Soda Springs; the Upper Basin

of the

North Fork American River

In 1972 I rode my battered old Honda 300 motorcycle up I-80 to Soda Springs, and out through the Serene Lakes subdivision, passing insensibly the divide between the South Yuba and North Fork American--here as elsewhere, diminished by the vast volumes of ice which had poured again and again from the upper Yuba into the North Fork, during the Ice Age--and soon found myself following a rough little dirt road, winding below great battlements of volcanic mudflow. I parked the bike and climbed one of the ribbed cliffs, and for the first time saw the upper basin of the North Fork American. It is like a gigantic amphitheater, ringed with high peaks. On the crest I could see mts. Lincoln, Anderson, and Tinkers Knob, with the upper Foresthill Divide across the basin to the south, Lyon and Needle peaks, leading up to Granite Chief at the Sierra crest. To the west the huge massif of Snow Mountain blocked views down the canyon, and the curious little wedge of Devils Peak completed the circle.

I was struck by the contrast between the upper South Yuba, and upper North Fork: while the Yuba had roads, even a freeway, power lines, a town, ski areas, and even subdivisions, the North Fork was almost pristine. To all appearances, from my cliff-top vantage, it was pristine.

Within a year or two I had climbed all the peaks I had seen, and hiked the Painted Rock Trail from Squaw Valley down past the old soda springs to that same little dirt road, and had ridden my motorcycle along the road itself down to Foresthill and Auburn. I had camped at Needle Lake, over 8400 feet in elevation, and decided that it, rather than Mountain Meadow Lake, deserved the status of being the ultimate source, as it were, of the North Fork American. And I had discovered that there were large private holdings in the upper basin; a club called The Cedars, and the Chickering family, among others, owned nearly eight thousand acres. Many were the "no trespassing" signs which littered the landscape, and the public trail which led up the Chickering driveway--the Painted Rock Trail--was not only unmarked, but every suitable parking place nearby had "tow-away zone" and "no trespassing" signs guarding it. I have been informed by Nick Chickering that it is the Forest Service's responsibility to mark the trail.

Over the years I have visited the upper basin of the North Fork many times, sometimes on skis, sometimes just driving through, sometimes hiking. I have met various members of The Cedars, and am indebted to Winslow Hall in particular for showing me, and telling me about, some of the more notable features of the high North Fork. Winslow took me to see the petroglyphs at the site of the old Soda Springs Hotel, and Winslow took me on the private trail down the North Fork, to Heath Springs. He also told me about the petroglyphs at Wabena Point, and about Latimer Point, where the early-20th-century landscaper painter Lorenzo Latimer used to paint Snow Mountain and the Royal Gorge.

Below you will find a few photos from a recent visit to the upper basin, which I had the pleasure of making in the company of the charming Terra Nyssa; and below the photos, an account of our foray; and then still farther below, some historical accounts of the area.

Anderson Peak

Tinker's Knob

Butterflies feeding on Mustang Mint (Monardella sp.)

Two lava flows, on a spur ridge north of the Foresthill Divide.

The lower flow has columnar jointing.

The Sierra Crest, just south of Tinker's Knob, as seen from the Painted Rock Trail.

Faint petroglyphs, on granite near the Soda Springs. The surface here exhibits a large, albeit weathered, remnant of glacial polish. Note the striations left by rocks embedded in the ice; these trend east/west.

The Bear Footprint motif

A Visit to the High North Fork, August 8, 2001

On Wednesay, August 8, artist Terra Nyssa and I made a visit to the upper basin of the North Fork American. We drove up I-80 to Soda Springs, then into the upper basin by way of the Foresthill-Soda Springs road. At the outlet of the Ice Lakes, where the pavement ends, there are good exposures of the "pink welded tuff" unit of the Valley Springs rhyolite ash sequence.

There is quite a bit of history associated with this region. The Placer Emigrant Road, constructed in 1852 in an attempt to lure California-bound wagon trains through Foresthill and Auburn, apparently branched in the high country. Both branches led to Squaw Valley, following to some extent the old Indian trails made by the Washoe over centuries of use; to the south, by way of the Middle Fork American, to the north, by way of the North Fork. During the great boom of Virginia City and its gold and silver mines in the early 1860s, lode deposits were found and claimed in Squaw Valley and in the upper North Fork, where a group of miners built a "blockhouse," presumably some kind of sturdy log cabin.

When the CPRR railroad went through the upper South Yuba in the late 1860s, and the CPRR was awarded the odd-numbered sections of land for miles to either side of the tracks, a part of their new holdings extended into the upper North Fork. One of the Big Four, Mark Hopkins, had a fine log cabin built, from squared logs, near the soda springs beside the river, at about 6000 feet in elevation. It seems that Leland Stanford was also involved, and at the same time, a hotel was built, and the rough trail down from the upper South Yuba was graded out into a wagon road. Another hotel, Tinker's Station, was on the railroad and Dutch Flat Donner Lake wagon road, just below Summit Valley on the South Yuba. Visitors to the soda springs would take stage coaches down into the upper North Fork from here. Soon enough, even though the actual springs were miles to the south, Tinker's Station was re-named Soda Springs, a name which has persisted to this day.

