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Monday, April 7, 2008

Auburn State Recreation Area: Foresthill Divide Loop Trail

I wasn't really committed to hiking on this particular day, until after I had breakfast with two photographer friends. I chose a vintage diner for us to eat at and had a traditional "Hearty Breakfast"--and they weren't kidding about the hearty part. Two sausage links, two slices of bacon, two eggs, and two biscuits drowned in an ocean of gravy. After that meal, I figured I needed to hike 10 miles, or start shopping for clothes in a larger size.

20080406 Hearty Breakfast #4
Hearty Breakfast #4

So I took off for a conveniently close hike--35 miles to the West Trailhead from my apartment. The close proximity of this trail to civilization is a major convenience, but it's also one of the liabilities of it, as should become clear in my description.

Just outside of the old gold rush town of Auburn, the Auburn State Recreation Area includes the scenic canyons of the North Fork American River and Middle Fork American River, and the confluence of those two rivers. It's at the start of the foothills for the Sierra Nevada, so there are hikes with some climbing to do, but it is still at a low elevation. That means you can hike there in winter, but in summer it is generally hot, dry, and dusty. Early spring is about the best time to go, before it is too warm, and while the wildflowers are in bloom.

Seeing as how it was a nice day in early spring, a lot of people chose to get out on the trails the same day I did. The designated parking spots at the trailhead were all full, and there were a number of us who squeezed our vehicles into unmarked areas off the road.

From the West Trailhead, it is actually a .5 mile hike to the loop trail, which is 8.2 miles long. So starting and ending from there makes it a 9.2-mile hike. This short spur parallels Foresthill Road, and is not out of sight or earshot from it, although a lovely meadow dotted with gnarled oak trees separates the two.

The directions from the park's website said to take a right at the fork signed for Drivers Flat, but there is another fork before that. I took the lesser traveled right fork just to see where it led. It took me a short distance to a gate for Mammoth Bar OHV road, which appeared to head down steeply and roughly to Middle Fork American River. Getting back on the loop, I soon hit the Drivers Flat sign, and headed right.

It's a multi-use trail, and all along it were mountain bikers and the occasional steaming piece of evidence that horses had been there (although I didn't see any equestrians). Cyclists coming the other direction are supposed to yield to hikers, and 3 actually did. Cyclists going the same directions as hikers are supposed to warn them, let them know which side they will be passing on, and let them know how many more cyclists are right behind them. Many did this, but more did not. I spent much of the hike along, or just off of, the edge of the trail, listening for the sounds of bicycles behind me.

At one point I spotted this unusual bug, subsequently identified for me as a Jerusalem cricket, aka potato bug. I think one of its legs was damaged. It kept falling over, and then walking in circles after righting itself.


At 1 mile from the trailhead I hit an unsigned spur trail mentioned in the trail description from the park's website. The spur, which out and back adds .8 miles to the length of the hike, leads out to a point with better views of the Middle Fork American River Canyon. The area was also, on this day, covered with large areas of densely packed wildflowers. There were many tall, dark, and handsome butterflies at work there, making hot, sticky love to wanton flowers, lasciviously painted in showy colors.


Back on the main trail, I passed through chaparral composed largely of manzanita. At some point I was supposed to have a great view to my right, but I didn't see it. I think it may have been at the top of a climb where there were a number of cyclists off the edge of the trail resting. I didn't look around there, but kept on hiking. After coming down from that high point, I saw four wild turkeys a ways off the trail--I thought about going over there, to see how close I could get, but there was a man near there resting under a tree and watching the turkeys. I didn't want to spoil his show by frightening them off.

At three miles in I crossed a bridge, used as a reference point in the trail description. But after that things got more confusing. The trail reached a dirt road, where a sign used to indicate which way to go, but was just lying on the ground. However, the bicycle tracks made it pretty clear which way to go. I passed by small concrete slab with an old rusting hunk of metal on it.

