My hiking boots took me back through time to property once owned by James McCauley, an immigrant from Ireland seeking his fortune in gold. We remember him best for building the Four Mile Trail, building the two-story hotel at Glacier Point known as the Mountain House, starting the tradition that became known as the “firefall” and so much more. Since I was in the area, I also checked out Foresta Falls, where Crane Creek runs through a beautiful series of cascades and drops.
Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 1.86 Miles
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Elevation Range: 4,023′ – 4,316′
Date: April 15, 2021
Maps: CALTOPO: Hiking on the Old Coulterville Road to Foresta Falls
Dog Hike? No
From Hwy 140 in Yosemite Valley, I took Big Oak Flat Road through the 3 tunnels and a little over 4 miles, then there was a sign to Foresta on the left hand side of the road. I turned left and drove down to the fork at the Old Big Oak Flat Road where the split rail fences are. I continued following the left fork of the road until the pavement ends 2.2 miles at the far end of Foresta where a sign indicates that the road is closed ahead. There is a small pullout here where a couple of cars can fit and I made sure I was well off the road so other vehicles can get by. I have seen some good sized PG&E service vehicles utilizing this road in the past.
Let’s start with a little history related to Big Meadow and Foresta. As I drove down the road, I could spot a grinding stone with many holes. Miwok Indians inhabited Big Meadow and the surrounding area, with packers, miners, and hunters occasionally passing through after 1850 or so. An abundance of water, grass, game, and foodstuffs made Big Meadow particularly attractive for long-term habitation. The Indians called Big Meadow “O’pim” and frequently journeyed there from Hog Ranch (Camp Mather) for acorns and rest until cold weather drove them to lower elevations in El Portal.
Big Meadow attracted white settlement also. About 1873 John D. Meyer, a German who had traveled to the goldfields in 1850 and become a prominent rancher and businessman around Groveland, and a fellow countryman, Peter van der Miesen decided to graze cattle and raise hay and grain in Big Meadow. They paid an Indian who lived there a few dollars for his squatter’s rights.
Within a few years Gerhardt (George) Meyer, who had come to California later than his brother, in 1870, acquired his brother’s interest at Big Meadow and became Mieson’s partner. They acquired land near Merced Falls as a winter headquarters and filed for adjoining 160-acre homesteads around Big Meadow. In addition to maintaining a toll gate, they operated a lunch stop for the stages carrying mail and tourists over the Coulterville Road and stabled horses for the Washburn and McCready stage line. They also produced alfalfa, barley, potatoes, and berries; raised cattle and hogs, and cultivated a vegetable garden, selling their products to hotels and stores in Yosemite Valley.
Thomas A. Rutherford, a New Yorker who ran the Cranberry Mine in the Merced River canyon, homesteaded the 160 acres that now comprise Foresta around 1878. He set up a blacksmith shop and water-powered sawmill on the east bank of Crane Creek. George Meyer worked for him, and, after his death, continued to run the blacksmith shop. Remains of the long ditch that brought water by gravity flow from Crane Creek to the sawmill are visible above the creek and northwest of the Big Meadow bridge.
A post office, Opim Station, was established in 1882 and lasted a little over a year. Rutherford’s died in 1884, creating a need for the Big Meadow Cemetery. James McCauley, who had settled a mile south of Meyer, became administrator of Rutherford’s estate and entered in competition with Meyer for Rutherford’s land. Rutherford’s mill burned the next year, and in 1887 McCauley’s hired hand bought Rutherford’s 160 acres. Later McCauley registered the title in his own name. Bitterness between the two men increased when Meyer removed the shake roof of George Anderson’s abandoned cabin, which McCauley claimed was on his new property. Meyer was forced to pay for the shakes, and eventually McCauley added a new roof.
Foresta is one of three islands of private property within Yosemite, the others Aspen Valley and Wawona. It was purchased by the Foresta Land Company in 1912 from the estate of James McCauley, whose property ownership predated the establishment of Yosemite as a national park. Promoter A. B. Davis envisioned a summer resort on the property, but the project failed and all that remains are a few dozen private homes.
