The Forest is Open

By Luke Holderfield, November 28, 2014

An unseasonably warm day followed Thanksgiving. The temperature at Evergreen Lodge hit 65 degrees Fahrenheit and I had a nice 5 hour break from the Recreation Desk. Fighting off the inescapable post-Thanksgiving face-stuffing lethargy, I had to get outside and enjoy this clear and beautiful day. Sarah had just returned from taking a lovely family from Orinda, CA to tour the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, it didn’t take anything to convince her to join this mid-day Tryptophan comatose battle.

Only 10 days prior, the Groveland Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest lifted a closure placed on the area immediately surrounding Evergreen Lodge. We chose to drive down the newly re-opened Mather Road (Stanislaus Forest Route 1S02) which provides access to beautiful expanses of the Stanislaus that have been off limits to us since 2013’s Rim Fire. The narrow and precipitous route hugs the south rim of a 1000 foot gorge carved by the Tuolumne River just downstream from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The road is flanked by oaks and Manzanita that were charred in the devastating fire. In an ironic twist, this lack of foliage and decreased vegetation completely un-inhibits your view down on the Tuolumne River below, making the drive much more grandiose and maybe a tad bit more unnerving.

We hung a right on Cherry Creek Road (Stanislaus Forest Route 1N07) which winds down the steep gorge to the river below. Crossing the river and bearing right took us passed Kirkwood Powerhouse to the Preston Falls Trailhead. We walked only a short distance down this 5 mile path to see how it had faired, and were very pleased to see that the fire damage was negligible to the Canyon Live Oak, California Bay Laurel, and Gray Pines that line the trail. In fact, there was a light layer of fuzzy grass covering the trail that only existed because it had gone untrodden for an entire year.  Temperatures down here were about 5 degrees warmer than at Evergreen Lodge, hitting the low 70s. We shared some hummus on a riverside rock and watched water bugs skate against the current before returning to the car to continue further north along Cherry Lake Road. Granite Creek parallels the route north as we gained elevation, entering some heavily burned areas. Taking a right on a dirt and gravel fire road that passed many tracts of burned and logged hillsides, we stumbled upon a large water tank perched on a hilltop above Plum Flat and Cherry Creek. From this high vantage point, the rolling foothills to the west were visible, and the Central Valley beyond.  A massive Turkey Vulture lazily glided along updrafts.

The wind quickly blew in a blanket of perfectly spaced Altocumulus clouds that foretold a coming rainstorm.  The sun began to descend, framing the blanket in regal silver and gold light.

We began our return journey back, racing the sun as it fell toward the horizon.  As the angle of the rays dropped, the blanket of clouds became more and more illuminated, taking on magnificent new hues, until the sky appeared to be on fire.

Charred black trunks thrown against this ethereal backdrop certainly conjured memory of the Rim Fire, but the beauty that remains is undeniable.  While the fragile forest was hit hard, pristine tracts still remain. Much of the land’s inherent beauty simply cannot be taken away. Deeply carved gorges, the slowly snaking Tuolumne River, unforgettable sunsets… all of this remains for us to enjoy.