Mark Hopkins' cabin still stands. I have two old photos of it taken in the early 1870s, and Terra and I tried to find the spot where the photos were taken. The main trail up the canyon seems to have originally led right past the Hopkins cabin, and the photos were taken from a little exposure of glaciated granite just to the east, along the trail. Since that time, the hotel has disappeared, and a stone lodge built after the fashion of a Bavarian hunting lodge, now blocks the view of the old Hopkins cabin. Nick Chickering informs me that "the granite lodge next to the log cabin was built in 1899 by Timothy Hopkins, Mark Hopkins' adopted son and heir."

The Hopkins cabin is at center, the Soda Springs Hotel on the right, and Snow Mountain appears very dimly in the distance, left center. Note the trail in the left foreground. Looking west.

In the early 1900s, a group of families obtained several sections of railroad land downstream from the soda springs, and built summer cabins. They formed a club called The Cedars, and their holdings now amount to about 6,000 acres. In 1928, the lands around the soda springs passed into the hands of the Chickering family of San Francisco, and various residences were built in that area. The Chickering holdings amount to about 1800 acres. The Chickerings have acted in several important ways to preserve the pristine nature of the upper North Fork; in the early 1970s they dedicated an easement for the Painted Rock Trail, and also (quoting Nick Chickering) "voluntarily donated a conservation easement in perpetuity for scientific study to The University of California in 1974 and 1975, at the time one of the very earliest conservation easements granted in the West."


Terra and I parked on the main road, and followed the Chickering driveway--the old wagon road to the soda springs--up the valley. Anderson Peak and Tinkers Knob, on the Sierra Crest, could be seen directly ahead, and the upper Foresthill Divide Peaks were to the south, with only Lyon Peak visible at first. We stopped for lunch just above the soda springs, and then continued east and upriver on the trail. The scenery was tremendous, and thunder clouds were building just east of the Sierra crest, flowering higher and higher into the sky.

We passed several contact zones between bodies of granite and zones of metamorphic rock. These latter were tentatively correlated with similar rocks west of Snow Mountain by USGS geologist David Harwood, in 1983; they were banded strata of slate and chert with some little conglomerates interbedded. At places the glaciers and the river have left them nicely exposed and polished.

For a time we lost sight of Tinkers Knob, and as it reappeared, we realized that the canyon we were making for must be near. It was, and we began climbing up on the old trail, which probably long predates the hotel, although the trail does show clear signs that it was used by people on horseback, probably mainly hotel guests in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Thunder began to boom from the clouds boiling a few miles away.

The canyon we entered had considerable granite in it, rising to fairly high positions in the general scheme of things. Nearly all the ridges in this area have the usual capping of young volcanics, but flanking this little canyon was a ridge of granite rising to over 8000 feet, and a mile or two away Granite Chief clears 9000 feet. So this area contains some of the high ground of the ancient, pre-volcanic landscape.

Just above us as we climbed was a fine bold cliff or butte of lava, with columnar jointing. It was of a rusty brown in color, and the uppermost part did not have columns, only the basal 200 feet or so. Later we gained a good vantage of this little butte and could see that the upper and lower parts were of slightly different colors, so on two counts--columns and colors--we believed the butte to be made of two lava flows. The lava appears to have occupied a little valley in the ancestral landscape, a valley eroded into the contact between the granite and the metamrphics.

Although we had hoped to reach Needle Lake, we found ourselves still a thousand feet below and a mile away as the sun began to get low, so we began to retreat. Near the soda springs, we did a little trespassing, crossing the river to a large expanse of glaciated granite with a very large number of Indian petroglyphs. This spot has very fine views, west to Snow Mountain, east to Tinkers Knob, south to Lyon Peak. Large numbers of dragonflies were hawking about in the warm summer evening air above the petroglyphs.

We followed a little trail down to the old wagon road, right past some cabins, and walked out to the main road and the car. A hike of about ten miles total had led us through some of the most beautiful terrain in Placer County, and we were very glad to have made the visit, although a little disappointed not to have reached Needle Lake. We arrived back in Nevada City almost exactly twelve hours after we had left.

Such was a very nice day in the upper North Fork.

An Account of a visit to the Upper North Fork in 1893


Quartz Ledge Of Promising Character
Situated in the Mountains Of Eastern Placer,
Near Snow Mountain Falls on the North Fork.

