The Old Big Oak Flat Road hike

Half Dome – Yosemite Musing
Get or Give permits<HERE>

    First off we have a winner of 2 FREE permits for the Half Dome cables on Sep 4. Mathew A. of San Diego was Johnny-on-the-spot and replied with the correct answer. The Firefall off Glacier Point ran from 1872 to 1968. The reasons it ended were that crime soared during the firefall as thugs circulated through the empty tents for goodies; the meadows were being trampled on and even driven on; and the NPS decided that spectacle was not in the mission of the park. Congrats
   Now get some popcorn, settle back and hear the tale of my 10-hour round trip hike up/down the old Big Oak Flat Road. It was constructed by the Chinese Camp & Yosemite Turnpike Company and opened in 1874 as a major access to Yosemite. It replaced old Indian and mining trails and competed with the Coulterville Road that opened just before it to the south a bit. It was the main wagon / stagecoach route to the park from Groveland  through a settlement called Gentry’s to the Valley until the modern Highway 120 road was opened in 1940. That paved road thru 3 tunnels is what we drive on today. It is way less harrowing than the old road. Classic photos of the road show how steep it was in spots. 16%. In 1945 a giant rockfall occurred that covered long stretches of the road. You can see these talus fields from Southside drive.  It is no longer maintained by the park and does not even appear on maps! Some hikers shuttle up to Tamarack Flat and hike down. I wanted to do both ways.
    DISCLAIMER TIMEThis is NOT a beginner hike. I recommended it only for advanced hikers who can scramble on all fours over talus/boulder fields. You can get lost and hurt (I fell twice.)
    Just west of El Cap on Northside drive there is a short pull out to the right. You can park there. Walk on a dirt road past what’s called the Woodpile.

The Woodpile

Excess lumber cut down in the park is brought here for employee use in their homes. Continue on to an obvious dirt road that swings to the right at first then continues westward. This is the original road! It’s pretty easy for the first 45 mins. This part can be done by beginners with little challenge. You get up high enough to see El Cap and Half Dome then to the right you can see Bridalveil Fall. Beautiful sight. Most day hikers turn around here. Why? Because the rockfall soon makes it all but impassable.

Rocks partially cleared

    There are 4 major rockfall areas. Some rocks as big as Volkswagens. The first rockfall was partially cleared off the road so you see rubble above and rubble below, but you can still walk on the road. Then you go back on the road thru a wooded area and are confronted with another rockfall.

Which way, Jose?

    This time it is pretty harrowing. There are a couple rock cairns (3 stones piled up) to point the direction to go. Then more overgrown road. In many places trees have taken root right in the road. There are dozens of fallen trees blocking your path. It won’t be long until the whole thing will be too dense to use. After the talus fields the road kinda becomes visible again. Patches of old asphalt appear now and then. The path later becomes wide and recognizable as a road. Many areas do have fallen trees you have to go over, under or around.

Running the Gauntlet

    Soon you come to a trail marker for a 5 mile path up to El Cap, then one for a trail down to Foresta
    I did not know how much water to bring, so I used my 2 holster fanny pack with 1 quart bottles, and strapped on a backpack with another 3 quarts inside. There are streams (Fireplace and Cascade Creek) indicated on the topo maps but I was unsure if they still were running this late in the summer. The Mountain Store in Curry did not know, so I decided to carry 5 quarts. Turns out there were 3 flowing streams between the talus fields and Tamarack Flat. Sigh. 

Old Bridge over Cascade Creek

     Oh, it’s called Tamarack because that was the vogue name for what we now call Lodgepole pines.
     Once up at Tamarack Flat there is a nice campground and outhouse. But no potable water.

    After a short rest, I headed back down. Mostly a mirror image repeat of the UP trip but I came upon a railing that was probably a rest stop for horses.

    It allowed one of the first valley views for the incoming passengers. This might have been the “Oh My! Point” I read about. It was later called Rainbow Point and  did see a rainbow at Bridalveil. Very nice. From there I could make out the Tunnel View parking lot across the valley.

    After that respite, it got pretty hard. Coming west I did not see any cairns as I traversed the rockslides.

