The Merced River Gorge


El Portal

Monday, 7/20/09 - I woke at 0600 with just one quart of potable water left and another day of high heat ahead. Plan A? Ride back 8 miles to the tap at Briceburg, stopping at the BLM campgrounds along the way to scavenge more water jugs out of the weekend trash.

I crammed all my excess gear into the duffle bag and cached it out of sight, getting en route by 7. The trail's a lot easier with a lightened load, but my scavenging plans were blown - that BLM guy's an early bird, and all the trash cans were clean as a whistle. No jugs for me. Somehow I had to get my tanks' capacity up to deal with the heat.

I hit the tap at Briceburg to fill what jugs I had, and considered my options - 7 miles up Bear Creek to Midpines, or 16 miles upriver to El Portal. I decided to follow the highway along the river, so I could scout the rest of the railroad grade and check out El Portal. That settled, I sailed down off the grade onto the bridge, and damn near wound up in the river.

I forgot it had those 2 tracks, hit it dead center, and had to bunny-hop onto the left-hand track. No coffee this morning - but hair-raising adrenaline works better anyway. I made it to 140 and rode east in the shade of the gorge's south wall, keeping an eye on the grade across the river.

There was no road access when they blasted the railroad grade through the gorge in 1907. Supplies and matériel, including some 2.9 million pounds of black powder and dynamite, came up the grade by mule train as the new railroad was extended toward El Portal. It took a year of drilling, blasting, and grading in winter snow and summer heat to get the rails laid down.

Per the railroad's PR, the objective was Yosemite Valley, already long famous as a kind of American Shangri-La - remote, magical, only to be reached by a hardy fortunate few via arduous journeys over bad roads and trails. The train could make the 78 miles from Merced to El Portal in just 4 hours, hitting 60 mph on some stretches.

The railroad also opened up a vast rugged area to economical logging and mining, which provided much of the road's income, while they lasted.

At Emory, a 2100-foot incline railway led up to a limestone quarry that started in 1925 and shipped rock to a cement plant in Merced. It closed in 1944, costing the YVRR significant freight revenue that had helped to cover the loss of passenger traffic when the highway opened in 1926. A dilapidated bunkhouse is still there.

Despite what I'd been told, the grade looked quite passable as I scouted it from the highway. In fact, at one point traffic is diverted onto the grade via 2 temporary bridges to get around a huge rockslide that buried the "All-Weather Highway".

I suspect my information was designed to avoid heated conflicts with property-owers along the grade. From what I've seen and read, the right-of-way is open to public travel for the entire 28 miles from El Portal to Bagby - aside from proppity-rights fanatics with dogs and shotguns, that is. I'd've tried it myself, but the record heat made it impractical - this time. You try it - let me know how it works out.

I went right by El Portal. It's off a bit north of the highway, and there's no sign to tip the traveler off. It's that kind of place.

I was amazed at the lack of commercial development at one of the main entrances to Yosemite. On the highway a mile east of the hidden town there was a half-stocked, half-assed minimart. A mile further, there's a big resort-hotel with a far better store off the hotel lobby. And that's all, folks.

Luckily, it's enough. I stocked up with all the food and water I could carry, and flew back down the road to check out El Portal. I'd heard they have an old locomotive on display.

Indeed they do - a Shay, from the Hetch-Hetchy Railroad - a logging-company locomotive designed for low-speed hauling over hastily-laid rough tracks - the jeep of the steam locomotive world. These were developed and built over some 65 years, with the last one rolling out of the Lima Locomotive Works in 1946. The 3 vertical pistons turn drive shafts putting power to all 12 wheels, so these can handle the grades, curves, and track irregularities of temporary logging roads that fed the main line.

When an area was logged out, they'd pull the steel and lay it down in fresh timber. The YVRR's regular locomotives could pull as many as 50 cars down the grade to the mill at Merced Falls. By 1942, the logging was done, and the railroad lost another major source of revenue.

