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Discovering the Clavey River

by: Annette M. Hall

Have you ever attempted to imagine what it must have been like for the settlers who rode the dusty trail in covered wagons, on horseback and on foot to start a new life in the west? Not many of us could, in our wildest dreams, imagine the hardship and trials those early pioneers endured in their travels across the wilderness.

Exploring the Clavey River
In Search of God's Bath

The Clavey River is one of the longest undammed rivers in the Sierra Nevada. The Clavey flows from its source in Alpine Lakes in the Emigrant Wilderness (north of Yosemite National Park) for 47-miles to its confluence with the Tuolumne Wild & Scenic River. Boulders from the Clavey River help form the heart pounding Class V rapids on the Tuolumne known as Clavey Falls.

Clavey River Info

Planning a field trip for homeschoolers is normally pretty straight-forward: Find a location of interest, complete a fact-finding mission, advertise the event and off you go. Those steps normally ensure a well attended outting and when homeschoolers gather. More often than not, a good-time is had by all.

My first clue that something was askew should have been the lack of response from "local" homeschoolers. I received several calls in answer to my ad; a homeschool family new to the area, currently residing in Stockton, another family who was interested but had children their parents felt were too young to benefit from the trip and several senior citizens who were concerned about attempting a trip to the Clavey River alone. Of course, it never occured to me that there was a reason for such a lack of response.

In search of God's Bath

After a recent trip to Natural Bridges near Columbia, CA, and hearing about the spectacular beauty of "God's Bath," in reality, nothing would have stopped me from making the trek to the Clavey River. My directions were clear and I assumed our field trip would go off without a hitch. I was no novice at this and had no reason to suspect this trip would be any different. My assumptions couldn't have been further from the truth.

Our group was to meet at the Tuolumne Market under the sign. We arrived about ten minutes early. Though it was a tad nippy out and we feared swimming would be out of the question, it was nice enough outside.

river gorge

The first to arrive were non-homeschoolers, Connie and Will, an easy-going couple who had asked to join us on this excursion. We were glad to have them. Will hopped out of his van and quickly asks, "Is this the Donnor party?" Needless to say, I was a bit surprised, but Shawn, my husband, quipped back just as quickly, "Yep, glad to see you brought lunch."

That discourse would come back to haunt me for hours.

The homeschool family from Stockton arrived a short while later and we were off. We followed the directions I had acquired at a California Swimming Holes website, which has now been converted to a pay-for-use site. Taking Buchanan Road out of town, we were off on our adventure.

Forest Service Road 1N01

river mirror

When we arrived on Forest Service Road 1N01, I was surprised to find a dirt road. A little apprehensive we drove about a mile and stopped to check with the other drivers, as we would be taking this road for another 19 miles. Everyone said they were fine with it, so we continued.

The road twisted and turned up and down the mountain range. When the ruts in the road became large enough to swallow a house, I began to get nervous. Shawn thought it would be calming to me if he pointed out all the cars that had careened over the edge of the cliff and began counting them, outloud.

As dirt turned to clay, then shale rock, sand, limestone, concrete and back, the sky was turning a lovely shade of gray, promising rain. Thoughts of spending the night on the side of the mountain entered our minds. Panic lie just below the surface as I realize our provisions consisted of only cheese, crackers, a couple candy bars, one bottle of water, two sodas and a Gatorade.

A hole in the rock

Having been a Girl Scout for many years, I've always prided myself on being prepared for just about anything. It was more than a little unnerving as we discussed the fact that we would be unable to descend the mountain should it decide to rain. Not only would we be unable to drive out in our Mercury Mystique, but we would have to wait until the pitted roads dried sufficiently.

We were able to maintain a speed of between 5 and 10 mph for the entire length of the 21 mile road, giving us plenty of time to contemplate our fate. The further we drove the smaller the road became, and the view was spectacular.

A small herd of cattle was also enjoying the view from the middle of the very narrow road: we played chicken. To my dismay I discovered that cows do not react well to blowing horns, no matter how gently. I breathed a sigh of relief when we very slowly passed the lot of them without incident.

Looking Back on Mountain History

A pool

Our thoughts turned to those who crossed these magnificient mountains before cars, cell phones and television. While it took us 2-hours and 40-minutes to travel the 21 miles down FS 1N01 to the Clavey, the trip would have taken days on foot and was simply impossible by carriage.

As we drove single file down these winding mountain paths it was important to maintain distance between our vehicles. The dirt we kicked up created terrible visibility. Our cars were covered in dirt and scratched up badly from rubbing against trees, bushes and rocks.

Our little car had bottomed out once on the rocks, the van had hit bottom four-times and all drivers were concerned about the harm we might be inflicting on our vehicles.

The Clavey River

We stopped many times to make sure we had not lost anyone, not that they really had any place to turn around, but we didn't want anyone stranded in such a desolate area. About a mile from our destination, though at the time we did not know that, we stopped to take inventory. After ten minutes the van pulled up and we became concerned because the black volvo had been the vehicle directly behind us prior to this stop. Fear raced through us as we pondered their fate.

However, our fear was put to rest as we were told that the other family decided the road was too rough and had turned back. I felt terrible for them because they had driven over 100 miles by this time and did not reach our intended destination.

We experienced a short-lived relief when we finally reached the bridge crossing the Clavey River. The view was incredible.

Reaching Our Destination

We parked our cars a short distance from the bridge, surprised we could actually pull the cars off the road. The road had been very narrow for much of the trip with no shoulder, let alone a parking space.

