Excursion to the Upper Canyon, North Fork American River

May 19-20, 2001

I drove up the Foresthill-Soda Springs road past the Mumford Bar and Beacroft trailheads to Sailor Flat, where snow blocked further progress. Parking, I set off north across the snow toward the Sailor Flat Trail. Elevation, about 6500 feet.

After a mile or so, the jeep trail peels off to the left.

After another mile, the jeep trail ends and the foot trail continues; this is a typical reach of the foot trail, often with good cover from the sun.

Ammonite fossils from the Jurassic Sailor Canyon Formation can be found along the trail in places.

Rattlesnakes are common in the North Fork. This one, just above the trail, seemed quite angry or worried.

At the base of the Sailor Flat Trail; elevation, about 3400 feet. The American River Trail continues downstream to Mumford Bar from here. The confluence of Sailor Canyon creek is in the right foreground; in the middle distance, the glacial outwash terrace, which the old trail up-river to Wildcat Canyon follows; and in the background, Wildcat Point, 3500 feet above the river.

The aquatic form of the garter snake Thamnophis elegans, eating a trout.

On the way up to Wildcat Canyon, occasionally the trail follows the eroded edge of the outwash terrace and there are nice views. Here, the view downstream on the North Fork, to the confluence of Sailor Canyon Creek on center left, and with Big Valley Bluff in the distance, standing 3500 feet above the river.

The remains of a stone cabin, probably dating from the late 19th century, perhaps earlier. This is on the line of the old trail up to Wildcat Canyon.

The view from the old trail to Wildcat Canyon, atop the outwash terrace, up the canyon. Snow Mountain is on the left, and Wabena Point, the noted petroglyph site, is visible in the distance.

The confluence of Wildcat Canyon creek and the North Fork, as seen from my camp. The ragged cliffs of Snow Mountain are across the river to the north, with the slanting strata of the Sailor Canyon Formation on the left, and on the upper right, the metavolcanic pyroclastics. The summit of Snow Mountain, out of view in top center, is 4500 feet above the river here. A glacial outwash terrace is well-exposed across the river.

Wildcat Point (on the ridge between Wabena and Wildcat canyons), as seen from the flood-swept island just downstream from Wildcat Canyon creek.

The glacial outwash terrace on the south side of the river, just below Wildcat Canyon. These terraces run for many miles down the main North Fork canyon, and in some places, notably, Green Valley, terraces of several to many different ages are found. I hope that a formal geological examination of all such terraces can be made soon. This terrace is probably about 15,000 years old, and dates from the retreat of the last, Tioga-age glacier in the main canyon.

The view down the river to Big Valley Bluff at dawn, from Wildcat Camp. The river splits around the partially visible flood-swept island here.

The lower reaches of the Sailor Flat Trail follow portions of an old mining ditch, which drew from Sailor Canyon and was used for ground sluicing of the glacial outwash terrace deposits somewhere not far to the west. If one follows the ditch up from where it leaves the trail, this waterfall is reached. It has a fine pool for swimming at its base. Lots of poison oak along the ditch, though.

The Trinidad Mine is located along the upper part of the foot trail. From the residence (a collapsed wooden structure) this view of the cliffs in Sailor Canyon is had. I would expect that there are many waterfalls in Sailor Canyon. Sailor Meadow is about a mile east of the summit of this cliff.

Such are some photos from a very nice visit to the upper canyon of the North Fork American river. Here is an account of that trip I posted to the North Fork Trails email list:


I have been hearing about a 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon, a tributary of the North Fork in the upper canyon. Hoping to photograph it, I drove up the Foresthill-Soda Springs road to Sailor Flat, at about 6500 feet. Snow barred further progress, but I planned to take the Sailor Flat Trail down to the river anyway; from the trail, I had heard that one could work one's way west into New York Canyon to see the waterfall.

I planned to spend the night down by the North Fork.

Only a hundred yards or so of snow had to passed to gain the road leading down to the trailhead. The first mile or so I followed this road, then turned onto a jeep trail. This was as far as I had ever been before, and it was exciting to enter unknown territory. The jeep trail descended quite steeply in places. I kept my eyes peeled for fossil ammonites of the Jurassic-age Sailor Canyon Formation. There was a rich forest of Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, Kellogg's Black Oak, and associated species. Some of the pines were around five feet or so in diameter. There were some fine views across the main canyon to Snow Mountain, with just a few patches of snow left on the sunny side of its 8000-foot-elevation summit. I could also see across Sailor Canyon to the remarkable forest around Sailor Meadow.

The jeep trail plunged down to about the 5000-foot level at Oak Flat. Here there was a small parking area and turn-around, and the foot trail proper continued down. If one has a 4WD with low range and steady nerves, this is by the far the easiest way into the upper canyon, since there is only about two miles of trail and 1600 feet of elevation to reach the river from the end of the jeep trail. For me, it was four miles and 3000 feet.

I could see no obvious way to cut over into New York Canyon and without much ado changed my main objective and began thinking in terms of going up the North Fork to Wabena Creek, where there are more fine waterfalls. So it was on down the trail. Soon I found some ammonites. They make for pretty fossils, having somewhat the appearance of a chambered nautilus, up to a few inches in diameter, and all that I saw were somewhat sheared into elliptical shapes. One was even faulted slightly. The shearing forces are likely an artifact of the accretion of this wedge of oceanic sediments to the continental margin.

