Scores of remote, lush trails snake through the Auburn State Recreation Area, trails where you can leave behind the whoosh of Highway 49 traffic and feel as if you’ve descended into true backcountry, spots carved out deep in the foliage where wildlife outnumbers people and cellphone coverage is blissfully sketchy.
The Stagecoach Trail, however, is not one of them.
Oh, it’s lush, all right. And has its share of critters. But if solitude is what you seek, it’s best to venture farther afield, away from the nexus of activity along the American River Confluence, the armada of rafters on hot summer weekends, roving posses of mountain bikers blasting the downhills, the battalions of hikers, veritable Reese Witherspoons in training, out to “touch” nature.
To certain veteran ASRA users, the Stagecoach Trail and its offshoots are worthy of that old Yogi Berra malaprop about a popular restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”
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I’m among the guilty. In nearly a decade in the Greater Sacramento area, not once had I parked at the confluence and embarked from the large trailhead (with snazzy new bathroom facilities, to boot). Like many, I got stuck in the rut of using the American River Canyon Overlook, or the Quarry Trailhead in Auburn, proper, or venturing a little farther afield to the Foresthill Divide Trail, the Olmstead Loop in Cool or even the Western States Trail’s Michigan Bluff launch.
It was about time, then, to give the Stagecoach Trail its due. But because this old wagon road is only 2 miles in length from the confluence to its Russell Road terminus, I wanted to piece together something approximating a loop with intersecting trails to add some new scenery. But, really, you can get a fine 4-mile workout in just ascending and descending Stagecoach, which boasts an 800-foot elevation change. So go ahead, knock yourself out on that out-and-back.
As an alternative, I sought to bump this up to a 7-mile, loop-de-loop jaunt using as many new (to me) trails as possible. I would finally get to set foot on trails that previously were just squiggly lines on detailed maps available on the State Recreation Area website.
What, exactly, is the terrain like on Upper Stagecoach Trail, which looked to climb even higher and appeared much narrower than its namesake? Just how many manzanitas drape themselves over the Manzanita Trail that ends at the State Recreation headquarters? Is Tinker’s Cut-Off Trail really as steep as it appears from the intersection of Highway 49 and Old Foresthill Road? Where does that tiny, unmarked trail just before the No Hands Bridge on the Western States Trail actually lead?
Answers would be forthcoming.
But first, a little history, courtesy of the third edition of “The American River: Insider’s Guide to Recreation, Ecology and Cultural History,” published by the nonprofit Protect American River Canyons.
The Stagecoach Trail, which today is still almost wide enough to accommodate a Cadillac Escalade, was built in 1852 and named Yankee Jim’s Turnpike. It was a toll road that led to a covered bridge over the north fork of the American River, charging $1 for a wagon and two horses, 50 cents for a lone horseman and 6 cents per cow. Not surprisingly, the Stagecoach was the scene of many a holdup, though none on record featuring Black Bart, who was seemingly the hardest-working man in the robbery business back then.
Knowing that history, it doesn’t feel so bad having to fork over $10 to park at the trailhead nowadays. Some frugal types may call it highway robbery; I call it a price to pay for well-maintained, accessible trails.
The digs at the trailhead are quite impressive. In addition to the aforementioned “facilities,” there’s a fact-filled information kiosk and even a booth where, I’m told, a ranger hangs out on busy spring and summer weekends to be of service. Signage is well-annotated, too. An arrow points the way to “Stagecoach Trail to Russell Road.”
I don’t know why I figured the Stagecoach Trail would be easy; maybe because it’s so popular I assumed it wasn’t strenuous.
I figured wrong.
The first 0.2 of a mile is steep and rocky. Sure, the trail is wide, but you’re going to go into oxygen debt right away. Don’t let that dissuade you, though. You can distract yourself by gazing to the right, where you can see and hear the river flow. Look up and the towering Foresthill Bridge looms, stately and imposing now that the construction scaffolding is down.
Just when you start catching your breath, a quarter-mile in, you reach another huge directional sign. If you go straight, you’ll wind up on the Bridgeview and Clark’s Hole trails – paths for another day, perhaps. Instead, make a sharp left (the arrow on the sign is a tad confusing, making it almost look like a full U-turn) and keep climbing, albeit a more gradual ascent. The next half-mile affords the best views of the confluence area and much of the ASRA’s prime locations – No Hands Bridge (officially called Mount Quarries Railroad Bridge), the pine-studded vertical face that ascends toward Cool, the abandoned dam project downstream that scarred but did not permanently disfigure the canyon’s beauty.
Ignore the intersections for the Tinker’s Cut-Off, Flood Road and Manzanita trails (we’ll get to those in time). Continue up Stagecoach, winding away from the canyon views and you start to notice the foliage, which ranges from scrub brush to pines, oaks and even a few maple trees. My early February trip apparently was too soon for the spring bloom, but the guidebooks authors, Eric and Paula Peach, promise that poppies and lupine add brilliant hues to the green background.