After I parked the car, I walked down the road which you may see called Old Yosemite Coulterville Crane Flat Road on some maps.
The road paralleled Crane Creek and as I looked back, I could see Crane Creek cascading over the rocks. The road was also leading me through property once owned by James McCauley.
James McCauley had a very interesting life. From Yosemite A Journal of the Yosemite Association’s McCauley’s Glaicer Point Mountain House:
He was born in Ireland and came to the United States when he was 17 as a stowaway on a British ship. After a brief stay in New York City, he stowed away again, this time on a vessel bound for South America. Disembarking at Panama, he journeyed overland to the Pacific Ocean and eventually found his way to Portland, Oregon. He spent a half-dozen years mining in Washington state and Montana before being lured to Hite’s Cove in Mariposa County in 1865 by a fellow miner‘ s exuberant tales of golden riches.
In the spring of 1870, McCauley left his job at the Pine Tree Mine near Bear Valley and obtained employment in Yosemite Valley at James Hutchings‘ water-powered sawmill, working with John Muir. When Hutchings packed in his two-horse stage in August, 1871, used to transport tourists from the foot of the Coulterville Trail to El Capitan to Hutchings Hotel, McCauley became the driver. Later the same year, he entered into a ten-year contract with the Yosemite Board of Commissioners to build and operate a toll trail from the Valley floor near Leidig‘s Hotel up to Glacier Point. It was reported that hotel owners and other businessmen within the Yosemite Grant had encouraged the commissioners to authorize the venture.
McCauley hired John Conway, builder of many roads and trails in and around Yosemite, to survey the route. Beginning in the late fall of 1871, McCauley, working alone, completed about a half mile of trail before the first big snowstorm of the season halted his efforts. In the process he exhausted his capital of seven hundred dollars. During the winter of 1871-72, McCauley occupied himself obtaining loans totaling three thousand dollars from various friends as far away as Hite‘s Cove. The following spring he hired a crew of nine men and resumed work on the challenging project in earnest.
When a scenic outlook named Union Point, two miles from the summit, was attained in early summer, McCauley received permission from the commissioners to begin charging tourists who wished to visit the new viewpoint. Conway was injured about this time in an accident. Because he had already finished the survey to Glacier Point, trail work went on to completion without him in mid-1872.
McCauley then built a small combination tollhouse and residence at the foot of the trail and set about satisfying his many debts. Fred McCauley, one of James’ son said many years later that his father paid off his thirty-fix hundred dollar investment and began showing a profit in less than two years.
Noted writer Helen Hunt Jackson described her journey up and down the Four-Mile Trail, as it soon became known, shortly after its completion:
“It is a marvelous piece of work. It is broad, smooth, and well-protected. The outer edge, in all dangerous places, by large rocks: that, although it is by far the steepest out of the valley zigzagging back and forth on a sheer granite wall, and rides up it with little alarm or giddiness, and with such sense of gratitude to the builder that the dollar’s toll seems too small.”
After construction of Conway’s trail to Little Yosemite Valley in 1871, a few stalwart mountaineers made the hike to Glacier Point from there via the Illilouette basin. In addition, Hutchings continued to guide parties to the point over his Ledge Trail. Visitation increased dramatically, however, after 1878, when James McCauley, recognizing that visitor facilities were needed at Glacier Point, acquired Charles Peregoy’s property there and built a two-story hotel known as the Mountain House. It is not hard to understand the popularity of the new hotel, with its superlative views of the Yosemite Valley and its tributary canyons, Half Dome, and the rest of the High Sierra country.