I passed the old Trinidad Mine and after some steep descents the trail moderated and approached Sailor Canyon creek itself. I could hear the roar of cascades and waterfalls. Suddenly a rattlesnake rattled fiercely. It was just above the trail, coiled and ready. I could not see how I had so aggravated it; perhaps it had been napping. I took some photographs and cautiously passed it.

The trail follows an old mining ditch for a ways before taking a final plunge to the river. At the river it meets the American River Trail, which proceeds west and downstream to Mumford Bar. I went east and unslung my pack at the confluence of Sailor Canyon creek. The North Fork is running high and cold, but not nearly as high as usually at this time of year. I explored along the creek for a little ways and had quite a scare when I nearly stepped on a snake with a huge grotesque head. I jumped away in such a panic that I suddenly was aware that my toes were hurting from the long descent, and even managed to pull a muscle in my back! I was in agony! I turned to see what the thing was that had brought all this grief on me.

It was a large garter snake of the aquatic variety, and it was swallowing a trout at least eight inches long, with only the tail and the last four inches sticking out of its mouth! I rushed back to my pack to get the camera and took several pictures. Adding to the overall strangeness, four house-flies of various sizes were crawling all over the tail of the fish and the snake's head.

In this entire reach of the North Fork canyon, there are large glacial outwash terraces often on both sides of the river, with flat tops, from fifty to 150 feet above the river. Guessing that some kind of old trail might go upriver atop the terraces, I found a place to cross Sailor Canyon creek and immediately found a fine old trail, which does not appear on the maps. I made for Wildcat Canyon, the next tributary entering from the north, and although the old trail was often blocked by fallen trees, it was otherwise easily followed. I passed the remains of an old stone cabin, and after a mile or so reached a collapsed log cabin on the terrace just shy of Wildcat Canyon. I descended to the river and spent the night there.

My camp was due south of the summit of Snow Mountain, which stands fully 4500 feet above the river. The steeply plunging strata of slates etc. of the Sailor Canyon Formation made up the cliffs across the river from me; a little ways east, the contact with the Jurassic meta-volcanic pyroclastic sequence was only faintly discernible, as a kind of gully.

There was a large island of gravels and large boulders right below where I camped. It looked very raw and fresh and I suspected that it had been fully submerged during the almost epochal January 1997 flood event. I wandered around taking photographs. A merganser landed in the river right next to my camp, at sunset. Big Valley Bluff could be seen a few miles down the canyon. It reminds me of El Capitan, and stands 3500 feet above the river. To the east and south there is another tremendous spur ridge jutting into the canyon, truncated by the huge glaciers which flowed through here time and again during the Pleistocene. I call this spur Wildcat Point. It stands about 3500 feet above the river, between Wildcat Canyon on the west and Wabena Canyon on the east. I had some fine views of it. From the flood-swept island I could see Wabena Point, the amazing petroglyph site a few miles up the canyon.

At sunset I encountered another rattlesnake, on the banks of Wildcat Canyon creek.

Before dawn I began scouting up the river. About a half-mile up I found a remarkable thing: a landslide from Snow Mountain had crashed down, filling the river to a depth of fifty feet or so, and slathering angular boulders and debris all over the top of the outwash terrace on the far (my) side of the river. This avalanche deposit had then been overrun by the river. This could only have happened in the January 1997 flood event. The river then breached the slide-dam and ripped it all out. This probably accounts for the raw look of the island near my camp. It was not only scoured by the river, but also by the avalanche debris, when the slide-dam breached.

The river's gradient was increasing and a number of lovely cascades appeared. I could also see, a little ways upstream, the hulking mass of a huge landslide deposit. I left the river and climbed up to the top of the outwash terrace to see if there was an old trail here as well. I found a faint suggestion of one and headed back to my camp. As I got closer to Wildcat Canyon I became more sure of the trail, and reached the creek directly across from where the log cabin is.

I was not encourage by the prospects for reaching Wabena Canyon and its waterfalls, returning to camp, and making the 3000-foot, five-mile climb back out, all in one day. I decided to start out immediately, and have a go at getting into New York Canyon as originally planned. However, the climb out of that amazing canyon really took the starch out of me. I did find a nice waterfall in Sailor Canyon, in fact, the old mining ditch which the trail follows for a while came from the top of that waterfall.

I met three people from Auburn, who were going down Sailor Flat Trail to the American River Trail, thence to Mumford Bar and back out on the Mumford Bar Trail. This is about a fifteen-mile hike, maybe seventeen miles.

When I reached the jeep trail at Oak Flat, I rested for a while, and took note of the heat; the mosquitos; the brushy tangled nature of the forest through which I must go to approach New York Canyon; and recalled that I had another two miles or so and 1500 feet to climb to reach my truck. So I gave up on New York Canyon.

The jeep trail was somehow steeper than I remember on the way out. So was the upper road. It was also mysteriously longer. Finally the snowfield appeared and I crossed it to my truck.

Such was a very nice adventure to the upper canyon of the North Fork American.

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