Let’s take a drive along the historic Sierra Vista Scenic Byway out of North Fork, the winding mountain road that will dazzle you with its natural rock formations and stands of pine trees.
Eagles Nest, Squaw Dome, Balloon Dome, and Mammoth Pool Reservoir are just a few high points while driving to the trailhead just outside the Clover Meadow Campground. The campground is about 25+ miles out of North Fork on Mammoth Pool Road (255). At Clover Meadow, turn right toward the Clover Meadow Ranger Station and continue driving through the Granite Creek campground to the Junction Buttes (trailhead at 7,800 feet).
This easily marked trail will descend past Soldier and Indian Meadows, two large grassy meadows that were ideal resting areas for the early horse soldiers and Native American Indians seeking the low elevation route leading to the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
This historic route is the start of a four-day adventure into Junction Buttes. The morning sky is displaying a clear blue backdrop for the red-tailed hawk lazily soaring on the morning thermals in search of his next meal. Looking into the thick foliage of the surrounding pine trees, the native deer causally watch as I stroll past them.
Next I pass through the famous area called Sheep’s Crossing. Centuries before the sheep herders entered this area, the Native Americans used this crossing as a resting area before continuing their adventure through the mountains to trade with other native tribes. This crossing joins two year-round creeks and the North Fork Branch of the San Joaquin River. I only have two miles of trails before starting my final descent into Junction Buttes.
Looking south in the distance, Balloon Dome comes into view an an elevation of 6,881 feet. During this hot day concealed by ground cover, a natural spring was flowing from the steep forested mountain. The cool water was inviting, but I had to share this small oasis with one of the area residents. From the opposite side of this tree covered pool he introduced himself by his unmistakable rattling sound. The three feet of muscle was also escaping the afternoon heat. I focused one eye on the intruder and the other on filling my water bottle before departing to the canyon below.
Finally at an elevation of 6,352 feet the junction of the North Fork and Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River come into view. This area was to be my base camp for the next four days.
After setting up my camp, my over whelming desire to search this remote area followed. After 30 minutes or so I entered a small clearing and to my surprise an 8 X 20-foot man-made frame structure stood under a few pine trees, complete with tools, utensils, pots, pans, and a fire pit for warmth and cooking. In the corner was a padded area for sleeping, and split log rounds for comfortable sitting. Structure dimensions
The cabin had two living areas, possibly to keep the heat confined to one area during the winter months. Hanging from a tall pine tree was a bundled canvas to cover the frame to seal it from the elements.
After returning to Oakhurst my research revealed this structure could have been built by a mountain man who we will call Buck. He lived and survived during the 1980s in this area of the wilderness.
The following day while hiking along the tall canyon walls above the waters of the San Joaquin River, I noticed within the fine decomposed granite the impressions of many paw prints of an adult cougar. This shy and evasive cat is very difficult to spot within the confines of his natural habitat. Throughout the morning I kept a sharp lookout for any movement within the rocks, but my main focus for the remainder of the day was centered on fishing and photography.
On my return there were bear tracks all around my campsite. Nothing was disturbed - maybe my early return scared the intruder away. I slept that night with one eye open, but the bear must have lost interest in my campsite and never returned.
The following morning I hiked down stream to look for the old trail that crossed the river and continued east toward Hitez Meadow. Even if I found the trail the river is much too deep and swift for a safe crossing during the spring season.
The forth morning arrived much sooner than expected. Now to pack up my gear and start the climb back to the trailhead and only taking with me the memories and pictures of the last four days. Hopefully the rattlesnake will have departed from the spring area? My luck is still holding out, no snake at the water hole this morning.
Now I’ll fill my water bottles and locate the trail to continue the five hour climb back to the trailhead.
See you on the trail.