MADERA COUNTY — You undoubtedly have traveled Highway 41 from Fresno to Oakhurst many times. When traveling along the open pastureland between Avenue 15 and Highway 145, there is more to see and think about than the olive and pistachio trees and the grapes you pass going north; now see the golden grasses, the terrain and cattle. In the Mitchell book Exploring the Sierra Vista National Scenic Byway, some interesting history comes to light.
In this area …the undulating grasslands are used primarily as cattle pasture. Old timers in the area refer to this landscape as the “Hog Wallows.” To the geographer these depressions are known as vernal pools, because they often fill with water during the rainy season, and support a unique ecosystem. Before the grading of Highway 41 became so sophisticated, the asphalt roadway crossing this area rose and fell following the topography, creating a roller-coaster ride for the motorist speeding along at fifty miles per hour.
About five miles north of Avenue 15 … look to the east at the low grass-covered mesa with a band of oak trees just below the top. A century ago this landmark was called “Jeremiah Brown’s Table Mountain” and is shown on some maps as such. Today most folks simply call the flat-topped mesa “Little Table Mountain.”
And just who was Jeremiah Brown? He was an early pioneer to the area who brought his family down the Stockton-Millerton trail in the early 1850s to settle nearby and start a “Way Station,” where travelers on the Stockton-Millerton Road could stop, rest and obtain water and food for themselves and their animals.
As incredible as it may seem, this grass-covered butte was once in the bottom of an ancient river channel. During the Eocene Epoch of the earth’s geologic history, a river flowed down through foothills of granite leaving a stream bed littered with sand, cobbles and small boulders. In the 40-50 million years that have lapsed since then, iron oxide and other soluble minerals have percolated down through the old river channel firmly cementing the stream gravel together, turning it into a very hard conglomerate.
In the meanwhile, the relentless forces of erosion have worn away the hills on either side of the river channel, leaving the firmly cemented riverbed perched high above the surrounding landscape . Thus, what you see today is what is left of the old river bottom perched high above the surrounding plain. The prehistoric stream channel can also be seen to the east across the San Joaquin River in Fresno County. This “Table Mountain” phenomenon can be seen elsewhere in the western Sierra Nevada foothills….
The extensive grasslands in this area once supported large herds of wild horses, pronghorn antelope and Tule elk, but the great droughts of 1866 and 1877 greatly reduced and nearly eliminated those populations. The vegetation here was very different in those days from what you see today. In the 1700s, the early Spanish padres and their military escorts introduced European grasses and other non-native weeds into California, inadvertently and sometimes intentionally.
During the years of the next century, these exotic species thrived and spread to heights of five feet, were pushed out and lost forever. Nevertheless, Madera County’s grasslands remain a valuable resource to local ranchers whose cattle forage here. Hidden among the grasses are hundreds of thousands of ground squirrel burrows. These rodents, which can often be seen sitting upright on fence posts near the edge of the road, are a major component of the diet of the sizeable coyote population and that of hawks and other raptors often seen perched high on roadside utility poles.
This book Exploring the Sierra Vista National Scenic Byway may be purchased at the Coarsegold Historic Museum on Highway 41 or at Fresno Flats Museum in Oakhurst.