Tag Archives: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks


So here we go again. The breaking news is that we’ve had a dry winter and crisis lies ahead.  Does it all sound familiar?

It ought to, because dry years in Central California actually occur frequently.  A few years ago, I ran the numbers and concluded that over the long run roughly 40% of our winters fall into the significantly dry category versus roughly 30% “normal” (statistically average) and another 30% wet.

So we can be disappointed in our meager winter precipitation, but we have no particular reason to be shocked or surprised.

We did have a dry winter. After a good December that saw the snow pile up in the mountains, January, February, and March all disappointed in the storms department.

Comparing April 1st figures, we have now fallen into the bottom 20% of recent years in terms of precipitation to date. In the past quarter century, the winters of 1990, 1994, 1999, and 2007 all came out just about where we are ending the winter of 2013. Together, these years represent the five driest winters out of the past twenty-five.

Put another way, we’re having a typical one-out-of-every-five winter.

Not to say that this is a good thing. As of April 1st, the forecast snowmelt runoff for the Kaweah River was about 40% of the long-term average. If you want the numbers, that means that the best forecast is that the river will produce a spring runoff of about 140,000 acre feet of water versus an average of 290,000.

Last year was relatively dry also, but not as dry as this season. At my rain gauge in Three Rivers, 2012 was about 20% wetter than 2013. It is not uncommon to have runs here of two or three dry years in a row, and long-term climate records document prehistoric dry periods running much longer.

So if this dry winter is not particularly noteworthy, then why are we all so excited?  The answer, of course, is that we have somehow convinced ourselves that we can rely upon what we call “normal” rainfall. All that concept really tells us, of course, is the long-term statistical average for a highly variable climate

Can we blame this dry winter on climate change?  The answer is that we should not. As I’ve shown, dry years like this regularly occur in our part of California.

But if climate change does not cause any single dry year, we have to note that long-term meteorological models suggest that we are likely heading into an era when we will see more winters like this one.  That will make life here more difficult.

Dry years are hard on farmers and cattle ranchers. They increase the summer fire hazard in our mountain forests. They reduce opportunities for water-based recreation like boating and fishing.

About the only good thing I can write about dry winters is that provide a longer hiking season for those of us who love to spend summer in the High Sierra. This year, most high altitude trails should be open by late May.

So that’s the scoop on our dry winter. There’s no reason to be excited unless we insist on living in a fantasy world. Dry winters are predictable part of life here in Central California and we should expect to experience them regularly.

© Wm. Tweed


For most Tulare County residents, our region’s grandest natural feature hides in full sight. I speak of the Great Western Divide.

Try the name out on your family and friends. See who can define this gigantic topographic feature or who knows what the divide actually divides. I suspect few can pass these simple tests.

All this is more than a bit ironic because the peaks of the Great Western Divide dominate the view of the Sierra Nevada from all of the Kaweah Delta country, including Visalia. On a clear day, when one looks east from the valley floor, these are the high Sierra summits that add so much to our local view.

Those who do know the local mountains may be able to identify at least a few of the high summits visible from Visalia.  Sawtooth Peak stands out distinctly, as do Mt.  Eisen, Lippincott Mountain, Eagle Scout Peak, and Mt. Stewart. All are major peaks along the Great Western Divide.

In watershed terms, the Great Western Divide separates the headwaters of the westward-flowing Kaweah River from the southward-draining Kern River region to the east of the Divide.  You’ve probably never thought about it, but nearly all the irrigation water that the Kern River delivers to the Bakersfield region starts in Tulare County in the alpine region immediately to the east of the Great Western Divide.

I’m thinking about the Great Western Divide today because I just spent five days wandering on foot among its passes and peaks. During this journey I learned or relearned several things.  One is that the mountain scenery along the divide is some of the most spectacular anywhere, and I am not exaggerating. Another fact I learned was the peaks and passes are a good deal higher than when I first hiked among them more than forty years ago.

OK, I have to admit that most of that increased height is imaginary. Careful measurements document that the Sierra is rising at a rate of about a millimeter per year, which would make the mountains only about an inch taller than when I first hiked up there in the 1960s. Closer to the truth, I suspect, is the fact that the trails seem so much more difficult now because my body is forty years older and a good deal less fine-tuned than it was in those long-ago times.

But the scenery – that is real!  In many ways, the Great Western Divide stands as the grandest and most rugged part of the Sierra’s western slope. In no other region does the Sierra rise so quickly, nor so high, directly from the floor of the San Joaquin Valley.

Mineral King provides the best takeoff point for exploring the divide. Taking advantage of the quiet spell just before the Labor Day holiday, I started off on a Monday morning to ascend to the top of the divide at Franklin Pass. By Sierra standards, an excellent trail leads upward ten miles and 4,000 vertical feet from the floor of Mineral King Valley to Franklin Pass. Built decades ago by the Forest Service, the trail’s long switchbacks make the climb about as easy as a climb of that magnitude can be.

I spent the next several days on the other side of the divide enjoying Little Claire Lake and Soda and Lost canyons.  I camped my final night at Columbine Lake, then scrambled up to Sawtooth Pass and began the long descent that took me down to Mineral King Valley and my waiting car.

If you live in Tulare County and like to think that you know our region, then you need to have spent time among the peaks of the Great Western Divide.  If not, then add the experience to your bucket list.  But don’t put such an adventure off indefinitely; remember that the mountains are still growing.

© Wm. Tweed

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: 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: 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


With summer upon us, we can now look back at the winter of 2011-2012 and gain a clearer impression of how we did in the water department. Understanding such things is something we all need to do as citizens of Central California.

Those who have lived here for decades know the essential facts about our climate. Two of the most important are that our precipitation falls almost entirely during the winter months and that precipitation varies enormously from year to year.

This past winter confirms these traits. Our first significant storm arrived in the first week of October, and the last significant rains fell in the fourth week of April.  October and April, in fact, saw better-than-average precipitation, but the heart of the winter disappointed those who enjoy rain and mountain snow.

November and December were very dry, with no rain at all falling in December, a rare event statistically in Tulare County.  January brought us some storms, but February also was quite dry. The wettest months of the winter were March and April.

Total precipitation for the winter came in across our region in the 65-75%-of-statistical-average range. The fifty-year statistical average is what TV weathermen tend to call “normal,” but as weather-savvy local residents have long known, this does not make it “normal” in the sense that we can count on it.

Regular readers may recall that I worked up some figures about what constitutes “normal” for one of my January columns and documented that we have more statistically dry years here than statistically average years.  Locally, about one year in three comes in with precipitation of less than 75% of average. This is just the kind of winter we just had.

We all tend to watch rainfall totals where we live, but it is what happens in the mountains that actually determines how much water we have for our all-important summer agricultural season.

Looking at this question, we can check the data produced by the California Cooperative Snow Survey and learn that the likely spring runoff this year of the Kaweah River will be about 60% of the long-term average.

Why is this figure lower than the overall precipitation figure? My interpretation would be that almost none of the several feet of mountain snow that fell in that big storm in early October lasted long enough to make it into the winter snowpack.  That snow came too early and melted into the dry ground before real cold weather settled in at higher altitudes.

Another measure of the dryness of the year can be seen in daily runoff records of the Kaweah River. Spring snowmelt most often peaks in late May. In wet years it may even occur in June. This year the highest flow (about 2,800 cubic feet per second) came on April 26th.  Early runoff peaks are typical of dry years. This year’s peak came very early.

Where does all this put us?  If one studies the records, it is clear that the winter of 2011-2012 was what one could call “an average dry year” in Tulare County.  We had rainfall in the two-thirds-of-statistical average range and snowmelt runoff about 10 percentage points lower. About one year in three, locally, comes out like this or drier.

Can we blame this past winter on global climate change? I doubt it. We just had a typical dry winter.  What we should worry about, however, is that the general northward shift of weather patterns that is resulting from our warming climate will likely make winters like this one even more common in Central California.

We live on the unreliable southern edge of the winter storm track, and if it shifts farther north, we will be drier yet.  In a climate with as much year-to-year variety as ours, however, it may take decades to be able to confirm such a change.

© Wm. Tweed

Vacationing in a National Park

Maps are fun to look at. As soon as I open one up, my heart starts to pound and I am immediately flooded with inspiration and a ridiculous amount of future plans. As I hike, I often think of the thousands and thousands of hours spent creating trails and maps, and I am so grateful to those who put in the work. To make the unknown accessible is a spectacular thing.

Another staggering thing is the fact that you can still see trash thrown on these trails that were meant to create a new experience, not resemble a busy city street. It makes me so angry when I see trash on the trail, and I see it all the time. Yes, some of the time I am sure it was just an accident, but some people must do it intentionally, or at least are ignorant enough of their actions that they are still at fault for a grievous crime.

I have a theory. It’s called: people who are on vacation want to relax. They want to be a little selfish, a little too comfortable because the day-in, day-out grind of normal life can be exhausting. So, while on vacation, people become lazy, even whilst in a National Park. They don’t want to get out of the car because they are tired. They might drop a piece of trash because they are not paying attention or they just don’t care. (But how can they not care?)

I too go on vacation. But I have never gone to a National Park with the intention of relaxing. What am I vacationing from? I seek to get away from the day-to-day grind, but the grind is not exhausting because of simple exertion. What is exhausting is the monotony of it all. So I come up to the mountains to get away from the monotony. I seek to escape the simplicity and expedience that you experience when living in a city like Los Angeles.

But perhaps I am a dying breed, or just an endangered one. I don’t know. I would like to think that the typical park visitor does more good than harm to the park. The fees they pay to support the park, the educational programs they go on that instill valuable knowledge, the adventures they have that they will hopefully share with friends and family; these are all good things. I just try to remember them when I see a candy wrapper on top of Little Baldy.

Historic People And Places: Copper Mine Pass

Those who have sought out and trudged over Copper Mine Pass know the contradiction of the place. This route, with its faint and long-abandoned trail, functions as a pass but hardly fits that concept in the topographic sense. The trail, in fact, climbs to the exact summit of the highest point in the vicinity, a 12,345-foot-high peak that the USGS topographic map nevertheless identifies as the pass.

The story of Copper Mine Pass and its trail is faint but can be pieced together in at least a circumstantial way. Here is what we know.

Let’s start with the geography. Copper Mine Pass can be found at the junction of the Kings-Kaweah and Glacier divides. The Glacier Divide separates what we now call Deadman and Cloud Canyons, the two major southerly sources of the Roaring River. Even these names are confusing. Today, Deadman Canyon is the western of the two, but when the USGS first mapped the area in 1903, that name was applied to the eastern canyon.

Interestingly, at the time of that first mapping, the western of the two canyons (what we now call Deadman) was defined as “Copper Canyon.”  This makes sense. The geology at the head of the canyon is metamorphic, and the reddish color of the rock shows from a great distance. It was undoubtedly this “color” that first attracted prospectors.

When this potential mining area first attracted attention has been lost, but we do know that a small mine had been developed there by the beginning of the twentieth century. When the USGS surveyed the area in 1903 in preparation for the publishing of the Tehipite 30-minute topographic sheet, the cartographers located a “copper mine” at the head of Copper Canyon.

The map also showed a trail. The route connected the mine with the upper sections of both Copper and Deadman (modern Cloud) canyons.  To link these places, the trail passed over the top of the peak where the Glacier Divide merged with the Kings-Kaweah Divide.

Confirming all this is a description of the area in the May 1904 edition of the Mt. Whitney Club Journal in which A. D. Ferguson writes about trails up the two canyons “built at no little expense by a mining company operating copper claims at the extreme head of the canyon.” He goes on to describe the effort up the easterly fork as a “first class trail” that “has been in disuse for a couple of years…” Ferguson also documented how a connecting trail passed over the peak at the head of the two canyons.

Who exactly built the trail over the peak?  We may never know. The earliest mining claim records to come to light document that in July 1907 a party named Barton filed a mining claim in the vicinity. This makes sense as far as it goes. In 1907, Hudson DeCamp Barton and his son James DeCamp Barton began running summer cattle in the Roaring River country. (In 1910, the Bartons built a cabin across the Roaring River from Scaffold Meadow that still exists and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.)

Whether the Bartons re-filed on the existing mine at the head of the Copper Canyon or opened a new mine is not clear. What is apparent is that they were not the first on the ground.  The mine and the trail over the peak were already there, apparently in place by the late 1890s.

Later accounts of traveling over the trail are also scarce, but the January 1909 edition of the Sierra Club Bulletin does contain a narrative of a trip over what party leader Paul Shoup called “Miner’s Gap.” He described the trail as by then being “old and unused.”

Despite repeated attempts to develop the site, the several small mines at the head of Copper Canyon never took off. The ore bodies were too small and the site too remote. Similarly, the trail built by those early miners never made it onto the list of official national park trails. By the 1950s, USGS maps had dropped all reference to the route.

Despite this long neglect, however, hikers with a good eye for old trails can still follow the rugged route from upper Cloud Canyon over the top of the peak to the mines in upper (modern) Deadman Canyon. The faint trail starts up the western wall of Cloud Canyon at the small tarn shown on the USGS 7.5-minute map at about 10,100 feet.

Those who seek out the old trail can enjoy a trip back to a time when dreams of mineral wealth swept over the Kings Canyon backcounry.

© Wm. Tweed


Questions drift my way now and then, and one such query not too long ago inspires today’s column. How it is, I was asked, that Tulare County has a county-managed giant sequoia grove?  We’re talking, of course, about Balch Park.

If you are not familiar with the 160-acre park, it’s located in the mountains east of Porterville and offers summer camping and day-use recreation in a setting studded with impressive monarch sequoia trees.

The oddity here, of course, is that although nearly all of the giant sequoia groves in our local mountains are in public ownership, the protection of these trees has long been left mostly to the federal government. Locally, that means the Giant Sequoia National Monument, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, overseen by the National Park Service. These large federal reservations contain thousands of acres of giant sequoia forest. Also in Tulare County is the Mountain Home State Demonstration Forest containing 4,800 acres with numerous sequoias.

And then there is tiny Balch Park, operated by the Tulare County parks department. How is it that this small county park came to exist amongst its huge federal and state neighbors?

The story goes back to the late 19th century and a pioneer entrepreneur named John Doyle. Taking advantage of the generous lands sales statutes of the times, Doyle took control of the 160 acres of sequoias in the middle 1880s.  He intended to develop the property, which he called “Summer Home,” as a mountain resort. Doyle hoped to sell up to 125 lots to families seeking relief from the summer heat of the San Joaquin Valley.

The lots sales never happened, however, and Doyle maintained control of the entire tract until he finally sold it in 1906 to the Mt. Whitney Power Company.  This corporation, which was developing hydroelectric facilities on the Tule River, intended to cut the sequoias and use the lumber to build a flume to carry water to a new power plant. (Just a few years earlier the company had done the same thing on the Kaweah River, where it cut sequoias at Atwell’s Mill to build a flume to provide water to Kaweah Power Plant Number One.)

Now fate intervened.  A major figure in the power company was engineer John Hays Hammond, and it was Hammond’s wife Natalie Harris Hammond who, after visiting the property, convinced her husband not to allow the harvesting of the 200 large sequoias on the site. So the Mt. Whitney Company cancelled its logging plans and held on to the property. Eventually it was purchased privately in 1923 by Allan C. Balch of Los Angeles, president of the San Joaquin Light and Power Company. (San Joaquin Light and Power had taken over the Tule River power plant project from the Mt. Whitney Company; today, its facilities are part of the Pacific Gas and Electric system.)

Allan Balch and his wife Janet purchased the property with the express intent that it be given to the County of Tulare as a public park, and that donation was finalized in December 1930. In subsequent years, an attempt was made to transfer the property to the State of California for addition to the surrounding Mountain Home State Demonstration Forest, but the terms of the Balch donation made such a transfer impractical.

Eventually, the county parks department installed a number of recreational improvements on the property, making it a comfortable place to camp, and confirmed the identity of the site as “Balch Park.”

Now, more than eighty years after Tulare County took title to Balch Park and its campgrounds, the small park offers exactly what John Doyle dreamt about so long ago:  a “Summer Home” in the green, cool forests of the Sierra for those seeking relief from the heat of summer. For that we can thank Natalie Hammond and Allan and Janet Balch.

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: ORLAND BARTHOLOMEW

Modern equipment makes winter trips into the High Sierra an adventure many can contemplate. Sequoia National Park has its ski mountaineering shelter at Pear Lake, and the “High Route,” which runs east/west across the same park crossing both the Sierra Crest and the Great Western Divide, is traversed by multiple parties each spring. Not so long ago, of course, none of this activity occurred, and the southern Sierra’s highest reaches went totally unpeopled during the winter months.

The mid-nineteenth-century need to cross the mountains east of Sacramento during the winter months to deliver mail to the Nevada mines led to the use “Norwegian snowshoes,” ten-foot-long wooden skis, but no comparable activity developed initially in the Sierra’s southern reaches. Almost no one had a compelling reason to visit the range’s snowy wilderness. This began to change in the 1920s as hydro-electric development intensified along the Sierra’s rivers. Power plant operators had a compelling need to know how much water was going to flow down from the high country during the spring and summer months, and to do this they began to send out parties to measure snow depth. One of these early snow surveyors was Orland Bartholomew.

Born in the North Bay community of Calistoga in 1899, Bartholomew eventually went to work at the hydro-electric facilities operated by the Southern California Edison Company at Big Creek near Huntington Lake. He worked initially as a summer stream gauger, then drifted into filling his off season by fur trapping in the mountains east of Huntington, an activity that required that he master the art of skiing.

Using his new skills, he started doing pioneer snow survey work for the Edison Company, scouting out conditions in the highest portions of the range. In January 1928, along with several other Edison employees, he made what was apparently the first winter trip ever to Evolution Valley, the northernmost part of what is now Kings Canyon National Park. Later that same winter he returned alone to the same area.

Bartholomew was fascinated by the winter world he found in the High Sierra. He now had the skills to move about and survive with relative ease, and as he wandered through the high basins he was surprised by the wildlife activity and stunned by the icy beauty. Like many since, he discovered that between snowstorms the winter high Sierra was surprisingly benign, at least for those who were prepared. Out of these adventures came a bold dream: Bartholomew resolved to ski the entire length of the High Sierra, a trip that would approximate the route of the John Muir Trail.

Bartholomew studied the maps and concluded that it would take him about three months to ski the 300 miles he had in mind. He then divided the route into segments and spent the summer of 1928 placing food caches along the proposed route. Originally, he planned to do the trip with friend Ed Steen, and then later with Norman Clyde, but when each later withdrew he resolved to do it by himself.

On Christmas Day, 1928, Bartholomew shouldered his seventy-pound pack, picked up his skis, and began the long climb into the High Sierra from a desert trailhead a few miles south of Lone Pine. By December 29th, he had crossed Cottonwood Pass and entered the high country.

Among Bartholomew’s plans was a winter ascent of Mt. Whitney, but icy conditions on the mountain’s western slope turned him back. He then turned south again and climbed Mt. Langley. With that successful ascent under his belt, he returned to Whitney and this time made it to the top on January 10th.

In succeeding weeks he skied north, sheltering during bad weather and moving on better days. With considerable difficulty, he crossed the Kings-Kern Divide in the vicinity of Harrison Pass, then dropped into the Bubbs Creek country. After a resupply trip out and back over Kearsarge Pass, he crossed Glen Pass and proceeded northward. In late February he made another resupply detour, this time to Bishop via Bishop Pass.

When he returned to Le Conte Canyon in early March, he found that spring had arrived in the high country. Battling the thinning snowpack, he continued, finally arriving at Tuolumne Meadows in early April.

More than eighty years later, Bartholomew’s trip still impresses. Traveling alone in an era of wooden skis and wool clothing, he made a trip that has been duplicated in its full entirety only a handful of times since. Orland Bartholomew remains the man who opened the High Sierra to winter wilderness adventure.

Afterword: If you’d like to read more about Bartholomew’s amazing trip, there are several accounts. Bartholomew himself wrote a short essay for the February 1930 issue of the Sierra Club Bulletin in which he described his equipment and the environments he encountered including snow and weather conditions. In 1986, using Bartholomew’s original trip log, Fresno journalist Gene Rose wrote a book, High Odyssey, which recounts the story in more detail. Both are worth reading.

© Wm. Tweed