Stories on the origin of the firefall differ. It is generally accepted that McCauley was the first to push a fire over the cliff, about 1871 or 1872. The event was so successful that people began to request it, and McCauley decided to charge for the entertainment. McCauley also is said to have soaked gunny sacks in kerosene, lit them, and, after waving them around, thrown them over the cliff. Fred W. Zimmerman also claimed the distinction of originating the firefall, reporting that in 1883, while camped on Glacier Point, he had built a small fire of pine cones and amused himself by knocking its embers over the edge. J. K. Barnard of the Sentinel Hotel saw the coals cascading down and offered to pay Zimmerman to repeat the act each evening for his guests. However it began, the custom continued irregularly until David Curry revived it on a daily basis for the benefit of vacationers at Camp Curry. M. E. Beatty, “History of the Firefall,” Yosemite Nature Notes 13, no. 6 (June 1934): 41-43. A variation on the firefall consisted of sending a bomb salute from the point, which involved setting a piece of dynamite with a fuse attached on an anvil, placing another anvil on top, and lighting the fuse. The sound of the explosion reportedly echoed between the valley walls as many as fifteen or more times. Sometimes rags soaked in coal oil were ignited and waved back and forth for dramatic effect.
From Yosemite Yarns
The old stagecoach driver pointed his pipe at the wisp of smoke rising from Glacier Point. “See that smoke? They’re gettin’ ready for tonight’s firefall. Takes a couple of hours for for the fir bark to burn down to embers they can shove over. Want to know how it all got started? Well, nobody remembers for sure but here’s one interestin’ possibility.
“Quite a few years ago, back in the 1870’s, a feller named James McCauley built a hotel (which they’re still usin’) up there on Glacier Point. So’s folks could get up there from Yosemite Valley he and John Conway built the Four Mile Trail. Things were goin’ fine but one night somethin’ went wrong. McCauley had made a blazin’ camp fire out on the point but his guests got cold or didn’t show up for some reason. At any rate it made old Jim pretty sore, after goin’ to all that trouble. Without thinkin’ much he kicked the fire over the cliff.
“Some campers here in the valley happened to be lookin’ up and they saw the burnin’ logs tumblin’ and cascadin’ down the cliff. Later some of them told McCauley what a pretty sight it was and begged him to do it again. Jim saw some possibilities, havin’ an eye for business. When there were folks in the valley he or one of his boys would come down the Four Mile Trail to see if the campers wanted a “private” firefall. If some did they would puff back up and get things ready.
“They had some humdingers, too, with great big burnin’ logs and gunnysacks soaked in kerosene. Now and then just to liven things up a bit they would lower dynamite bombs over the cliff. The McCauley twins, John and Fred, got to keep the money they collected, but they worked hard for it!
“Later on, after David and ‘Mother’ Curry started the Curry Campin’ Company in 1899 Mr. Curry used to call up to the point—he had a powerful voice—‘Let the fire fall!’ and over she’d come. The Yosemite Park and Curry Company’s been doin it almost every summer since though the old folks have all been gone for a long time now.”
Visitation at the small resort further increased when the Glacier Point wagon road was built in 1882. McCauley ran the Mountain House in the summer and wintered on his ranch outside the park. While Park Supervisor Gabriel Sovulewski was in the Phillipines during the Spanish-American War in 1898, the state commissioners ousted McCauley when his lease expired in favor of John F. Stevens, in charge of transportation for the Washburns at Wawona. Although Stevens’s name was on the lease, the Washburns actually operated the Mountain House. Stevens operated the hotel for one year, until he became Guardian of the valley, at which time the Washburns took over the Mountain House. They operated it until the Desmond Park Service Company took over in 1916, building a new hotel on the point a year later. The Mountain House survived as a cafeteria until 1969. The oldest building in the park still in use, it burned that year along with the nearby Glacier Point Hotel in the worst structural fire in Yosemite’s history.
As I continued on my walk toward Foresta Falls, I made a short detour to property owned by James McCauley known as the McCauley Addition, acquired by Yosemite National Park in 1974.
