A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from an old hiking buddy Greg Winslow. During the 80s and 90s, we spent many days hiking many remote areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
After we reminisced about those wilderness areas visited in the past, he stated that his son, Ron Winslow, wanted to revisit the San Joaquin River above the Clover Meadow Ranger Station. His phone call that afternoon was to invite me along on this adventure.
After I committed to his offer, I stepped over to my file cabinet and fumbled through my files and verified that May of 1990 was the last time I visited this remote area.
Many questions filtered through my memory. Has the area changed? Is that trail down to the San Joaquin River as steep as I remember? Is that difficult climb from the river before intersecting the seldom used packing trail still passable? Now that I am 26 years older, can I repeat this wilderness adventure?
On Aug. 23 we set out for the Mammoth Trailhead located past the Clover Meadow Ranger Station. Four of us slipped on our hiking gear on a clear summer morning. One additional hiker, Robert Gretsch joined us from Mariposa. He was also a seasoned hiker and fisherman.
Sheep Crossing was our first area for me to reminisce about my adventure long ago. This large meadow next to the north fork of the San Joaquin River was first used by Native Americans as a trading route through the mountains to the east side. Over time this popular route was followed by the sheep herders, cattlemen and miners. Today packers and hikers grace this historic trail.
After crossing the bridge, we forged our way increasing in elevation to the seldom used trail leading to Junction Buttes. We had hiked roughly five hours before a small green area along the trail came into view. If my memory hasn’t failed me, this is the spot in 1990 when a rattle snake and I shared a cool natural spring flowing from the mountain. He was on the opposite side of this small pool just out of striking distance allowing me to fill my water bottles.
Rekindling past memories
We soon arrived at Junction Buttes just below Winslow Peak to set up our campsite. The first two days were spent fishing and exploring to rekindle memories of the past. One hiking trip up stream, which took most of the afternoon, was an attempt to locate the remote structure built by a mountain man named Buck. He survived many seasons along this river during the last century.
With Greg’s assistance, we managed to forge our way through the thick underbrush to locate Buck’s campsite. Today all that remains is a dismantled fireplace, a few aluminum poles and discarded cookware. The wooden structure and canvass tarp have long disappeared over time.
The following morning we forged across the river with the inflatable raft we carried from the trailhead. We experienced many river crossings fairing our gear and ourselves to the opposite side. From this point our hiking will be without trails. We’ll follow the river downstream a few miles and look for an abandoned campsite called Alice’s Camp.
Sixty years ago there may have been a trail leading over the mountain to this remote camp. Time has made this trail (wherever it is located) unrecognizable. Rock slides, downed timber and those natural occurrences of nature have created another secret for us to discover.
Along the high cliffs at one location, a 12-foot circle of rocks placed many centuries ago, possibly by Native Americans, could be a spiritual area. From this location one can view a few miles of the San Joaquin River descent.
It was almost two hours later when we decided to set up camp at an area resembling an abandoned campsite. Could this site have been the forgotten Alice’s Camp? We set up our campsite there and spent the next two days exploring. There were isolated areas with Native American grinding holes which means they were here hundreds of years before us.
On the second morning Greg, Ron and I decided to explore next to the mountain, to possibly locate that abandoned trail. After an hour of searching, Greg found an old trail marker, which led to another and another leading up the mountain. We followed this rough and almost invisible path for over an hour until downed timber and a natural rock slide area halted our advance.
We returned to camp and met up with Robert, who was an expert fisherman. While we were busy exploring, he was at the river fishing. May I say if I had his talent for fishing, I would have joined him boulder hopping along the river, but no fish stories from me, you’ll have to ask Robert.
We departed the following morning and hiked up stream and forged across the river to our base camp at Junction Buttes. Before daybreak we started our 800 feet of elevation gain, reverse hike back to Sheep Crossing. After a 15-minute break, we continued the final 700 feet to Mammoth Trailhead.
I must confess this trail was difficult.. Could it be those mountains are getting taller or am I getting older?