About a quarter-mile before the Stagecoach Trail ends at Russell Road, the Upper Stagecoach cutoff appears on the right. You immediately climb a ridge, which, fleetingly, gives you an even better view of the canyon and confluence below. The upper Stagecoach is narrower, single-track in some spots, and rougher going, but you’ll be rewarded along the way with a view of the Foresthill Bridge (near a bench).
Downhill beckons in less than a mile. You’ll reach a somewhat confusing junction with a sign pointing to the Flood Road straight ahead and Stagecoach Trail to the right. Nearly all maps of the area fail to include the Flood Road Trail, and if they do, they advise to stay off it. Going left on the Flood Road leads to a dead end and a residential area where one of the streets is named … Flood Road. The confusing part: If you head right, you’re still on the Flood Road Trail (so says the sign at the base, when it intersects with the Stagecoach Trail) but headed downhill.
And what a downhill it is. It’s more a bright red clay gully than anything else, worn to narrow slots by mountain bike use. It’s easy to sprain an ankle on this stretch, so unless your downhill skills are well-honed, resist the urge to barrel down the path. Pass the junction on the left for the Mossy Rock Trail – yet another option for another day – and rejoin the Stagecoach Trail, where you’ll turn right.
Yes, I’m asking you to re-trace your steps. But it’s only for 0.3 of a mile. Then, you’ll make that left turn on the Manzanita Trail that you bypassed the first time around.
The Manzanita Trail, only a mile in length, was my favorite part of the trek. Not only is it relatively flat, but it’s single-track and lush, and not just with manzanita, either. There are several creek crossings and shade from overhanging oaks and some pine. Plus, you’ll get a visceral rush as soon as you set foot on it. Unlike the wide, groomed Stagecoach Trail, the first portion of the Manzanita hugs the ridgeline and is narrow. The drop-off is precipitous, so take care.
When the Manzanita ends, you’ll find yourself at park headquarters. You’ll have to walk along some asphalt, a necessary evil, and cross Highway 49 to pick up the aptly named Park Access Trail. Look for a green gate with the number 136 attached to it. The trail itself looks as if it has been bulldozed to make way for a paved boulevard, though fortunately that hasn’t happened. It’s an extreme downhill (350 feet in 0.4 of a mile), and you’ll be happy when it ends at the Western States Trail.
The Western States Trail, for the uninitiated, is a great rolling stretch, mostly downhill, that crosses a couple of creeks and affords unobstructed views of the river on the right. Not 10 feet from where the Western States Trail crosses over the No Hands Bridge, you will instead veer left onto an easy-to-miss single-track that parallels Highway 49 and goes under the Highway 49 bridge and emerges on Old Foresthill Road.
You can see your car parked about 100 feet down the road at the Stagecoach trailhead. And, if you’re feeling tired, you can pack it in and stroll back to the car on the road’s soft shoulder to bring the effort to a close after 6 miles.
If you do that, though, you miss out on Tinker’s Cut-Off. After you learn the elevation gain of Tinker’s Cut-Off, you might be OK with missing it. It’s only 0.3 of a mile, but it’s lung-busting steep. The early climbing is hands-on-knees, but once you’re upright again it gets verdant. Part of the path is eroded due (according to the guide) by unauthorized mountain bike use on that stretch, but you’ll cross a creek and can take a brief side trip to a waterfall. Then come the switchbacks uphill to the Stagecoach Trail, where you’ll turn right and return to the trailhead.
Back at the trailhead, you’re liable to see that the parking area is suddenly crowded – you, of course, were smart and started early, before 8 a.m. – and there might even be a wait for the snazzy new restroom.
That’s the price of popularity.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
Trail Length: 7 miles
Elevation gain: 1,700 feet
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, Take Interstate 80 to Auburn, exit at Highway 49 South towards Placerville. At the junction of Highway 49 and Old Foresthill Road, the American River Confluence, continue straight 100 feet and park at marked spots next to the trailhead.
Route: From the sign saying “Stagecoach Trail to Russell Road,” go 0.2 miles. Make a sharp left to continue on the Stagecoach Trail. After 1.8 miles on the Stagecoach Trail, turn right on the Upper Stagecoach Trail. Go for slightly less than a mile to a junction signed “Flood Road” to the left and “Stagecoach” to the right. Go right (downhill) past the junction for the Mossy Rock Trail to the Stagecoach Trail. Turn right and retrace your steps on the Stagecoach Trail. Turn left onto the Manzanita Trail. Go for 1 mile. Go through the Auburn State Recreation Area park headquarters parking lot, cross Highway 49 and go past a green metal gate with #136. Descend 0.4 of a mile to the Western States Trail, turn left. Before the No Hands Bridge, turn left onto a single-track trail that parallels Highway 49. At trail’s end, cross Old Foresthill Road and go up Tinkers Cut-Off for 0.3 of a mile. Turn right on the Stagecoach Trail and return to the trailhead.
Difficulty: Moderate. There’s climbing on the Stagecoach and Tinker’s Cut-Off trails.
Exposure: Mix of sun and shade
Toilets: At trailhead
Probability of getting lost: Slim. Well-marked trails.
Will there be blood? Some rocks, so pay heed.
Note: Mountain bikes not allowed only on Tinker’s Cut-Off Trail.