The YVRR used several direct-drive road locomotives, most of the 4-4-0 American type - the most common frontier engine for decades after the 1860s. It has a swiveling bogie with "4" leading wheels to keep it on the tracks - "4" big driving wheels fixed to the frame and connected directly to the pistons - and "0" wheels behind the drivers. No. 21 was built in 1881, and was already 25 years old when the YVRR bought it in 1906. It was finally scrapped in 1946, at the ripe old age of 65.

It was scrapped because the YVRR was finished. The highway took its passenger traffic in '26 - logging was done by '42 - the limestone quarry shut down in '44. In 1946 the entire railroad was pulled up and sold for scrap.

Only one engine escaped the knacker at the end of the line - No. 29, a 1922 Baldwin 2-6-0 that continued working the rails in Mexico's Yucatan.

The 1 or 2 humans I saw in El Portal convinced me I was invisible, so I felt free as a ghost, and climbed aboard the Shay's cab. I was amazed to see the controls and manifolds intact - the fireman's on the left, the engineer's on the right.

The YVRR's El Portal terminal tower is still there, too, now occupied by the "Yosemite Association".

The tracks go a few feet past it, and disappear in the dirt - the end of the line.

There's also a stray caboose, and a man-handled turntable - yes, man-handled, for well-muscled railroad hustlers to turn a 45-ton engine around for the trip back to Merced.

This is as close as the railroad ever got to Yosemite Valley. It was close enough to transfer passengers for a relatively easy road stage over the last 15 miles upriver. It was also far enough to serve the logging and mining interests in the area.

Nowadays El Portal is the back office for Yosemite Inc. - for the people behind the curtain who don't need offices and housing in the Valley. Tourists seem as welcome as the clap. There's a post office there - appropriately, with its back to the street.

Welcome or not, I made myself at home under a shady tree opposite the Shay, waiting out the peak heat with a cooler full of cold beverages and a Frisco paper I got at the PO.

I read it was 112° in Fresno yesterday, breaking a record set in 1899. Today's heat was shimmering before my eyes. I had 14 highway miles ahead, and another 8 off-pavement. With the sun high I wouldn't get a lick of shade while riding. Staying hydrated would be a challenge - failing could be lethal.

El Portal's 900 feet above Briceburg. The climb's so gradual I hardly noticed it, but on the way back, gravity helped, and I flew. Beautiful women sunbathing on the north bank of the river waved as I whizzed by in the heat. No mirage!

I stopped often when I saw shade, and drank plenty, but when I stopped at a picnic area restroom I could tell I was losing more fluid than I could replace. My kidneys and gut were definitely conserving as much as they could. But I still felt strong, and I could always cool off in the river if I got heat-sick.

The trail up the South Fork to Hite Cove on national forest land was closed - fire danger too high for the forest service. I'm glad the BLM has a higher tolerance for risk. But fire conditions were getting explosive in that dry heat.

I stopped in at the Briceburg office with some questions, but instead of Tracy I got some rangerette who had nothing for me but her usual tourist spiel. She did tell me it was 117 yesterday, and I got a few minutes of cool air in there.

I filled all my jugs at the tap on the grade and rode on, now with 10 quarts to see me through.

I stopped again at a riverside picnic area to rest and cool off. A dip in the river was like a fresh shot of adrenaline. I soaked my clothes again before I left.

I saw the BLM guy there. He pulled up to chat, and told me it was 114. Heat like that is danger for anyone working hard and living outdoors. Every year it kills hundreds of Mexicans sneaking across the border deserts. Hundreds.

The cool river's a mercy. In fact it was named back in 1806 by a roving Mexican Army lieutenant who found it when his command was near perishing of heat and thirst - Rio de Nuestra Señora de la Merced - Our Lady of Mercy.

On the last few miles into camp on the dirt trail above the river I felt as hot, hard, and tough as an iron locomotive steaming through the gorge. 12 hours - 50 miles - 114° heat - the rods and wheels still driving.

My cache on the North Fork was intact. I ate a sandwich out of my cooler and conked out - just muscle and bone after all.

Round 1