With apologies to Pawn Stars, of all the Western states, my least favorite is Nevada. Maybe it's because most of the state is barren desert. Maybe it's the monotony of I-80 past Reno until forever. Maybe it's the heat, my god, the heat. But either way it's hard to find ways it compares favorably to its neighbors...unless you live in Woodfords, Poole, or Markleeville, California. When someone from either of these towns needs to see a dentist, they head to Nevada. When they turn on their car radio, they hear stations out of Reno and Sparks. Jonesin for a Big Mac? Nearest McDonalds is in Minden, Nevada.
I did take this picture, but not at the same time as the rest of the pictures below. Sue me. Actually don't, I'll probably lose.
Between October and May, to the residents of the bulk of Alpine County, most of California is accessible only by icy roads and long detours around highways 108 and 4, on highway 89 and 50. I suppose they could brave the 8 hour drive down US 395 to LA, but I'm pretty sure nobody really wants to go there either. Anyway, after a marathon (literally) CoHP trip the day before in Yosemite, I wanted an easier trip the subsequent day. Sonora peak is a relatively short but steep walk that would fit this bill. Which is how I found myself at the highpoint of yet another California CoHP, in the newest installation of Your California: Alpine County.
Population: 1,175 .5 Zellerbach Auditoriums
Major Towns: None. There are literally no incorporated cities or towns in the county. Markleeville is the largest "census-designated place" and county seat.
Highpoint: Sonora Peak, 11,469 feet
Location: Between Yosemite to the south and Tahoe to the north.
Major Landmarks: Kirkwood, Bear Valley Ski Areas, Hope Valley, Grover Hot Springs
University of California Affiliations: I searched, but came up empty handed. From 2004-2006 there were 8 total high school graduates in the county, and zero completed the requisite coursework to attend UC. The UC Cooperative Extension page for Alpine County has this to say: "Welcome to Alpine County
You've reached the Apline County Cooperative Extension page. Currently, there is no University of California Cooperative Extension office in Alpine County." There are ecological and archaeological sites in Alpine County studied in research papers, however.
Sonora Peak. Spanish for "Sonora Peak."
A blockbuster CoHP the previous night had left myself and my climbing partner searching for an easy peak to do the following day before driving back to the Bay Area. Sonora Peak, off of highway 108, north of Yosemite, was an attractive option. We camped at one of the cheap USFS campgrounds in the Toiyabe National Forest and were driving up 108 before sunrise.
There is no one in this picture. That's important to note.
The obvious and most important statistic about Alpine County is it’s tiny population, especially contrasted with the fact that California is the most populous state in the union. Why do so few people live there? The short answer is that the major industries of logging and silver mining experienced their glory days long ago. Second, and a longer story, is that there really was not much glory to begin with.
Silver Mountain City, ca 1859. See? ZERO glory. Note CalBear81 in foreground.
As I ascended highway 108 towards Sonora Pass, I came up behind a pickup truck, and prepared to pass. Normally, this would not be an issue, except that I noticed the pickup’s tailgate was open. Normally, THIS would not be an issue, except that I noticed the pickup was filled with power tools and chainsaws. Sure enough, at the next hairpin, the truck’s momentum threw one of the larger chainsaws onto the highway. I braked and the chainsaw flipped onto the side of the road. This was somewhat of a hazard, I reckoned, so I tried to alert this to the driver in front of me. Being the rugged independent thinker I am, I honked my horn as long as I could, trying to get as close to the pickup as possible. Being the rugged independent thinker that he was, the pickup driver ignored me completely. At this point, I almost felt sorry for him, since he was about to leave what was probably an expensive chainsaw on the side of the highway (by the way, that’s how they get there.) Anyway, if only there was something which could block the road and force both of us to stop, I could alert the dri--
Cows milk the attention for all it was worth.
It turns out an even MORE rugged independent thinker had decided to use state highway 108 as his personal cattle drive. Which leads me to believe the rancher altogether misinterpreted the meaning of the word "drive" as it pertains to cattle. We stopped, and literally dodging cows, I managed to get up to the pickup’s window. The conversation went something along the lines of: "WHY YOU GOOD FOR NOTHING FLIM FLAM HONKIN CITY FOO---." "You dropped your chainsaw on the road five miles ago." "FUCK." Among the cows, he managed to heave the car around and back towards the valley floor.
