A mild spring rain was falling on an early Saturday morning in March as a group of 20 intrepid souls gathered at a meeting spot on the eastern edge of the Alexander Valley, anticipating a guided hike into one of the North County’s great wild places.
Most of the assembled hikers had signed up for the event as soon as it was announced and a little rain was hardly going to dissuade them from the opportunity to visit a remote outpost where miners once sought their fortunes in quicksilver mines and visitors came from around the world for a wild stagecoach ride to the Geysers.
The destination was the Modini Mayacamas Preserves, private 3,000-acre nature preserves that spread across the rugged mountains east of Healdsburg. Only the Mayacamas Mountains Sanctuary is open to visitors, and then only by permit. Entry to the Modini Ingalls Ecological Preserve is restricted; it is designated for preservation and scientific research. The preserves are managed by the Audubon Canyon Ranch (ACR), a conservation organization in Marin and Sonoma counties. The outing was organized by LandPaths, a Sonoma County non-profit that hosts public outings to open spaces that have been protected by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District.
One of ACR’s goals for the Mayacamas Mountain Sanctuary property is restoration of the natural habitat, which has been altered by human activities for the past 140 years and will take many years to rebound.
These preserves are at the core of 12,000 acres of contiguous habitat in the Mayacamas Mountains that are protected under conservation easements with the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. They feature biologically diverse habitats, including oak woodlands, pine forests, grasslands, chaparral, riparian forests, natural springs, wild streams and serpentine outcrops that support several rare plants. The area is home to deer, black bears, bobcats, badgers, mountain lions, coyotes, nesting golden eagles, the Northwestern Pond Turtle, and Foothill Yellow-legged Frog, as well as many birds. The peaks, ridges, ravines and valleys are part of three watersheds, which all drain to the Russian River.
As the carpools of hikers snaked their way up the narrow and twisting curves of Pine Flat Road, it was easy to imagine the sense of adventure – if not outright terror – passengers must have felt 140 years earlier as they careened through these same canyons in a stagecoach driven by the legendary Clark Foss. The road is narrow and in the beginning the drive is bounded by a steep canyon to the north, where Sausal Creek flows far below.
“Of all the great and daring stage drivers of that day, none was more daring or so famous as Healdsburg’s own Clark Foss, who almost single-handedly put the stage route to the California Geysers on the world’s map,” according to “Hannah Clayborn’s History of Healdsburg” (available on the Healdsburg Museum website). In her history, Clayborn cites an account from the Boston Journal, as reprinted in the Russian River Flag, on Sept. 23, 1869:
“Glancing carefully at his load, and taking a swift but sure look at his tackling to see that all is secure, [Foss] cracks his whip, shouts to the horses and away we go down the steep mountain side. Trees fly past like the wind; bushes dash angrily against the wheels; the passengers hold on as if for dear life; the ladies shut their eyes and grasp the arm of some male passenger; and speed down the declivity with lightning rapidity, the horses on a live jump, and General Foss whip in hand, cracking it about their heads to urge them on. The effect at first is anything but pleasant. At every lurch of the coach one feels an instinctive dread of being tossed high in the air and landed far below in a gorge, or, perchance, spitted upon the top of a sharp pine. If a horse should stumble or misstep, or the tackle snap, away we should all go down the precipice.”
The legend of Foss stands out in the historical record of Pine Flat, a mining town that sprang up quickly in the throes of the quicksilver rush of the 1870s and disappeared almost as quickly when the price of mercury fell and the mines shut down. At one time the town was inhabited by several thousand people, and supported lumber mills, mercury mines, saloons, brothels and a schoolhouse. It was a stopping point on stagecoach lines that went to the Geysers resort, Healdsburg and Calistoga.
As you rise out of Sausal Canyon, the landscape opens to spectacular vistas, panoramic views of Mount Saint Helena, Alexander Valley and the coast range. An occasional ranch is seen, but by and large this is a desolate place, with thousands of acres of open space stretching in every direction. By and large it is inhabited by non-humans. After driving about eight miles, you arrive at Pine Flat.
Our group gathered at Schoolhouse Flat (site of the old Pine Flat schoolhouse) to begin the hike. A small parking area, marked by a small sign and a crooked row of small boulders, is all that remains of the school site. The rain had subsided, but a grey cloud cover hovered over the treetops.
ACR Naturalist David Self gave a brief history of the preserve properties and how they came under the ownership of Audubon Canyon Ranch. The 1,750-acre Modini property was bequeathed to ACR by Jim and Shirley Modini, ranchers and conservationists who spent their lives caring for the property. The Mayacamas Mountains Sanctuary was acquired from the National Audubon Society. A portion of the sanctuary was formerly the McCord Ranch, which was owned by the late Florence and Charles McCord, who bequeathed the land to the Healdsburg School District. Proceeds of the land’s sale are now used to fund scholarships for college students in the medical or musical fields.
The landscape of Pine Flat is an intriguing mix of grassland, oak woodland, stands of mixed conifer and charred trees amid rolling hills and rock outcroppings. The serpentine soils lend themselves to certain plants and trees, such as Manzanita and rare wildflowers, such as the St. Helena fawn lily. Huge power lines dissect the preserve, bringing electric power from The Geysers steamfields to the valley. The rain, fog and clouds contribute to a powerful quiet.
In his book, “Pine Flat, A Quicksilver Boomtown,” Robert Evans writes that 500 people lived in Pine Flat and another 1,500 claimed title to a series of mercury mines in the Pine Flat Mining District: “They made regular use of the stores and saloons and whorehouses of Pine Flat Village, and contemporary accounts portrayed a wild and noisy environment. The usual mix of whiskey, women and cards killed a few men, but the unusual hazards of mining and processing mercury killed many more.”
Residents were either miners or entrepreneurs, Evans wrote, and racial equality was still decades away. “White men earned five dollars per week in the mines,” he said. “Mexicans three to four dollars per week, and Chinese employees were lucky to receive two dollars for their week of 12-hour days. Not many of the Pine Flat folks got rich in the mercury business, and only a few made a decent living selling goods and services.” The Native American Wappos were displaced soon after the miners arrived, Evans notes.
The demand for lumber and firewood during the town’s heyday in the 1870s denuded the area of trees. Wood was needed to construct mineshaft timbers, and large amounts of firewood were needed for smelting quicksilver, in addition to cooking and heating. Decades of livestock grazing nearly destroyed native grasses. Non-native plants have taken hold and threaten natives. In 2004, a wildfire burned more than 12,000 acres, leaving stands of charred tree trunks dotting the hillsides.
But for all the destructive human activity and natural disasters Pine Flat has endured, nature has a resiliency that is evident on the slopes of the mountains. A decade after the Geysers fire there are hillsides crowded with young madrone trees. Another hillside is thick with young knob cone pines, a result of the forest fire’s intense heat forcing open the trees’ cones and spreading seeds on the forest floor. Overgrazed meadows are showing signs of returning to their natural state.
As we ascend along an access road, a hillside is dotted with areas of native bunch grasses that are slowly coming back. “This landscape historically has been altered,” said Self. “Nature is pretty resilient. That’s what plants do … they come back.”
The hike itself is a guided tour of the fauna and flora of Pine Flat. Self is a knowledgeable and entertaining guide with a passion for the world of nature; he can talk at length about wildflowers and their history and the nocturnal habits of wildlife or wax nostalgic about the exploits of Clark Foss (he founded the village of Fossville in the southeastern end of Knights Valley, where he built a small hotel).
Self’s passion extends to restoring the natural landscape of Pine Flat, if only one small step at a time. “Native grasses have been grazed out and we’re starting a native restoration project this spring,” he said. “We’re looking for volunteers, folks who are interested in pulling invasive plants, folks who know about butterflies, wildlife, birds, seeds and native inhabitants.” While there is not a formal schedule, the restoration efforts will be ongoing. In the face of climate change, we need to not only protect the native plants, but make sure they have a robust environment in which to thrive.”
Local wildlife, once rendered scarce by hungry miners and hunters, has also rebounded. There have been sightings of mountain lions, eagles, and bears in the preserves, but the extent of wildlife sightings on this day were a rabbit scurrying across the road and a newt that was moving somewhat less quickly.
On this hike, Self has a rapt group of students. There are frequent stops as he points out a wildflower or when a member of the group discovers a mushroom growing in a tree trunk. The list of flower sightings is extensive: shooting star, butter cup, checker lily, trout lily, biscuit root, baby blue eyes, louse wort and goldfield, among others. There is a sighting of the rare St. Helena fawn lily, which is on the California Native Plant Society’s rare and endangered plants list and is found only in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties. Among the non-natives, likely imported by miners, are Himalayan blackberry thriving alongside Little Sulphur Creek. One of the unique qualities of the Pine Flat area is the opportunity to see natural and man-made history side by side. As Self pointed out, “Here we have historic rangeland on one side of the road, and the possible remnants of berry-eating miners on the other.”
The apex of the walk is atop a hill at an elevation of approximately 2,600 feet. Power lines straddle the hillside, but they don’t seem an impediment to the wild character of the place. To the east is the crest of the craggy Mayacamas, with Lake County just over the next ridge. Far below and to the west is the fertile floor of the Alexander Valley, barely visible though a break in the clouds. To the north and the south, miles and miles of wild terrain. The vistas afford one a sense of the immensity of this wilderness. It is a place that inspires a sense of solitude – not the sort that makes you feel alone – but provides a sense that one is part of something much larger, and worth protecting from the further ravages of human folly.
Visitors were impressed with the day’s outing. “This is a gorgeous spot up here,” said Tom Crotty of Healdsburg. “I like the idea of trying to restore the native grasses and native plants. We like to go hiking and this is a great place.”
Kate Wilson, a Santa Rosa resident, said, “Just to be able to have access to this place, that is what really attracted me to this. I think it’s just a beautiful natural area that we are privileged to have access to.”
A requirement for access to the Mayacamas Mountains Sanctuary is to attend an orientation, which Self conducts after a guided hike. The purpose for the hike and orientation is to educate and inform the public and help protect the sanctuary. “We bring you up here to keep an eye on the place,” said Self. “It’s kind of like a neighborhood watch.”
Story by Barry Dugan
Photo by Nevin Mahoney
Audubon Canyon Ranch and the Mayacamas Mountains Sanctuary: egret.org
Friends of the Modini Mayacamas Preserves: meetup.com/Friends-of-the-Modini-Mayacamas/
For timely information about upcoming hikes, access and other activities at the Mayacamas Preserves, join the Meetup or e-mail preserve naturalist email@example.com and ask to be added to the monthly e-mail list. There are no facilities, restrooms, restaurants or drinking water, so come prepared, and remember that the property is also steep and wild.