In 1879, James McCauley married Barbara Wenger, a 37 year old German woman who was employed at Leidig’s Hotel. She had a 4 year old son named Jules Alfred that McCauley adopted. In 1880, twin sons, John James and Frederick William, were born. In 1883, McCauley bought the John Hamilton Ranch which we now call the McCauley Ranch. He and his twin sons raised cattle, hogs, and horses on their property. After the army took over administration of Yosemite Valley in 1906, following the recession of the original Yosemite Grant by California to the federal government, James McCauley obtained a contract to supply fresh meat to Valley outlets. He also grazed a few cattle at El Portal in the winter and drove them up the Four-Mile Trail to Glacier Point in the summer, where they grazed in nearby meadows while the family stayed in the Mountain House until they were evicted about 1898. Around 1886-87 McCauley added Rutherford’s 200 acres to the original ranch, which later became the Foresta subdivision. He was naturilized
Water was diverted from Crane Creek to irrigate the meadow and remains of an old piping system to bring that water could still be seen. I was tempted to walk out more and explore the old foundation areas of structures but the many snake tracks I had seen on the road and shin-high grass gave me a gut feeling that I probably shouldn’t on this day. Many fires have burned through this area, the most recent being the 2014 El Portal Fire that burned 4,689 acres. Standing dead trees still remain.
I headed back to the main road, looking at the McCauley Addition from different angles.
On June 24, 1911, while James McCauley was traveling from his ranch down the steepest section of the old Coulterville Road between Big Meadow headed to Yosemite Valley with two freshly killed cows, McCauley‘ s team apparently bolted, upsetting his wagon, and throwing him hard to the ground. A few hours later, a passerby found McCauley lying dead beside his upturned wagon.
James McCauley was buried in the Merced Cemetery in Merced. His wife Barbara passed away 1925 in in Napa County and is also buried in Merced Cemetery. Jules married Nellie C. Cumming and died in 1957 in Martinez. Frederick married Ann Cecilia Degnam and died 1935 in Fresno. John married Annie Meyer and died 1962 in Mariposa.
I continued down the road, soon hearing the roar of Foresta Falls. The upper fall drops about 40 feet and below the bridge is another 20 foot drop. The bridge has been damaged and closed for some time to vehicles. I didn’t check out the underside of the bridge to see how well it is holding up but I could see bike tracks across the bridge and I have walked across in prior years to get a better look at the falls.
It is impossible to appreciate a waterfall without some sound and motion so here is a short YouTube video.
And I want to leave you with a treat. Here is a picture of Foresta Falls from October 6, 1941. One reason I share this with you is to let you know of a wonderful site with old Yosemite pictures called Digital Archive on NP Gallery. There are several ways to search, including many images that are available to be viewed for free online. Enjoy!
This hike is a great one to pair with a hike to Little Nellie Falls, exactly what I did, and you can read about in last week’s blog. A stop at the Foresta Pioneer Cemetery is also a nice add on. Even though this short hike is on a road, it can get pretty hot out here. Prior fires have removed trees that once provided shade along the road. Of course, rattlesnakes love this area and if you are tempted to walk over to Crane Creek Cascades to cool off, I hear those rocks can be very slick.
Dog Hike? No
Dogs are not allowed on the Old Coulterville Road within Yosemite National Park, which is where this hike took place.
Where Pets Are Not Allowed in Yosemite National Park
- 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.
What is a Doarama? It is a video playback of the GPS track overlaid on a 3 dimensional interactive map. If you “grab” the map, you can tilt it or spin it and look at it from different viewing angles. With the rabbit and turtle buttons, you can also speed it up, slow it down or pause it.
Maps and Profiles:
CALTOPO has some free options for mapping and here is a link to my hike this week: CALTOPO: Hiking on the Old Coulterville Road to Foresta Falls
1900 Census; Township 5, Mariposa, California; Roll: 93; Page: 10B; Enumeration District: 0038; FHL microfilm: 1240093
Film Number 1302106, California, Marriages, 1850-1945. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.
Browning, Peter; Yosemite Place Names, Great West Books, Lafayette, California, 1988
Prior Blogs in the Area: