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TR: Ansel Adams; Hemlock Crossing; No. Fork SJ; Bench Canyon

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TR: Ansel Adams; Hemlock Crossing; No. Fork SJ; Bench Canyon

Postby Pietro257 » Sun Aug 12, 2012 4:29 pm

Dates: 7/30 - 8/4/2012 (5 nights, 6 days)
Enter: Isberg trailhead, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Exit: Same
Camped: 1st night Hemlock Crossing; 2nd confluence of the North Fork San Joaquin River and Bench Canyon Creek; 3rd Bench Canyon; 4th confluence again; 5th Hemlock Crossing again

The goal of this trip was to get to Bench Canyon without following the Roper Route (Thousand Island Lake, North Glacier Pass, Lake Catherine, Twin Island Lakes, Bench Canyon, a route I’ve taken twice).

Getting to the trail head: From Madera in the Central Valley, take North Fork Rd. 200 to North Fork, CA (1 hour). Then take 4S81/Minarets Rd. past Jack Ass Meadow to Clover Meadow (an additional hour). We stayed in the Clover Meadow campground located behind the Clover Meadow Ranger Station. Getting there was a long but picturesque drive. North Fork has a good grocery store, a gas station, a pizza parlor, and an excellent bar, the Buckhorn Saloon, with taxidermied animals and historical memorabilia.

Day 1: Isberg trailhead to Hemlock Crossing (8.6 miles)

We left at 9:30 and arrived, parched and exhausted, at 4:30. All creeks -- Cora, Chetwood, and those not named or shown on the map -- were dry between the trailhead and Hemlock Crossing, where the trail crosses the North Fork of the San Joaquin River. The trail from Isberg trailhead climbs steeply over a ridge and then rises moderately through meadows until you come to a gorgeous view of the valley of the North Fork San Joaquin. My guidebook describes the last 1.6 miles as a “plunge” into the valley of the San Joaquin. I was skeptical as to whether a trail can plunge, but plunge it did by 1600 feet to the San Joaquin at Hemlock Crossing. That plunge was hard on my knees. It was a grueling first day.

View into No Fork.JPG

Good campsites at Hemlock Crossing can be found downriver from the bridge on the south side of the river. Follow the use trail.

Hemlock Crossing.JPG

This was an exceptionally dry year, but judging from appearances, Cora Creek and Chetwood Creek normally run through the summer. Just before the plunge, at about 7 miles in, there is a good campsite next to the unnamed creek shown on the Cattle Mountain 7.5 map. If you’re not up to hiking all the way to Hemlock Crossing, you can use this campsite (in a normal year when the creeks are running).

A word about the blowdown: In December 2011, the middle Sierras experienced a historic blowdown, the result of a storm with winds of 170+ miles per hour. We saw hundreds of fallen trees ripped from the soil, their roots exposed, their needles still green, and branches shorn from the trees littering the forest floor. In some places, the fallen tress formed what a ranger called a “snarl,” three or four trees fallen in the same place. The Forest Service has done a yeoman’s job of cutting a trail through the fallen trees and snarls. It was eerie to see the wreckage caused by this storm and imagine how violent the storm must have been.


Day 2: Hemlock Crossing to the confluence of the No. Fork San Joaquin and Bench Canyon Creek (3.4 miles)

The trail rises moderately. It leaves the river, goes through Stevenson Meadow, and rejoins the river at the confluence with Bench Canyon Creek. This area is very pretty, with granite rocks and ridges overshadowing the meadows, but the mosquitoes were rife.

Stevenson Meadow.JPG

The North Fork San Joaquin River where it meets Bench Canyon Creek is a cool and refreshing hydraulic wonderland with waterfalls, rapids, pools, river islands, and other aquatic diversions, all shaded by tall trees. Crossing the North Fork here must be difficult in wet or normal years. A use trail leads down to the crossing. The crossing takes you over an island in the river. Up the steep river bank on the far side is a superb flat campsite with a view of the waterpark and its splendors.

At confluence.JPG

One member of our party came down with altitude sickness on the second day. We offloaded much of his stuff and nursed him along the trail to the confluence, where he remained by himself for the next two days. Were we wise to leave him alone? We were, as it turned out, but I worried about him while the rest of us were in Bench Canyon.

Day 3: The confluence to Bench Canyon (2.5 miles)

Bench Canyon is really two canyons, lower and upper, divided by a formidable 700-foot headwall. In 1999, following what I thought was the Roper Route, I mistakenly dropped into lower Bench Canyon and had to climb out of it to the upper canyon. Seeing this headwall from below, it looks like you can’t get over it, but I remembered the route we took in 1999 and took it again.

