Old Coulterville Road leads to Little Nellie Falls

Two historic barns, originally constructed in the 1880s, stand in Big Meadow in Foresta. They were restored by the National Park Service in 1996.
Two historic barns, originally constructed in the 1880s, stand in Big Meadow in Foresta. They were restored by the National Park Service in 1996. Special to Sierra Star

Having passed the turnoff to Foresta along Big Oak Flat Road for almost 40 years, I decided that this was the year I would not only slow down there but I would venture into the little enclave and hike the old Coulterville Road to Little Nellie Falls.

This is definitely a spring hike as much of the six-mile route is exposed, the result of the 1990, lightning hit induced the A-rock (Arch Rock) Fire currently rated as the third most destructive fire in Yosemite, burning 17,770 acres.

This fire was followed by the 2009 Big Meadow Fire, rated the sixth most destructive in the park, scorching 7,558 acres on the perimeter of Foresta.

The hike begins from Foresta accessed by taking the Tioga Road/120 turnoff from Highway 140. Travel just over three miles making a left turn onto the road leading to Foresta. In less than two miles, there is a fork in the road with a bulletin board posted amidst wooden rail fences. Park off the road and make your way along the right fork which is the old Coulterville Road.

Immediately, on your right, you approach Big Meadow with two large barns. At least one was built by German immigrant George Meyer in the early 1880s and both were restored by the National Park Service in 1996, according to an informational sign posted near the bulletin board where you parked. The barns are examples of Mormon pole barn construction, and are built of hand-hewn timbers, peeled logs, with fieldstone foundations and hand-split sugar pine shake roofs.

The road you are hiking was completed in 1874 connecting the mining town of Coulterville to Yosemite Valley. “The toll road was the first wagon road into the Valley, but was never a commercial success, as a competing road (Big Oak Flat Road) along a similar alignment was completed less than a month later,” according to the Historic American Engineering Record. “The road was also the first in the park to be opened to automobiles, and remained a scenic mountain drive until 1982. Although much of the road within the park has been closed by rockslides or realignments, the route can easily be followed on foot.”

Today, a portion of the road also serves as the foot and fire access to the Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias.

In June of 1874, the Mariposa Gazette reported John Taylor McLean, designer and builder of the road, and supporters brought the first stage coaches down the road into the Valley, followed the next day by a quarter-mile long procession of 50 carriages, fireworks and bonfires on the cliffs.

Enough history for now - back to the hike.

El Capitan and Half Dome form the backdrop of the view looking across the meadow. Past the meadow, there is an old wooden bridge to be crossed on foot over Crane Creek. At a fork in the road, stay right where the left fork is marked 1st Street. The next fork in the road (stay right again) is also 1st Street and at the next fork stay right again with the left fork going to Flying Spur Road which leads to a private residence.

There will be one more fork in the road before your arrival at the falls - stay left here as the right fork will take you to the Crane Flat Campground.

Just before the falls, a sign indicates you are in Stanislaus National Forest (you crossed a corner of it previously on the hike). There were a number of fallen trees and there was some washout on the trail due to the tremendous rain and snow of this past winter but all of these were easily navigated.

Little Nellie Falls were in full force sending up a playful spray and the wind swept the water over the face of large rocks. We could see the picnic table on the other side of the creek but decided we would have lunch without crossing.

The hike is not very strenuous, with a total elevation gain of about 320 feet, but it did afford us a chance to see two bear footprints in the mud of the roadway, a Clark’s nutcracker, Grosbeaks, a nuthatch and the beginning of a promising wildflower show including Indian rhubarb blooming along the water’s edge at the falls.

A bevy of Checkerspot and Swallowtail butterflies put on a show as well.

There is more to explore from Foresta. On a return trip, I want to find the three falls that can be seen by heading toward El Portal from this destination.