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Hiking to Tuolumne Grove on the Old Big Oak Flat Road

Tuolumne Grove was one of the big stops that early travelers to Yosemite made. Imagine leaving Hodgdon’s Stage Station in the 1870s, then heading up through these huge trees. What a sight that must have been! And what a bumpy, dusty, dirty trip it was to get there as we learn from the words of those that made that trip way back when.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 2.73 Miles
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Range: 5,738’ – 6,253’
Date: November 6, 2017
Map: Ackerson Mountain Topographic Quad
Dog Hike? No

I headed up Hwy 140 to Big Oak Flat Road, at Crane Flat Gas Station, turned east at the intersection of Tioga Road, driving about a half of a mile to the Tuolumne Grove parking lot on the left side of the road. This parking lot has recently been updated with a new bathroom in case you are in need of one.

There are only 75 natural groves of Giant Sequoias and they are only found on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in Central California. Tuolumne Grove is a small grove of about 25 large Giant Sequoias, covering some 20 acres, it includes the Dead Giant which is 29 1/2 feet in diameter at the base. In 1878 a tunnel was cut through the Dead Giant so that a road then in use passed through it. The Trailhead begins on the north side of the parking area near the restrooms and is well marked.

 

The trail is actually on a paved road but did you know that this is actually the Old Big Oak Flat Road?

The Big Oak Flat Road was the second wagon road to enter Yosemite Valley. Although relocated for most of its distance through the park, the route (now California Highway 120) remains the most important entrance to Yosemite from the north. Built as a toll road in a race to provide the first road to the Valley, the route carried the majority of park traffic from central and northern California before the completion of the Yosemite Valley Rail Road and the All Year Highway [HAER No. CA-150]. Most of the original route has been abandoned, although several short stretches remain open as scenic drives or service roads.

The route had its origins in a pack trail, called the “Big Oak Flat Trail,” after the early California mining community of Big Oak Flat in Tuolumne County through which it passed. About 1857, Tom McGee, a pack operator and saloonkeeper in that community, reopened the western portion of the old trans-Sierran Mono Indian trail which crossed the Sierra divide to the east. McGee’s portion connected Big Oak Flat via the South Fork of the Tuolumne River with the Coulterville route at Crane Flat. This route received less use than a roughly-parallel free trail from Coulterville which opened at about the same time. The Big Oak Flat Trail did, however, draw a number of visitors from Stockton, to which it was conveniently situated. Yosemite-bound tourists took the Coulterville Trail on to the Valley from Crane Flat. McGee’s trail continued on towards the mines to the east, leaving the shared route at Tamarack Flat.

Approximate Route of Big Oak Flat Road (The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann)

Early Roads in Yosemite National Park (Yosemite: the Park and its Resources (1987) by Linda W. Greene)

If you continue down to Hodgdon Meadow, you will be following the Old Oak Flat Road and that meadow is where the Hodgdon’s Stage Station was located back in the day.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Hodgdon was born about 1825 in Vermont and had moved to California by the time that his son Thomas was born in 1857. It is said that Jerry was living in an area originally known as Bronsons (now known as Hodgdon’s Meadow) in May, 1865, claiming it by squatters’ title and later homesteading the land. He built two cabins for his family in this area and ran a stage stop. In addition to his cabins here he owned a foothill ranch between Knight’s Ferry and Keystone and a place in Aspen Valley on the old Tioga Road where he built a two-storied log cabin in 1879. The Hodgdon Homestead Cabin that was built in Aspen Valley was moved to the Pioneer History Center at Wawona in 1960.

Before the wagon road was completed to this point in June, 1870, Hodgdon’s was simply headquarters for his summer cattle-camp. It was a matter of accommodation that the sightseers bound for Yosemite were housed and given meals. No mountaineer could leave tired strangers outdoors on a frosty night to nurse their saddle bruises but one can imagine what a nuisance some of them were. It was during this regime that Helen Hunt Jackson passed this way seeking the beauties of Yosemite and, in justice to that well-known writer, it may be said that it took a good deal to upset her. “Three, four, five in a room,” she repined. “Some on floors, without even a blanket. A few pampered ones, women, with tin pans for wash bowls and one towel for 6 hands. The rest, men, with one tin Basin in an open shed, and if they had any towel or not I do not know. That was a night at Hogdin’s.—Not in the wildest and most poverty-stricken little town in Italy could such discomfort be encountered.”

But still they came and Jerry sensibly decided that he might as well prepare to deal with them comfortably. He built a mountain inn—still rough, but capable of housing sixty people.

Are you curious what it was like to stop at Hodgdon’s Stage Station? Well, you are in luck because here is an accounting from Does it Pay to Visit Yo Semite? (1870) by Olive Logan.

I must confess it was rather appalling to discover that of the three roads leading to the Valley, even the shortest required two days of staging and one whole day on horseback—before reaching the Earthly Paradise. The Mariposa road is admitted to have fifty miles of horseback trail; the Coulterville twenty-five; that via Hardin’s and Chinese Camp only eighteen. I chose the last.

There are some wonderful accountings of this stage trip but here is the good part, when they reach Hodgdon’s State Stop:

Hail, log cabin! Relief has come at last. Here is where we drop the stage, and take the horses. We have dinner here. This is Hodgden’s. The three principal stations on this route form an unpleasant alliterative trio—Hardin’s, Hodgden’s, and Hutchings’s. Fancy a Briton tackling all these at once. Perhaps that was the reason the distingué Englishman—but no! he went the other way, with its “Mariposa,” its “Hornitas,” and other liquid Spanish stations. Pardon, Monsieur l’Anglais.

