East of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, the Tioga Road crosses the Sierra crest at almost 10,000 feet elevation. Above the pass to the the west over a low ridge, is a broad basin of lakes, meadows and wildflowers. At its head, on the very crest of the range, miners once lived and worked. What were their experiences? How did the awesome mountains, the beauty and the sweeping views shape them? We can only imagine.
The trail leaves from the small parking lot by the entrance station. It climbs steeply through woods and past openings of grass and flowers. Nearing the crest of the ridge five hundred feet above the pass, the trees fall away. You look down on the huge meadow stretching south from the pass, with massive Mt. Dana and reddish Mt. Gibbs above. To the right, a broad forested valley leads to Mono Pass. Kuna Peak on the crest and the gray peaks of the Kuna Crest wrap around to the right, completing the picture.
From here you can walk up 11,004 foot Gaylor Peak for its 360 degree vista.
The trail descends two hundred feet to the shore of the largest Gaylor Lake, set in a broad, almost flat bowl. The peaks above Tuolumne Meadows rise just above its wooded fringe.
Continue up the basin through continuous meadow of sedge and flowers. When I was there last summer snow patches were melting away from the trail. As the snow patches shrunk, tender shoots of sedge and other plants were springing up next to them. The glad outbreak of life was all around.
Beyond the upper lake the trail ascends a slope to the cabins and workings of the Great Sierra Mine. In 1860 a prospector found silver ore just over the crest of the ridge. After mining really got started in 1878, a small mining camp sprang up on this broad ridgecrest
, exposed to wind, weather and the view over the meadows to the Cathedral Range beyond. They built cabins and shelters of native slate and wood. During the winter of 1881-82 at least, some miners stayed on and worked the claims.
The trail passes a solidly built stone cabin sans roof. Stop to appreciate the work it must have taken to gather the rocks and the skill demonstrated in fitting them together. Still it stands after 130 years of wind and snow. The fireplace and chimney are still mostly intact. Wooden beams and a door were carried up from below.
Between the outcrops beyond the cabin are open mineshafts, some at least 100 feet deep. Be careful as you approach on loose gravel; gravity doesn’t make exceptions for people.
Two mineralized zones roughly parallel the ridge: the one near the cabins (the Great Sierra Ledge) and the original Sheepherder Lode in a swale to the north over the crest of the ridge.
Beyond, the ridge drops away to the site of Bennettville and the Great Sierra Tunnel, 1,000 feet below. In 1882 The Great Sierra Consolidated Mining Company began driving a shaft into the mounain to intersect the veins at depth. In 1884 work stopped at 1,784 feet due to lack of funds. The company built the town of Bennettville on a flat adjacent to the tunnel; The stable and what was probably the assay office remain.
A wagon road was built to the area from the west to supply the mines. This became the Tioga Road, up which you have driven.
Douglass Hubbard tells the story of the mines in his slim book, Ghost Mines of the Sierra (Awani Press, 1971) http://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Mines-Yosemite-Douglass-Hubbard/dp/B0013LASF2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328678806&sr=1-1 .
As I poke around old mining camps and study Western history, I’ve often wondered how the miners and those who came to support them felt about the mountains. Was this simply the place where they came to toil and earn a living, or did they come to appreciate the beauty and wonder? I imagine there were both kinds of people and everyone in between. How did the country, their work here and their response shape their attitudes and the ways they thought? There’s a whole field of study there.
In my own mind’s eye I see a young miner with eyes open to beauty, who comes and works on Tioga Hill or at Bennettville. The work is long and hard and conditions harsh, but during breaks and before and after work he admires the beauty, the views, the life in the meadows and woods. During the years that he works here and in other mines up and down the range, these qualities soak into his outlook on life and his personality. In his dealings with others he domonstrates qualities of goodwill and generosity. When he marries and raises a family, he teaches his children the same values and love of nature. And so it continues through generations.
People like this, whether they were miners, wagon drivers, storekeepers, or people from the cities who visited and fell in love with the mountains, helped to prepare public attitudes for protection of natural areas, creation of our national parks and more. And some of them took action and made it happen.