Saturday, January 17, 2015

The TWO?!? Harris Tunnels?!?, Red Reef Trail

First off, I want to say that I'm so friggin' happy to be back on my feet that I want to do a little happy dance. But Homie don't dance, so instead I did 20 miles. Ha! Take that influenza virus!
Like most men I'm an absolute child about being sick. I hate it. Every sniffling minute of it is one big pity party.  But that's behind me now and to celebrate I bring you all an interesting riddle, one discovered quite by accident, as fortune would have it.

Apparently there are two (!) Harris Tunnels!
I did not know this.

Before I get to the Tunnel stuff I have to mention a few things about the day. Basically, the morning was glorious. Not surprisingly the Piedra Blanca/Sespe trailhead was packed with vehicles. I pulled into the last available slot and left the lot at 0700. Within a mile I was feeling perfect, just humming along. The sun was coming up, cresting the ridges downstream. Little birds were fluttering about, chirping. The morning air was brisk enough to require a little extra insulation. A quiet rushing noise rose from the creek on my right. A gentle sunrise breeze rose. The morning crystal clear. Things were as good as could be.  

I trucked right through the early miles, looking forward to reaching the junction at Bear Creek, where the Sespe Trail stars getting really scenic. Along the way I noticed numerous tents camped in the many unsanctioned sites sprinkled along the length of the creek. Here and there a thin streamer of smoke would curl out of the cottonwoods as I silently passed early risers. Clearly there were many, many people camping along the river this morning.

Eventually I reached the stretch of trail that crosses back to the north bank and starts a repetitive cycle of gently looping climbs and dips that circle around low shoulders of the hills above. Atop each little rise was a fresh view of the dramatic landscape ahead. It's easy for me to forget how pretty this stretch of country can be, how colorful the geology, how brightly the early sun beams off the serpentine curves of the Sespe. Eventually I reached the junction for the Red Reef Trail. I crossed the Sespe heading south and started up the tight little canyon which that trail ascends.

About a mile up the trail the canyon narrows dramatically, framed on either side by steep bands of red sandstone. The trail runs next to a small stream and sunlight dapples through the oak trees and occasional spruce. The canyon gets even tighter and around a twist in the trail one approaches what everyone knows as the Harris Tunnel.

This unusual feature was necessitated by the geology of the canyon. Over time the little creek had eroded a notch for itself in a huge, upthrust strata of sandstone. For the creek this was a completely sufficient solution but getting horses through the rocky creek would be a non-starter. The answer to this problem came in the form of drill holes bored in the rock on the east side of the problematic creek, these holes being packed with a judicious amount of dynamite or blasting powder. The result is a brief tunnel about 8ft high and 8ft wide. A rider would have to dismount and lead the horse through but otherwise the problem had been solved.  

This project was completed in 1907 by TJ Harris and RJ Harris. Says so on the wall of the tunnel, chiseled in their own hand. Another fun fact, there is an old site in Middle Sespe called the Harris Ranch, clearly the two are related. And that should be it right? Not so fast...

The south facing view of Harris Tunnel.
Harris Tunnel, looking north.

I stopped for a late breakfast at an open spot on the creek, got bored, and started doing what I'm programmed to do, which is to start poking my head in holes and scrambling over rocks and busting through brush and generally being a boy. An hour later I was a couple hundred feet up the east slope of the canyon wall when I spied what really looked to me like an old trail. Hmm. I dropped down a little bit and yeah, this wasn't some animal track. This was a real trail. Or, as I found out, remnants of a real trail. I picked up the path and started following it north toward the Sespe. It was overgrown and perilously washed out in places but a few minutes later I rounded a turn and twenty feet away was another tunnel. A big, round tunnel through red sandstone. I was a bit surprised to say the least. From this distance I could even see the marks left by the rock drilling for blasting. I wandered over to this feature and had a look see.

The first thing I did was walk through the tunnel and out the other side. I followed the forgotten trail a bit until it became impassable before returning to my find. First, this tunnel was actually two arches of rock. I concluded that the center of the roof had caved in at some point and made a natural skylight. Again I noted the bore holes. Unlike the Tunnel everyone agrees is "Harris Tunnel", this one didn't have any names chiseled into it, though I did find this one to be the more architecturally and esthetically pleasing to the eye. Pretty dang cool if you ask me.

