The Edge of Yosemite Comes Alive in Tuolumne County

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On a November trip into the oak woodlands of the Sierra Nevada foothills of Tuolumne County, we found some peace and tranquility and an antidote to the bustle of Los Angeles. A group of us took a guided wander in sequoia groves of Yosemite National Park and headed into the beautiful and controversial Hetch Hetchy.

We explored the historic shops and cafes of downtown Sonora, covered in red and gold fallen leaves of late autumn. We hit up the mid-19th Century friendly calm of Columbia State Historic Park, chatting in General Stores and sipping tea. And of course, we followed hiking trails through the traditional homeland of the Tuolumne Band of the Mi-Wuk Nation, walking among the plentiful California Black Oak groves dropping their acorns.

Come on along through our photo essay on the quiet wonders we encountered.

Sonora, California, Gold Rush History

Mural from Taqueria Sonora.

The Wonders of Tuolumne Country

We always begin our visits keeping in mind who were the Native People in the area and pay tribute to their role in stewarding these lands for generations. The first-known inhabitants were the Mi-Wuk People (also spelled Miwok) who in 1806 encountered a band of visitors who would change everything, the Spanish Moraga Second Expedition to Central California.

After thousands of years of living in villages and hunting and gathering, only a few decades later they would face the trauma of Gold Rush outsiders. Stream beds were excavated and re-routed, destroying fish and subsistence ecosystems, and oaks and medicinal plants cut down for cattle grazing. The Mi-Wuk population was reduced from 10,000 to closer to 700 by 1910. Thus began the era of gold, which thankfully is long over in these parts.

Revive Coffee, Sonora, Yuolumne County

Revive Coffee, Photo by Jessica Aldridge.

A Historic Gold Rush Town

Known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines,” the City of Sonora, one of the oldest in California, was established in 1848 by miners emigrating from the State of Sonora, Mexico. Sonora’s “Mother Lode” prosperity during the late 1800s and early 1900s is evidenced by many of historic homes and buildings found around town today.

Sonora, Tuolumne CountyIn 1986, Sonora was chosen as one of the first “Main Street” cities in the State of California. Working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation the revitalization of the city’s historic downtown has come a long way. Charm abounds with narrow streets and second-story porches, as the Sonora Opera Hall, Tuolumne County Museum (originally a jail), and the Tuolumne County Courthouse all date back to the 1800s.

Indigeny Cider, SonoraAs part of our exploration, we spun out toward Indigeny Reserve on the edge of town to imbibe their organic hard ciders, located on a 160-acre preserve. We tasted a flight of their multiple flavors out next to the orchard and walked away with too many bottles of tart and sweet ciders and orangecello. As well, there are multiple breweries and wineries in the region that can keep your spirits up, including Gianelli Vineyards Winery and Around the Horn Brewing Company.

STORY: Old Town Auburn, Portrait of a Gold Rush Town

Tuolumne Sequoia Grove, YorsemiteContemplating the Tuolumne Sequoia Grove at Yosemite National Park

We took a morning drive with the folks at Echo Adventure Cooperative out of their Groveland Basecamp to see the giant sequoias of Yosemite in the Tuolumne Grove. This is one of three groves in the park to walk among these giants. While whitebark pine, western juniper and Douglas-fir can live more than 1,000 years, giant sequoias can live more than 3,000 years. The other groves are Merced a couple of miles west and Mariposa near the southern park entrance. Tuolumne Grove contains about two dozen mature sequoias, reached by an easy 1.1 mile hike along the Old Big Flat Road, a narrow, paved route no longer open to vehicles.

Low-intensity surface fires by lightning have occurred frequently in Yosemite’s sequoia groves, leaving them well-adapted to survive repeated fires. However, hotter droughts as a result of climate change in the last decade have affected the health of sequoias, with high-intensity fires killing many, and the droughts leading to native bark beetle infestation and foliage dieback. Thus, methods to restore and reforest these groves are vitally important.