Sacramento, February 15th, 1894.
Editor of the Sentinel:-Last summer while spending a few weeks at Summit Soda Springs, on the North Fork of the American river, Placer county, a report reached me of a strike in quartz that had recently been made at a point a few miles down the river, and as time was hanging somewhat heavily, a friend and myself concluded to combine a fishing trip with a visit to the new discovery. So early one morning with saddle horses and fishing outfit, we started over the rough trail that leads down the river from Soda Springs. A ride of five miles brought us to Snow Mountain Falls, where owing to the rugged nature of the canyon, further progress with horses was impossible. Leaving our animals here, and preparing our rods and lines, we scrambled down the river to a point two miles below, finding on our way many beautiful dark pools and sunny ripples from which the trout would eagerly leap as the flies were swung above or trailed lightly along their surfaces. The fishing was exceptionally good, and we found no trouble in filling our baskets-each fifteen pounds-with fine fat trout, mostly of the rainbow species, by the time we arrived at the place where we were to leave the river for the mine. At this point the canyon attains its grandest aspect. Bold precipitous mountains rise 5000 feet above the river, the one on the north being so steep that hardly a bush or shrub of any kind has found a foothold upon its rocky side.

A hard climb of 3000 feet brought us to the mine named Cinnamon Bear. It is situated upon the south side of the American river, about seven miles west of Soda Springs, and some twelve miles in a southeast direction from Cisco, a station on the Southern Pacific railroad, and at an altitude of 5500 feet. The country rock of the entire mountain is an eruptive porphyritic rock of a dark green color, containing blackish crystals of hornblende. The basic portion of this rock weathers to a pale green. A mile to the east, the metamorphic rocks appear, which are in turn joined by volcanic rocks (tuffs and basalts) a few miles still farther to the east. A mile to the west are the black slates, highly altered and indurated, the dip of their strata as seen across what is called Big Canyon seeming to coincide with the steep western slope of the porphyritic mountain that has been intruded among them. The consequent grinding and crushing of the two formations along the line of contact, being the probable cause of origin of the canyon that separates the slates from the porphyry. Among the metamorphic rocks to the east we noticed several interesting geographical features. Among them are two quite extensive deposits of marble, that would no doubt answer for ornamental purposes. Also a bed of dark colored limestone, of an oolitic structure, which when struck with a hammer gave out a strong smell of sulphuretted hydrogen gas, evidently the variety called stinkstein by the Germans. A limited search revealed no fossils in this formation, most likely all traces of them having been destroyed by the closely surrounding plutonic rocks. Near the limestone is a small, bunchy, and greatly contorted quartz vein, carrying a seam of plumbago a half an inch in thickness. About two miles east of Snow Mountain Falls, situated upon a bench overlooking a deep gorge of the American river, is a group of five fine mineral springs (acidulous chalybeate). A half mile west of these springs we found a number of garnets, some of them half an inch in diameter, embedded in a white feldspathic rock. But to return to the mine.

Owing to the steepness of the mountain in the vicinity of the lode, every vestige of earth and shingle has been swept away, exposing the vein for a distance of 4000 feet. It is a powerful fissure of the simple type, from four to nine feet in width, with a strike a little north of west, and south of east, and a flat dip to the south. The gouge is a friable crystalline quartz, the ore shoots, several in number, heavily charged with the sulphides, oxides, and carbonates of the different metals, prominent among them being a beautiful variegated copper ore (bornite), also a rich-looking sulphide of copper (glance) and a copper-iron sulphide (chalcopyrite) are present. We were shown two pieces of rock which were very prettily spangled and veined with the bright virgin copper. Blue and green carbonate of copper are abundant as well as a sulphide of antimony (stribnite). Pyrite of iron, specular iron, and hematite, can be seen along the face of the ore shoot. Galena (sulphide of lead) and zinc (blende) occur more sparingly. Up to the time of our visit no test had been made for copper though there was considerable ore in sight that would show a high percentage of the metal, at least thirty per cent. The owners, who are somewhat inexperienced in mining, say that they did not suppose copper was of any account. The only work that had been done on the lode was a prospect hole fifteen feet in depth, which had been sunk on the northwesterly ore shoot-this shoot is about 500 feet in length-from which one assay only had been made. It showed $3 in gold and two ounces silver, add to this say twenty-five per cent copper and it is quite encouraging for croppings. Although the lode lies so flat at this point, 1000 feet to the east it has a much sharper pitch, as much as forty degrees, indicating that considerable disturbance of the country rock has taken place since the deposition of the mineral vein. In some places where the foot wall has crumbled away, huge blocks of quartz lean out from the hanging wall, which has the grooved and finely polished appearance characteristic of fissure veins. It would seem that the most favorable conditions here combine for the formation of a valuable ore deposit, and with capital, a paying property could be developed. No doubt better rock than the sample assayed could be found along a lode of such dimensions, and in such a vein higher grade ore could be confidently looked for with increased depth.

The advantages for working the mine cheaply are many. A gravity tramway would take the ore from the mine to the river 3000 feet below, where there is an excellent mill site and unlimited water-power, the river here dropping 100 feet. Of course, a tunnel started at the mill site would be the proper method of working the mine should developments justify such an expense. Such a tunnel would cross-cut the lode at a perpendicular depth of 3000 feet and give over 4000 feet of backs completely draining and ventilating the mine. Sufficient timber grows along the river for ordinary purposes where water power is used, while on the mountain 1000 feet above the mine are vast bodies of magnificent firs. All these natural advantages together with such an imposing looking lode cannot but suggest pleasant possibilities. Who knows but that here in Eastern Placer, only awaiting the touch of capital, lies a second Anaconda. Obviously, like that famous mine its economic value will be found to consist in the copper and silver it contains. The principal drawback is the difficulty that will be experienced in getting a wagon road to the property, though this will be a comparatively easy matter should Messrs. Montgomery, Dennit and Crittenden, the millionaire owners of the La Trinidad mine, three miles down the river, conclude to build a road from Cisco to their mine. I am informed that work on such a road is to be begun early in the coming spring. Also, that timbers are now being gotten out at that mine for a fine 20-stamp mill to be erected as soon as the snow will permit.

H.D. Bronson.


note: the "excellent mill site" mentioned above is Wabena Falls.

From Californian Pictures in Prose and Verse, by Benjamin Parke Avery:

[note: Avery has just concluded a description of the upper South Yuba, scarred by logging and construction of a dam; he now passes to the upper North Fork. My notes are in [brackets]--R.T.]

Summit Valley, lying three miles west of the highest point on the railroad, is six thousand seven hundred and seventy-four feet above the sea. The air is keen and invigorating; there are few summer nights without frost, but the days are warm enough for health and comfort. Nine miles southward, and six hundred and sixty-one feet lower, are the little known but remarkable "Summit Soda Springs." The drive to these springs is one of the most picturesque and enjoyable in the Sierra. Passing by fine dark cliffs of volcanic breccia to the right, and over low hills covered with tall, red firs, the road leads to Anderson Valley, a green meadow, embosoming three little lakes, which are perfectly idyllic in their quiet beauty. These lakes are the remnants of a larger single body which evidently once filled the whole valley. Their outlet is through a narrow rocky gorge which empties into a tributary of the north fork of the American River. The road follows the steep side of this gorge for a short distance, then reaches the summit of a ridge overlooking the canyon of the American, two thousand feet below. Looking down this canyon, one sees rising from its blue depths the grand bulk of Eagle Cliff [Snow Mountain],--a rocky promontory whose top is probably eight thousand feet above the sea, and whose bald slope to the river presents a precipitous front of inaccessible steepness. The largely exposed mass of this elevation makes a magnificently long outline across the sky, and when the canyon is hazy in the afternoon, and the sun declines towards the west, the sharp sculpture of the cliff is obscured behind a purple veil and presents a front of ethereal softness, like a vast shadow projected against the heavens, or a curtain let down from the infinite.

Directly across the canyon, looking southward, the ridge separating the north American from the middle fork of the main river sweeps up in a still longer and grander line, which swells into snow-peaks from nine thousand to ten thousand feet high,--as high above the valley at the bottom of the canyon as Mount Washington is above the sea,--exposing four thousand feet of uplift to the glance, and weathered into a rich variety of pinnacled, domed, and serrated forms. The descent into the canyon is a long zigzag through a lovely forest, in which the red fir, with its deeply corrugated bark, attains a height of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty feet, and frequently has a thickness at its base of four or five feet. The yellow pine ( P. ponderosa ), even more massive, lifts its rich foliage above a bright and leather-colored trunk, the bark on which is almost smooth, and is divided into long plates. But the monarch of these woods (though infrequent here) is the sugar pine ( P. Lambertiana ), whose smooth trunk, often six feet through, rises a hundred feet or more without a limb, perfectly straight, and is crowned with a most characteristic, irregular, and picturesque top, its slender cones, a foot or more in length, hanging from the tips of the boughs like ear-drops. The eye constantly seeks out these magnificent trees, and every large one is hailed with admiring exclamations. Dwarf oak and manzanita, ceanothus and chemisal, are the prevailing underbrush. In sunny open spaces, or on bits of timberless meadow, the rose, and thimble-berry, and a purple-blooming asclepia abound. Occasional large patches of a broad-leafed helianthus [Mule Ears], when not in bloom, curiously resemble ill-kept tobacco fields. About grassy springs a very fragrant white lily sparingly unveils its virgin beauty. A spotted red species of the lily is more common, and small, low.flowering plants are numerous. The southern slope of the ridge, descending to the soda springs, has a deep soil and is very thickly timbered. At its base the small streams are lined with thickets of quaking aspen, cottonwood, and balm of Gilead, alternating with more continuous groves of alder and willow, where the prevailing undergrowth is a silkweed, four or five feet high, whose slender stalks, bearing narrow, sharply-cut leaves, are thickly crowned with purple blossoms. Thickets of thorn afford cover for numerous quail. Coniferous trees continue along the narrow banks of the river, but stand more apart. At the head of the canyon, the granite breaks down in huge benches, or shelves, presenting perpendicular faces as looked at from below. The river tumbles a hundred feet, in cascades and falls, through a gorge of granite set in a lovely grove of cedar and pine, and pools of green water sparkle in clean basins of granite at the foot of every fall. The rock of this gorge is richly browned and polished, except on the gray faces of the cliffs overhanging the stream.

