I love switchbacks. I hate switchbacks.
Love them because (a) they are a good way to get in shape, sort of nature’s Stairmaster; (b) they usually lead to gorgeous, hilltop views; (c) they always feature some blessed downhill after they top off.
Hate them because (a) they can be painful and enervating, even if you’re smart and walk them; (b) it’s hard to appreciate the views when your chest is heaving and you’re bent over with hands on knees; (c) running downhill with sharp turns, you’re just one stray rock away from tumbling down like Jack and Jill.
So let me temper my remarks by saying that the 24 switchbacks up Sugar Pine Mountain in Meadow Vista, at about the halfway mark of a lovely 6.6-mile loop, are absolutely, positively the toughest I’ve encountered. That’s because, I now realize, the toughest switchbacks are always the ones you’ve just completed. As with childbirth (I’m told), eventually you forget about the pain and just remember the pleasant afterglow.
Weekend Hike: Sugar Pine Mountain Trail loop, Meadow Vista
Distance: 6.6 miles
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 east beyond Auburn to the Clipper Gap exit. Turn left at the offramp and go north on Placer Hills Road, over the freeway and 1 mile to Sugar Pine Road. Turn left. Park in a dirt turnout on the left about 200 yards before the gate to the Winchester Country Club community.
Route: Start on a rise just east (left) before reaching the Winchester gate. A 1-mile post marks the start and posts continue throughout the trail. The first quarter-mile is slightly downhill on a well-groomed trail, with the country club off in the distance to the right. A sign points to a sharp right turn, as the single track turns to double track.
At a half-mile you cross a paved road – watch for cars – and continue to a canal crossing, where you veer right (look to the left for the rushing water below you). For the next mile, you traverse rolling hills, studded with pine, that bottom out in swampy wetlands, even in the summer. Wooden bridges help keep you dry.
Just past the 2-mile mark, approaching a paved road and the housing development, make a sharp left at a sign with an arrow saying “trail.” You go uphill steeply over a few big boulders, then downhill for a half mile. Make a right at a long footbridge, which leads to a 100-foot uphill stretch toward the switchbacks. After winding through the 24 switchbacks, cross a fire road and descend 21 switchbacks.
Emerging in a meadow (with the golf course on your right), follow the trail past a paved road, which winds to the right. The trail runs parallel with houses for a few hundred feet before you begin another set of rolling hills. The trail then temporarily ends. Follow Meadow Vista Road for maybe 100 feet and you can see the trail pick up again on your right. It makes a sharp right turn uphill.
After making a left, the final 1.5-mile stretch is on smooth, flat single-track parallel to Sugar Pine Road. It leads back to the Winchester gate and the trailhead.