STORY: Yosemite: An Ecosystem Nourished By Wildfire

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Tuolumne County

The Conundrum of Hetch Hetchy

After sequoias, Echo Adventures took us down the steep road to Hetch Hetchy, the beloved valley that John Muir’s fought for, inundated by the dammed Tuolumne River for the thirst of San Francisco. For generations, Central Me-Wuk, Southern Sierra Miwuk, and Mono Lake Paiute people made this area their home, accessing the higher mountains for trade routes and summer encampment. We took the moderate five-mile round trip hiking adventure at O’Shaughnessy Dam, through the mountain tunnel and along the reservoir to the 1,200-foot Wapama Falls. The Tuolumne River in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed and inundated nearly 100 years ago, but the prospect of draining the reservoir continues to generate conflict between outdoor-recreation and drinking water for San Francisco.

Same as today, the Hetch Hetchy project was unpopular with early 20th century environmentalists. John Muir was quoted as saying: “Dam Hetch Hetchy? As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Hetch Hetchy Painting

Albert Bierstadt, Hetch Hetchy Valley, California, c. 1874-80, (Bequest of Laura M. Lyman, in memory of her husband Theodore Lyman, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art). Photo courtesy of California Historical Society via FoundSF.org.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir covers more than 1,900 acres inside the valley and feeds a water supply serving roughly 2.7 million people in the Bay Area. If we could return Hetch Hetchy to a more natural state — of the variety that stirred John Muir’s soul a century ago — would we be clearing a path for the emergence of another Yosemite Valley? Not likely, because water politics will not budge on this one.

STORY: On Wild Rivers, Hydroelectric Dams, and Whitewater Rafting the American

Columbia State Historic Park, Tuolumne County, California

Photo courtesy of Visit Tuolumne County.

Living History

We made a visit out to Columbia, which is an old Gold Rush town made into Columbia State Historic Park. It celebrates the rough-and-tumble 1850s, with some subtlety for an off-peak fall day during a pandemic. In season though, it bustles with arriving school children and tourists intent on wielding blacksmith hammers, and exploring shops with candles, puppets, books, and whatever, a drug store displaying the wonders of 1850s health tonics, as well as restaurants, and hotels with Frontier-Victorian charm.

On an earlier trip, I had the pleasure of a ride on a Hollywood-authentic railroad in Railtown 1897 in nearby Jamestown, which I recognized from my childhood watching silly shows like Petticoat Junction. Both of these historic state parks are a worthy visit for everyone, while not necessarily academic recreations of the entire scope of issues the region suffered from having thousands of miners descend upon the “Southern Mines” to extract what profits they could from the land.

STORY: Wilderness of Minarets: On the Coyote Trail of Muir and Adams

Yosemite National Park

Photo courtesy of Shy Sol.

Spirits From the Landscape

The Mi-Wuk and Paiute folks who first settled in nine Yosemite Valley villages referred to themselves as the Ahwahnechee, the people who lived in the Ahwahnee Valley. Some say Ahwahnee was the Mi-Wuk word used to describe the gaping mouth of a bear, like the open end of their valley. Moreover, ‘Yosemite’ is a corruption of the Native word for grizzly bear. The evictions of Mariposa War of 1851 sealed the fate of the Ahwahnechee villages, but some local Native folks continue to carry on the traditions. We did not get blessed with any bear encounters on this November trip as they were laying low in the cold mornings, though we heard a lovely Mi-Wuk story about the Origin of El Capitan.

Then there was held a great council of all the animals to bring the boys down from the top of the great rock. Every animal leaped as high as he could up the face of the rocky wall. Mouse could only jump as high as one’s hand; Rat, twice as high. Then Raccoon tried; he could jump a little farther. One after another of the animals tried, and Grizzly Bear made a great leap far up the wall, but fell back. Last of all Lion tried, and he jumped farther than any other animal, but fell down upon his back. Then came tiny Measuring-Worm, and began to creep up the rock.  — Legend of Tu-Tok-A-Nu’-La (El Capitan)

The ethic behind the legend illustrates the inter-species cooperation necessary to solve the problems of the environmental and social crises of today.

We felt blessed to encounter the wild sites and sounds and living history of Tuolumne County, and can’t wait to get back there to find that bear, not a big bear, per se, just to say hi.

Trip with the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC), sponsored by Visit Tuolumne County. Thanks to the Hotel Lumberjack/Sonora Inn, The West Wind Grill at Teleli Golf Club, ECHO Adventure Cooperative, Hurst Ranch.

Updated 20 January 2022

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist and designer, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Partners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt