Kolana Rock P500
Gravel Range HP

Thu, Jun 13, 2013
Kolana Rock
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPXs: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


Kolana Rock

Kolana Rock is the prominent formation overlooking the south side of Hetch-Hetchy much the same way Sentinel Rock overlooks Yosemite Valley. Without much in the way of trails, neither is easy to get to though only a few miles from the pavement. On an overnight trip the week before, I had viewed and studied Kolana Rock on the long six mile hike around the north side of the reservoir. How hard would it be to get to the summit? The easiest way appeared to be from the dam via the south side saddle with Smith Mtn. The climbing guidebooks only mentioned rock climbing routes on the steeper faces. On online search had scant results, but I did find a video someone shot from the summit on an overnight trip apparently taking the route I had scouted from the dam. It seemed worth spending a day to see if I could reach it. Five hours would prove sufficient.

Having spent the night at the Smith Meadow TH a few miles up the road, I was down at the day use area by the dam before the road was open from the entrance station at 7a. Not surprisingly, mine was the first civilian car there in the morning and I picked the prime parking spot next to the picnic area and restrooms. Without anything to go on, my plan was pretty rudimentary - use any road or trail found, bushwhack as necessary. I started off on the gravel and dirt road going by the restrooms, ranger cabins and the stone buildings overlooking the reservoir. The road ended after less than a quarter mile, but a use trail continued on, leading to the water's edge a short distance later. It made for a pretty, secluded spot to sunbathe or take in the views along the shore, but it wasn't really a good start to reach Kolana Rock, well to the east. Cliffs along the shore make following a route close to the water impractical, if not impossible. One needs to climb about 800ft to the high bench that runs along the south side of the canyon. Time to head up.

Much of the non-cliff terrain that runs the two mile distance over to Kolana Rock is covered in forest and thick vegetation. Unlike other parts of the park where healthy forest usually means decent cross-country travel underfoot, the mostly shaded slopes here are rich with vegetation that makes travel difficult. I spent about 20 minutes making slow upward progress, happy to find short stretches of easier ground, but soon returning to the more time-consuming bushwhacking. Following this initial effort, I was surprised to see what looked like a path across a granite slab. Occasional foot traffic appeared to have cleared a path through the lichen that normally covers most of the rock. I paused to look around more carefully and was happy to find what I was looking for - a modest duck marking a use trail. Suddenly my hopes were raised as it appeared this might be a whole lot easier than I had expected.

For the next hour I followed a series of ducks along the lightly-used trail that wound its way on a traversing upward track towards Kolana Rock. I did not cover much distance in this time as the trail was hard to follow and I got off-route many times. It was obvious that the trail got little used, at least any more. Perhaps in times of old it was better established and used by the small community that live at or near the dam. After perhaps a mile I lost the trail for good and found no signs of it on the second mile to my destination. Some of the bushwhacking was very difficult, well over head level. I would walk on fallen logs where I could to make my way through the thickest of it. Along the way I had fleeting views and glimpses of the reservoir and Wapama Falls that could be seen and heard on the north side of the reservoir. There was much rock scrambling as I neared the saddle, mixed with the usual brush to keep things interesting. By 9:30a I had reached the saddle where the brush gave way to more rock scrambling and easier going. Looking over the east side of the saddle gave a view of the upper reaches of the reservoir as it snakes into the Tuolumne Gorge. Behind me rose the brushy slopes leading towards Smith Mtn where I had visited the evening before. It took less than 20 minutes to reach the summit from the saddle, the difficulty no more than class 2-3 with only a modicum of brush to deal with.

A tattered register book was found inside a plastic tub just below the highest rock. It dated to 1984 with a note that the previous register (dating to 1969) had been returned to the Sierra Club. Visits to the summit appear to be once or twice a year, judging from a cursory glance through the pages. The views are about as fine as one would imagine, given its location. The reservoir, almost eight miles in length, wraps neatly around Kolana Rock on three sides. To the north, Wapama Falls cascades down 1,400ft to the reservoir. The trail and bridges that cross the base of the falls are clearly visible. There were no visitors yet this morning to this normally busy attraction. To the east one can see the more gentle cascades of Rancheria Creek tumbling down to the water's edge. Looking south, Smith Mtn rises up, the highpoint of the canyon's southern wall. There is a small menagerie of old metal stakes, wire and eye bolts about the summit. I had heard about these eye bolts online, a relic from WWII when wires were strung to a similar setup across to Hetch-Hetchy Dome as some sort of anti-aircraft measure. This seems a bit hard to grasp, really. If one were to bomb the dam it would seem far better to approach from the west where the concrete wall makes a larger target from that direction. In any event, it makes for an interesting mystery.

After about 20 minutes at the summit I headed back down, following much the same route. I had no better luck locating a trail near the saddle than I had on the way up. More of the ugly bushwhacking ensued, more crossing of downed logs until I was relieved to finally pick up the trail near where I had last lost it. I followed this back to where I had first found it, and then continued back to civilization along the trail, much better than the original route up from the shoreline. The trail passes by a rusty water trough and a pair of rogue tents set up well above and out of sight of the more permanent establishments. The trail appears to end (or rather, start) here. I passed by a couple of large water tanks, went down some granite slabs to the cabins below and finished up just before noon. Not a bad half day.

Gravel Range HP

Evan Rasmussen had been ticking off a list of CA range highpoints starting back in 2007 or thereabouts. His list was compiled from a road atlas and a few other sources, but it was always a bit subjective. Ranges that ended in "Hills" were excluded with the exception of the Bodie Hills because they were higher and more prominent. I would stumble across other small ranges I found on the maps over the years and pass them on to Evan. Sometimes he would grumble and decide they were unworthy, other times he would grumble and add them as a side trip the next time he was in that part of the state. But in all cases he would grumble because it seemed like this pursuit was an open-ended one with no definitive conclusion. Perhaps the worst possible excuse for a range is the Gravel Range, a small collection of low bumps sandwiched between the main North Fork and the Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River. There is nothing obvious about this range and little of interest here. It was on my way back from Hetch-Hetchy via the Cherry Lake Rd which was interesting mostly because I'd never driven it. I had read a week earlier that a railroad was once built up the Tuolumne River Canyon to service the O'Shaughnessey dam during construction 100 years ago. In the 1930s it was dismantled and some of the rails ended up as guardrails on the road to Mathers. So it came as no surprise when I spotted these odd structures on my way down from Mathers.

One could start for the Gravel Range HP from the east or south where the pavement comes within half a mile of the summit. There are no trails, but a few old roads can be found on the west and north sides. Evan used some of these on his visit but I decided on the direct route up from the south. It was almost entirely uneventful save for the poison oak that is abundant and the brushy nature of the slope that makes navigation non-trivial. A barren, loose, rock and gravel face on the south side added a modicum of excitement when I thought I might slip on the steep slope. It took about 25 minutes to reach the forest and brush-covered summit. An old reference mark spotted under the brush led me to the DREW benchmark placed in 1945 by the USGS. Not even a note left by Evan, probably the only other visitor since the end of WWII. If one pushes through the brush to the southern edge of the summit, a view can be had looking south, but hardly worth the effort. Twenty minutes saw me back at the van. It was a silly endeavor of course, but cost me less than an hour of my life...

T. Rose comments on 08/06/13:
The Hetch Hetchy Railroad was built in 1916-17 by the City of San Francisco to serve the construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam, which was completed in 1923. In the 1930s the railroad was active during the raising of the dam, and as late as 1937 it was possible to travel as a revenue passenger from the junction with the Sierra Railway (near Crimea House) to the damsite. A final excursion over the line took place in 1947, and the railroad was abandoned in 1949. HHRR locomotive number 6 is preserved at El Portal, and railcar no. 19 is restored operational in Jamestown. If this has not exhausted your interest, please see Ted Wurm's excellent book, "Hetch Hetchy and its Dam Railroad."
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