Fingers poised above the keyboard, I was just about to declare the Sugar Pine Mountain Trail in Meadow Vista as possessing the hardest, longest and most draining switchbacks I've ever tackled.
I was ready to hyperventilate about the 24 switchbacks, twisting as all get-out, none longer than 20 feet before another turn beckons. I was prepared to use phrases such as "lung-burning" and "quad-busting," employ overheated adjectives such as "hypoxic" and "arrhythmic." I even threatened to hit the Caps Lock key.
Then the thought struck: I've done this before.
Seems that every month, our "Fresh Tracks" feature focuses on a trail for runners and hikers with challenging switchbacks.
There was the 2.4-mile stretch at Barker Pass near Lake Tahoe, the first 1.1 miles of the Coastal Trail in the Marin Headlands, the winding, 1,400-foot-altitude-gain path at Huddart County Park in Woodside, and the vertical death march at Butano State Park in Pescadero.
You get the idea.
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 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, 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. Eventually, as with childbirth (I'm told), you forget about the pain and just remember the pleasant afterglow.
No matter your feeling about switchbacks, they need to be tackled smartly.
Kirk Edgerton, manager of Fleet Feet Fair Oaks, a trail running coach and Western States 100 Mile Run finisher, said runners need to approach switchbacks differently than they do a conventional hill.
"Depending on the length of the entire hill, I'll continue at the same speed and pace, utilizing my upper body – arms – to help propel myself up and around the turn," Edgerton said. "More often than not, the switchbacks are the worst part of the climb and the straightaways, though gaining elevation, are more manageable.
"If the hill is long or I'm trying to conserve some energy, I'll utilize the outside of the switchback as it is less steep as compared to the inside of the turn. Though it's longer in distance to go the outside, you exert less effort and energy than tackling the shorter, steeper inside."
Then again, there are times, particularly in longer races, when Edgerton said the wisest strategy for all but the elites is to "walk the switchbacks, run the straights."
Downhill switchback strategy?
"You'll need to brake, decrease speed, then accelerate through the turn," Edgerton said. "The goal is to be fluid and not stop during the sharp right or left turn; keep running and use your downhill momentum to move through the turn, accelerating into the straightaway."
The switchbacks may be the star attraction on Sugar Pine Mountain, but other highlights pack the trail.
Its first half is a rollercoaster ride of short, steep ups and downs, a canal crossing and a pair of wooden-bridge crossings over Orr Creek. Just before you get to the switchbacks at the three-mile mark, you make a sharp right turn and climb about 100 feet on a boulder-strewn path. So you're tired before the hard part starts.
Then, after reaching the summit of the switchbacks, the downhill doesn't immediately start. You cross a fire road and have another short climb before the twisting descent. Only two major hills remain in the final three miles. The last 1.5 miles is nearly flat.
The first half of the course is certainly more scenic. It skirts around the Winchester Country Club and development, mostly staying clear of clusters of homes and enveloping you in ponderosa pines and berry bushes. At the two-mile mark, you cross under some power lines and make a sharp left, uphill near a residential street. But, soon, you are heading west, back into nature.
On the second half, you pass by a few fenced-off backyards with barking dogs before the trail temporarily ends and you must go on the well-traveled Meadow Vista Road for about 100 feet. Soon enough, though, the trail continues as you veer right and back onto single-track dirt. The final mile parallels Sugar Pine Road, but the dense foliage obscures the sights and sounds of residential traffic.
"When I first saw it on the maps, I thought, 'Gosh, what a boring trail,' " said Rich Walker, a longtime member of the Meadow Vista Trail Association. "It looks like just a straight trail following the perimeter, but when you get out there, it's got such vertical topography that it makes it interesting. You've got a lot of trees, and they put the bridges to go across the creeks and wetlands. It's very nice for horses, hikers and mountain bikers."
A longtime Meadow Vista resident, Walker said he didn't know what to expect when talk of constructing the trail heated up in the early 1990s. At that time, developer C.C. Myers wanted to build a subdivision surrounding Winchester Country Club, and Walker said the Meadow Vista Municipal Advisory Council insisted a trail be built to satisfy equestrians and hikers who used to roam the area before development.
"Sugar Pine Mountain before the developer came in – even though it was all private ownership – had tons of trails the public used," Walker said. "It connected Meadow Vista to Christian Valley. Part of the overall community plan from the start was to connect our community through trails.
"So the Planning Commission required him not to wipe out all the trails the community had been using for years. The best they could do to make it fully multiuse was to build a perimeter trail around the entire development."
Walker uses the trail regularly, and he knows secret shortcuts.
"There are ways the public can cut through the development – a network of paved paths," he said. "They are cart paths built so the Winchester residents could drive their golf carts home and not have to go on the roads. As a hiker or runner, you can cut through if you know where you're going."
And, yes, there are shortcuts that eliminate the hellacious switchbacks. But there are no maps showing the shortcuts, so good luck trying to negotiate the maze of cart paths back to the trailhead.
Better to forge ahead, up those 24 switchbacks. You'll be glad you did it – later, after the hypoxia subsides.
Sugar Pine Mountain Trail loop
Length: 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 one mile to Sugar Pine Road. Turn left. Park in a dirt turnout on the left about 200 yards before the gate to the Winchester housing development.
Route: Start on a rise just east (left) before reaching the Winchester gate. A 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 two-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 miles is on smooth, flat single-track parallel to Sugar Pine Road. It leads back to the Winchester Gate and the trailhead.
Difficulty:Moderate (those switchbacks)
Exposure: Many stretches in the first three miles without shade.
Parking fee: No
Poison oak possibility: Definite
Probability of getting lost: Unlikely. It's very well marked.
Will there be blood?: Going downhill fast on the switchbacks can lead to tripping and scraped knees. Parts of the trail also are rock-strewn.