Day 23 – River camp in the land of the Yokuts
It was overcast and cool as we headed out of Salinas. We got a late start (what’s new?) and since we rarely rush, we decided to stop at Caswell Memorial State Park for the night after a grueling 2-hour, 130 mile drive. We passed grove after grove of nut trees and it took us a while to figure out they were walnut trees.
By the time we arrived in the park, the sun had broken through. We could hear the rush of the nearby Stanislaus River and once we set up camp, we decided to explore a bit. This 258-acre riverside park is ‘considered one of California’s finest examples of a mature oak riparian forest.’ The local native people, now known as the Northern Valley Yokuts, lived and thrived along this river for millenia until the Spanish colonists began establishing missions nearly wiping out the Yokut population with disease, war and the harsh life imposed by the missionaries.
We figured the name ‘Stanislaus River’ must have originated from a Polish heritage, however it is named after a chieftain, Estanislao, who led an uprising against the Mexican army in 1829. He was defeated, but considered a hero. Both the river and the county retain his name. A rancher by the name of Thomas Caswell bought the land along the river in 1915 and in 1950 his family donated the acreage to the state, hence the park’s name.
We particularly liked the network of trails that wind through the park and along the river with names like Gray Fox Trail, Crow’s Loop, River Bend and Rabbit’s Run. Dense willows grow along the river’s edge. Cottonwoods, sycamores and walnuts dot the forest, but the prominent and dominant tree was the majestic valley oak, the largest species of oak in the USA, which formed a shady canopy above portions of the trails as well as our campsite. Great horned owls are residents of the park and we listened for them at night, but didn’t hear any hoots.
Day 24 – Angel’s Camp Frogs and Giant Trees
We continued east through several little old mining towns, some of which we’d visited on our 2012 American Odyssey trip. Angel’s Camp was one of our favorites and we stopped there once again. Known as the inspiration for Mark Twain’s ‘Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ story, we found that we’d missed the annual frog jumping contest by a week. Darn!
Dubbed as Frogtown USA, frogs definitely are king here. There are interesting frog statues scattered throughout town akin to Chicago’s cows, Chesapeake’s herons and Norfolk’s mermaids. Even the street signs display little frogs.
Bronze plaques are embedded in the main street sidewalks with each year’s winners and jumping distance world records. It seems frogs jump further nowadays than they did back in 1928.
And, of course, several tributes to Mark Twain are apparent including a great mural and a statue in the Utica park.
We’d tried to make reservations for the Memorial Day weekend at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, but it was all booked up, so we settled for two nights prior to the weekend in hopes we could, perhaps, extend if anything became available. California state parks are rather pricey at $35/night plus the required on-line reservation fee. The price jumped another $5 for the holiday weekend.
We arrived in late afternoon, but the long early summer days provided plenty of time for a hike on the North Grove Trail. There are 158 giant Sequoias located in this grove. It was Augustus T. Dowd, a bear hunter, who originally ‘discovered’ the big trees back in 1852. Once word got out about his colossal find, it didn’t take long for opportunists to take over. By 1853, the first tree he had seen, the ‘Discovery Tree’, ‘was stripped of its bark and felled by ambitious speculators.’ Since no saw was large enough for the job, it took five men 22 days to drill auger holes in the trunk and after several days, the tree finally succumbed and fell. The bark was reassembled into the original form of the tree for a traveling exhibit, but was destroyed by fire the following year. It was over 25 feet in diameter at the base, 280 feet tall and estimated to be 1,244 years old.
The stump was planed smooth and served as a dance floor. A two-lane bowling alley and bar were built on the fallen trunk. ‘Big Stump’ and the Discovery Tree’s decaying trunk remain, a reminder of man’s greed and irreverence of Nature. The thought of destroying this magnificent tree saddened our hearts
Much more exploring and hiking among these giants in our next blog. Stay tuned!