In 1857 and 1858, an emigrant road connected what is now the Ebbets Pass road with Carson Pass. Pioneers coming to California used it for 2 years until the new Ebbets Pass was opened and then the abandoned road began to be reclaimed by the forest from which it was carved. The famous mountain man, John “Snowshoe” Thompson used the route to carry mail over the Sierras in winter when all the roads were closed by snow. 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 a multitude of war-surplus jeeps. It was probably inevitable that the 4-wheel-drive craze was born. Four-wheeling in the ’50s was in its infancy. 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 youngsters growing up in the ’50s, we would stay every summer at Hermit Valley. One evening sitting around the campfire, we were discussing what we might do for the next day and decided to try to find 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 pile of old stones in a meadow beside the Mokelumne River that was 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 began to 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 of the wheels were covered with iron, which scratched and gouged the rocks as they passed by.
Whenever we found such marks, we flagged them with yellow plastic crime scene tape we got surplus from the local police department. Sometimes we’d tie a strip of flag material on a handy tree limb or bush. Other times 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 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. It 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. We had the old road completely marked, and it was time to attempt to drive a vehicle along the old emigrant 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, and with the combined labors of a gaggle of adults and kids finally made the first modern journey on the old emigrant road. Countless other 4-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 4-wheel-drive vehicles to traverse what has now 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.