Property owners on Shell Road and Table Mountain are angry that parking at a popular trailhead is out of control, especially on weekends.

On March 27, a visitor fell at or near a rock climbing spot called The Grotto on Table Mountain. Fire and ambulance vehicles responded, and a fire engine had to push a visitor's car out of the way to get through the gate and go to the rescue scene. 

Property owners in the area say similar incidents occur at least once each spring-summer-fall season.

Mark Robertson has lived for seven years 30 to 40 yards from the gate at the end of Shell Road, where Shell Road transitions from pavement to dirt. His family has owned the property 30 years.

“It was less a problem seven years ago,” Robertson said Friday in his driveway. “It started about five years ago. Every year visitors park blocking our driveways. The fire trucks have to get by. They’re blocked. Last two years with COVID, it’s even busier. At least twice as busy.”

In a county that relies so heavily on tourism, Table Mountain is a valuable resource. Yet no single government agency takes responsibility for managing and maintaining parking and traffic flow — including access for emergency vehicles when visitors get injured — at the Table Mountain trailhead. 

Some weekends, and some weekdays, there are scores of vehicles parked haphazardly at the end of Shell Road and on the eroded, poorly maintained dirt road beyond the gate. Sometimes there are more than 100 visitor vehicles parked at and near the trailhead.

Local, state, and federal government agencies all have stakes or recently had stakes and responsibility for property, road surfaces, or rights of way in the area. 

Because Table Mountain is so close to New Melones Reservoir, the federal Bureau of Reclamation has some jurisdiction in the area. Caltrans used to own part of Shell Road, and at least one state Department of Transportation sign is prominently displayed near the end of Shell Road. Shell Road, which is maintained by the county up to the gate at the trailhead.

Complaints about parking and access for emergency vehicles often go to the county Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol. 

Robertson said he wants Tuolumne County to take control of the parking situation. His mother-in-law was on a committee to deal with visitors parking on Shell Road more than 20 years ago. They got a surveyor to come out with the intent of creating a parking lot about a mile beyond the gate on Shell Road, near a permanent bathroom structure that was eventually put in seven to nine years ago.

“That parking lot never happened,” he said. “I want the county, at minimum, to maintain the dirt road so more vehicles can go park at the bathroom. The parking shouldn’t be here period. The gate should be open and it should be obvious for visitors they can drive to park by the bathroom.”

Robertson said he and another property owner own 30 to 40 linear yards of Shell Road at the trailhead, from where the pavement ends to the gate, which is supposed to be left closed, latched, and unlocked.

“We have to allow people to pass through our property,” he said. “We don’t have to allow people to park on our property.”

Arlene Moyle, 83, and her husband, Clifford Moyle, 82, are among several property owners near the end of Shell Road who are livid about what they view as unmanaged, chaotic parking at the trailhead for Table Mountain. The Moyles live on a ranch covering about 18 acres, land that goes back in the family more than a century. 

Clifford Moyle was born under an oak tree next to Shell Road in June 1938, he said Friday at the top of their driveway.

“Lived here my whole life,” he said, sitting at the wheel of his pickup. “The way this road is, the traffic and the people, they should have more sense than to park there and plug a right of way, because the fire trucks and ambulances. Last Saturday (March 27), they couldn’t even get through.”

Residents have put their own signs up to try to prevent visitors from parking in their driveways and blocking their pasture gates.

The Union Democrat interviewed several other property owners, including Joan Stampfl, who’s lived near the end of Shell Road since the mid-2000s.

“When I first moved out there 15 years ago nobody came except for the rock climbers and people walking their dogs,” Stampfl said Thursday in a phone interview. “Nobody was parking there at that gate until the last five years, and it started getting crowded. Really the last three or four years, it’s gotten worse, and now this year is the worst ever.”

Stampfl said she and her neighbors are done with people parking everywhere illegally. Many of them keep, care for, and transport horses, and visitors park in places that block gates to the property owners’ pastures, corrals and other land parcels. Stampfl said the county made her build a $40,000 driveway with a turnaround when she built her place, big enough so fire trucks can get in and out.

“What’s the point of having a $40,000 driveway if nobody can get up the driveway, including fire trucks?” she asked. “They made me pay for fire protection, but I might not get fire protection because of the parking situation. The fire trucks couldn’t get through to help that person who fell last weekend.”

Property owner Shelly Loewen said Friday she called CHP to complain about illegally parked vehicles blocking the gate at the Table Mountain trailhead about two hours before the visitor fell on March 27. She wasn’t the only property owner to call.

According to the Tuolumne County Fire Department, calls for help came at 1:45 p.m. March 27 for an injured hiker at Table Mountain in an area known as The Grotto, an area with hundred-foot cliffs that is popular with rock climbers. Some use ropes and climbing gear. Some climb unroped.

Engine 761 from Jamestown Station 76 responded along with Columbia Fire Protection District, Cal Fire’s Tuolumne Calaveras Unit, Tuolumne County Search and Rescue, CHP, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, according to a county fire department social media post.

About 1.5 miles from the trailhead parking area and the gate at the end of Shell Road, firefighters and others worked to locate and begin treatment and removal of the injured visitor.

