There are days, hot and oppressive, when you just want to chuck it all job, family, all those terribly important obligations and drag your sorry life-of-quiet-desperation self to the beach.
Oh, that's right: We're Sacramentans, hopelessly landlocked in California's salad bowl. We don't have a freakin' beach. Sorry. You know, the heat can make a guy cranky. What we have, instead, is Granite Beach at Folsom Lake a straight shot east on Douglas Boulevard off Interstate 80.
It will have to do.
On one sweltering early July morning, a considerable chunk of greater Sacramento apparently had the same idea, judging by the backup of cars and RVs and boats at the Granite Bay gate to the Folsom State Recreation Area. But we tried to stay in our "happy space" while looking for a parking space, gazing at the shoreline already dotted with families sprawled on the sand.
What we needed at this point was a way to, in the words of the late, great writer David Foster Wallace, "get away from getting away from it all." That meant lacing up the shoes, deflating the beach ball and striding west from the Granite Beach lot, away from the shore.
The Western States Pioneer Express Trail beckons like some Thoreauvian ideal for hikers, trail runners and equestrians seeking solace from the teeming mass of Coppertone-slathered humanity.
Starting at the Beals Point in the south and meandering 25 miles through the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area before hooking up with Auburn's many pathways, the trail makes you suspend disbelief that you are minutes away from suburbia. As Henry David himself would intone, "It is the balm of philosophers; it tempers the thoughts."
True, but it also strengthens the quads and taxes the cardiovascular system, lets you commune with wildlife ranging from the cute (western pond turtles) to the contemptible (rattlesnakes), breathe in the sage and the cottonwood buds, and curse the invasive yellow star thistle that pricks your shins.
Choose your distance
This is a popular trail, so it's not a complete fortress of solitude. But compared to the navigating the crowds at the lakeshore, stopping every once in a while to let an equestrian or a hiking group go by is a small enough price to pay.
And you certainly don't need to traverse great distances on the trail. There are enough staging areas and side trails that you can have an enjoyable experience trekking only a few miles. Those seeking more of a challenge trail runners, this means you can take on vast lengths of what is the heart of the annual American River 50-mile endurance run.
Best of all, the lake is there to greet you for a refreshing dip after your hours in the dust. Few things are more comical than the look on sunbathers' faces when you strip off a sweaty shirt, use it to dab your bloody shoulder and forehead, extricate yourself from mud-encrusted shoes and plunge into Folsom Lake's opaque depths.
One trail among many
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. About the trek itself
We started at the Granite Bay staging area and rambled 10 miles north (one way) to the Rattlesnake Bar staging area. We did it simply to provide a broader scope of what the trail offers. But you can pick and choose your shorter entry points. For instance: Granite Bay to the Los Lagos Trail (1.5 miles, one way); Sterling Pointe staging area to Rattlesnake Bar (4 miles, one way); or Rattlesnake to Avery Pond (1.2 miles, one way).
Covering the 10-mile stretch affords a taste of every terrain and riparian habitat while offering just enough of a vertical challenge to stave off repetitive boredom.
The first problem for trekkers at Granite Bay is finding the actual Pioneer Express Trail. There are many multi-use trails in the area that are popular with mountain bikers, so you know you are on the wrong trail if you see lots of tire tracks. (Mountain bikes are not allowed on the Pioneer Express trail, much to the displeasure of bikers. But that's another story.)
So the easiest way to find the horse trail is to walk back up the parking lot from where you drove in, across the main park road and beyond a scrub-brush strewn metal gate. Make a right when you reach a sandy, duff trail, and you're on your way.
Don't worry about getting lost. Soon, you'll stumble upon the first of many brown directional signs (at Granite Bay, it's Mile 37) that assure you're headed in the right direction. If you still are concerned, at forks in the trail keep an eye out for signs showing a mountain bike with a red slash through it. That means you're still on the path.
The first two miles, from Granite Bay headed toward Beeks Bight, may be the most pedestrian (in a negative connotation) of the whole trek. The trail is soft, sandy and mostly flat, parallel to a road in parts.
But shortly after passing the horse corral, the trail turns technical. No less an authority than trail running guru Tim Twietmeyer (five-time Western States 100 Mile Run champion) calls the next four miles into Sterling Point the most challenging part of the American River 50 OK, other than the three-mile death-march climb at the race's tail end.
This stretch certainly will slow you and occasionally make you scramble like a crab up jutting boulders. But that's the fun. And, when you reach the top of the undulations, you're greeted with gorgeous views of the lake that'll give you a good reason to pause and catch your breath.
Several hazards will be in your path, thanks mostly to the severe winter and the subsequent high lake levels, so be mindful. The biggest, literally, is a downed tree that completely blocks the path about a mile south of Sterling Pointe. We're not sure how horses made it around (or, rather, over) the obstruction, but we felt like a tightrope climber wobbling across until it was safe to jump.
Water hazards ahead
The struggle is worth it because the next section takes you within spitting distance of the lake. The sound of waves lapping the shore along with your footfalls on the soft dirt is to be treasured.
A cautionary note, though: Keep at least one eye on the trail at all times. On our return trip, we were distracted by hip-hop music blaring from a speedboat out on the lake and ran smack into a tree branch jutting into the path. Dazed and bloodied on forehead and shoulder, but unbowed, we resolved to be more vigilant and less zoned out.
From Sterling Point (Mile 42.5) to Rattlesnake Bar, the trail flattens considerably. This is the section where, if you're running, you can crank up the pace or, if you're hiking, stop and look for blackberries.
Two water hazards remain, thanks to the lake running extremely high this summer. The first comes at Long Bar, just downhill from Horseshoe Bar. A flooded ravine makes trekking difficult, but someone was kind enough to splay a log across the bog so that you can perform a balance beam gymnastics routine and make it through.
A brief detour is necessary on the other washed-out part of the trail. It comes immediately after the Rattlesnake Bar staging area, less than half a mile before our turnaround point. Just make a left on a dirt road, then a right onto the asphalt. Within 100 yards, you'll see the next brown sign for the Express Trail.
Wildlife, minus rattlers
The return trip seemed easier and not as steep as return trips always seem, perhaps because it's now familiar territory. One highlight coming back was seeing some deer, including a buck with a nice rack. The other highlight was that, even on a day in the upper 90s, we didn't encounter a single rattler sunning itself on the trail not even at Rattlesnake Bar.
We did, however, find lots of homo sapiens back at Granite Beach, giving a wide berth to the sweaty, bloody specimen easing into the water.
WESTERN STATES PIONEER EXPRESS TRAIL
Segment: Granite Bay staging area to Rattlesnake Bar staging area, out and back
Trail: 20 miles
Elevation gain: Series of short vertical ascents and descents, none more than 200 feet
Directions: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 east to Douglas Boulevard east. Take Douglas until the road ends at the Granite Bay entrance to the Folsom State Recreation Area. (Fee: $10). Travel a quarter-mile to the Granite Beach parking area. Reach the trail by walking back up the parking lot, beyond a metal gate.
Follow the horse trail (brown signs with horseshoe decals, listing mileage markers) as it wends around the shore and bluffs. Trail is well marked. Ignore the side trails.
The hike ends at the Rattlesnake Bar staging area. For an easier route, do an out-and-back on the first mile of the trail, which is mostly flat and soft, cushioned with dirt and duff. Or park at the Sterling Pointe staging area off Lomida Lane in Loomis and walk three miles to Rattlesnake Bar, one way.
Difficulty: Granite Bay to Sterling Pointe: Moderate to strenuous; Sterling to Rattlesnake Bar: Easy to moderate.
Water and toilets: Yes, at Granite Beach
Poison oak probability: Medium
Will there be blood? One scraped shoulder and forehead. Watch for jutting boulders and branches on descents.
Probability of getting lost: Slim
Make a day of it: Granite Beach and the cooling waters of Folsom Lake are your reward for the hike. You can buy concessions and rent light watercraft there and have a picnic. The camping area and services at Rattlesnake Bar are now closed because of budget cuts, but the boat launch still is open. Those not wanting to rough it after the hike can fortify themselves at one of the restaurants that line Douglas Boulevard from Granite Bay to Roseville.