THE BIG OAK FLAT STOP
Elevation: 2,844 feet
WHAT TO DO IN GROVELAND
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Look at the ice axe Conrad Anker used on Everest while grabbing a meal at Priest Station, before or after driving the Priest Grade. Try to go on German Night for a hearty dinner.
Toss a dollar to the ceiling at the Iron Door Saloon, count the stuffed heads of Sierra creatures and guess where Black Bart might have sat.
Look for Groveland’s Hanging Tree on old Highway 120.
Listen to the electrical wires hiss as you look at the Rim Fire damage from the Rim of the World Vista.
Walk/feel your way through a dark tunnel inhabited by giant bats at Hetch Hetchy.
Yosemite-bound travelers from San Francisco and other points north have two main choices to enter the park: the north gate at Big Oak Flat or the west gate at Arch Rock. For those who choose Big Oak Flat, the prime stopping-off point is Groveland. It’s a good choice to overnight and make an early start into Yosemite the next day or can serve as an extended base camp if accommodations in the park aren’t available and a bit of a drive back and forth isn’t objectionable.
The climb into the foothills toward Groveland starts where Highway 120 makes a turn. Rosalinda’s serves as a landmark for it. It’s a gentleman’s club. Look for the “Girls, Girls, Girls” sign and vintage limo. The journey to Yosemite then continues past the piled logs at the Sierra Pacific Industries mill, through what’s left of the once-busy mining town of Chinese Camp, along Don Pedro Reservoir and on to attack the Priest Grade.
The Priest Grade: A Long & Winding Road
The Priest Grade is probably the most notorious part of this route into the park, with “I survived”-type post cards and t-shirts to prove it. This road up Moccasin Hill is in great condition, but it’s a climb. The elevation change over its six miles is about 1,500 feet up a 4% grade with continuous curves. It was built in 1915, but is known as New Priest Grade.
The Old Priest Grade it was intended to bypass is shorter (about two miles), but narrower. It’s severely steep, with an average grade of 17% and some spots that pitch even closer to vertical. And though straighter than New Priest Grade, the curves it has are far more hairpin. Still, it’s a paved road, and remains a popular short-cut for those who want to avoid being stuck behind a camper and are willing to risk over-heating on the way up or melting their brakes on the way down. There have been various proposals over the years to make the Old Priest Grade a one-way road and outlaw downhill traffic, but they’ve been met with resistance by impatient locals.
Old and New Priest Grade split to take opposing routes along Grizzly Gulch, the ravine in between. Its rough, brush-filled terrain makes rescues (or recoveries) difficult when vehicles leave the road because the driver was going too fast, gawking at scenery or any of the other reasons that cause Priest Grade accidents.
Priest Station: A Way Station & Climbers’ Shrine for Conrad Anker Fans
Next to where the Old Priest Grade rejoins Highway 120 sits Priest Station. It’s been a place to regroup post-Priest Grade since 1849. Over the years it’s been a supply store for miners, a stage coach stop, an elegant hotel with special “Ladies Parlour” and cream puffs on the menu, and now cabins and a cafe.
It’s been owned for most of its long history by the same family, six generations so far. Those who stop — perhaps for some of the signature German cuisine available on certain nights — may see climbers who’ve come to pay homage to a particular family member. Conrad Anker is an icon in rock-jock circles, ascending to high points around the world, including Antarctica.
His 1999 Everest expedition gets most of the attention. On that particular adventure, he and a team were trying to determine what might have happened to another famed mountaineer. George Mallory was one of the first to try conquering the world’s tallest mountain, but he and his partner Andrew Irving disappeared on their third attempt, leaving lingering questions as to whether they’d died on the way up or down from the summit. While the team searched for clues, Anker located Mallory’s frozen remains.
Fans aren’t likely to see Conrad Anker at Priest Station since he now lives in Montana, but an ice axe he used on Everest hangs in the cafe.
The Other Hangtown
Groveland and Big Oak Flat started as mining towns, and Groveland was known for a time as Garrote because, like Placerville (a.k.a. Hangtown), a noose was used to bring some criminals to justice. There were actually two hanging trees in the area, and the remnants of one still stand about two miles southeast of town on Old Highway 120.