Then eventually I came to an old, crumbling, paved road. I took it to be Drivers Flat Road, mentioned in the trail description. The directions said to continue along the trail across this road, or turn left on it. Either way was to take me to Foresthill Road, where I would cross to a parking lot for the East Trailhead. While I was studying my map and directions, a woman on a bicycle who had lost her brakes rode up and asked for help. When I shared my information with her, she headed left on the road, and not seeing trail ahead, I followed her.

We came up to a major road in use--which initially I took to be Foresthill Road. But I could find no parking lot or trailhead. I thought maybe this was Drivers Flat Road, and the old abandoned road had not been mentioned in the trail description. I started heading down it looking for it to intersect Foresthill Road. But quite a ways down I had not come to an intersection, a parking lot, or a trailhead. Instead I saw a sign for Upper Lake Clementine Road, which confused me, as on my map that indicated I was much close to my starting point that I expected to be.

Not at all sure where I was and if I was headed in a direction that would get me back to my car, I returned to the abandoned road, adding at least another mile to my hike. On the way back I could see that to the right of where I had reached the road there was trail leading off of it again, so I took this.

Eventually, I came out at a parking lot and a sign for Ruck-a-Chucky Campground. Nothing here seem to fit the trail description, but as I figured it out later, Drivers Flat Road leads from Foresthill Road down to this parking area. The old road, now blocked off by a gate, then heads back to where I had come from until it hits Foresthill Road, just below and embankment. Although the trail description says you can head across Drivers Flat Road, or just take a left and follow it, this is inaccurate. You should go straight ahead if you want to follow the road--turning left takes you the opposite direction of the East Trailhead. And the continuation of the trail is on the other side of the parking area, next to some green trash containers.

Back on trail again, I was disappointed to find that the trail just led a little ways off from the road and parking lot, and then doubled back on the road. This is typical of the whole loop--you start to leave the road and road noise, but never get too far away, and you keep returning to it.

At the end of this part of the trail, I scampered across Foresthill Road during a break in traffic, and started from the East Trailhead, passing a picnic table near the parking area.

This portion of the trail runs along the upper edge of the North Fork American River Canyon. I've hiked many of the trails along the wild and scenic North Fork American River farther up in the mountains, and enjoyed its isolation and beauty--well protected by steep canyon walls that make it a challenge to access. But on this trail I only caught glimpses of it a couple of times through the trees from far above.


I encountered fewer bicyclists on this portion of the hike, so I spent more time taking photos of wildflowers--not having to worry as much about getting out of the way. The trail description said this portion was largely unshaded, but I didn't find that to be the case. When it was shaded, and the sun was behind the clouds, and I wasn't climbing, it was a little chilly.


At one point I reached an area where I could see Foresthill Road again, and I recognized the portion as the one I had been walking along while lost earlier. Had I known, I could have just gone 50 yards across the meadow and joined with the trail on the return portion of the loop, but then I would have missed out on quite a bit of hiking, and wouldn't have fully worked off my biscuits and gravy.

Shortly after that, 2.5 miles from the East Trailhead, according the the description, the trail crosses Upper Lake Clementine Road. It took me longer to reach there than I was expecting, so I thought I still had quite a bit of hiking ahead of me, but this turned out not to be the case. Pretty soon I was back at a meadow next to Foresthill Road again. The trail leads up to the road, then I had to cross it and get on a short trail that leads back to the signed junction for Drivers Flat and the short spur back to the parking lot, which was visible a ways down the road.

All added up, I hiked at least 11 miles, and didn't eat anything between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. that day, so hopefully I took care of breakfast.


SwampDippers said...

Thanks so much for your blog. I often use it as an idea generator for things to do over the weekend. We live in Marin, so it is usually when you head west, but we are looking to head to the Auburn area more this year.

Anyway, I just wanted you to know your posts are appreciated.

Dori said...

Hi Tom,
I think that photography must run in the family. You take some amazing shots. Hope you are well and I look forward to a trip to Cali one day with Ollie and Tim.
Take Care,