Here's what I'd like to know: does anybody out there know the story behind this second tunnel? It's just a guess but I'm pretty sure this tunnel precedes the one on the Red Reef.

The "other" Harris Tunnel.

After that I couldn't think of anything else to do here so I went back down to the Sespe. It was so pretty in the creek there that I was reluctant to just cross and get back on the highway-like Sespe Trail. Besides, I could hear people on it from a quarter mile away. Sounded like it was crawling with tourists. I decided to stay in the creek for a while and avoid the masses. The day was warm by now and I stopped to splash my face and take in the sights. I'm glad I did because I was most of the way back to Bear Creek by the time the creek forced me back up to the main trail and into a mass of trudging troglodytes, slouched over with ill adjusted packs, yammering about how being in the great outdoors is so stress relieving. Blechh!

I'm not exaggerating when I say that on my way out I passed at least seventy (70!) people on the trail! I'm not exaggerating because I was counting heads and gave up at seventy! By my estimate there were probably close to two hundred people strung out along that trail and planning on an overnight stay. Probably a hundred people fighting over dipping a toe in the single pot of scummy, sulphury water at Willet Hot Spring. Ahh well, I'm sounding curmudgeonly. Must be my age or something. Pretty good to be back at it though. Take care. See you out there. And don't get that virus that's making the rounds, it's bad for your health.


  1. Well thats a bit of a powerful return.

  2. Nice find DS. A review of some of the old topos suggests that the trail was re-routed sometime after 1943. The 1943 topo shows the trail following the streambed until approximately the 2nd drainage from the east just beyond point 4211 at which point it begins to climb in a south-westerly direction. Modern topos show the trail crossing the stream near the junction with the 1st drainage from the east and then climbing the west side of the canyon to the 3400 ft. contour before tracking south. The 1903 topo on the USGS website isn't detailed enough to show the trail. That really doesn't solve the mystery about the second tunnel, but it does suggest that the trail wasn't always exactly where it is today for whatever that's worth.

    Anyhoo, nice to see you back in the saddle.


    1. Rico, thanks for looking at the old carto. I've got a line on a fellow who knows guy who might know the answer to this riddle. I'll update if I hear anything. -DS

  3. Did a bit of my own joy-riding in Sespe country this weekend; pulled into the PB parking lot @ 0645 hours & had to fight for a parking spot, busier than Wal-Mart on Black Friday........... 100+ easy, had a vantage point up on ridge and could see a steady stream of people meandering up/down the trail.

    With a day as glorious as that, can't say I blame a single one of them!!

    Thanks for sharing another adventure.

  4. Got a chance to talk to retired Ranger Boggs about the Red Reef trail tunnel conundrum. As you can see in the picture I sent you, the tunnel you found was on the main trail in 1983. Here is the story from Boggs. In the 1970s the Red Reef trail was re-routed (actually out of Red Reef Canyon) onto the south facing slope and, in fact, two new tunnels were built by a contractor from somewhere in northern California. In the later 1980s (sometime after that picture I took in 1983) the trail was routed back through the "real" Harris tunnel along the more or less original route by Boggs, McTigue, some Thacher folks and a few others.

    1. Excellent! Thanks for the back story sir! -DS

  5. David: the trail you found was a reroute of the original Red Reef. the work was done after the 1969 floods. I was on a pack trip with my family. we rode through the original route, down to Willetts and saw the trail builders working up the east side of the ridge, using a very high maintenance system of shoring. out of curiosity, I traveled both routes to see how they lasted. as I suspected the original was greatly superior to the reroute. My last ride over the reroute was very dangerous with the trail collapsing, sliding under the under the shoring. luckily we had trail wise animals.

    1. The eastern side/upper reroute appears to have been a workable solution... in theory. The geology sure didn't work out though.

  6. I biked up Sisar, down Red Reef in a drizzle that became rain early spring 1992 (prior to the June wilderness designation) then didn't return until a long day hike with my daughters and son-in-law in 2010 via the Sespe. It didn't really resonate with me untill your post here and your find of the forgotten yet later constructed tunnel with a chunk missing from the ceiling. Thats the tunnel I remember coming down Red Reef in '92. I also had the pleasure of working with John Boggs and Mickey McTigue in the early '90's on several occassions, as well as riding with Mickey as he was updating his guide book. I enjoy your work David, thanks!