It was udderly disastrous.
I just thought of a brilliant business idea...Drive through McDonald's without McDonald's.
Driving onward, we noticed a ton of campers on the side of the road, and an inordinately high concentration of camo. We speculated that hunting season may be upon us. Soon after we arrived at the St. Mary’s Pass trailhead in about ten minutes, without further distractions.
St. Mary loved fuckin vaporizing deer.
Despite the fact that Alpine is California’s least populous county, some old timers may actually find it a bit crowded. This is actually because the county has grown 500% since the 1950’s, with the building of Kirkwood and Bear Valley ski resorts. Long before, in the early days of Alpine County’s history, miners slowly canvassed the area in the wake of the gold rush looking for the next seam to strike it rich. In 1857 the seam was found alright, to the southeast of Lake Tahoe in Nevada, and was called the Comstock Lode. The Comstock Lode dramatically increased mining exploration in the surrounding mountains, with miners hoping to strike it rich for themselves in the high canyons of what is now Alpine County, where we climbed. The terrain is dynamic. This is where the young igneous lava rock, common in the northern Sierra, meets the granitic rock of the central and southern Sierra, and fight to the death.
Lava is winning.
The trail ascended a wide sagebrush field, then a brushy gulch as it approached St. Mary's Pass. Near the pass, we ran into a gentleman with an enormous gun:
Find the gentleman.
Now, act like you have antlers.
He informed us it was hunting season, and that we should probably be careful. Thanks? We'll watch out for bullets and if we find a spare 10-point antler set we won't put them on our heads.....buddy. I thought it was weird that he was hunting so high. You rarely see deer above treeline, and the surrounding terrain soon morphed from a light forest into an igneous moonscape, with sharp lava rocks for acres around. As we ascended higher, surrounding canyons and passes came into view.
It's just a sound stage.
It was deep in a canyon northeast of Ebbett’s Pass, today’s crest of state highway 4, where in 1858 some Danes did discover a modest silver deposit, founded a settlement and named it Silver Mountain City.
It is...our most modestly producing silver mine.
As miners settled over the land, an enterprising settler named Jacob Marklee claimed 160 acres to the north, near Hope Valley, and built a road and toll bridge over the biggest river in town, founding Markleeville. In a dispute a few years later, probably over oh I don’t know, having to pay money to cross a river which used to be free to cross or something (officially it was described as a "property dispute"), he was shot and died, to death. But the Kramer name lives on, and the town remains Markleeville to this day.
Markleeville, yet another placename created from a total dick move. Side note: CalBear81 in foreground.
By 1864, Comstock mania reached a fever pitch. Mining claims and lumber mills were being started at a torrid pace, and under intense political pressure from Shotgun Ezekiel, Jebediah, and Tin Can Mumphrey, and based on the uniquely isolated geography of the area, Alpine County was formed from parcels of El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne and Mono counties in order to reduce the time needed for deeding and claiming land and minerals. And this marked the last time any political entity, anywhere in California, was ever corrupted or swayed by promises of short-term reward. Now, rather than having to register their claims with the county recorder miles away, over Ebbetts pass, or Sonora Pass, or Carson Spur or Echo Summit, or Monitor Pass in the snowy and rugged Sierra Nevada, they could have them processed in Silver Creek City. The population boomed to 12,000. But it would grow no higher.
In no way is this shadow exaggerated by slope aspect or time of day. I’m really just that huge.
I, on the other hand, was only climbing and climbing, to the detriment of my tired lungs. The abrasive lava rock stretched out in all directions, with little in the way of plant life above 10,000 feet. The trail was faint but hardly needed anyway. After looping north from the trailhead to St. Mary’s Pass, we struck east for the summit ridge. The climbing itself was neither difficult nor particularly tedious, and I stopped to take pictures of the various distractions along the way.
and odd life forms...
myself included, one can find in such an environment.
