Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Table Mountain (Jamestown, CA)

New Melones Lake and the landscape of California Gold Country
4.5 miles round trip, 550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead; no entrance fee but very limited parking

The great latite cliffs of Table Mountain are one of the most notable landforms in the Sierra Nevada foothills around the California Gold Rush towns of Jamestown and Sonora. While most of this plateau-like prominence is on private land, hikers can access the top of this mesa on a sliver of Bureau of Reclamation land near New Melones Lake. While wildflowers make this hike a big draw during the spring, the unusual geology of the mountain and the controversial history of New Melones Lake can be appreciated and contemplated year-round. The short climb up the mountain is steep and rocky and may required some scrambling, but most of this hike is flat, easy, and enjoyable.

I hiked up Table Mountain on a mid-April Sunday, hoping to see some wildflowers in the area. To reach the trailhead, I followed Highway 108 to Jamestown from the Central Valley. Just past the historic downtown, I turned left onto Rawhide Road and followed it to the north and west for 2 miles, crossing through a gap in Table Mountain. Two miles down Rawhide Road, the road turned sharply to the right; here, I turned left onto Shell Road, a narrow, one-lane paved road that descended through a small gulch and then passed by many private homes. Shell Road ended at a gate, with a limited parking area off to the right side of the road; this marked the trailhead for the hike.

This hike is becoming increasingly popular, but unfortunately the trailhead is unable to handle the growing number of hikers. There is only room for about 12-15 cars at the main trailhead, with room for a handful more cars at the secondary trailhead beyond the gate. There is very little to no room for parking along Shell Road on the approach to the trailhead; the road is very narrow and is bordered on both sides by private property. Unfortunately, many visitors have taken to blocking residents' driveways along Shell Road for parking- this has resulted in numerous complaints from locals. Hopefully either the Bureau of Reclamation or Tuolumne County will look at providing more parking options here in the future, but for the moment this is the unavoidable situation.

If the parking lot at Table Mountain is full when you arrive, leave and do another hike or spend time exploring the nearby Gold Rush towns of Sonora and Jamestown. Don't be a jerk and block someone's driveway. To ensure that you can fit into the small parking area on Shell Road, do one of two things: hike on a weekday, or arrive early if you come on a weekend. I arrived at 7:15 AM on a Sunday and had no trouble parking. When I drove out at 10 AM, the lot was full and there was a parade of cars coming up Shell Road. Plan to arrive at the trailhead before 9 AM on weekends- and if you can't, then make sure you have a backup plan.

A dirt trail headed off to the right side of Shell Road from the trailhead parking area, cutting across grasslands dotted with oaks. From the trailhead, I caught my first glimpse of New Melones Lake, which I would not see again until reaching the top of Table Mountain.

The trail ran parallel to a dirt continuation of Shell Road for the first mile. This first mile of hiking was fairly flat as the trail wandered through grasslands that were dotted with wildflowers in April. Stately oaks and grazing horses added interest to the trail through the grasslands and occasional views of the high latite cliffs ahead gave me a preview of the hike's destination.

Grazing horses along the first half of the trail
Spring wildflowers in the grasslands
Oaks and grasslands
Table Mountain's latite cliffs
One mile from the trailhead, the Table Mountain Trail crossed Shell Road; this is an alternate trailhead for those willing to drive down a rougher dirt stretch of Shell Road. There was a pit toilet at this trailhead. Crossing Shell Road, I began to ascend up an eroded dirt trail that soon left the grasslands for the brush and low forest at the base of Table Mountain. The wide dirt trail ascended for 0.2 miles from Shell Road before making a sudden sharp left turn and entering a surprisingly lush forest at the base of Table Mountain. Here, the wider path turned into a narrow single track that began a steep ascent through the forest up Table Mountain.

Incongruously lush area at the foot of Table Mountain
The ascent was remarkably steep and quite rocky, although it was thankfully quite short: in two-fifths of a mile of hiking from Shell Road, the trail climbed 400 feet to reach the top of Table Mountain. The very final stretch of the ascent was so rocky and steep that it nearly required some rock scrambling, though I still found the footing secure enough here that I did not actually need to use my hands.

Final steep stone trail leading to the plateau
At just under 1.5 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the top of Table Mountain. The top of the mountain was as flat as its name promised and was covered by grassland with just a few scattered trees. Arriving at the top and seeing this scenery was surreal: the golden grasses here seemed more remniscent of the East African savanna than of California's Sierra foothills.

