Looking back through my colorful years of hiking near Northern California’s Mono Hot Springs there is one site that keeps challenging my skills each time I attempt to find its location. Difficulty is a combination of directions, trail conditions and terrain. The small settlement that is known today as China Camp was created during the late 1800’s. Knox Blasingame was one of the first ranchers grazing cattle in the Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges.
Following in his father’s footsteps was his son Knox Bllasingame Jr., who was referred to as Knoxie. The original cabin the Blasingames built was small and over time it became inadequate for their family’s growing needs. In 1960 they built the larger cabin that served as living quarters and the smaller as a barn and bunk house.
Around 1962 the grazing rights changed hands to Lester Bissett. Then a few years later to Tom Cunningham whose son John Cunningham, today operates the pack station located west of Edison Lake. The rights were sold one final time to Henry Bonna. His son, Tom Bonna still carries on the century-old tradition of grazing cattle in these mountains.
One summer during a trip to San Francisco the Blasingame Family returned with a Chinese house boy whom they called Chinaman Charlie Lee. Through the years Charlie would be the first to open the cabin in the spring making ready for the cattle drive. Two of his obligations were to begin planting the vegetable garden for the ranch hands and planting hay to feed the livestock.
To bring water to the garden and livestock, Charlie hand-dug an irrigation ditch from upstream on Warm Creek. This small ditch is still operational today flowing around the perimeter of the cabin.
A wooden corral was constructed around the structures to protect the livestock and garden. Attempts were made to stay year round, but the long cold isolated mountain winters proved to be difficult at 7,000 feet. The deep winter snow and freezing temperatures made living conditions within these mountains almost impossible. The nearest neighbor at that time was over 30 miles away at Huntington Lake.
Charlie eventually married and had a son named Sam Lee. His family also joined him on those seasonal trips into the wilderness. When Charlie died the name China Camp was part of his legacy in respect to his timeless energy maintaining this remote Northern California High Sierra location.
On the morning of July 6, 2009, at six am, I decided to spend the day and retrace the trail that had always given me a problem to locate this historical camp. I departed from Mono Hot Springs and followed the well marked wilderness trail past Tule Lake toward Mono Creek.
At Mosquito Crossing, luck favored me again because the fallen pine tree that extended across this creek survived another spring run-off. For your personal information, I crossed this weather beaten sentinel in 1980 on my first hike through this area.
Two hours of elevation gain following a trail that over time has been altered by fallen trees and overgrown vegetation. Those multiple game trails created by domestic cattle feeding on the high country grasses became a problem.
If you attempt this hike a couple hours north from Mono Hot Springs and become confused with the choices of trails, follow each separately and if you see a downed tree with a section removed allowing passage, this will be the main trail.
Once I arrived at Warm Creek, I crossed to the opposite side. At this point follow upstream until reaching a fence and pole gate. Proceed down to the meadow and follow its western border. Just before reaching the northern tree line, you will see the first images of the cabin.
My last visit to the camp was in 2002. During the last seven years time and weather has shone extensive deterioration to these structures. The shingles have been blown off the roof exposing the interior to the elements. A huge towering pine tree fell just five feet from destroying the main structure. It looks like over time nature will win this battle of we ignore these historic structures and do not attempt to maintain them.
On the inside of the main door was the date 1960 sharing the designs of the rancher’s personal brands? Water was still flowing from the hand dug ditch. Even the corral fences are still standing and looks like the cattlemen still board their horses during the spring and fall cattle drives.
There is an optional trail leading to Edison Lake and the local Cunningham packing station. At this location one could book reservations and ride a horse into the remote areas of the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
On my return along the trail a local quail preformed the broken wing trick to lead me away from her baby chicks she had hidden in the nearby thicket. I only saw a few deer but many tracks were along the trail. No predator tracks or sightings; maybe the 90-degree temperatures persuaded the local inhabitants to remain protected within the shade.
My adventure today from Northern California’s Mono Hot Springs took just over seven hours to complete. If you depart from Edison Lake, less hiking time will be required following the Warm Creek Trail.
Upon returning to China Camp in 2013, to my disappointment those rumors of an ancient pine tree destroying one of the cabins is true. The newest log cabin built in 1960 is now displaying a seventy foot pine tree resting the full length of its structure.
We were not alone; escaping around the wooden rail fencing was a full grown auburn colored bear showing us his backside disappearing into the forest. The cabin damage was severer, but the sides are still stable and with a little labor it can be repaired. Are we again to lose another bit of history associated with the Sierra Mountains near Northern California’s Mono Hot Springs?