In the 1880’s a mining boom hit the Tioga Pass region of Yosemite National Park. For a brief period, the area was awash in activity. Mines were dug, telegraph lines (the world’s highest) were strung and several towns were built.
The most significant town was Bennettville built at the base of the Sheepherder mine, which was being blasted out to intersect the Great Sierra mine and tap the supposed lodes of silver under Tioga Hill.
The original mining equipment was hauled with great difficulty up Lundy Canyon, over Dore Pass and past present day Saddlebag Lake from the mining town of Lundy. A road was needed to more efficiently transport the supplies and the anticipated ore to market. Built in only one season, the Great Sierra Wagon Road began near Groveland and stretched 56 miles through the west slope of the Sierra, over Tioga Pass to Bennettville.
Investors, however, pulled the plug on the mines just as the road was completed. After a period of disuse, the road was bought by Stephen Mather and deeded to the Park Service. A section of the original road can be hiked to Bennetville.
The trailhead is located a little less than a mile north of the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite in the Inyo National Forest. Unmarked, except for a small piece of mining equipment hidden in the bushes, the small parking area has room for just three or four cars.
Beyond the blocked dirt road, the trail follows the remnants of the Great Sierra Wagon Road through a lodgepole pine forest and a series of meadows. Several minor streams and a set of three tarns are back dropped by incredibly views of Mt. Dana and the Dana plateau. During July and August , wildflowers are continuously encountered. Along with the ubiquitous lupines, monkeyflowers and Indian paintbrush are the spectacular Sierra lilies and crimson columbines.
After an easy, mostly level 1.2 miles the Sheepherder mine is reached. Although drilled 2000 feet into the granitic quartz monzonite of the surrounding peaks, the entrance was blasted into the reddish highly metamorphosed sedimentary and volcanic rock of the original Sierra roof pendant. Several pieces of mining equipment, tracks for the ore carts and the sealed Sheepherder adit (an adit is a horizontal mine shaft; a more efficient way to mine ore than the more common vertical shafts) are visible.
In another quarter of a mile, past talus slopes and a slightly tricky stream crossing, is Bennettville. It consists of two buildings, the assayer’s office and the bunkhouse (or barn), that were historically reconstructed by the Forest Service. Numerous artifacts, including nails and bits of glass bottles and ceramics can be seen, as well as rock building foundations and ditches dug by the miners. Across Miners Creek, old wagon tracks can be seen etched into the meadow.
The town only lasted a couple of years and produced no profits for its investors. But, Bennettville’s greatest contribution to the history of the Sierra Nevada would be the Great Sierra Wagon Road. Eventually it became the Tioga Road; profoundly influencing the history of Yosemite National Park, Tioga Pass and the High Sierra.