There’s a photo on a back wall in recently-renovated Servente’s Saloon and Market, built in 1856 in downtown Sonora, and the photo shows people more than a hundred years ago in a wagon and on horses or mules on the notoriously steep Old Big Oak Flat Road, looking out at Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite Valley.
I showed it to a friend Tuesday this week and he immediately said, “We should find that spot.” I didn’t know much at that point, but I went out there Thursday and found the old road and walked up to the same area to get the same view that shows in the old photo in Servente’s. The views of El Capitan and Bridalveil are astonishing.
If you have family going back generations in Groveland or Sonora and other places in Tuolumne County and the Mother Lode, the Old Big Oak Flat Road is a route your grandparents or great-grandparents may remember.
Not a trail, not a road
This road was built on steep slopes over and through massive rockslides, it lasted 70 years and was abandoned 75 years ago when more rockslides obliterated sections of the road. The steepest sections are closed and unmarked.
There are sections of the old road that look like they’ve been cleared and swept clean for automobile advertisements, and there are many more sections where the road is completely buried under steep boulder piles and dense, chaotic jumbles of smashed trees.
I encountered exactly five people on Old Big Oak Flat Road. One was a man about my age or slightly older, in his 50s or 60s, who I met early on my walk and route-finding scramble from the valley floor.
The next three were a couple with a young woman in her 20s from Rush Creek Lodge, who I chatted briefly with on an open stretch of the abandoned road. Hours later, on my return, I met Adam Long, 37, of Santa Cruz, who had skis strapped to his backpack and said he hoped to traverse the valley’s snowclad north and south rims.
This route, just like so many dangerous places in Yosemite, is strictly at-your-own-risk, and I do not recommend it to anyone. People who venture up on Old Big Oak Flat Road from Yosemite Valley can expect to use their hands, arms and upper body strength a lot, to cling to boulders, to get through tangles of trees, to save your own neck from crippling or killing falls onto unforgiving rocks that have already fallen thousands of feet themselves.
Competing road builders
The road’s story and the views it aff ords remain iconic. For decades, stretching from stagecoach days to the advent and dominance of motorized automobiles, this was the route where people stopped at Oh My Point and other turnouts to take photos that helped make Yosemite and its northwest gateway towns world-famous.
Today there is a trailhead that begins near the Foresta turnoff from current Big Oak Flat Road, and a sign says it’s four miles from there to Old Big Oak Flat Road. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t offer perspective on it. Libraries and museums in Sonora, Groveland and Yosemite Valley contain reams of information and background on Old Big Oak Flat Road and what it meant to early travelers and gateway communities and Yosemite.
The same glacier-carved vertical canyon walls that make Yosemite so unique kept the place remote and untrammeled by visitors for millennia, until the Gold Rush era brought curious, profit-seeking white people. Historians say early visitors to Yosemite Valley had to ride horseback three days just to get down in there from the mid-1850s until June 1874, when the old Coulterville Road opened and allowed the first animal-drawn wagons to reach the new tourist mecca.
Competition for lucrative stagecoach tourism was intense. The Chinese Camp and Yosemite Turnpike Company began its own toll road in 1869 and extended their original Big Oak Flat Road into Yosemite Valley in July 1874, just a month after the Coulterville Road opening.
A National Register of Historic Places registration form submitted in August 2004 by state historic preservation staff says the Big Oak Flat Road was built in defiance of Yosemite commissioners, and it severely ate into traffic on the Coulterville Road by offering the alternative route into Yosemite Valley. Old Big Oak Flat Road eventually surpassed the Coulterville Road in popularity.
Old Big Oak Flat Road was a marvel of risky road-building and engineering, situated to capitalize on views that to this day are more amazing and rare than what you see from existing paved roads in Yosemite. It descended to the valley floor via switchbacks down steep talus slopes. The famous zigzag section from old Gentry’s Station, a rangers outpost, to the valley floor and El Capitan Bridge was carved out of steep boulder fields and cribbed with hand-placed rock walls without mortar.
In 1899 the old toll road was 30 miles long, from Dorsey’s old sawmill near today’s Buck Meadows to Crocker’s Station through the Tuolumne Big Tree Grove, Crane Flat and Gentry’s Station, then zigzagging to the valley floor. Road width averaged 13 feet with a maximum grade of 0.16 percent. Fourteen miles from Dorsey’s to Crocker’s were kept open all year, and road owners tried to keep the section from Crocker’s to the Yosemite Valley Grant boundary open seven months of the year.
A safer route known today as the modern version of Big Oak Flat Road was completed in 1940, and rockslides destroyed the zigzags switchback section in 1945. Park administrators decided against clearing the old route and all motorized traffic was switched in the late 1940s to today’s Big Oak Flat Road. Subsequent slides and washouts further blocked the old road.
Dangers and deaths
The 2007 book “Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite” by Michael Ghiglieri and Charles “Butch” Farabee includes multiple accounts of fatal incidents on Old Big Oak Flat Road and modern Big Oak Flat Road.
In October 1902, a British-born 49er, Yosemite author, guide and hotel manager named James Mason Hutchings, 78, was coming down the final section of Old Big Oak Flat Road in a horse-drawn wagon with his third wife, Emily Ann Edmonds, when one of the horses spooked, bolted and took off down the narrow track, sprinting to the valley floor. Near the base of El Capitan, one wagon wheel hit a boulder, sending Edmonds airborne, then Hutchings flew out and slammed head-first into a cluster of boulders. She tried to revive him with whiskey but he died within five minutes.
In August 1924, Dortha and Charles McCormick, of Chicago, died in an accident while driving up the controlled incline of Old Big Oak Flat Road, above the old El Capitan Guard Station.
In May 1935, a 41-year-old powderman for the Bureau of Public Roads named William A. Combs set off detonations to loosen rocks during construction of a section of Big Oak Flat Road. Boulders tumbled down the slope and landed on Combs and two other employees, who survived. Combs died on the way to Lewis Memorial Hospital in Yosemite Valley.
In May 1937, park resident and engineer Ernest Mossien, 44, fell from a cliff adjacent to Big Oak Flat Road, caught pneumonia and died a month later at Lewis Memorial Hospital in Yosemite Valley.
In July 1937, Ella Gutschalk, 51, of South San Francisco, died when her husband drove a Lincoln coupe off a 60-foot bank of Old Big Oak Flat Road and landed in an oak tree. They were found three hours later.
In August 1937, a park roads contract worker named Hilmar Heldal, 32, ducked under a dump truck to seek protection from nearby blasting on Old Big Oak Flat Road, the driver didn’t see him and drove over Heldal, killing him.
In June 1947, an off-duty Yosemite crewman named Allie W. Kincaid, 46, died of a crushed chest when the car he was riding in skidded off Old Big Oak Flat Road near Crane Creek. Alcohol use was suspected.
In May 1978, Susan J. Schantin, 26, of San Anselmo, was hiking with her husband Michael on Old Big Oak Flat Road and her foot got trapped between a boulder and a log while she tried to cross narrow, snowmelt-swollen Wildcat Creek. Her husband said he tried to save her, but the flooding creek swept her away. Her body was never located.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere. This account is not to be taken as an endorsement or recommendation of any kind.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.