To: Schoenberg, Deb, landscape architect, Feather River Ranger District, Plumas National Forest
From: McManis, Sam, staff writer, Sacramento Bee
Dear Ms. Schoenberg:
I write a monthly feature called "Great Treks," in which I traverse a trail and feature it in a story. I ran the eight-mile Feather Falls loop this morning, and it wasn't until I finished the loop that I noticed the sign saying that the lower trail, the way back, is closed.
Sorry I wasn't observant; I certainly didn't mean to break the law. Anyway, I was wondering why the lower trail is closed. It looked in good shape, except for the tree that busted the Frey Creek bridge. Can you please tell me why the trail is closed and if there is a time frame to reopen it?
Oh, and also please tell me whether I'll be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law" – fined $5,000 and/or spend six months in jail – for using the lower trail, as the posted sign says. I'm throwing myself at your mercy.
To: McManis, Sam
From: Schoenberg, Deb
Hi, Sam. Glad to hear that you visited one of our lovely sites.
Anyway, you saw the bridge damage on Frey Creek. It's a pretty dangerous situation. Last year, following the torrential rain and heavy wind, a huge tree fell across the bridge, snapping it in half. The bridge is resting on a boulder in the stream and could move if there was a powerful rush of water. As you probably heard, we had a fatality about two weeks ago as the result of fast-moving water, so I'm taking precautions to protect folks from foolishness (you not included!).
We have the replacement bridge at a storage yard and are working to find funds to pay the helicopter cost for flying the damaged one out and the new one in. My department is really short-staffed this year so no one has been able to take on this project. We need to estimate bridge weights to determine the size of helicopter needed, then go find the cash.
You won't be prosecuted or pestered for violating the order, but it is meant to protect the Forest from liability if someone gets hurt while in that area. I'd hate to see a child hurt.
To: Schoenberg, Deb
From: McManis, Sam
My editor will be happy to hear that I won't be prosecuted, because she says nobody at The Bee would pay my $5,000 fine. Thanks for the info about the lower trail. The bridge did look pretty damaged. I am also aware of the fatality and will tell our readers not to stray from the falls observation area.
OK, so as you can discern from the above epistolary exchange, I made a mistake when I set out to traverse that gorgeous gorge that is Feather Falls in the Plumas National Forest about 20 miles northeast of Oroville.
I didn't pay attention to the signs. Maybe it was because I was so excited to see what is said to be the nation's sixth-highest waterfall, the highlight of a trail that also features brilliant wildflowers, a straight-on view of Bald Rock Dome (kind of a baby version of Half Dome) and the visceral rush of rivers and streams winding along the trail loop.
Really, Feather Falls is like a scaled-down Yosemite – and much more accessible in the late spring and early summer.
What happened was – and I'll explain this to the judge, if the friendly Ms. Schoenberg changes her mind about prosecution – that I noticed only the directional signs at the fork in the trail leading from the parking lot. The "Lower Trail Closed" sign, though larger than the permanent one with arrows pointing the way, must have escaped my field of vision.
Under normal circumstances, this trek is a eight-mile loop in which the first 4.5 miles runs along the ridge line and is mostly downhill until reaching the spur for the 0.3-mile Overlook Trail to the observation deck, then a 3.5-mile mostly uphill slog back through the canyon that gives even better views of the flowing rivers.
Who knows, by the time you attempt the loop, it might be back open – though judging by Schoenberg's email, replacing the bridge at Frey Creek may be a long way off unless someone loosens the federal purse strings.
So I'm going to tell you what it's like to do the loop, assuming you'll all be good citizens and settle for doing the out-and-back on the upper loop until the bridge is replaced.
First thing to know: Leave the iPod and headphones at home. This is one trek that's as much an aural as visual splendor. The rushing water is your susurrant companion throughout, reaching crescendoes on several stream and river crossings and, of course, exploding into a roar at the waterfall.
Another tip: Try to do the trek during so-called "off hours." Weekend trail use in spring and summer is heavy. Though the single track on the upper loop is wide and not overly rock-strewn, it can get crowded. And the lower trail (not that you'll go there until it's reopened, remember) is much narrower and fraught with poison oak should you stray off the path.
Aside for trail runners: Don't be lulled into a false sense of ease during the first half of the run, primarily a gentle downward slope until reaching the Overlook Trail. Remember, the lower trail (not that you'd think of ignoring the posted sign!) back is steeper, going from 1,600-foot elevation to 2,500 feet in the last two miles.
And, as I promised the exceedingly forgiving Ms. Schoenberg, I admonish you to not stray beyond the observation deck – even though there is a rocky path higher and more dangerous that takes you above the falls, where there are said to be some swimming holes. In late April, a 28-year-old Chico man reportedly was pulled into the stream and was carried over the falls. His body has yet to be recovered. Someone died there in 1995 in similar circumstances.
One feature you'll miss near the end of the lower loop (because you're morally upright and obey signs) is a bulge of granite beneath an oak tree that served as bedrock grinding mortars made and used by the Maidu Indians. The holes, about 6 inches deep, were used to grind acorns into flour.
However, something you won't miss are the wildflowers. They mix in well everywhere in this forest of ponderosa pines and live oaks, with a few madrones tossed in. I saw lupine and larkspur, seep monkey flower and yards of bracken fern and, near the end, some vibrant Indian pink.
Of course, you won't see the Indian pink, because you won't disobey Ms. Schoenberg and take the lower trail until it reopens.
Plumas National Forest
Trail: 8 miles
Directions to trailhead: Take Highway 99 north to Highway 70 toward Marysville. Continue on Highway 70 to Oroville. Take the Oroville Dam Boulevard exit (east). Turn right on Olive Highway (162) and go about 6 miles until you turn right onto Forbestown Road. Go 7 miles on Forbestown Road until turning left on Lumpkin Road. Take Lumpkin for 11 miles. Turn left at the sign for Feather Falls Trailhead. Travel another 1.7 miles to the parking lot.
Route: From the parking lot, begin at the trailhead, located just north of the restrooms. After about 0.3 miles, the trail splits right for the upper trail and left for the lower. Because of a damaged bridge, the lower trail is closed. Go right for about 3.5 miles on the upper trail, passing several streams and a small waterfall near Frey Creek. It is mostly downhill until the final half-mile before the Overlook Trail junction. Turn right and follow the switchbacks uphill to the overlook, a fenced viewing area with a railing. Until the lower trail is reopened, follow the same upper path back to the trailhead. Once the lower trail is open, you go right at the junction after coming down from the Overlook Trail and go 3.3 miles to the junction near the trailhead.
Difficulty: Moderate (upper trail), somewhat strenuous (lower trail).
Toilets: Yes, at trailhead parking lot.
Parking fee: No
Poison oak probability: High, especially on the lower trail.
Will there be blood: Not likely, unless the mountain bikers using the trail don't slow down.
Probability of getting lost: Very slim (there are no side trails).
– Sam McManis