For a hundred years, the road sat unused and pretty much unknown, lost in the mists of time. The road ran from Hermit Valley on Ebbetts Pass (Highway 4) in a northerly direction for about 15 miles through Deer Valley and on to Blue Lakes and Hope Valley on Carson Pass (Highway 88).
With the end of the Second World War and the conclusion of the Korean War, the American people had a booming economy, leisure time and multitudes of war-surplus jeeps. It was probably inevitable that the four-wheel-drive craze was born. Four-wheeling in the ’50s was in its infancy, and there were no rules — and no guidebooks. You just took your jeep out in the woods or desert and drove wherever it struck your fancy.
As a youngster growing up in the ’50s, I remember staying every summer at Hermit Valley. One evening, sitting around the campfire, we were discussing what we might do for the next day and somehow decided to try to find the traces of the old wagon road and see if we could drive our trusty jeep to Deer Valley.
What began as a lark that might take a day or so became an adventure that lasted most of the summer. Finding the remnants of a wagon trail that had been abandoned in the forest for a hundred years was a lot more difficult than it seemed at first. Our starting point was a few old stones in a meadow beside the Mokelumne River that were all that remained of a hotel built to serve the traveling public. Those old foundation stones are still in the meadow in Hermit Valley and are visible from Highway 4.
With a firm starting point, survey stakes and plastic flagging material, we spread out into the forest in a northerly direction. Our most important signs were scrape marks on the rocks made by the wheels of the horse-drawn wagons. While the actual wheels of the wagons were made of sturdy oak, the rims were covered with iron, which scratched and gouged the rocks as they were passed over by a thousand wagons.
Whenever we found such marks, we flagged them with yellow plastic crime-scene tape we got as surplus from the local police department. Sometimes we’d tie a strip of flag material on a handy tree limb or bush, but sometimes we would drive a survey stake into the dirt next to the road. Working our way from flag to flag, we finally marked out the route of the old emigrant road all the way from the hotel foundation in Hermit Valley to an old sawmill site on Deer Creek in Deer Valley.
The most prominent remnant of the sawmill was a cast-iron capstan that sat nestled in a pile of old rotten boards. The capstan sat on a three-legged cast-iron base that had one broken leg that had been repaired with an iron patch riveted on both sides of the break. Those old pioneers were an amazingly inventive lot.
Finally, the big day arrived, when we had the old road completely marked and it was time to attempt to drive a vehicle along the old road from Hermit Valley to Deer Valley. We got the jeep stuck numerous times and would break out the winch, pry bars, jacks and come-alongs, but combined with the labors of a gaggle of adults and kids, we finally made the first modern journey on the old emigrant road.
Countless other four-wheel-drive vehicles have traversed in the intervening 50 years, and the trail is marked by innumerable busted auto parts and oil stains. Now on a typical summer weekend, it isn’t unusual for several dozen four-wheel-drive vehicles to traverse what has become known as the Deer Valley Road. I think if old Snowshoe Thompson saw such a convoy, he’d have to shake his head in wonder.
If you are looking to combine history and family recreation, you might want to consider a family excursion along the Deer Valley Road.
Until next week, tight lines.
• Don Moyer, outdoors columnist for the Tracy Press, has been writing Tight Lines for more than three decades and is the author of “Tight Lines: Observations of an Outdoor Philosopher.” He can be reached at email@example.com.