effort to map the High Sierra for recreational purposes. Unfortunately, although his resulting 1896 map shed much light on the Sierra, Le Conte did not have enough information to work out the puzzle of Cloud Creek and the Roaring River. Le Conte did understand that the Roaring River must flow down from the Kings-Kaweah Divide, but he could not connect this with Cloud Creek. Le Conte’s answer was to omit Wallace’s place name and simply show the Roaring River.

Le Conte also made another significant error. He did not realize that the Roaring River flowed out of not one but two major tributary canyons.  Others had figured this out, however, including A. D. Ferguson, who wrote a description of the area for the May 1904 issue of the Mt. Whitney Club Journal. Ferguson made a clear that there were two canyons and he had names for them both. He called the eastern of the two the “Roaring River Canyon,” and the parallel western gorge either “Cloudy” or “Dead Man’s.” Ferguson’s description also shifted Wallace’s 1880 name from the eastern of two creeks to the western of the two canyons.

Into this confusion stepped the U. S. Geological Survey when it surveyed the area in 1902-1903.  Wrestling with this uncertain nomenclature in the first edition (1905) of the Tehipite 30’ topographic map, the U.S.G.S. decided to call the western of the two canyons Deadman and the eastern Cloud Canyon. The Survey also concluded that the stream flowing through the eastern canyon was the Roaring River.  In doing all this, the mapmakers thus abandoned Wallace’s name of Cloud Creek and, following Ferguson in style if not geography, permanently converted the name of Wallace’s mine and creek into the name of the canyon through which the creek flowed.

These 1905 names are the same we use today, but by 1910, for reasons that have been lost, the Geological Survey changed tits mind. On the topographic map issued that year of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, the western Canyon became Copper Canyon and the eastern took the title of Deadman. These names showed up again on the 1912 revision of the Tehipite sheet and remained on the official maps until yet another edition of the Tehipite map came out in 1924. At that point, the nomenclature reverted to that used on the 1905 map.

Since that time the name Cloud Canyon has remained affixed to the eastern of the two main tributary sources of the Roaring River, a souvenir of a cloudy day in the summer of 1880 when William Wallace thought he found a copper mine.

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: JOHN MUIR’S AUTUMN 1875 VISIT

John Muir, the famous Sierra Nevada naturalist, made at least eight separate trips into the region that is now within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but one of these stands out as far more significant that the others.  This journey occurred in the late summer and fall of 1875.

By this time, Muir had been in California for seven years and had established himself in Yosemite as a newspaper correspondent, tour guide, and student of natural history. As the years passed, he had been putting increasing effort into this last department, focusing primarily on glacial geology and botany.

Muir’s botanical interests brought him eventually to the question of the status of the giant sequoias.  By the middle 1870s, Muir knew well the three relatively small sequoia groves in the Yosemite area, and he had been exposed to the common interpretation of the time that the Big Trees were a failing race of giants, fading away and approaching extinction.  Was this really true, he wondered?

Late in the summer of 1875, Muir set out to answer this question.  He had heard stories of additional giant groves to the south of Yosemite, but no one seemed to know much about where they were or what sorts of trees they contained. These questions now became Muir’s.

Muir had already had a busy summer. During the month of July he had traveled south from Yosemite to visit the Kings Canyon, cross the Sierra via Kearsarge Pass, and climbed Mt. Whitney. By July 31st, he was back in Yosemite, but only for a few weeks. Before August ended, he headed south again, this time eschewing the High Sierra for a route that took him through the Sierra’s great forest belt. There he hoped to learn more about the sequoias.

Those who know the Sierra Nevada will marvel at what Muir accomplished over the next two months. During that time, traveling on foot and alone except for an unfortunate burro named Brownie, Muir explored the conifer forest belt of the Central and Southern Sierra. This entailed wandering through uncharted mazes of forests and canyons. Along the way he crossed the great canyons of the San Joaquin, Kings, and Kaweah rivers. All this, apparently, he did without reference to maps of even the most rudimentary sort.

Muir spent much of September exploring the San Joaquin watershed, where he found only two sequoias groves (today’s Nelder and McKinley groves); then he descended into the huge gorge of the Kings River and climbed out to the extensive sequoia groves along the south rim that defile.