Route up headwall 4.jpg

From our campsite on the confluence, we picked up a faint cross-country trail along the north side of Bench Canyon Creek that took us far up the canyon. I believe, to get over the headwall, most people who hike cross-country on this route stick to the creek and climb beside the waterfall (a waterfall in normal years), going up the south side of peak 9734 on the Mount Lyell 7.5 map. A better route is to go north of peak 9734. You can see chaparral and other greenery growing on the north side of the headwall. We followed this green path to the top without having to scramble or suffer too much. It took only 2.5 hours to get to upper Bench Canyon.

Route up headwall.JPG

Route up headwall 2.JPG

Bench Canyon is a marvel with its green meadows, bonsai trees, pools for swimming and fishing, and granite cliffs. You feel like you’re on the roof of the earth. When we were there, the full moon rose through a bank of storm clouds to the east, and the entire canyon was bathed momentarily in pink moonlight.

Bench Canyon.JPG

Moonrise over Bench.JPG

Day 4: Bench Canyon to the confluence (2.5 miles)

We returned to the confluence by the same route we came, except at one spot on the headwall we opted to scoot down some loose talus rather than brave a wet stretch of steep greenery. Yours truly spent much of the steep downhill portion dropping his pack ahead of himself and crabbing on his arse. The youngsters I was with (six of them, ages 20, 20, 20, 23, 25, and 32; I’m 54) had admirable sturdy knees and the rock-hopping confidence of the mountain goat, but I had visions of nursing a twisted ankle 15 miles back to the car, and was cautious. The trip to the confluence took only 2 hours including a stop for lunch.

Our original plan was to spend two days in Bench Canyon, but we left a day early to check on our buddy at the confluence. He was okay, and by the next morning was cracking jokes and singing, his altitude sickness having been cured by two restful days in the high country.

Day 5: The confluence to Hemlock Crossing (3.4 miles)

Back on the trail, we covered this distance quickly. I didn’t see anywhere to camp in Stevenson Meadow, but I wouldn’t mind camping there in late season without all the mosquitos.

It rained lightly for a half hour in the late afternoon. I don’t know any smell better than the smell of a pine forest after a summer rain. Interestingly, this rain, light as it was, breathed life into some of the dry creeks. Hiking out the next day, a couple of little creeks that were dry on the way in were running ever so slightly on the way out.

Day 5: Hemlock Crossing to Isberg trialhead (8.6 miles)

Everybody was worried about climbing the initial 1600 feet out of the canyon formed by the North Fork of the San Joaquin River. We had “plunged” into this canyon five days earlier. But fitter, with lighter packs, we climbed the plunge without much difficulty and sped the 8.6 miles to the Isberg trailhead in only 4.5 hours.

My overall impressions of this trip:

This is an easier way to get to Bench Canyon than the Roper Route (I’m too old to take the nightmare talus portion of the Roper Route from Thousand Island Lake to Twin Island Lakes).

I remain and always will remain a fan of the eastern Sierra, where you can get into the high country quickly and the views are better. The long drive to Isberg trailhead on the west side, and the long drive out, was hard going.

The North Fork of the San Joaquin River is a mighty river with waterfalls and dramatic twists and turns. I was glad to make its acquaintance.

That the United States Forest Service can find the money and personnel to clear the trails of fallen trees, all for the benefit of a dwindling number of backcountry hikers, is a miracle. We only saw six other parties in our six days in the wilderness. How much longer can the Forest Service justify maintaining the trails when so few people use them?

A big “thank you” to the people on this forum who helped me plan what turned out to be a fantastic trip: Electra (looked for your sunglasses, but sorry, didn’t find them), maverick, oldranger, TehipiteTom, and fourputt. (viewtopic.php?f=1&t=7422&start=0)
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Re: TR: Ansel Adams; Hemlock Crossing; No. Fork SJ; Bench Canyon

Postby ManOfTooManySports » Sun Aug 12, 2012 9:00 pm


Thanks for the TR. It's inspiring!
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Re: TR: Ansel Adams; Hemlock Crossing; No. Fork SJ; Bench Canyon

Postby balzaccom » Mon Aug 13, 2012 5:36 am

Great report--thanks!

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Re: TR: Ansel Adams; Hemlock Crossing; No. Fork SJ; Bench Canyon

Postby maverick » Mon Aug 13, 2012 1:52 pm

Thanks Pietro for taking the time and getting back to us with this wonderful
trip report and pictures. In your waterfall photo the water levels are quite
low but Stevenson is still pretty green. You did not mention anything about the
wildflowers in Bench Canyon which can be truly outstanding, but being as dry as it
is this year its what one would expect. :(
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I don't give out specific route information, my belief is that it takes away from the whole adventure spirit of a trip, if you need every inch planned out, you'll have to get that from someone else.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member:
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Re: TR: Ansel Adams; Hemlock Crossing; No. Fork SJ; Bench Canyon

Postby TehipiteTom » Mon Aug 13, 2012 1:56 pm

Excellent trip report & photos. Thanks for posting!
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