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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tahoe National Forest: Bearcroft Trail

North Fork American River from Elund on Vimeo.

Having just made a trip to my grandmother's, I didn't want to put many miles on my car for my next hike, and I wanted it to be relatively quick, so I could get home with plenty of time to get ready for work the next day. But I still wanted a good workout. Consequently, I proposed to my friend Erik that we hike Bearcroft Trail to the North Fork American River, describing it as a "short, butt-kicking hike."

Only after I picked him and we were headed out on the freeway did I define what I meant by that. From the trailhead to the junction with American River Trail, it's just 2.25 miles of descent. But the total descent is 3240 feet, for an average grade of 28%. I've been hiking progressively more difficult trails down to the American River. I started with Stevens Trail, 4.5 miles long with 1200 feet of descent, then it was Euchre Bar Trail, 1.8 miles long with 2000 feet of descent, then Mumford Bar Trail, 3.25 miles long with 2640 feet of descent.

We exited I-80 in Auburn at the Forest Hill Road exit, and proceeded on Forest Hill Road, crossing the river we were going to visit later on a high bridge, from which there are probably lovely views, if you have a car not so low to the ground as my Chevy Metro. The road passes through the small, old town of Forest Hill before entering Tahoe National Forest, at some point becoming Forest Hill Divide Road. There's nothing but trees and the occasional trailhead along either side of the road, with occasional glimpses through the trees of the deep canyons on either side of the ridge.

We pulled off at the signed turn-off for Bearcroft Trail, where there was a sign with an image of a car and the words "NOT ADVISED." But I think that is just if you drive past the small parking area that we reached immediately and farther along the road. Certainly we had no problem.

The descent does not begin immediately. We hiked along a rough road a short distance to a sign that said "BEARCROFT TRAIL" and pointed left. There appeared to be a trail right next to it, and another farther left. We took the one farther left, which had some other sort of sign on it.

We made a slight ascent to the top of the canyon's edge, then came to a gully where we had our next dilemma. The trail appeared to head across it, but then it wasn't clear trail on the other side. I was marching across it when Erik spotted a cairn down the gully. So we headed that way and found the trail. Other than the fact that pine needles and fallen leaves covered much of the trail, we had no problem following the trail after that.

Soon we began the descent, which was, as expected, steep. I've climbed many steep sections of trail, but never one so continuously steep. Most steep portions of trail I have been on have been rocky, like an irregular stairway. This one was just a vicious slope, like the world's most dangerous wheelchair ramp. We exchanged several jokes about the difficulty of the task ahead of us.

The trail is in heavy forest, with only occasional glimpses of the wall on the other side of the canyon, which to my inexperienced eyes, seemed to be composed of volcanic rock. That would explain how the river cut such a deep canyon through the area, and why it was so heavily forested, as opposed to the far more resistant granitic terrain of the Desolation Wilderness or Yosemite National Park.

About half way down, we reached a small open, rocky area with dramatic views of the canyon. Soon after we reached an area with water trickling down, filled with ferns and littered with the yellow leaves of deciduous trees. Meanwhile, I was working up quite a sweat. I've never sweat like that hiking downhill in the shade before.

Eventually we got to the point that we could see water flowing below, and shortly after that a bridge. We took the water to be the North Fork American River, and the bridge to be one crossing it. We were suprised that such a substantial bridge was built in such a remote and difficult-to-access location.

Then we reached a sign, indicating that we had reached the American River Trail. Following my hiking book's advice, we headed to the left, down past a nice camping area to the river. Down at the river, we found a dramatic sight, where the river was slowly carving it's way through granite, leaving rounded granite walls rising up on both sides of the river, and a couple of small waterfalls. Upstream from that, the river was broad, wide, and shallow, with an island of rocks in the middle, and many rocks protuding above the water's surface, but it all narrowed down to a chute with about a 10-foot drop at this resistant granite outcropping. On the other side of the canyon, a dark, porous volcanic wall loomed high above us. I would have like to have taken a photo that capture it all, but I would have needed a fish-eye lens for that.

I stopped on that granite to eat. When Erik joined me I mentioned that I hoped the plant right next to me was not poison oak. There's a lot of poison oak along the American River, and I got rashes twice last winter hiking in the area. But I don't know how to identify it. It comes in many different looks, and from the descriptions I have read, most plants look like poison oak to me.

Erik was very interested in the rock formations downstream, and crawled out on a precipitous point to see more of them. I was interested in a tiny waterfall in front of me, and the larger roaring one partially out of sight above it. Because it was out of sight, I started my working my way upstream to try to find a place to rock hop to the island, and then see if I couldn't rock hop to the other side of the river to get a better view of it.