Here, in what he called the Kings River Grove, Muir for the first time found extensive stands of giant sequoia full of trees of every age and growth habit. (Today these half dozen groves, which stretch northeastward from Grant Grove through Converse Basin and east into the Boulder Creek country, all have separate names.)  Continuing south, Muir wandered through Redwood Canyon and modern Muir and Suwannee Groves before fetching up in the Giant Forest.

By now, Muir had realized that the sequoias prospered in the southern Sierra in a way entirely foreign to their growth habits further north. South of the Kings River, the Big Tree groves came so close together that they formed a nearly continuous sequoia belt.

Muir continued southward until he finally ran out of sequoias, correctly defining their southern boundary as in the Deer Creek watershed of the modern Giant Sequoia National Monument.

By mid-October he began publishing what he had learned. On October 22, 1875, the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin ran Muir’s article “Summering the Sierra, The Giant Forests of the Kaweah, Something about the Sequoia Gigantea of the South Fork of the Kings River.” This apparently represents the first use of the name “Giant Forest” in print, although in this context it does not seem apply to a single grove.

(Muir reworked the notes he collected during his 1875 trip several times for publication in various forms. By 1901, when he finished Our National Parks, Muir’s references to “The Giant Forests of the Kaweah” had evolved into the statement that he found the best of all the sequoia groves on the divide between the Marble and Middle Forks of the Kaweah River and then named that grove “The Giant Forest.”)

Over the following year, Muir summed up his thoughts about the Big Trees and prepared a scientific paper. “On the Post-Glacial History of Sequoia Gigantea” appeared in the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in May 1877. The paper made a key point: in the southern Sierra, the sequoias were anything but a dying race. Here, Muir discovered, they grew in vigorous stands over large acreages.

Muir’s 1875 trip changed forever both the popular and scientific views of the giant sequoias. Given protection from lumbermen, domestic sheep, and fire, Muir asserted, the sequoias had a future. He also made clear that the ultimate groves of the giant trees were in the Kaweah and Tule river watersheds.

Within fifteen years, much of this area would become the nation’s second national park.

More than any other event, it was John Muir’s 1875 trip that brought the sequoia groves of the southern Sierra to public attention and made possible their ultimate preservation.

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: EVERETT RUESS

Most wilderness aficionados recognize the name Everett Ruess.  He is remembered for his amazing wilderness wanderings and his ultimate mysterious disappearance among the red-rock canyons of the Colorado Plateau. In this later role especially, he has been the subject of much speculation and several books.

Fewer think of Ruess as a Sierra traveler, yet in the calendar year prior to his presumed death in 1934, Ruess spent the entire season in the High Sierra, most of it in Sequoia National Park.  Ruess’s journal from that summer provides both a window into the young man’s soul and a fascinating glimpse of life as it was lived in the high country in the early 1930s.

Leaving behind his family home in Southern California, Ruess arrived in Three Rivers in late May 1933. Amazingly, considering that he had already spent several summers wandering in the wilderness of the Southwest, Ruess was only nineteen years old. His mother had taken him camping in Yosemite when he was nine years old, and he had immediately taken to the wilderness. They returned several times, and by the summer of 1930 the now-sixteen year old boy began to take overnight hikes by himself.

Ruess, still only sixteen, graduated from Hollywood High School in January 1931 and, despite the misgivings of his parents, he struck out on a solitary trip into the vastness of the Navajo Indian Reservation of northern Arizona. Traveling on foot across the huge reservation with a burro, Ruess spent months among the still largely traditional people who lived there at that time. The following summer he continued these wanderings.

Ruess had already demonstrated considerable artistic talent, and these Southwestern trips produced sketches, woodblock prints, and watercolor paintings, which Ruess sold or traded along the way for camping supplies.

It was with this background that Ruess arrived at Sequoia National Park in May 1933.  His brother dropped him off at the ranch home of local packer and cattleman Earl McKee (father of the current rancher of the same name), and for the next week Ruess enjoyed cowboy life while he made arrangements to purchase two burros – “Grandma” and “Betsy.”

