JOSÉ LUIS VILLEGAS / jvillegas@sacbee.com

Cesar and Carolyn Cutaran of Lodi ride the Foresthill Divide Loop Trail earlier this month. The 10-mile loop is popular with hikers and runners, too.

Great Treks: The Foresthill Divide Loop Trail

Published: Thursday, Sep. 22, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Thursday, Sep. 22, 2011 - 8:13 am

I bear a certain antipathy toward mountain bikers, but not for reasons harbored by a few other cranky trail users.

Really, it's not what you think. I welcome mountain bikers out on the trail, I do. I've found them nothing but courteous and kind, willing to yield to equestrians and, yeah, to hikers and runners when it's not even required.

As far as trail damage, another rap laid upon mountain bikers? Sorry, but I just don't see much harm in most cases.

The bikers are, in general, a fine bunch of fellas and gals.

My teeth-gnashing grudge against them amounts to jealousy, pure and simple. They make it look so darned easy on even the toughest of trails, seamlessly downshifting to the granny gear on uphills and soaring on the downhills with the speed and abandon even the swiftest trail runner cannot muster.

Meanwhile, I plod along, searching in vain for the "granny gear" in my complaining hamstrings and quadriceps, and too wimpy to let fly on the downhills lest I do a horrific face plant.

I felt the resentment rising near the apex of yet another undulating hill about 6.5 miles into the 10-mile Foresthill Divide Loop Trail northeast of Auburn, this month's Great Trek.

Two mountain bikers breezed by me, their legs pumping with cartoonish rapidity as they negotiated the roots and rocks to the top. Hardly breathing hard, they had taken pains to tell me they were passing and helpfully added, "just two," so I would know there were no more bikers approaching. Then, as I reached the top, I could see the dust they left behind on the descent and heard their whoops and hollers down the switchbacks.

Clearly, these dudes were having too much fun.

Then again, this is their trail.

In 1998, the Folsom-Auburn Trail Riders Action Coalition, a coalition of mountain bike enthusiasts, spearheaded efforts with California State Parks to cut and build the Foresthill Divide Trail. The group had been instrumental in building other multiuse trails, including two popular Salmon Falls routes and the Lake Clementine Connector Trail.

It's easy to tell that FATRAC built – and routinely performs maintenance on – the Foresthill Divide Loop. The single- and double-track trails are mostly free of invasive weeds (dang you, star thistle) poking out. The fire roads on this loop are smooth and easily navigable. The hills are not gaspingly difficult. Even the few rocky, technical ravines are passable. Sometimes, for a hiker or runner, it's nice to follow the tire tracks and not to have to forge your own path.

Another FATRAC-inspired feature: great signage. There are many twists and turns to the Foresthill Divide, many side trails and off-shoots to overlooks. But the mountain bike stewards have made it difficult for even the directionally challenged (uh, that would be me) to get lost. Permanent signs, many with arrows and mile markers, show you the way, which is particularly helpful on the second half of course.

Say what you want about the supposed blight mountain bikers can leave in their wake – yes, a few do go off-trail and some don't yield to horses and many do ride at excessive speeds – but organizations like FATRAC show the good they can do.

There was a bit of self-interest mixed with FATRAC's altruism. Mountain bikers wanted a trail where they weren't considered interlopers.

"One of the main missions of FATRAC is to advocate for and provide trail access," said Craig Wilson, the group's president. "We're proud of (the Foresthill Divide Loop). You'll notice there's not many pock marks (from horses) and the trail's in great shape. We definitely (designed) the trail with undulating hills, We didn't want to make it super-steep. We're just trying to improve conditions for everyone."

The four times I've run Foresthill, the mountain bikers seemed more than willing to share the trail.

There are two main access points for the loop. Most of the mountain-biking crowd seems to prefer the west trailhead (3.5 miles east of the Foresthill Bridge). It's on the south side of Foresthill Road, near the remains of the old Gold Rush hotel called the Grizzly Bear House.

But hikers prefer the east trailhead, 7.5 miles past the Foresthill Bridge. You park in a large paved lot on the left, about 200 yards beyond the Driver's Flat Road turnoff on the right. This is also the preferred starting point for the Fleet Feet Sacramento trail runner's group, led by veteran ultramarathoners Mo Bartley and Tim Twietmeyer.

The reason? The first five miles, north of Foresthill Road, ease you into the run, saving your body for the more vertical and challenging sections in the second half. It's also more shaded in the early going and mostly single track.

Just past the picnic tables and portable toilet, the trail starts left, heading southwest. Foothill pine, oak and the occasional manzanita line and overhang the trail, but be careful not to stray off it too far. Poison oak covers much of the ground, especially in spring.