“The patient fell from a distance estimated at 20 feet, sustaining a broken left arm and head lacerations,” Tuolumne County Fire Department communications staff said. “Due to the extended time frame of a rescue helicopter, fire crews hiked the patient out to the awaiting Tuolumne County Ambulance.”

Manuel Meirinho, a fire apparatus engineer at Jamestown Station 76, said Friday the victim was engaged in rock climbing activities, and the individual was in possession of climbing equipment and safety gear when fire crews arrived. 

The injured person was assessed by paramedics, refused further treatment and transport, and signed a release against medical advice form. No one with CHP or Tuolumne County Fire mentioned a fire engine had to push a visitor’s car out of the way to get through the gate.

Loewen’s two sons, ages 10 and 8 years old, were near the gate selling eggs to visitors who parked at the end of Shell Road and described how a fire engine slowly tried to edge past a silver car, and ultimately had to push the car about a foot out of the way in order to get through the gate.

Meirinho said Friday that fire engines and an ambulance had clear access on the dirt road, then a 20 minute hike to the victim's location.

“To my knowledge TCFD equipment was not utilized to push any vehicles out of the way,” Meirinho said. “Total Equipment at scene; Grotto Incident. 3 fire engines with 7 crew members, 1 ambulance with 2 crew members, 3 Bureau of Reclamation Rangers, 1 Department of Fish and Wildlife Deputy. Resources ordered: CHP Helicopter, Tuolumne County Sheriff Search and Rescue (victim was extricated prior to these resources arrival).”

Table Mountain has always been a popular destination for people seeking fresh air and nature, and for geologists. 

“One of the most striking features in the topography and geology of Tuolumne County is the so-called ‘Table Mountain,’ ” Josiah Dwight Whitney, one of California’s first state geologists, chief of the California Geological Survey from 1860 to 1874, and the man Mt. Whitney is named for, wrote in a report quoted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1898.

In the 19th century, Table Mountain was a popular name up and down California, Whitney said. It was chosen to describe flat table-like masses of basaltic lava that are now conspicuous because softer strata on each sides of the plateaus have eroded, and these table-like formations “now exist as elevated ridges, dominating over the surrounding country and remarkable for their picturesque beauty. . . . The Table Mountain of Tuolumne County is a flow of lava originating in the lofty volcanic region beyond the Big Trees of Calaveras.”

Today, geologists believe Table Mountain is composed of Table Mountain Latite, which formed from potassium-rich lavas that erupted from a center of volcanism near modern-day Sonora Pass around 10.4 million years ago. The lava flows followed the course of the ancestral Stanislaus River, filling the river valley, according to a 2009 report on Table Mountain Latite near Knights Ferry published in the International Geology Review.

“We don't advertise Table Mountain perse, but we do occasionally promote it as a location for wildflower viewing and as a hiking trail option,” Jennifer Lopez, the marketing manager for Visit Tuolumne County, said Friday. “Table Mountain has always been a popular spot, especially this time of year.”

Patrick Karnahan and his family have owned land on Table Mountain since 1962, and Karnahan says he owns the Gold Wall, another popular climbing area near The Grotto. He says rock climbers began to get interested in the area 20 years ago, and now it’s so popular it’s featured on rock climbing websites.

Table Mountain itself is featured on a Visit Tuolumne County web page titled Top 5 Things To Do In Jamestown and updated in November 2020. Number 4 is “Explore nature on a scenic hike” and it recommends trails at Red Hills and Table Mountain.

“In addition to the flowers, the top of Table Mountain provides stunning, panoramic views of New Melones Reservoir in one direction and Jamestown in the other,” the Visit Tuolumne County web page says.

Jaron Brandon, the elected supervisor for District 5 that includes Jamestown, said Friday, “It's about time we address the safety issues at Shell Road because the stakes we are talking about is someone dying. I'm in ongoing discussions to find and build the partnership that will finally fix it for recreational use, fire risk, and the residents who live there's quality of life.”

A Bureau of Reclamation ranger based at New Melones drove through the gate at the end of Shell Road toward Table Mountain on Friday. She said she couldn’t comment for the record on the parking situation at the end of Shell Road.

Mary Lee Knecht, a designated public affairs officer for the federal Bureau of Reclamation based in Sacramento, said Friday that the agency is working with the Tuolumne County Public Works Department, Sheriff’s Office, Caltrans, County Supervisor Jaron Brandon, and local residents to discuss and address current parking issues.

Parking along Shell Road has been an issue in the past but has been exacerbated since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, Knecht said.

Since Shell Road is a county road, Reclamation has made Tuolumne County aware of the situation, Knecht said.

“We encourage the local residents to contact the County Public Works Department for information and support,” she said. “Reclamation has been and will continue to work closely with the county team including the County Sheriff’s Department, and local first responders, to identify solutions to this issue.”

The Bureau of Reclamation, which owns and manages New Melones and its recreation sites, came under fire last year for similar parking, crowding, access, and related public safety issues at the popular caves site known as Natural Bridges next to Parrotts Ferry Road in Calaveras County. 

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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