Farther up the canyon, where the main crest of the Sierra describes the arc of a circle along the eastern sky, and is crowned by several high peaks, the granite is overlaid with lava and breccia, the product of the volcanoes which anciently dominated and overflowed this region, and whose relics are seen in the sharp cones of trachyte at the summit. Near the junction of granite and volcanic rocks, numerous soda springs boil up through seams in the ledges, often in the very bed of the stream. The water of these springs is highly charged with carbonic acid, is delightfully cool and pungent, and contains enough iron to make it a good tonic, while it has other saline constituents of much sanitary value. Where the fountains bubble up they have formed mounds of ferruginous earth and soda crust, and their water stains the river banks and currents at intervals. One of the largest and finest springs has been utilized, forming one of the most picturesque resorts in California [Soda Springs Hotel]. About two miles below, the river has cut a narrow channel one hundred and fifty feet deep and one eighth of a mile long through solid granite. This chasm is but a few rods wide at top, and only a few feet wide at bottom, where there are numerous smooth potholes, forming deep pools of wonderfully transparent water of an exquisite aquamarine tint. There is enough descent to make the current empty from one pool to another in little cascades, over sharp pitcher.lips of polished rock. Lovers of angling are provoked to find no fish in these charming basins. A few stunted but picturesque cedars are stuck like cockades in the clefts above, and the summits of the chasm walls are rounded and smoothed by ancient glacial action. To this place was given the name of Munger's Gorge, by a gay picnic party last summer, in honor of the fine artist who sat with them on its brink, and was first to paint it. A few miles below is a still deeper and grander gorge [the Royal Gorge], at the foot of Eagle Cliff, where the precipitous granite walls rise a thousand feet or more, and the stream makes a sheer fall of a hundred feet. Above this fall fish cannot ascend, and so it happens the beautiful upper river is the angler's disappointment.

There are many fine climbs to be made in the vicinity of the soda springs, including Mount Anderson and Tinker's Knob, companion peaks, separated only by a saddle-like depression a few hundred feet deep and scarcely a mile long, at the very head of the canyon, dividing it from the head of Truckee River, on the eastern slope, by a few miles. These peaks, having an elevation from three thousand to three thousand five hundred feet above the river, and from nine thousand to nine thousand five hundred above the sea, can be climbed with comparative ease in a few hours. Tinker's Knob, the higher of the two (named after an old mountaineer, with humorous reference to his eccentric nasal feature), is a sharp cone of trachyte, rising above a curving ridge composed partly of the same material and partly of lava and breccia overlying granite. Its summit, only a few yards in extent, is flat, and paved with thin slabs of trachyte, and cannot be scaled without the aid of the hands in clambering over its steep slopes of broken rock. Anderson is shaped like a mound cut in half and is composed of breccia (volcanic conglomerate), rising on the exposed face in perpendicular cliffs, similar to those which occur lower down the slopes. The ridge crowned by these twin peaks is approached over a steep mountain of granite boulders, morainal in character, which leads to a tableland clad sparsely with yellow pines and firs. Clambering over the broken rock to the top of Tinker's Knob a magnificent panorama is unfolded. Over three thousand feet below winds the American River,--a ribbon of silver in a concavity of sombre green, seen at intervals only in starry flashes, like diamonds set in emerald. The eye follows the course of the canyon fifty or sixty miles down the western slope, marking the interlapping and receding ridges which melt at last into the hazy distance of the Sacramento Valley. With the afternoon sun lighting up this slope, shooting its rays through the ranks of pines, and making glorious the smoke of burning forests or the river vapors, which soften without concealing the scene, the effect is wonderfully rich. Looking north and south, the eye discerns a long procession of peaks, including Mount Stanford, the Downieville Buttes, and Mount Lassen. To the east lies Lake Tahoe, revealed for nearly its whole length, with environments of picturesque peaks. There, too, lies its grand outlet, the basin of the Truckee River, which can be followed for fifty miles to the Truckee meadows in Nevada, past several railroad towns. The line of snow-sheds from the ridge above Donner Lake to Truckee is distinctly seen, and the roar of passing trains comes faintly up. The Washoe Mountains bound the view in that direction, completing a grand picture. The view is amphitheatrical, and the radius of it cannot be under two hundred miles.