The terrain

As we made our way toward the bridge, thankful to finally stretch our legs, we began to scout out our options. According to the directions we had been following, we were to "park and descend on the west side of the bridge, then boulder hop 150 yards upstream to the main hole."

We were all very anxious to see "God's Bath," especially after viewing the incredible photo layout and story on the Clavey. The Summer/Fall issue of Central Sierra Seasons magazine paid tribute to the Clavey River, as the only river left in California which has been left entirely in it's natural state.

In our attempt to locate a trail leading down to the flowing river, we followed the road which had brought us this far and had disappeared into a tiny trickle of a trail, with hardly room for one foot. Side-stepping on this steep cliff was risky at best. After a short test of the trail, we turned back in search of a safer route. Consulting the magazine we had brought along and the map that we had followed, we discovered neither was going to be much help to us.

We finally located our point of descent on the opposite side of the bridge. The trail had a comfortable slope, which would allow our inexperienced hikers to reach the river in relative ease. Boulder-hopping along the river bank we made our way upstream. We were sure we would find our destination around the next curve of the river.

A cove at Clavey River

After criss-crossing the river a couple of times and making our way deeper into the gorge which had seemingly closed in on us, our frustration level grew with each passing step. The threat of rain coupled with the knowledge that our daylight hours the next hour.

As we each tried to soak in as much of our surroundings as possible, it was a bittersweet day. The terrain was beyond belief, with its granite rock, marble slabs and tremendous display of color, the whole world was alive. It was the sort of place you could spend days absorbing into your soul, yet we had only a few short hours to take it all in.

Facing Disappointment

We made our way to a location where you could see the waterfall and supposed it to be God's Bath. We sat down to enjoy our snacks of cheese and crackers, dangle our feet in the crystal clear water while gazing at the miniature trout found plentiful below us. Shawn compared the area to the pictures found in Seasons and everyone agreed this was not where we were supposed to be.

A climb on the rocks

We had made our way as far as we could on foot, with our limited hiking abilities, lack of equipment and swimming being out of the question. My son happily played in the nearby sand, on a tiny strip of beach, I listened while Will explained how the currents had broken down the rocks into first pebbles and then reduced them into particles of sand. I had never really given much thought to where sand came from and found him to be a weath of knowledge on the subject.

Just before 4 pm we decided it was time to start heading back to our vehicles. We made our way, crossing the river several times by way of the boulders. The submerged rocks were extremely slippery, so we would remove our socks and shoes. When we ran out of sufficiently dry ones we tossed them across the water to avoid getting them wet. This method had worked well on our trip out but was made more difficult on our trip back because the rocks in the center of the river were much smaller than those we found on the banks.

A ford in the river

Will had left his boots on, proclaiming them to be "waterproof." He soon discovered that while the boots may have been waterproof, the tops were not, when he slipped on a wet boulder the water poured in over the tops of his boots. To make matters even worse, when attempting to assist wife, Connie, across the slippery terrain they both took a tumble into the chilly water.

The rest of the party made our way safely back to shore without incident. Connie and Will went ahead of us and searched for another path up the rocky slopes to the bridge. While everyone else decided to retrace our steps up the slope, Will had found another route up. We watched him climb the rugged slopes from the bridge above, glad that we had not chosen to follow his lead, as the climb was considerably more strenous than the path we had followed.

A tree next to the river

Our search for God's Bath came up empty but all in all the trip was worth making. As we parted we agreed that we would get together again and search for the illusive bath.

There is nothing like a trip into the mountain wilderness to leave one feeling tiny and insignificant. It was with incredible sadness that we drove away, knowing that it would be a long time before we would brave this particular treacherous road again.

The trip out went much faster than our journey to the river, especially after we made it through the deeply rutted portions of the path. My son was spent and had fallen asleep in the backseat. Shawn, still obsessed with cars which had tumbled over the edge continued to count them as we drove past, much to my dismay.

In reflection I ponder those who braved the elements, wildlife and rugged unmarked paths to settle this great state. If they had known what lay ahead, would they have made the same decision to risk everything? How can we compare our short 20-some-mile, automobile powered, journey to those who dared to put it all on the line and travel thousands of miles into the unknown and unchartered?

The River

We had only a small taste of what it must have been like for early settlers. Yet, the feeling of kinship exists. I admire their strong spirit and grit, the likes of which few of us I fear, will ever know.

In retrospect, I can say I made several mistakes which could have had disasterous ramifications when planning this trip. I should have made more inquiries into the road we were to travel, knowing we live in a mountainous region, I should have at least suspected the area would be remote.

Knowing the type of terrain would have prompted me to ensure we had proper provisions; plenty of food and water, a lantern, blankets and warm clothing.

We had an eventful day, that ended well, but we were lucky. The results could have been much different - in fact, just one day later, it rained for the entire day. I am thankful to God that we avoided disaster by His good graces.

This is one lesson that was learned and will long be remembered.

Reader Responses


I just read your story about trying to find God's Bath from 2009. You have maybe figured this out by now, but you took the wrong road. The road to God's Bath is paved the whole way. Did you ever find it? You took a right turn and crossed the N. Tuolumne too soon. You should have continued another couple miles up the N. Tuolumne until the road crossed the river by itself. It then continues over the ridge into the Clavey drainage. Where the road crosses the Clavey River...that is the bridge you wanted.

You ended up at the lower bridge over the Clavey, which is about 9 miles downstream from where you wanted to be. It's a neat place and well worth the trip.

Noah Hughes

Noah, Sadly, we haven't attempted the trip in the last couple of years. I will certainly take your advice. Thank You.

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