    By now it was 2 pm and the rocks were hot. I wore my Atlas full fingered rubberized gloves and they really were a good idea. A long sleeve shirt and long pants reduced the scratches in the woods. But even with them the rocks were hot. I scrambled with 3 points of contact like a spider.

    But where to come out of the rocks? There was no indication of just where the old road might lie. This was unnerving and I slipped twice and got some nice cuts. When I reached the easternmost field I saw that I was way too high but I could see the cleared road down below. Whew. Again in Spiderman mode, I was able to pick my way down. Continuing back from there was easy and I enjoyed the lowering sunlight on the view of El Cap and Half Dome.

   The modern road we use today was opened in 1940 and the old road was setup as a downhill only scenic route to the valley. The massive rockfall in1945 closed it permanently and it is now designated wilderness. No trail maintenance and I was the only one on it all day. More work was done on the new road in the 1960’s including digging the 3 tunnels.
    So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed the photos and now you don’t have to do it!

Unrelated thought worth quoting: “Thoughts come clearly while one walks.” – Thomas Mann

*Mr. Half Dome – Rick Deutsch – www.HikeHalfDome.com

About Mr Half Dome - Rick Deutsch

Mr Half Dome. Has written the only half dome hiking guide, One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome. Has hiked it 31 times to day. Lives in San Jose, CA Available for presentations. Carpe Diem Experience, LLC
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0 Responses to The Old Big Oak Flat Road hike

  1. David Hubbard says:

    To Cris, and all others who may have an interest in the book The Big Oak Flat Road to Yosemite. It is an Awani Press Publication and may be purchased new from us for $18.00 plus shipping.

    Should you have an interest, please contact me at dave@fleetinglimpses.com

  2. Cris says:

    Hi Rick. Can you provide the first names of the authors? My last name is Paden and it’s a pretty unusual name. I’m curious about the author and would like to try and track down a copy of the book, or at least keep my eyes open for it. And thanks for the information on this hike. I was going to hike up from the Valley and camp at Cascade Creek, but given the rocks and trees one has to go up, over and under, it would’ve been a nightmare so I will definitely do something else, haha! Thanks, Cris

  3. mrhalfdome says:

    Maureen,

    Yes, as far as I can deduce, I believe that little bit from 120 to Tamarack was part of the original Road. Tioga Rd did not exist then so it’s hard to be certain. I have a book called The Big Oak Flat Road to Yosemite by Schlichtmann and Paden…1986. It goes into a ton of detail. There are a couple hand drawn maps of the old road. But the scale is too rough to get fidelity. And as far as I can tell, it’s there. BUT they did re-align the road several times. I haven’t had time to read the whole book (on a stack with others to read.)

    I have seen a few pix of coaches going down a 180 degree switchback, that I just did not see on today’s road…Might be under the rockfall, but from El Cap to Tamarack, it is pretty much a straight shot west with NO hairy switchbacks.

    The trail from Tamarack to the El Cap turn off IS MAINTAINED and is part of the old road. It indeed went over the Cascade Creek Bridge…but today’s bridge is not the 1873 bridge. The book said it was replaced. There were a lot of rockfalls and weather washouts over the years. Below that El Cap turnoff is where it slowly becomes rough. It is NOT maintained and is not even on current maps! The Manzanita bushes are growing dead center on the old road and it will soon be gobbled up like Machu Picchu was.

  4. Maureen Lahiff says:

    hi, Rick,

    I’m wondering if the road down to Tamarack Flat Campground from Tioga Road and it’s continuation for about 2.9 miles past the camp as a hiking trail is also part of the Old Big Oak Flat Road.

    I hiked from Tamarack Flat Campground towards the top of El Cap on what is maintained trail on Friday Aug 20.

    The 2.9 mile part of the trail from the campground down past the bridge over Cascade Creek is certainly an old road being taken back by nature, but there aren’t any major obstacles to hikers for that stretch.

    When I took the trail off to the left towards El Cap, I could see the continuation of the road. It did look less traveled and less maintained; now I know why from your description!

    Magnificent forest — red firs, huge sugar pines, and great solitude on the part down from Tamarack Flat Campground.

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