Saturday, August 16, 2014

Deer Valley 4x4 Trail

Image courtesy of 4x4TrailMaps because the "environmentalists" closed
this favorite trail of mine before I could visit with my own Jeep.
The Deer Valley Trail in Northern California's Sierra Nevada mountain range is one of my favorite backcountry OHV trails.  Designated 9N83 and 19E01, it is easy to find on any Eldorado National Forest route map since it is a 300-foot-wide corridor through the Mokolumne Wilderness AreaCalifornia Jeeper reviews the Deer Valley Trail and provides maps and photos.  NorCal TTORA's review of the trail includes lots of photos.  4x4TrailMaps has extensive information on the trail.

There are two offroad books that cover this trail, and they are great companions to keep in your Jeep.  The first is the older version of Charles A. Wells' Guide to Northern California Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails; the current version of the book unfortunately does not include the Deer Valley Trail due to its current closure.  The second book is Roger Mitchell's High Sierra SUV Trails Volume I - The East Side.  This book is not just a trail guide, but also gives valuable historical information that really enriches every trail experience.

The Deer Valley 4x4 Trail is an undeveloped route that connects California's Highway 4 and Highway 88.  Although it is not as difficult a trail as the Rubicon, it is beyond the capabilities of an unmodified 4x4.  31-inch tires should be considered the minimum.  While this route can easily be completed in a day, the beautiful and secluded campsites in the middle of the trail are very tempting; I carry with me some wonderful memories from nights camped on this trail.  Be mindful that you'll be camped amongst the bears and coyotes, so food must be stored in a bear proof container, preferably suspended high off the ground and far out on a tree branch.

There is a lot of history to this trail, but perhaps the most famous involves John C. Thompson.  The legendary "Snowshoe" Thompson was born in Norway in 1827 and came to the U.S. when he was ten years old and came to California at age twenty-four.  He founded the route between Genoa, Nevada and Murphy’s Camp, California via Woodfords, Markleeville, Hope Valley, Deer Valley, Hermit Valley, and Big Trees.

In January 1856, "Snowshoe" Thompson began a remarkable series of trips across the Sierra on skis, which continued for twenty winters.  By the mid-1850’s mail was being transported over the Sierra Nevada by horseback and mule and later by wagon.  But with each winter, heavy snows blocked the flow of mail.  The Mormon Emigrant route passing Carson pass was often blocked with heavy snow and hit hard by the winter storms.  "Snowshoe" Thompson founded a route which required less elevation to traverse in the stormy winter times.  The mail continued to be carried by "Snowshoe" Thompson regardless of the winters.  From 1856 until his death at age 49 in 1876, he braved the winter storms on his ten foot long skis, called snowshoes at the time.  He made his skis from recollections of his boyhood in Norway.  His skis were very cumbersome and crude by today’s standards.  "Snowshoe" Thompson’s first skis were made from green oak and were about ten feet long and six inches wide, weighing 25 pounds!

The weight of his mail bags were normally 60-80 pounds, but often weighed over 100 pounds.  His first trip was made from Placerville to Carson Valley a distance of 90 miles.  Having successfully completed the trip to Carson Valley and back, he became a necessity - the communication link between the east coast states and California.  No matter how bad the weather or how deep the snow, "Snowshoe" Thompson never failed to bring the mail over the Sierra Nevada.  Typically, he covered the 90 mile one-way trip in about 3 days, traveling during the day as well as at night, carried no blankets, nor did he even wear a heavy overcoat, relying on his exertions to keep him warm while traveling, and on campfires at night.  His principal route was from Placerville to Carson Valley and back.  At first he used the Placerville-Johnson-Luther Pass route, but later the Big Tree route to Hope Valley, where both routes continued down Carson Canyon to Genoa.

There are many tales of his wintery experiences, saving lives and rescuing lost travelers.  He was never lost, nor did he ever suffer a mishap, even in the most violent blizzards.  He rarely received any compensation for his services - many promises, but little cash.  "He took pride in the work," writes his biographer.  "It challenged the spirit of adventure within him.  It was like going forth to battle, and each successive trip was a victory.  His equal in his peculiar line will probably never again be seen.  The times and conditions are gone that called men possessing the special qualifications that made him famous.  It would be hard to find another man combining his courage, physique, and powers of endurance…"

"Snowshoe" Thompson is buried in Genoa, Nevada, in the Carson Valley.