Groveland had two waves of successful mining. After the gold had been plucked from the rivers and hosed from the hills with hydraulic mining, there was a period of underground hard-rock mining. After that, Groveland’s main enterprise became ranching, but something else was waiting in the wings: tourism, which remains its primary industry today. The Big Oak Flat toll road was extended into Yosemite Valley in 1874, putting Groveland right along the way to California’s first state park. (Yosemite didn’t become a national park until 1890.) Garrote became the more friendly-sounding Groveland not long after.
Hetch Hetchy: Helping San Francisco Get its Great Water
The dam and reservoir that flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley to quench thirsty Northern Californians are said to have broken John Muir’s heart, but they provided a major boost to Groveland when it was chosen as the headquarters for the water project in 1915. It served as a hub for those involved in the construction for the next 10 years. The large tubes along the Priest Grade hillside are penstocks, and they’re filled with Tuolumne River water that eventually comes out of San Francisco’s taps.
Music Pedigree: The Iron Door Saloon’s Bill Graham Connection
The Iron Door Saloon on Groveland’s main drag bills itself as the oldest continuously operating saloon in California. It’s been one since 1896 and adopted its current name after adding the heavy iron doors that have helped to protect the building from fire. Inside, it’s still a classic-looking Old West saloon, apparently with some stray bullet holes from that era. But there’s one major change from the old days. A sign out front reads “Families Welcome.”
It’s also got a good amount of historical memorabilia, with photos of John Muir and gentleman stage coach bandit Black Bart as well as Hetch Hetchy before it was underwater. Mining and logging implements hang from the ceiling, which is also festooned with tacked dollar bills tossed up by patrons. Once they come loose, they’re donated to causes supporting the area’s youth.
Music is a big part of the Iron Door experience. Live bands perform often and are a legacy of former proprietor Peter Barsotti. Before taking up residence in the Sierra, he was the right-hand man of famed concert promoter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Bill Graham. The two worked with a who’s who in rock acts. They organized shows and tours for the Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and many more, as well as the first Lollapalooza. Some of the Bill Graham Presents concert posters known to fans of vintage music artwork were designed by Barsotti.
A Hidden Enclave: Pine Mountain Lake
If you stuck to Highway 120, you’d probably think Groveland was just a tiny historic town. But there’s actually a giant sub-division of vacation homes tucked away off the road. Pine Mountain Lake was born in 1969 when Boise Cascade created a huge lake (more than 200 acres of surface water), added a marina, golf course, pool, stables and other amenities and started selling lots. Its agents promoted the gated community as a mountain escape, and it worked. People gobbled them up for primary residences and second homes, and sleepy Groveland got thousands of new neighbors.
The Fire Plague
Groveland and the surrounding area have seemingly been a ground zero for fires throughout history. Big Oak Flat was actually bigger than Groveland in the early mining days, until an 1863 fire burned it to the ground. Another in 1926 claimed the hotel at Priest Station. 1987 brought a blaze that ranks among California’s largest, the Stanislaus Complex Fire, which burned more than 145,000 acres. And another in 1992 also burned both sides of the Priest Grade to eventually spread across some 4,000 acres.
Past Groveland along the way to Yosemite, the Rim of the World vista point is another stark reminder of Groveland’s fire battles. There are two firefighter memorials here. One honors Eva Marie Schicke, a young woman killed in the 2004 Tuolumne Fire. Part of a helitack crew, she and others had been dropped into the canyon to fight the blaze. But a wind shift caused it to change direction and while trying to reach a safety zone above the steep terrain, she was killed. She was the first female CDF firefighter to be killed in the line of duty.
A second monument serves as a tribute to David Erickson, who died while fighting 1987’s Stanislaus Complex Fire.
And of course, this vista point provided the name for 2013’s Rim Fire — California’s third-largest since the state began recording them in the 1930s. Once a popular spot to take in the Tuolumne River view and get a first real glimpse of mountains enroute to Yosemite, it’s now a viewpoint for charred land stretching as far as you can see. More than 257,000 acres (400 square miles) burned after a hunter started an illegal campfire not far from here, between Jawbone Ridge and the Clavey River. It’s a remote spot. The Clavey — one of just three free-flowing Sierra rivers not dammed or diverted in some way — winds through an area that is steep-sided, largely undeveloped and inaccessible by road, prime conditions for a fire to gather strength.
Researchers told the Associated Press that 60 square miles of the resulting damage were so badly burnt that they are utterly devoid of life, and that the moonscape left behind is the largest since before 1350 when the Little Ice Age began.
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