Mike Morris, The Union Democrat

The name may imply mythical gnomes or heroic hobbits, but the Trail of the Ancient Dwarfs is not what you would expect in many ways.

For starters, finding the trailhead itself is a bit of a challenge. Hikers must park in a dirt turnout, cross shallow Niagara Creek and follow an old stagecoach road a quarter-mile.

Once on the trail, hikers get an up-close look at the trail's namesake - centuries-old dwarf trees.

"We call them dwarfs - they're old trees that have lived through tough times," said Phyllis Ashmead, an interpretive specialist for the Stanislaus National Forest's Summit Ranger District.

Standing next to a mature 75-foot-tall Jeffrey Pine is a stunted 3-foot pine growing out of a cracked granite rock.

The smaller pine could be the same age or even older than the

larger one, which has more access to soil, water and space, Ashmead

said.

At an elevation of 6,600 feet, the half-mile trail overlooks the

Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River Canyon and hikers even get glimpses

of Highway 108 below.

The trail sometimes veers off but generally follows the old Sonora-Mono Toll Road.

"The old toll road played an important role in the development of

the county," said Lisa DeHart, the Summit Ranger District's

archaeologist.

To travel the road back in the 1860s, it cost $4 for a horse and a

rider, or twice that amount for a stagecoach with passengers and two

animals, according to DeHart's research.

During the Gold Rush, the route helped supply mining towns in the

eastern Sierra, while it was later used to help build high-country

reservoirs. DeHart said the road then brought tourism and recreation

opportunities to the county.

"They filmed segments of 'Little House on the Prairie' here," she added.

Those walking the Trail of the Ancient Dwarfs will know the trail

ends when they come across a fallen tree that blocks the path.

Ashmead and DeHart, along with interpretive specialist Amy Roe,

agree the trail is perfect for those who are adventuresome and like to

get off the beaten path. But they say the trail and its accompanying

guided-walk brochure, which can be picked up at the Summit Ranger

Station near Pinecrest, are in need of some revamping.

"We're going to be looking at redoing this trail in the future," Ashmead said.

The Forest Service Road 5N24 once led to the Trail of the Ancient

Dwarfs trailhead. Severe storms in the winter of 1997 damaged the

bridge over Niagara Creek and it has been closed to all vehicles since.

Once the bridge closed, maintenance to the trail ceased and the trail kind of fell under the radar.

Lately, the Summit Ranger District has been focusing on improving

trails with new interpretive signs at Columns of the Giants and, just

this summer, the popular Donnell Vista overlook.

The next two trails that district staff would like to spruce up,

Ashmead said, are the Trail of the Gargoyles, off Herring Creek Road,

and the Trail of the Ancient Dwarfs.

She said fixing up the trail could be an ideal volunteer project,

and she envisions someday seeing school children visit the Ancient

Dwarfs.

"This is a good example of a resource we have that we can improve upon," Ashmead said.

To get to Trail of the Ancient Dwarfs parking area:

The Trail of the Ancient Dwarfs is in the Stanislaus National

Forest's Summit Ranger District. From Sonora, take Highway 108 east,

turn right on Eagle Meadow Road, about 15 miles east of Pinecrest. Stay

left when Eagle Meadow Road forks to the right. Follow Forest Service

Road 5N24 past Niagara Creek Campground and park in turnoff near

road-blocked bridge. The parking area is seven-tenths of a mile from

Highway 108.

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