Thirteen years and several redesigns ago, in these very pages appeared a hilarious story by the talented Don Bosley about the Stevens Trail.
In it, he details how he specially chose the 3.85-mile descent to the north fork of the American River to try to impress a friend visiting from the wilds of Alaska, and how it went horribly, comically wrong because the first mile or so of the trek ran mostly parallel to Interstate 80, where the sound of big rigs grinding gears while downshifting and cars whooshing by blotted out the sounds of nature. At one point, Bosley’s out-of-town visitor had to shout to be heard: “I bet this is going to be beautiful!”
Bosley’s only error, seems to me, was that he gave up on the Stevens Trail too soon. His hiking party turned back after only 2 miles, missing both the most scenic stretches (postcard-worthy views of the winding river below) and the aural highlights (trilling birds, manzanita rustling in a light breeze, squawking hawks soaring the thermals, whitewater crashing on the river bed). Miles 2 through 4 also feature most of the historic significance of the trail, the scree and tailings from quarry work of yesteryear, an abandoned mine shaft that seems to bore well into the hillside, massive granite boulders and slabs that rolled down the steep hillside to settle near the river’s edge.
If you can ignore the early noise pollution and the litter at the trailhead’s garbage-can-bereft parking lot, the Stevens Trail has no downsides. Well, there is a lot of downhill before the turnaround at the river, and you know what that portends: an epic climb back up the canyon to the trailhead.
Even the ascent, though, is not as taxing as it might appear. It’s just a continuous, steady slog uphill. When I reached the trailhead at the end and glanced at my GPS, I almost did not believe the data: 2,466 feet of elevation gain.
Trail users – and the Stevens Trail is one of the most heavily trod in the vast American River canyon area – can get lured into a false sense of ease. All that downhill, gradual but unrelenting, on the first part can make hikers and mountain bikers too complacent. Some will look at the total mileage (7.7, via my GPS) and figure they don’t need much water, or any at all. They are wrong, especially during the summer months. On the early June morning I made the trek, it was 70 degrees at the trailhead and over 80 at 8 a.m. down in the canyon. Hydrate, people.
Another concern: footing. For much of the trail, it’s well-groomed single track and a short stretch of fire road. But after the first 1.5 miles, the single track narrows considerably and there is a sheer drop-off. There also are three creek crossings – one of which is the wonderfully named Slaughter Ravine – where footing can get a bit tricky.
You’ll test your bouldering skills just before the 2-mile mark at a stretch called Robbers Ravine.
Not-so-quick aside: None of these colorful ravine names – Slaughter, Robbers, Secret – is actually identified along the trail. Don’t ask me the naming origin; I just learned of their existence from the indispensable third edition of “The Insider’s Guide to the American River,” $24.95, published by Protect American River Canyons. I suspect, though, the names harken to post-Gold Rush days, when the trail was the Stevens Toll Road for pack animals.
At Robbers Ravine, even the most hardy of trail runners will be forced to slow considerably and pick their way through a jumble of granite boulders and spiky slabs. It’s easier to traverse in the summer, when no water flows through. But in the rainy season – do we still have those? – rocks get slick.
Injuries can happen here and at other rocky outcroppings on the Stevens. In fact, in late February, an Auburn woman had to be rescued via California Highway Patrol helicopter after severely spraining her ankle. CHP officials say the woman was swiftly saved because she carried a cellphone. That’s another plus for the Stevens: It has three-bar cell service. Not that we encourage you to yack away the entire trip and miss the sounds of nature (and big rigs), but it helps to carry a phone in case of emergency.
The phone, of course, can also be used to capture those sweeping views of the American River, which even some trail snob from Alaska would have to admit is pretty darn beautiful.
- Trail length: 7.7 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,466 feet
- Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 east to the Highway 174 exit (signs say Colfax, Grass Valley). Turn left on North Canyon Way and drive 0.6 miles. Trailhead parking lot is on the left.
- Route: This is an out-and-back. Shortly before the 1-mile mark, the trail reaches a junction. Stay to the left. A sign with an arrow a few feet farther along shows you are going the correct way. Shortly after that, the trail forks. Hikers go left, mountain bikers and equestrians right. The trail reconnects in several hundred yards. Shortly before the 3-mile mark, you can veer right and take a short, steep descent to the river. (Perfect if you want only a 6-mile jaunt but still want to stick your feet in the river.) Continuing on the main trail, it meanders another mile before crossing a rocky creek and ending at the river bank. Retrace your steps to the trailhead.
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Exposure: Mix of sun and shade
- Toilets: At trailhead
- Parking: Free