A still finer outlook can be obtained from a somewhat higher peak to the southward, which heads the next canyon in that direction, and is approached over or along a succession of volcanic spurs, edged with sharp cliffs of breccia, of true drift conglomerate, and narrow plateaus of the same material resting on vertical walls of basalt. The cliffs in one place are a dark Vandyke brown, faced with brilliant red and yellow lichens, and the talus at their base is a grassy slope of vivid green. Opposite these, across a gulf perhaps two thousand feet deep, rises the bluff face of the peak we seek,--shaped like the South Dome of Yosemite, but a mass of crumbling breccia of a pale chocolate or drab color, enameled with patches of snow. Some hard climbing is necessary to surmount this, but the view repays the labor. Though much of the character described above, it is more extensive, giving a finer idea of the summit peaks for a distance of one hundred and fifty miles along the range. Mount Lassen and the Black Butte, its neighbors,--volcanic cones both,--are beautifully exposed, and towers higher than any mountain points in that direction until Mount Shasta is reached, only seventy miles farther north. Looming into view one after the other, as the eager climber ascends, they excite the mind and stimulate the weary limbs to renewed effort; and as the view, at first limited by near ridges, expands to a vast circle, melting on every side in the atmosphere, the soul expands with it, and the very flesh that holds it grows buoyant.

What now to me the jars of life,
Its petty cares, its harder throes?
The hills are free from toil and strife,
And clasp me in their deep repose.
They soothe the pain within my breast
No power but theirs could ever reach;
They emblem that eternal rest
we cannot compass in our speech.

John R. Ridge.

A couple of thousand feet below are several little blue lakelets, fed by melting snows, in small basins of verdure. Flowers bloom in gold and blue and purple beauty at their margins, and at the very edge of the frozen snow. A fitful breeze sweeps a quick ripple of silvery wrinkles over the placid pools, and they are smooth and blue again in an instant. There is no cloud in the sky, but shadows of high. flying birds pass over the landscape below, reminding us of clouds, and intensifying the sensation of vast space and depth. Recovered from the ecstasy of this grand scene, we begin to study the geology of the region, which is beautifully revealed. First, an upheaval of granite, rupturing, displacing, and metamorphosing the beds of sedimentary rock deposited when the ocean lay over the sight of the range.

Then, over the granite, and crowning all the highest ridges and peaks, are layers of volcanic rock--trachyte, breccia, red lava, pumice, and scoria--cut through clear to the underlying granite at the head of canyons, first by the glaciers that succeeded the volcanic period, and later by frost and freshet, by slides and avalanches. The evidences of glacial action below the long line of ancient craters, can be clearly traced in the excavation of the lava flows; in the rounded and polished masses of granite; in the erratic boulders left here and there, perched like monuments on solid ledges; in the morainal deposits cut through by modern streams or still forming lakes. Thus the reign of ice succeeded the reign of fire, and both these tremendous forces were needed to fashion the rich mountain forms, and to prepare the way for all the lovely forests greening their flanks.

Also from Californian Pictures in Prose and Verse, by Benjamin Parke Avery, this account of Indian artifacts, and the remarkable petroglyphs, at the upper North Fork's Soda Springs:

