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Convict Flat: Latitude : 36.819 Longitude : -118.833 OK Elevation : 3000
Horseshoe Bend: Latitude : -118.8349 Longitude : -118.8340 Elevation : 3000
It’s hard to say to what degree Kings Canyon rivals the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley, but as the deepest Canyon in North America, it has its own unique combination of towering peaks and granite walls carved by ancient glaciers, reminding onlookers of the ever-present power of water. What I do know, is that people before me craved access to this breathtaking, rugged land – much like me and hopefully like you – which brings me to curiosity. Just how was that road carved into a mountain of rock?
As I started to ponder this incredible endeavor, it led me to what is now named Convict Flat. “Weird name,” I thought, “now what’s behind that title?” We, the explorekingscanyon.com team headed towards Convict Flat, driving the 180 Scenic Highway and found Convict Flat Campground nineteen miles past Grant Grove Village heading to Cedar Grove the valley within Kings Canyon National Park. We decided to have a little picnic at the campground. There we found three very large secluded campsites with ample shade and a view of the ragged, rugged, jagged rock formations surrounding you in this nested area with the canyon just around the bend.
The day we picnicked, the lupines were in full bloom. I also noticed a berry patch, I don’t know if it was native to the area or a leftover planting from decades before.
So who exactly was here before? According to the Forest Service US for service signage at Convict Flat Campground the road was built from 1929 to 1939 largely by prisoners as well as some locals and the Civilian Conservation Corps crews or CCC that was formed in 1932 to put men to work after Great Depression. It was noted that the prisoners did most of the blasting of the steep terrain, a very difficult
and risky endeavor. Some of the dynamite blasts were considered record-breaking for their time! The labor force was headed by the US Forest Service, surveyed and designed by John S. Eastwood. Leo Huebner, a renowned stone-mason taught the labor force to build the age-old rock walls and foundations which cradle the road along steep ledges to this very day. They were known as the Folsom 400, convict labor who lived at what is now named Convict Flat. During the time of this infamous labor, (1929-1939) it was simply coined Camp 27.
The rock-work has been well-maintained over the years. My Dad, Ralph Wass, was responsible for the maintenance of the rock walls and highway areas in the National Park through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. I’m proud to say he was a master at rock masonry and that he was
dedicated to the canyon roads and trails keeping them in great shape for all to enjoy. Dad taught blasting school for the National Park Service in the early 1970’s and I was privileged to be able to witness an actual blast of a mountain as a child. I think that is why I am awestruck to see the results of the record holding blast that shaped part of the 180 Highway, by mostly the efforts the Folsom 400.
As you venture down the winding rock ledge this highway was etched into, you will see Horseshoe Bend right after Convict Flat before heading deeper into the Canyon. This name is apt in describing the horseshoe shape that defines this particular curve of road. As I was researching this astonishing road work, I had the pleasure of talking with a dear friend, Jacobus Adrian Scholten or ”Dutch,” as we all know him, who is a local area expert. Dutch shared a legend about this stretch of highway. Herb Wilson a long-time resident of the area, passed down to him a story about the blasting of the mountain at Horseshoe Bend. As he recalls, the blasting uncovered a hidden cavern in the rock walls. A cavern so large that a semi-truck could drive into in. As the story goes, officials deemed this cave to be too close to the road, so a second blast was performed, permanently walling off the cavern opening. Legend still remains, that if you stand in a certain place you can feel the cool cavern air escaping between the rocks near the steepest part of the road near Horseshoe Bend.
So please enjoy this Scenic Highway for the natural raw beauty of its surroundings. If you get a chance, I encourage you to appreciate the craftsmanship it took for men to create this road -carved into ancient rocks- speeding up time and paralleling the work of the Kings River in shaping the canyon walls. Perhaps take a moment to admire the ones that came before, to blast and form the path you stand on, and you just might be as amazed as I.
Thanks for reading,
Staff Writer, ExploreKingsCanyon.com
Tanya Wass, Local Enthusiast
Born in Yosemite, and raised by parents who worked in both the National Park and Forest Service, Tanya led a childhood steeped in adventure. After growing up in Grand Canyon NP, she finished out her child and teens years in Grant Grove, nested in our very own Kings Canyon NP. She now resides in the Sierra Foothills just off of the 180 corridor in Squaw Valley, CA. To this day, she enjoys exploring the National Parks with her children and grandchildren, and sharing her passion for the outdoors, and love for Kings Canyon, with all who know her.