Summit plateau of Table Mountain
A number of trails branched out across the summit plateau. A fence ran across the width of the plateau to the north, but clear use paths navigated through the rock-studded grasslands towards the south and towards the east. I took the social path heading east first, crossing the summit plateau and coming to the eastern edge of Table Mountain. From here, I had a lovely view over Jamestown and the California Gold Country. 

These oak-dotted, grassy foothills captured the imagination of people all over the world shortly after James Marshall discovered gold while building a sawmill for John Sutter, a European-American businessman, in 1848. While the Sutter's Mill discovery was farther north near Sacramento, when prospectors arrived in 1849 from the world over they came as far south as Sonora and Jamestown in search of placer gold and eventually, the Mother Lode- the bedrock rich in this valuable metal.

This ancestral home of the Miwok became a new home for a truly diverse immigrant population during the Gold Rush. The nearby town of Sonora was named after the Mexican mining city where many of its residents had immigrated from. South of Jamestown, the settlement of Chinese Camp was home to some of the earliest Chinese Americans, many of whom immigrated from the restive southern city of Taishan in search of Gold Mountain and a stable livelihood only to encounter a legal system stacked against them and a nascent Anglo-American settler population ready to brand them as the yellow peril.

California Gold Country
Overlooking Jamestown
After enjoying these east-facing views, I returned to the west side of Table Mountain's summit plateau and followed a social path south along the western edge of the latite cliffs. Here, I had views of New Melones Lakes to the west and views across the summit plateau to the east. Remarkably, I could see all the way to the snowcapped Clark Range, one of the alpine ranges of the High Sierra in Yosemite National Park.

Distant Clark Range rising over Table Mountain's grassy plateau
The views of New Melones Lake from Table Mountain were very striking: the reservoir's blue waters filled a valley bound by the oak-covered foothills. I visited during a drought year, so the water levels of the reservoir were low even in spring, when the reservoir typically reaches its peak capacity each year. The lake is formed by New Melones Dam, which holds back the Stanislaus River.

New Melones Lake
New Melones Dam was the last large scale dam project associated with the Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project and no dams of its size have been built in the United States since its completion. The 625-foot tall dam, which was not visible from Table Mountain, holds back the fourth largest reservoir in California. Its associated hydroelectric project has 300 megawatts of generation capacity, enough to power a small city. New Melones Lake- along with the rest of the Central Valley Project- holds water that has turned California's Central Valley into one of the world's most productive agricultural regions. These reservoirs- and the Central Valley farms they water- have also drastically changed California's ecosystem, draining the seasonally flooded wetlands of the Central Valley and decimating the salmon populations of California's major rivers. In the 1970s, environmentalists fought the construction of the new dam to save the Stanislaus River Canyon upstream of the dam, which was beloved by outdoor recreation enthusiasts for its whitewater rafting. The environmental coalition to block the dam lost its battle, but has since succeeded in halting the construction of any similar sized projects in the West.

I followed the cliff-edge trail until it terminated at a protruding block of Table Mountain's walls. From here, I had a great angle to study Table Mountain's commanding latite cliffs, which rose about 300 feet above the forest below. In the distance, I could also see from here out across the Central Valley to the Coast Range, notably spotting the twin summits of Mount Diablo. Now about 2.2 miles from the trailhead, I found this an appropriate turnaround point.

Great latite cliffs of Table Mountain
The latite cliffs of Table Mountain are the result of an ancient lava flow: Table Mountain is actually an inverted valley. The volcanic source of this lava flow is actually quite distant, as the lava flow of Table Mountain is related to the same episodes of volcanism that created the many extrusive igneous formations along the Sonora Pass corridor, including the Columns of the Giants and Dardanelles Cone. All of these volcanic features are a result of eruptions from the Little Walker Caldera about 10 million years ago; the Little Walker Caldera today lies east of Sonora Pass, but lava from its eruptions were able to flow over fifty miles down the canyon of the ancestral Stanislaus River. This lava then hardened into the latite of Table Mountain: as the Sierra Nevada have experienced uplift over the past 3 million years, softer surrounding rock has been eroded and this long river of latite has now become a lengthy, sinewy mesa running through the foothills between the Stanislaus and Tuolumne watersheds.

There is a lot of interesting geological, historical, and political context to this short but scenic hike in the Sierra foothills. If you can get here early enough to beat the crowds and find a legal parking spot, this is a worthy hike; if not, don't torture the people who live on Shell Road and leave this hike for another day.

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