During the various rambles which furnished the material for these sketches of
California scenery the writer was much interested in observing the evidences of
former Indian occupation and handicraft. He had seen, a quarter of a century ago,
that the tribes unaffected by contact with our civilization presented a perfect
picture of the arts and customs of the later Stone age, when implements or
weapons were polished, and when woven and braided fabrics were made, and earthen
huts gave the first kind of architecture. He had exhumed from considerable depths
in the auriferous gravel deposits of the Sierra stone mortars and pestles and
arrow-heads, like those still used by living tribes. In later journeys,
therefore, it was a pleasant incidental task to follow again in the footsteps of
the first people. There is no reason to believe that any tribes dwelt permanently
at great elevations in the Sierra Nevada, if anywhere within the deep snow-line.
In the summit valleys, about the lakes, and at the sources of streams, where
these wild children of nature would find it most convenient and pleasant to live,
the elevation above the sea is from five thousand to seven thousand feet, and the
snow falls to a depth of from ten to twenty feet, continuing on the ground from
November or December until June or July. Most of the lakes at this season are
frozen and covered with snow; even the smaller streams are often banked over with
snow; and the game has fled to the lower portion of the range. But while the
Sierra was not the constant home of the Indians, they resorted thither regularly
in the summer season, from June or July to November, except when they were
denizens of the great lower valleys, which supplied them with all they needed in
every season; these were, moreover, occupied by the less warlike tribes, who were
seldom able to cope with their hereditary foemen of the mountains. The summit
region of the Sierra Nevada furnished good fishing in its lakes and some of its
streams; deer and mountain quail and grouse abounded; huckleberries,
thimble-berries, wild plums, choke.cherries, gooseberries, and various edible
roots were tolerably plentiful; the furry marten, weasel-like animals,
woodchucks, and squirrels were tempting prey; the water was better, and the
climate cooler, than at a less elevation; hence this region was the summer resort
of Indians from both slopes of the range, and often the possession of a valley by
lake or river was decided by battle between the various tribes from Nevada and
California. The Hetch-Hetchy Valley, or "Little Yosemite," for instance, was, up
to a very recent date, disputed ground between the Pah-Utahs, from the eastern
slope, and the Big Creek Indians, from the western slope, who had several fights,
in which the Pah-Utahs (commonly called Piutes) were victorious. This statement
was made to the California Academy of Sciences by Mr. C. F. Hoffman of the State
Geological Survey, on the authority of Joseph Screech, a mountaineer of that
region; and similar statements have been made to the writer by old mountaineers,
with reference to the -Yosemite Valley and other former aboriginal resorts along
the summit of the Sierra. As the mountain Indians, and those of the Nevada
plateau, were comparatively nomadic in their habits, they left few or none of the
large black mounds, indicating long and constant residence, which were left so
abundantly by the mud-hut builders of the Sacramento basin. Pieces of bark
stripped from fallen pines or firs, and slanted on end against tree-trunks or
poles, with a circle of stones in front for a fire-place, were the usual shelter
of the California mountain tribes, except that in the northern extremity of the
State, where the winter climate is more rigorous, some of the tribes-notably the
Klamaths and their Congeners-built huts of roughly hewn logs, employing bark and
brush shelters only in their summer fishing and hunting excursions. Speaking
generally, therefore, the mountain Indians have left few traces of themselves,
except the stone implements which are occasionally unearthed, or still found in
the possession of the wretched remnants of once powerful tribes.

Along the summit of the Sierra Nevada there is scarcely any memento of them to be
found, except the arrow-heads shot away in hunting or fighting, or the broken
arrow-heads and chips from the same to be gathered at places which have evidently
been factories of aboriginal weapons. The most notable find of this latter sort
made by the writer was at the Summit Soda Springs, a most picturesque spot at the
head of the northernmost fork of the American River, nine miles south of Summit
Valley Station, on the Central Pacific Railroad. Here, at an elevation of about
six thousand three hundred feet above the sea, the river breaks through a
tremendous exposure of granite, which it has worn into natural gorges several
hundred feet deep, except where it runs rapidly through valley-like glades of
coniferous woods, in which the new soil is covered with a rank growth of grasses,
flowering plants, and shrubs, where the deer come to drink at the salt-licks, and
the piping of quails is constantly heard, alternating with the scolding cry of
jays and the not unpleasant caw of the white-spotted Clark crow. Just in the rear
of the public house kept at this locality, the river tumbles in slight falls and
cascades over slanting or perpendicular walls of richly colored granite, shaded
by beautiful groves of cedar and yellow pine, which grow in the clefts of the
rock to the very edge of the stream, and crown the dark cliffs above. On the
rounded tops of the ledge overlooking these foaming waters, on both sides of the
stream, the Indians used to sit fashioning arrow-heads and other weapons of
stone. This was their rude but romantic workshop; and the evidences of their
trade are abundant on the sloping rock, in the coarse, granitic soil which forms
the talus of the ledge, and in the blackened litter of their ancient camp-fires.
They have left one record of themselves at this locality which is quite
remarkable. A shelving ledge of granite on the right bank of the stream, worn to
an even and almost smooth surface by glaciers or snow-slides, is covered for a
hundred feet with rudely scratched characters, circles or shields inclosing what
may have been meant for animal forms or other symbols of expression. They appear
to have been cut or scratched on the ledge in comparatively recent times, for the
very shallow incisions reveal a fresher rock than the general surface. The
California Indians are not known to have possessed any method of writing,
pictorial or otherwise; but these curious rock markings may have had some meaning
to the people who made them. In the dbris about this sculptured ledge, as well as
in that among the rocks on the other side of the river, before it had been
disturbed by visitors to the springs, fragments of arrow-heads, and chips of the
materials composing them, could readily be found. Their flat shape and light
specific gravity caused them to wash to the top and one had only to look
carefully, lightly raking with finger or stick the superficial gravel, to find
many curious specimens. In this peculiar quest many persons, who cared nothing
for the scientific or artistic suggestions of the simple objects sought,
developed a strong interest. It kept them out of doors with nature; it gave them
a pretext for remaining in the air by a lovely scene; it aroused that subtle
sympathy which is excited in all but the dullest minds by the evidences of human
association with inanimate things, and particularly by the relics of a race and a
life which belong to the past.