Leading his burros, Ruess walked up the Colony Mill Road into the park on May 30th, arriving in Giant Forest on June 1st. He had picked a wet year to come to the Sierra, and for the next month, Ruess wandered the western reaches of the park waiting for the high altitude snow to melt. He made his base camp at Lodgepole and spent much time in the company of seasonal ranger Lon Garrison and his wife Inger. (Garrison would go on to a long and distinguished career with the NPS.

During this period, Ruess and his burros explored a Sequoia National Park that no longer exists.  The Generals Highway had not yet been completed to General Grant National Park, and the northwestern quarter of Sequoia remained a true wilderness. Often in the company of rangers or maintenance workers, Ruess made trips to still-frozen Pear Lake and explored the Clover and Dorst creeks country, spending time at the ranger patrol cabins at Clover Creek Crossing and (upper) Cabin Meadow. Before he was done, he also followed the Black Oak Trail to Muir Grove and Hidden Spring.  At times, he complained about hearing in the distance the explosives being used to blast the highway through the region. Today most of the trails Ruess enjoyed are abandoned and long overgrown.

Finally, on July 7th, Ruess headed east on the just-constructed High Sierra Trail. His was the first stock party to make it over Kaweah Gap that season. For the next month, he made a giant loop through the eastern half of the park, visiting the Kern Canyon and climbing Mt. Whitney. He even made a quick trip over Harrison Pass to visit Lake Reflection in the Bubbs Creek country, which he found too busy for his taste. By the beginning of August, Ruess was back at ranger Garrison’s camp at Lodgepole.

Ruess’s account of that month describes a High Sierra far different from our own. Most of the parties he met traveled by pack train, and in that old-time world of ranchers’ hospitality, Ruess had no trouble collecting the supplies he needed from these groups.  His journal brims with shared meals and campfire stories.

Finally, after losing a week to a bad episode of blood poisoning caused by an infected cut on his hand, Ruess started north for good on August 12th. Again, he headed east on the High Sierra Trail, but this time he cut off to the north via Elizabeth Pass into the Sugarloaf Country that was then still under Forest Service management.

Wandering through the Kings Canyon backcountry, he spent time with Andy Ferguson, crossed over Sphinx Pass, and checked out the Rae Lakes country, where he “borrowed” some corn starch from the Shorty cabin at Woods Creek. Descending to Paradise Valley, where he met Poley Kanawyer, Ruess took the old cutoff directly from Paradise to upper Copper Creek and headed north via Simpson Meadow, Le Conte Canyon, and Muir Pass. He left modern Kings Canyon National Park on September 13th  at Paiute Creek and, moving fast now, arrived in Yosemite Valley on October 2nd via the John Muir Trail.

The following spring, Ruess returned not to the Sierra but to Utah, where he wandered mysteriously and sometime in the fall of 1934 disappeared for good. His body was never found.

We remember Ruess for his almost mystical appreciation of Utah’s red-rock wilderness and his disappearance there, but before that happened Ruess enjoyed and recorded his adventures during a magical summer spent mostly in Sequoia National Park.  That story, too, should not be lost.

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: ALTA PEAK

It’s hard to imagine today, but for the first several decades of its existence, Sequoia National Park had only two high peaks of any significance – Mt. Silliman and Alta Peak. All the rest of the alpine summits that are today within the park fell outside its boundaries until the 1926 expansion. Of the two summits that were within the park, the mountain we now call Alta Peak attracted much more attention.

From the beginnings of tourism, almost everyone who approached Sequoia did so via Three Rivers and the lowermost reaches of the Middle Fork Canyon of the Kaweah River. The alignment of this canyon, then as now, focused attention on a single mountain – modern Alta Peak. Those early travelers who climbed Moro Rock found that same mountain dominated their view. Because it was closer to Moro Rock than the peaks of the Great Western Divide, Alta seemed higher than any of the other peaks visible from that summit and more imposing.

Another factor that made the mountain important was that it was relatively easy to get to. The first Anglo-American residents of the Giant Forest region, the cattlemen of the Tharp and Mehrten families, early discovered that the biggest meadows in the region to the east of the Giant Forest were to be found on the southern slopes of modern Alta Peak. By the early 1870s, the two families were taking cattle to these meadows over a rough trail that ran east to Panther Gap and then on to the meadows.