I found a lot of places where it was very close to being safe to go across, but none I felt truly comfortable with. I started back as Erik was heading my way, and explained my purpose. He started helping me, and we soon found a reasonable candidate for a crossing. To make it easier, I found a good stick for support.

The Big Climb from tspauld on Vimeo.

Erik started across first, as I shot a movie of him. But he stopped at a difficult point, and I stopped shooting. To add to the difficulty of this crossing, our knees were a bit shaky from that relentless descent. He eventually made it across, and threw the stick back to me, although it didn't quite make it. I crawled out on some rocks to retrieve it, and started my way across. The only difficult part was where Erik had paused, where I had to stand on one slippery rock, use the stick in fast flowing water for support, and step over to another rock.

Once on the island, I started upstream along the other side of it, finding much the same situation: plenty of places where it seemed possible to cross, but it would be more of a challenge than I cared for. Finally, at the beginning of the island I saw that the river was really broad and shallow, and I could walk across without ever going ever stepping in water more than an inch deep, and my hiking boots have a waterproof Gore-Tex liner, so I crossed that way. Erik followed me, crossing in leather boots that were not waterproof, but only getting his feet slightly wet.

Once on the other side, it was not simple. We had to work our way back downstream through the brush and across rocky terrain. Walking through the brush I remarked to myself that I was sure to get poison oak now.

Eventually we go back to the dramatic chute where the wide, lazy, and meandering river is forced into a narrow, rushing, and violent flow. I set up to take shots of the waterfall, but the conditions were difficult. It was all in shade, while the rock right next to it, and in the view of the camera, was in direct sunlight.

Erik wanted to work his way down to the water's edge. I told him to go ahead, but I wasn't going to, because we had so much work ahead of us to get back. He decided to skip it too. I suggested that rather than rock hop, we go up to where that bridge was and cross there. Erik wanted to cross closer to where we were at, but I said that we had already checked this area from the other side, and it wasn't going to look any better from this side.

But starting upstream, I too had the urge to try and cross where we were at. It was so temptingly close to being crossable. I found a good spot, and threw in a large rock to make it easier to cross, although neither of us ended up using that rock. Erik went first, using the stick we had used before, and another one I found for extra support. I followed him and found it surprisingly easy to cross over to the island.

Then we went back to the same spot where we had crossed to the island the first time. I went first this time. Rather than stepping onto that slippery rock, I decided to just jump up onto the large boulder beyond it. Although I had both sticks, I didn't end up using either one. I threw them back to Erik, and he crossed, using both sticks, and taking my hand as he stepped on that slippery rock. Neither of us shot any video on this crossing.

We went up back to the trail, hiked to the junction, and then went a bit farther to that bridge. I got to it first, and shouted back to Erik, although he didn't hear what I said. As he came up on it, I repeated it: "It's a good thing we crossed where we did, because this bridge doesn't cross the river." It spanned a dry river bed where a seasonal creek must be a raging torrent in the spring, but where there was not a drop of water that day. Had we followed my initial impulse, we would have had to hike all the way upstream, and then return downstream to cross where we ended up crossing anyhow.

We headed back to the junction and began that 3240-foot ascent. At first, I did a great job of pacing myself. But eventually I started to push myself. I was doing fine on the average grade, but every once in a while I hit a much steeper portion, at the end of which I would have to pause and catch my breath and wait for my heart to stop racing and return to a more normal pulse.

At the wet area with ferns, I saw a banana slug crossing the trail. I got down on the ground to take a photo, but by the time I got set up, the slug was going behind a leaf. When I removed the leaf, the slug went into defensive mode, and pulled its eyes and antennae in. I waited for them to cautiously come back out again.

On and on, the slow climb continued. At the clearing I estimate is about half way up, I stopped to sit and look at the view and watch the patterns of shadows of the clouds on the canyon wall on the opposite side of the river, and wait for Erik to catch up.

Returning to the trail, I stopped at the top of one of the steepest stretches to shoot a video of Erik coming up it. He huffed and puffed appropriately, but with my camera pointing down, you can't tell in the video how steep this portion was. It looks like he is laboring over slight incline, but believe me, this was one of the toughest portions of a difficult trail.

The Big Climb from tspauld on Vimeo.

With that out of the way, it was just a matter of plodding on, eagerly awaiting the signs that we were getting close to where we started.

I don't know about Erik, but I was intensely sore for a few days, and could still feel it after 6 days, making it my most intense climb to date. I can't wait to top it.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

No snakes?

My fear is snakes going that deep in the woods.

But, it sounds great.