Another 15 minutes and the summit was under my feet.
I hereby call this Mt. Mansionista.
I hereby claim all surrounding lands in the name of Mike Manuel. Bet you didn't see that coming.
The view was fine. To the north, Stanislaus peak featured prominently in the foreground, over the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. The highlands surrounding Leavitt Peak and Emigrant Wilderness could be seen just across Highway 108 to the south, to Tower Peak and the high peaks of Yosemite beyond that. To the west, miles of forest fell into the agricultural murk of the CV. On the north horizon I could make out Freel Peak, right above Lake Tahoe. To the east, the Bodie Hills and beyond them, Nevada, that BITCH!
At least we can beat them in football! Am I right?
By the late 1860’s, silver from Silver Mountain Mine ore was proving to be very difficult to extract profitably. It just didn’t have a high enough silver content relative to the rich seams of the Comstock Lode, or even gold fields in the newly booming town of Bodie, to the south, and miners sought riches elsewhere. As Silver Creek was producing less and less, the early to mid-1870s saw the Comstock Lode produce (inflation adjusted) almost half a billion dollars worth of silver and gold per year. Silver was demonetized in 1873, flooring prices and completing the county’s collapse in population. As the mines dried up, the county seat was moved from Silver Mountain City to Markleeville. With no more buildings or mine shafts needed, lumber mills shut down as well, and a general exodus from Alpine County began. By the turn of the century less than 300 people remained, mostly trappers, subsistence hunters, and a smattering of small ranches. The population remained miniscule through the first half of the 20th century, and the once bustling settlements slowly began to fade into the dust.
We hightailed it off the mountain, Speedy Gonzalez style.
But with much less stereotyping.
Before ending back up at the parking lot. But wait, what of the story of the fate of Alpine County? Well, in the 1950’s a hardy outdoors entrepreneur was walking along when he thought "Hey! Why not strap metal sheets to my shoes, build several enormous motorized pulley devices all over a mountain, wait for it to snow, and then ride the metalsheet shoes down the mountain, for fun! I shall call it ‘Metalsheetshoeing.’" The guy was committed, but others came up with the idea to build Bear Valley and Kirkwood Ski Resorts in the 1960s. The resorts fueled a semi population boom, as the number of residents rose from ~300 prior to ~1200 post-resort construction.
So was it worth it? Creating a whole new county and all its ensuing bureaucracy Frankensteined from several others to save miners and loggers the trouble of traveling days or even weeks to get their claims processed? It’s hard to say. At the time, fresh on the heels of the Gold Rush, it was impossible to know that another Sutter’s Mill was not right around the corner, and that most of the expected boom in Alpine County would turn to bust in short order. It’s easy to take the modern day government cynic’s perspective, and say that countification of the land was unnecessary and silly. But in the early days of California, more government, in the strictest sense of the word, particularly in the realm of property and mining law, was very necessary. After all, at the time the Danes of Silver Mountain found their seams, only 9 years had passed since the discovery of gold had brought California into national consciousness, and only seven years had passed since California entered the union (to put that in perspective, more time has past since Cal beat USC). The period from 1848-1850 saw a bizarre amalgam of American, European, and Mexican law unofficially take hold in individual mining towns across California, with not much change coming with statehood in 1850 other than in policing and justice (unrelated to mining and mineral regulation). Open mining hadn’t even been addressed in the context of the West by the federal government, so really all of this was technically illegal. A federal mining act was not voted into law until 1872. Somebody had to do something!
Here we see the Federal Mining Act of 1872. CalBear81 in foreground. Just kidding, CB81, I love you. Don't sue me or complain to the Hit Squad. No but seriously what was Frederick Douglass really like?
Based on the peculiar geography of the area and the need for government to codify settlement of the land, I think it’s fine that Alpine County exists. I approve. In addition to helping the old silver miners of yore, it gives us a nugget of unique California mountain and mining history. It’s a place and a name that shouldn’t have existed, and almost didn’t, but then it did, but then it almost died, but now it is back. Let us celebrate California and it’s varied and dynamic history! Go Bears!