The dinner is execrable at Hodgden’s. It is composed of salt beef cold beans, watery potatoes, and boiling tea, as weak as hot. We pay the same price for it, however, as we do for the delicious dinner at the Grand Hotel in “Frisco;” and indeed log-cabin accommodations in the mountains are more expensive (to tourists) than the finest quarters in yon city shut in behind its Golden Gate. And how we all wish we were there! “Vot’s the hodds?” questions our wag. “But we are not ’appy,” is the doleful reply.

Dinner over, we mount our steeds—sorry brutes, who look at us with eyes of sullen reproach. I must confess they are badly treated. Not the slightest politeness is shown even the most aged of them.

Doesn’t sounds like a favorable review . . .

I didn’t head down to Hodgdon’s Meadow on this trip but stayed to the right to take the short loop through the Tuolumne Grove Giant Sequoias.

 

I reached the Tuolumne Grove Loop Trail, lined with split rail fencing to keep people off of the fragile root systems of these Giant Sequoias. Those fences also added a pretty touch to the trail.

 

 

 

 

 

The trail crossed a cute little bridge and I was surprised to find some dogwoods still sporting their fall color.

The trail led toward the really big Giant Sequoias, then through them. There were several interpretative signs that helped explain many special things about the grove, including the animals that lived there, how the Giant Sequoias have adapted to fire and the related Sequoia’s ranges around the world. Two long dead trees on the ground also had interpretative signs, one which helps illustrate how shallow their root system is.

As I walked along the trees, I just couldn’t capture the size of those trees with my camera so I just admired them.

One of the really big attractions to the Tuolumne Grove is the Tunnel Tree, which has been a big attraction for a very long time. The Big Oak Flat Road by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann described what the Tunnel Tree looked like to visitors in 1892:

The tree was charred into a black mass at the bottom where a large cavity had been used for years by the Indians as a shelter in which to build their fires and to cook. Lightning and forest fire had done their worst; two cathedral-like spires, shattered and scorched, topped the mighty trunk but the heart-wood was sound. This is attested by John V. Ferretti. As a boy of nine he went on the job with his father who supplied the team. He remembers a slab of wood weighing about one-half ton which was brought down to Priest’s Hotel and made fast to one of the locust trees as a souvenir. The tree tunnel was completed in ’78 and a branch of the road curved out to pass through the strange archway just as it does today.

Mr. P. Andersen traveled to Yosemite in a spring wagon in 1892. He wrote a description of his journey in Danish and sent it to his uncle in Denmark where it was published in a current magazine but never translated until a few years ago. “These trees are not small at all,” he wrote. “Just think, we drove through one of them. This tree is 31 feet in diameter. It may make you think of the women in Copenhagen who jumped over the Round Tower. But this has to be literal when I say we drove through this giant tree with horse and wagon. The tree is dead and burned at the top. About 200 feet of the trunk is still standing and the road goes right through the base of it.”

The archway in 1894 was ten feet wide by twelve in height.

Looking up From the Center of the Tunnel Tree

This hike is a popular one and there always folks visiting it. This hike is not one of those lonesome hikes amongst the tall trees but if you haven’t been, or haven’t been in a long time, it might be worth your while. With the Mariposa Grove closed for restorations and Nelder Grove still closed due to the fire, it can be a good place to take visitors to see the tall trees and get a picture taken by the Dead Giant tree. Remember, that you are walking down from the parking lot, losing about 400 feet of elevation, and you will need to walk back all of that to get back to the parking lot. If you want a better workout, consider starting from Hodgdon’s Meadow or continuing down there for a 11 mile-ish hike.

Dog Hike? No

Dogs are not allowed on the Tuolumne Grove Trail.

Where Pets Are Not Allowed

  • On trails, including the trail to Vernal Fall (however, pets are allowed on the Wawona Meadow Loop)
  • On unplowed roads covered in snow
  • In undeveloped and wilderness areas
  • In public buildings
  • On shuttle buses
  • In lodging areas
  • In all walk-in and group campgrounds/campsites, including Camp 4
  • In any other areas, as signed

These regulations protect both pets and wildlife from disease and each other. The National Park Service has prohibited pets on trails for many years. In particular, some pets chase wildlife, pollute water sources, and can become defensive and dangerous in unfamiliar surroundings. Pet owners have the burden to assure their pet does not damage the park values for others in those areas where pets are allowed.

Yosemite Hospitality operates a dog kennel in Yosemite Valley from approximately late May through early September. Written proof of immunizations (rabies, distemper, parvo, and Bordetella) must be provided. Dogs must be at least 20 pounds (smaller dogs may be considered if you provide a small kennel). You can get more information about the kennel by calling 209/372-8326.

Maps and Profile:

Tuolumne Grove Doarama

Sources:

Big Oak Flat Road (HAER No. CA-147) Written Historical and Descriptive Data Wikipedia

The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann

Hodgdon Homestead Cabin National Register of Historic Places in Mariposa County

Yosemite: the Park and its Resources (1987) by Linda W. Greene

“Does it Pay to Visit Yo Semite?” (1870) by Olive Logan

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