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Recap - Priest Grade / Groveland / Columbia SHP Run - 19 Mar. 2023

Meetup in Oakdale
(click to enlarge)


Your Host for this Event:
Mary Wolgamot

Our March Run Host, Mary, worked for months to plan and pre-run her first NorCal MINI run route, and the seemingly endless string of "atmospheric river" storms we endured this wet season did not make it easy on her. The original plan discussed last year before the biblical precipitation was even forecast included a climb and descent of one of the top 2 steepest grades in the country, Old Priest Grade Road, and a visit to scenic mountain river gem, the "Graffiti Bridge." 

These plans were not meant to happen in 2023 though. First, rock slides and washouts closed the access to the "Graffiti Bridge" from both sides of the Tuolumne River. This forced Mary to rework her run route to head up to the Columbia State Historical Park as a destination instead of the plan to visit the graffiti. 

Then, as the snow and rain continued, authorities closed down Old Priest Grade Road until after the weather warmed up and dried out. Fortunately, the New Priest Grade Road parallels Old Priest Grade Road using a longer, more gradual route, but adding in many more fun twists and turns. Mary rerouted our run up to Groveland and back on New Priest Grade Road. This route treated us with views across the gorge to see Old Priest Grade Road, leading a few of us to put a trip up the steeper road on our bucket list of future MINI rides. 

On top of all her pre-running and rerouting, Mary put together some great background history on many of the sites we passed on this route.

Run Host Mary Wolgamot


Run Recap:

Eleven MINIs and their occupants met up in front of the former K-Mart store in Oakdale. True to form for this soggy wet season, the day was wet, misty, and drizzly. The spirits and enthusiasm of the participants gathering under the store entrance for shelter were far from dampened. Smiles and friendly conversation ensured we all stayed warm and happy as we waited for everyone to arrive. 

Pre-run Chatting in Action


President Pat Lewis kicked off our drivers' briefing, and VP Rick Sanchez gave us all an update on planning underway to celebrate our club's 20th anniversary later this year. Nikki and Simon Tildesley talked a bit about their Hike for Hope Hospice this May before Mary talked us through the day's run route. Despite having to bypass Graffiti Bridge and Old Priest Grade Road, Mary laid out a very entertaining tour through historic Gold Country roads.  

Pre-run lineup


Being a smaller group than many of our runs allowed us to travel as a single group. We headed east on Hwy. 120 out of Oakdale past orchards, farms, and ranches entering the winding roads past Knight's Ferry. Great rafting adventures down the Stanislaus River launch there on warmer days. As we continued east, we passed an area used to film some of the old West scenes in the second "Back to the Future" movie. I doubt any of us would trade our beloved MINIs for that time-traveling DeLorean though. 

We also passed near a prison that has experienced a few premature prisoner discharges, prompting roadside signs warning drivers not to stop for hitchhikers. We didn't see any modern-day Black Barts on our run, but it was a fun discussion on the club radios as we enjoyed the lush, green hillsides along both sides of the road. We passed some lumber mills along the way, and Mary explained the sprinklers spraying water over the wood chip piles, even on a rainy day such as this, are intended to reduce the chance of fires ignited by spontaneous combustion as the wood dust decomposed.

As the road curved around Chinese Camp, Mary told us stories of how this once-thriving mining community of over 10,000 mostly Chinese residents gave California the site of its first Tong Wars. The population of Chinese Camp is a fraction of its peak population, and the stagecoaches no longer run through the town, but the original US Post Office built in the 1850s is still standing and serving local residents.

A couple miles further along on 120, we pulled over for a wet photo opportunity at a vista point overlooking Don Pedro Reservoir. We lined all the MINIs up, our photographer braved the mud and falling rain, lined up the shot, and then we had to wait as we waved another tourist to move his Prius out of the way of our portrait. Can't blame the poor car for wanting to hang out with the cooler rides, can we? 

Don Pedro Reservoir Vista Point


We shook the rain off our jackets, wiped the mud from our shoes, and headed back onto 120 toward the rising hills leading up to the Priest Grade. As we traveled higher, the rolling grass-covered hills gave way to tree-covered foothills and we continued past the closed entry to Old Priest Grade Road. Climbing the fun turns and sweeping vistas of New Priest Grade Road, we could see across the valley to the steeper pavement of Old Priest Grade Road looking lonely without any cars traveling up or down. 

Not far from the top of Priest Grade, we entered and passed through the towns of Big Oak Flat and then Groveland, stopping at our halfway rest point in Mary Laveroni Community Park. We stretched our legs, used the restrooms, and gave Clive a chance to plug his MINI SE into the charger for a few minutes. At the rest stop, the group enjoyed some crisp mountain air, spotted a lonely remaining patch of snow under some trees, and were tempted by the delicious Girl Scout cookies Mary was selling from the boot of her MINI, Bo. The word is that our club has visited Groveland in the past, patronizing the longest continually operating saloon in California there. We didn't pause for any visits to the saloon this time, as we needed to head back down New Priest Grade. 

Rest stop at Mary Laveroni Park
(Click to enlarge -  by Mary Wolgamot)


After the rest stop, we lined back up on the road back through Groveland and Big Oak Flat, enjoying the downhill views on New Priest Grade Road. We may not have been able to climb and descend the second steepest grade in the continental USA, but New Priest Grade Road's curves, hairpins, and views were worthy of being driven in our MINIs. Back at the bottom of the grade, we crossed over Don Pedro Reservoir and headed north through Jamestown to our destination at the Columbia State Historical Park. 

Parked at Columbia SHP


At the water-logged historical park, we said our goodbyes to those who needed to head home, but a few of us walked into the old West history preserved by the State of California to enjoy a hot lunch and see the sights. If you haven't visited Columbia SHP, you should. It is a family-friendly chance to learn about California's gold rush history in a hands-on experience. 

Main street of Columbia SHP


"Thanks to everyone who braved the weather!"

Mary Wolgamot


For more photos of our run, check out Duane's album on our Facebook page or the full-resolution images in his Google Photos album.