The trees were so dense in the early miles that it was difficult to sneak a peek to the right, down at the north fork of the American River flowing into Lake Clementine. But look left, toward the hillside, and you can see colorful buttercup flowers and baby lupine blooms.

Just past Mile 3, you emerge from the canopy of trees into an open field that leads to a gravel road. That road leads to Lake Clementine. If you wanted to add mileage – I sure didn't – you can take the road to the lake for a 3.6-mile out-and-back jaunt (officially called the Lakeview Connector Trail) and then rejoin the divide loop. One advantage, I'm told, of taking the detour is you get a much better view of Lime Rock, which in Gold Rush days served as a lookout point of stage coach robbers.

After crossing the road and staying on the trail, it features a patch of madrone, gorgeous trees with smooth, red bark. You need to pay attention, though, because you're approaching the first major fork in the trail. You want to stay left – FATRAC has a small sign with an arrow – even though you're tempted to take the double-track road descending on the right. The correct path leads to a meadow where the dominant sound is traffic whooshing by on Foresthill Road.

The winding trail ends at a small opening at Foresthill Road. Now comes arguably the toughest part. You need to cross without becoming roadkill. Go ahead and tsk-tsk but, yes, we are advocating jaywalking. There's no other choice. There's not a crosswalk within miles. Assuming you've looked both ways and made it across, veer about 20 feet to the left on the soft shoulder to find the trailhead for the second half of the trek.

After a half-mile, you'll meet up with mountain bikers who have started for the west trailhead. Veer slightly left at the sign that reads "Driver's Flat Road, 5 miles."

From here, you'll have to pay attention. Go ahead and enjoy the views of the middle fork of the American River, but keep an eye out for the small trail signs. There's one that leads left down and up a rocky ravine until it flattens out. The next sign sends you right on another descent until you emerge in a meadow through grasses and some star thistle. Another junction approaches and the arrows point left onto a double-track road, but pay heed, because you quickly turn right at a trail sign.

After being exposed to the sun through most of this section, you'll enjoy the shade when you cross a wooden bridge that crosses a creek. After the bridge, veer left at the fork and go another mile.

You'll eventually reach the Driver's Flat Staging Area. Go straight through the parking lot toward the portable toilet. The single-track resumes from there. A partially buried bicycle tire – which looks remarkably like a snake sunning itself – is a marker to let you know you're on the right trail, which parallels Driver's Flat Road and leads up to Foresthill Road. Cross Foresthill once more, and you've reached the starting point.

No doubt, the mountain bikers will have finished re-enacting that Lance Armstrong Michelob Lite commercial long before you've completed the course. Try not to hate them. They can't help it if they go fast on two wheels. Besides, we on foot are in no hurry.

<;MX| >GREAT TREKSFORESTHILL DIVIDE LOOP TRAIL

Elevation: 1,700 to 2,050 feet

Trail: 10 miles

Directions: Take Interstate 80 to the Foresthill Road/Auburn Ravine exit. Drive east over the Foresthill Bridge for eight miles to the large parking lot on the left, shortly after the junction with Drivers Flat Road on the right. The trailhead gate is No. 128.

ROUTE

• From the trailhead, head left onto the trail. At 3.3 miles, cross the gravel road and continue on the trail. Go left at the next fork that will lead to Foresthill Road. Cross the road, veer left back onto the dirt trail. Follow the sign saying "Drivers Flat Road 5 Miles." Follow the trail signs first left, then right. Turn left briefly on a double-track road, then turn right at the trail arrow. Cross a bridge, then turn left at the trail sign. Reaching the Drivers Flat Staging Area, continue straight through the parking lot to the single-track trail behind the portable toilet. Follow single track to Foresthill Road, cross the road to the finish.

EASIER ROUTE (6.3 MILES)

• When you reach the gravel road (Upper Lake Clementine Road) at 3.3 miles, turn left and follow it up to Foresthill Road. Cross the road and pass a green gate, walking 150 yards to pick up the loop trail for another three miles.

LONGER ROUTE (13.6 MILES)

• When you reach the gravel road (Upper Clementine Road), turn right and follow it to the shores of the lake. Turn around and run back to pick up the loop trail.

Difficulty: Moderate

Toilets: Yes, at both trailheads and the Drivers Flat Staging Area

Poison oak probability: Medium

Will there be blood? Slim chance. It's a well-groomed trail. You're more likely to get a sunburn on the second half of the trek.

Probability of getting lost: Slim

Make a day of it: Old-town Auburn, featuring several popular breakfast diners, is eight miles to the west. You can drive to Lake Clementine and picnic.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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