The Indians that congregated at this point, summer after summer, whether from
Utah or California, employed in arrow-head making every variety of siliceous
rock, of slate, spar, and obsidian or volcanic glass. The larger heads were made
of slate and obsidian, which materials also served for spear-heads, used in
spearing fish, and from two to four inches long. Obsidian seems to have been
better adapted for all sorts of heads than any other material. It could be shaped
with less risk of breaking in the process, and could be chipped to a much sharper
edge and point. The points of some of the small obsidian heads gathered by the
writer are so keen, even after burial or surface floating, that a slight pressure
will drive them into the skin of the finger. The greater number of small
arrow-heads found, as well as the greater proportion of the chips, consisted of
jasper and agate, variously and beautifully colored and marked; of obsidian, of
chalcedony, of smoky quartz and feldspar; very rarely of quartz crystal, and in
only one instance of carnelian. While the larger heads measure from an inch and a
half to four inches in length, with a breadth of half an inch to an inch and a
half in the widest part, the smaller heads measure only from three quarters of an
inch to an inch in length, their greatest breadth being seldom more than half an
inch. The latter were evidently intended for small game, such as birds and
squirrels. The workmen seem to have had more difficulty in making them, for they
are often found broken and imperfect. This was due, not only to their size, but
also chiefly to the difference in material, when the small vein-rocks were used,
these breaking with a less even fracture, and being full of flaws. Persistence in
the use of such uncertain material, when obsidian was so much better adapted to
the purpose and equally abundant, would seem to have been dictated by a
rudimental taste for the beautiful. A collection of the jasper, chalcedony,
agate, and crystal heads and chips presents a very pretty mixture of colors, and
the tints and handsome markings of these rocks could not but have influenced
their selection by the Indians, who spent upon their manipulation an infinite
amount of care and patience. It is interesting to note even so slight an evidence
of taste in these savages of the Sierra, especially when we remember it was
supplemented by the artistic finish they gave to their bows and to the feathered
shaft that bore the arrow-head, no less than to the quiver of wild skin in which
the arrows were carried. There is some reason to suppose that the selection of
the above materials may occasionally have been decided by the superstitious
attribution to them of occult qualities. Nearly all aboriginal tribes, and even
some civilized races, have attached a peculiar sanctity and potency to certain
stones, and the Chinese to this day give a religious significance to jade. It is
uncertain, however, to what extent such notions obtained among, and influenced
the simple savages of California. None of the rocks used at this Indian workshop
were obtained in the locality. The writer was able to trace their origin to Lake
Tahoe, across the western crest of the Sierra, and not less than twelve or
fifteen miles from the Soda Springs by any possible trail. There they are so
abundant as to have partly formed the beautiful gravel beach for which the lake
is so famous. The obsidian came from the ancient craters that adjoin the lake,
the source of those enormous ridges of volcanic material which form its outlet,
the caon of Truckee River. Doubtless the flints, slates, and obsidian of this
region formed objects of barter with the lower country Indians; for the writer
remembers seeing arrow-heads of such material among the Sacramento Valley tribes
twenty-five years ago. On the Lake Tahoe beaches are sometimes found spear-heads
five inches long, with perhaps an inch of their original length broken off,
generally at the barbed end. Similar materials were used and to some extent are
still used by the mountain Indians in the northern Sierra as far as Mount Shasta,
the rocks of the crest furnishing them everywhere along the line of volcanic
peaks which dominate the range. In the Coast Range supplies of obsidian were
obtained by the northern tribes from the region about Clear Lake, where there is
an entire mountain of this material: The antiquity and former great number of the
tribes in this region are attested by the wash of obsidian arrow and spear-heads,
flakes and chips, about the shore of the lake. The beach at the lower end is
fairly shingled with them. About the flanks of Mount Shasta, especially on the
McCloud River side, obsidian is again very plentiful, and, with some beautifully
variegated jaspers, seems to have been most used. The writer found extensive
chippings of it at several points on the head-waters of the Sacramento, notably
at Bailey's Soda Springs, thirteen miles south of Strawberry Valley, where the
Castle Rocks-fantastic crags of granite-push up through the slates and lavas of
the neighborhood two thousand five hundred feet above the river. Here, as at the
Summit Soda Springs, the Indians had chosen one of the most charmingly
picturesque spots for an arrow-head factory. But here, as elsewhere, something
else than an instinct for the beautiful moved them in their choice of locality.
There is fine trout and salmon fishing in the river, while there are no fish at
all in the upper North American, near the Summit Springs, owing to the falls
which prevent fish from ascending.

Back to the North Fork American page

Back to Russell Towle's homepage

Contact me