When the mining boom swept over the Mineral King area in the middle 1870s, this trail across the southern slopes of the peak was extended to connect the two areas. In the summer of 1876, William B. Wallace passed this way with Tom and N. B. Witt, and since the big meadow on the peak’s southern slope represented the highest point along their route, they concluded to call the place Alta (“high”) Meadow. The name stuck.

In the summer of 1896, William R. Dudley of the Sierra Club visited the region, and in an article published in 1902 in the Sierra Club Bulletin, he noted that although the peak had not had a name six years earlier, it now was called Alta Peak by most residents of Three Rivers. He recommended the name be formally adopted.

The following year, when the U.S. Geological Survey mapped the region, the topographers adopted the Alta Peak name and placed it on the map just above a subordinate promontory they called Tharps Rock.

By this time, the relatively easy scramble up Alta Peak had become a must-do excursion for those traveling along the trail between the Giant Forest and Mineral King. Because the summit stood to the west of most of the other high peaks in the region, it had a particularly good view. From its summit, one could see east to Mt. Whitney and as far north as the Minarets, which were then a part of Yosemite National Park.

Work carried out by civilian rangers under military supervision in the summer of 1904 made the peak even more accessible by building a new and well-graded trail east from Panther Gap to Alta Meadow. This put the area within day range for tourists staying at Camp Sierra, who could now ride horseback to Alta Meadow, climb the peak on foot, and then ride home in time for a late and well-earned dinner beneath the Big Trees.

The trip to the summit eventually became so well-known that Ansel Hall’s 1921 Guide to Giant Forest confidently announced: “The view from Alta is conceded first place among those of the Park; indeed many mountaineers claim it to be one of the best of the whole Sierra.”

Cross-country hikers continued to scramble up the peak until the summer of 1927, when the NPS built a two-mile-long horse trail to the summit.

In the nine decades since the trail’s completion, Alta Peak has remained one of the premier hiking destinations within Sequoia National Park. Today, most hikers approach the peak from Wolverton, which cuts several miles off the old Alta Trail route from the Giant Forest. East of Panther Gap, they first follow the trail constructed in 1904, then turn onto the 1927 trail that leads steeply up through western white and foxtail pines to the summit. There, as Ansel Hall advertised more than ninety years ago, they still find a vista than can honestly be described as “one of the best of the whole Sierra.”

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: KENNETH REXROTH

Most students of twentieth century American poetry know the work of Kenneth Rexroth, yet few associate him with the southern Sierra Nevada. Missing this connection, however, leaves the man incomplete. By his own account, much of Rexroth’s creativity flowed directly from his deep associations with the wilderness of the High Sierra.

Rexroth came to California and its wildlands as a young man. He had been born in 1905 in Indiana, and his youth did little to expose him to the world of nature. All that changed in 1924 when, while hitchhiking across the country, he took a seasonal job with the Forest Service in the North Cascades region of Washington. The empty, wild land entranced him, and he would regularly return to wilderness for the rest of his life.

Rexroth married Andrée Ducher in 1927, and the young couple spent much of their first summer together in the High Sierra. For the next decade, they returned again and again to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon region, usually renting a burro to support their adventures.

Kenneth and Andrée ranged widely through the parks region. In his poetry, Rexroth refers to time spent in Deadman Canyon and to visiting the Kern River. Other works  mention visits to Knapsack Pass (Dusy Basin) and the Tablelands. A section of the epic-length poem “The Dragon and the Unicorn” traces an eastward progress along the High Sierra Trail.

Rexroth had an especially strong bond with the Kings Canyon in those days before the road into the canyon was completed and automobile tourism invaded the gorge. He wrote later of the joy of spending weeks in the canyon in the fall and having the place entirely to himself and his wife.

Andrée’s health deteriorated in the middle 1930s, and their trips together into the mountains came to an end. They separated, and she died shortly thereafter. The memories remained strong, however, and for the rest of his life Rexroth wrote again and again about the mountain time he had spent with Andrée.

Rexroth went on to become a seminal figure in American literature. His poetry appeared in dozens of books and inspired a new generation of American writers. The beat poets of the 1950s considered Rexford their mentor, and when Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” in San Francisco in October 1955, it was Rexroth who presided over the evening.

In later years he taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  As late as 1967, however, he was still summering in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. As he put it in 1960 in a newspaper essay:

“I have always felt I was most myself in the mountains. There I have done the bulk of what is called my creative work. At least it is in the mountains that I write most of my poetry.”

