Check it out

Closure hours are billed as 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday, July 25, to Friday, July 29, and Monday, Aug. 1, to Friday, Aug. 5.

Tuolumne County roads and Community Resources Agency staff are planning to close Old Priest Grade on weekdays for the next two weeks for maintenance, including shoulder-grading, trimming back vegetation and replacing culvert markers.

“It’s for typical road issues,” Desiree Crain, of the county roads division, said Friday. “Brushing 10 to 12 feet up the bank so vegetation’s not hitting the larger trucks. We do this every summer as needed. The road will be open through the night each night. Flashing light signs have been up advising people for about a week.”

A crew of six will be working Old Priest Grade while it’s closed, with vehicles and equipment including two dump trucks, one water truck, one boom truck, a backhoe, a grader, a power brush, shovels and hand brooms, Crain said.

‘Killer road’

Steve Anker works at the business he and his forebears have run for six generations at the top of Old Priest Grade, where he’s seen drivers pull so many crazy moves he can’t keep up with them.

“I see it every day, RVs, tour buses, people doing U-turns going down,” said Anker, 51, between serving customers at Priest Station Cafe. “I think 18 people have died going down it over the years. It’s a killer road. It kills people.”

Anker’s predecessors came to the top of what became known as Moccasin Hill and Grizzly Gulch in 1849, built the first Priest Station, and saw Old Priest Grade open in 1874.

“The miners used a different road, this was built for the stagecoach,” Anker said Friday. “It was all private toll road.”

Old Priest Grade is one of the steepest paved roads in Tuolumne County, and some hill-climbing bicyclists believe it’s one of the steepest in the Golden State.

Duke York, deputy director for Tuolumne County roads and engineering, said the road is 1.97 miles from bottom to top, with grade steepness up to 18 percent, and the steepest stretch might be closer to 20 percent.

“Back in wagon days the stages had to stop in Moccasin at the base of the grade and the passengers would have to get out and walk up to Priest Station,” said Florence Jansen, a docent at Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum. “It saved the horses. All the passengers were too much load going up that steep grade.”

Over-the-side

Officer Daniel Crooker, with the California Highway Patrol based in Jamestown, stopped Friday afternoon at the top of Old Priest Grade to check on some motorists, including a pickup driver who came up pulling a camper.

“I’ve been working that road the past eight years,” Crooker said. “The skateboarders and the drift trikes, that’s just outrageous. Just a week ago I came up here for reported skateboarders coming down and I could see their tracks going into the uphill lanes.”

Daredevils on Old Priest Grade used to include a group from Oakdale who called themselves the Drift Trike Mafia. Their self-titled YouTube video shot while descending the notorious Old Priest switchbacks and published in June 2012 now has more than 9.6 million views.

These days Crooker has his hands full with all manner of motorists who don’t read the signs before heading up or going down Old Priest Grade.

Multiple signs warn drivers that trucks, motorhomes, buses and vehicles hauling any trailers are prohibited on the grade. There’s also a sign warning people to turn off their air conditioners for the next 5 miles.

“You get guys loaded to the max with camping gear and their families,” Crooker said. “They overheat or burn out the transmission. We’ve had people lose their transmission and differential going downhill. U-joints go, suspensions collapse, radiators actually explode with core separation, hoses burst.”

The pickup driver hauling a camper was checking his thermostat, Crooker said.

“I told him ‘Good thing I missed you, I would have wrote you a ticket.’ All trailers are prohibited,” he said.

‘Sociopathic driving behavior’

Crooker said he’s seen about 10 over-the-side crashes on Old Priest Grade, and none of the ones he’s worked were fatal.

“That’s just me, what I’ve seen in eight years,” Crooker said. “Other officers have worked fatals. Sometimes people go down in first gear and they get so hot their exhaust pipes shoot flaming balls out from their catalytic converter, setting vegetation fires on both sides of the grade.”

It’s a narrow, twisty road and some people have the habit of cutting corners, Crooker said.

“The reality is we keep seeing head-on and sideswipe collisions,” he said. “People think they can get over out of the way but they can’t. I write tickets for crossing over the yellow lines all the time.”

Crooker said he writes anywhere from zero to 20 tickets a month on Old Priest Grade. He once wrote six tickets in one day on the road.

Bicycles and motorcycles are dangerous on the old grade too. The road is so narrow and steep that hill-climbers relying on pedal power have very little room for error.

“Bicycles are OK legally but it’s the extreme right hand road edge they have to use,” Crooker said. “You can go up but it’s an extremely foolish decision. Motorcycles, we had three going downhill and one passed over the double yellows, the second tried to pass and went down in traffic. High-performance sports cars, they try to pass on the grade, too.”

Crooker has choice words for motorists who fail to pay attention to everything they’re doing on Old Priest Grade, whether they’re going up or down.

“There are people with just a wanton disregard for the safety and property of others,” Crooker said. “Sociopathic driving behavior. They don’t care about anyone else but themselves.”

CHP Officer Nick Norton said the most recent over-the-side crash on Old Priest Grade was early this month or late June, when a vehicle ended up about 300 feet below the pavement. The motorist sustained minor injuries.

Hot grade

Tuolumne County District 4 Supervisor John Gray, whose district includes Chinese Camp, Moccasin, Big Oak Flat, Groveland and Pine Mountain Lake, said Friday he’s a fourth-generation Tuolumne County native, and his great-uncle Roscoe Gray is in an old photo of Groveland ranchers who did some work together on Old Priest Grade in the 1890s.

“If you drive that road, going down, there are more warning signs in a mile-and-a-half than you see anywhere else,” Gray said. “I drive that road almost every day. I don’t consider it a dangerous road, I use low gear, I don’t ride my brakes.

“My family were freighters, moving commercial goods between Chinese Camp and Groveland and beyond,” Gray said. “The trick to going down the hill with a wagon would be to drag a log behind to assist the braking of the wagon, take some of the load off the animals. You had a big foot and hand brake, too.”

On Friday afternoon, full plastic gallons of water and other size bottles of water were sitting in each narrow turnout section on Old Priest Grade, so motorists dealing with overheating radiators could have water handy in roadside temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lost on the grade

York, a Tuolumne County resident since 1967, has been engineering here since 1978 and he’s been with county roads since 1999. His wish list to make Old Priest Grade safer includes more signs directing motorists to Yosemite National Park.

That’s because, in this day and age of GPS in vehicles and on mobile phones, many people driving campers and motorhomes and other over-size vehicles end up following incorrect directives from their devices, and they wind up on Old Priest Grade, York said.

“With the onset of GPS, people don’t read signs any more,” York said. “You can sit up there on the patio at Priest Station and watch them come up the new grade, then they turn left and go down the old grade. They’re in RVs and buses and they are not even thinking about which way it is to Yosemite. They are just listening to the magic voice coming out of their phones.”

York sent a letter April 5 to Caltrans District 10 Director Dennis Agar requesting additional signage to guide motorists to Yosemite at the bottom of Old Priest Grade and the junction with Highway 120, and at the top of Old Priest Grade and its junction with the 120.

“It’s a safety issue,” York said. “Those big vehicles are not supposed to be on Old Priest Grade.”

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