The following article from the Tracy Press gives a terrific historical account of this trail:
Tight Lines: Tracing, traversing Deer Valley Road a family adventure
by Don Moyer of the Tracy Press
In 1857 and 1858, an emigrant road connected what is now the Ebbets Pass road with Carson Pass. Pioneers making their way to California used it for two years until the new Ebbets Pass was opened, and then the abandoned road began to be reclaimed by the forest from which it was carved. The famous mountain man John “Snowshoe” Thompson used the route to carry mail over the Sierra in winter, when all the roads were closed by snow.

For a hundred years, the road sat unused and pretty much unknown, lost in the mists of time. The road ran from Hermit Valley on Ebbetts Pass (Highway 4) in a northerly direction for about 15 miles through Deer Valley and on to Blue Lakes and Hope Valley on Carson Pass (Highway 88).

With the end of the Second World War and the conclusion of the Korean War, the American people had a booming economy, leisure time and multitudes of war-surplus jeeps. It was probably inevitable that the four-wheel-drive craze was born. Four-wheeling in the ’50s was in its infancy, and there were no rules — and no guidebooks. You just took your jeep out in the woods or desert and drove wherever it struck your fancy.

As a youngster growing up in the ’50s, I remember staying every summer at Hermit Valley. One evening, sitting around the campfire, we were discussing what we might do for the next day and somehow decided to try to find the traces of the old wagon road and see if we could drive our trusty jeep to Deer Valley.

What began as a lark that might take a day or so became an adventure that lasted most of the summer. Finding the remnants of a wagon trail that had been abandoned in the forest for a hundred years was a lot more difficult than it seemed at first. Our starting point was a few old stones in a meadow beside the Mokelumne River that were all that remained of a hotel built to serve the traveling public. Those old foundation stones are still in the meadow in Hermit Valley and are visible from Highway 4.

With a firm starting point, survey stakes and plastic flagging material, we spread out into the forest in a northerly direction. Our most important signs were scrape marks on the rocks made by the wheels of the horse-drawn wagons. While the actual wheels of the wagons were made of sturdy oak, the rims were covered with iron, which scratched and gouged the rocks as they were passed over by a thousand wagons.

Whenever we found such marks, we flagged them with yellow plastic crime-scene tape we got as surplus from the local police department. Sometimes we’d tie a strip of flag material on a handy tree limb or bush, but sometimes we would drive a survey stake into the dirt next to the road. Working our way from flag to flag, we finally marked out the route of the old emigrant road all the way from the hotel foundation in Hermit Valley to an old sawmill site on Deer Creek in Deer Valley.

The most prominent remnant of the sawmill was a cast-iron capstan that sat nestled in a pile of old rotten boards. The capstan sat on a three-legged cast-iron base that had one broken leg that had been repaired with an iron patch riveted on both sides of the break. Those old pioneers were an amazingly inventive lot.

Finally, the big day arrived, when we had the old road completely marked and it was time to attempt to drive a vehicle along the old road from Hermit Valley to Deer Valley. We got the jeep stuck numerous times and would break out the winch, pry bars, jacks and come-alongs, but combined with the labors of a gaggle of adults and kids, we finally made the first modern journey on the old emigrant road.

Countless other four-wheel-drive vehicles have traversed in the intervening 50 years, and the trail is marked by innumerable busted auto parts and oil stains. Now on a typical summer weekend, it isn’t unusual for several dozen four-wheel-drive vehicles to traverse what has become known as the Deer Valley Road. I think if old Snowshoe Thompson saw such a convoy, he’d have to shake his head in wonder.

If you are looking to combine history and family recreation, you might want to consider a family excursion along the Deer Valley Road.
Unfortunately, that's not possible right now.  As part of the "42 Trails Debacle," the anti-access faux-environmentalists have managed to sue the Forest Service and successfully get the trail closed.  The OHV community has been working for years to get this and every one of the other 41 trails re-opened, and there is hope that this one stands a good chance of being opened back up to the public.  If there ever was a good time to contribute to BlueRibbon Coalition now would be it!

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