Earlier, as the Second World War began, Rexroth wrote in “Strength Through Joy:”

Coming back over the col between

Isosceles Mountain and North Palisade,

I stop at the summit and look back

At the storm gathering over the white peaks

Of the Whitney group and the colored Kaweahs.

September, nineteen thirty-nine.

This is the last trip to the mountains

This autumn, possibly the last trip ever.

The storm clouds rise up the mountainside,

Lightning batters the pinnacles above me,

The clouds beneath the pass are purple

And I see rising through them from the valleys

And the cities a cold murderous flood…

In Rexroth’s poems we often see the Sierra shining through – towering above all our lives.

© Wm. Tweed

“Strength Through Joy” comes from The Phoenix and the Tortoise, © 1944 by New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Historic People And Places: FRANK DUSY

Even in the twenty-first century, much of the heart of Kings Canyon National Park is remote and seldom visited. Imagine then how difficult the region must have been to penetrate in the 1870s, when neither maps nor trails existed. That is when Frank Dusy first began to explore the headwaters of the Kings River.

Born in Canada in 1837, Dusy lost his parents at an early age and spent much of his youth simply trying to make a living. He came to California in 1858, too late to find wealth in the gold mines, and ended up as a soldier assigned to Camp Babbitt, the Civil-War-era U.S. Army post in Visalia. After that assignment ended, Dusy went to work for William Helm, another Canadian emigrant who had built up a major sheep outfit in Central California. Dusy’s job involved taking sheep into the Sierra for the summers, and this is how he came to know the mountains.

Dusy established a grazing post at a place now known as Dinkey Creek. (Dinkey was Dusy’s dog.)  The station, located north of the lower canyons of the Kings River at an altitude of not quite 6,000 feet, provided an excellent base for sheep grazing.

Searching out range for Helm’s sheep, Dusy began to explore the rugged mountain country to the east. This led him first to the relatively gentle watershed of the North Fork of the Kings River, the area where Wishon and Courtright reservoirs are now located.

Pushing further into the mountains, Dusy soon mapped out the high meadow country along the ridges that separate the North Fork of the Kings from the alpine headwaters of the Middle Fork. (Today these ridges form the western boundary of Kings Canyon National Park.)

In this region Dusy found and named the Crown Valley country.  This is what brought him in the summer of 1869 to the south rim of the Crown Valley plateau, where he peered down for the first time into the glacial depths of Tehipite Valley.

It is possible that at least one prospecting party had already visited the spectacular glacial valley as early as 1864, but Dusy became the effective discover of the gorge. The valley fascinated him, and he returned to it again and again.

Dusy continued his explorations. In 1877, traveling with Gustav Eisen, Dusy made his way all the way to the headwater of the Middle Fork, visiting the Palisades. The following summer, Dusy succeeded in taking stock along the benches north of the Middle Fork to Simpson Meadow. (This long-abandoned route is remembered as the Tunemah Trail, the name preserving a Chinese epithet about the extreme difficulty of the route.)

And in 1879, Dusy built a rough stock trail down into the depths of Tehipite Valley, providing horseback access to that most rugged of destinations. From Tehipite, traveling now with L. A. Winchell, Dusy made his way up the Middle Fork from Tehipite to Simpson,and then all the way again to the Palisades.

This time, amazingly, he took with him a large and fragile wet-plate camera, and during the trip he took the first photographs of this spectacular region.

During that 1879 trip, Dusy and Winchell named the mountains and canyons they encountered with happy abandon. Not surprisingly, Mt. Winchell dates from that summer, as do Mt. Agassiz and Palisade Creek. Winchell also christened a “Dusy Branch” of the Kings River flowing down from the northern end of the Palisades massive. The name endures, and the region from which its waters flow now bears the name Dusy Basin.

All those who came in subsequent years to explore and marvel at the beauty of the Kings River high country – individuals like Theodore Solomons, Bolton Coit Brown, and J. N. Le Conte – noted that they followed in Frank Dusy’s footprints.  Before nearly anyone else, he penetrated the maze that is now the rugged wilderness heart of Kings Canyon National Park.

© Wm. Tweed