COOL – Because I harbor a rich fantasy life, whenever I find myself on the lovely but undulating Western States Trail here in the foothills, I pretend to be one of those truly whacked-out ultra dudes who race 100 miles each June.
I usually run only the last 12 or so miles of the famous Western States course that essentially launched this masochistic sport decades ago. That's quite enough, thank you. But I often wonder how these long-long- distance runners are feeling as they slog, often in darkness and with sleep deprivation, on this mostly single-track trail. I muse, too, about the cruelty of that final uphill push to Robie Point in Auburn, with 96 miles behind them.
The great thing is, I don't have to do all 100 miles. I can be a dilettante, a total poseur, and pick and choose the course spots I care to traverse.
A good chunk of my free time recently has been spent on the Western States Trail and its various offshoots in preparation for the Way Too Cool 50K on March 9, which covers much the same area.
So, just as I can pretend to plod along the Western States 100 course, this month's Fresh Tracks feature will provide options for readers who harbor a yen for running or hiking (and some of it is so steep that hiking is almost mandatory) most of the Way Too Cool course in easily digestible, bite-size morsels.
By covering as few as five mellow miles, you have the pleasure of roaming one of the area's most verdant and hidden gems – the American Canyon Trail.
Then again, you can be bold and try the big gulp – a 21-mile loop that encompasses two-thirds of the Way Too Cool course, which shares about 12 miles of the Western States Trail.
Those who don't want to get carried away will be perfectly happy along the American Canyon Trail.
Not only is it a shady single-track lined with looming Douglas firs, live oak and buckeye trees and juxtaposed with ferns, larkspur, Scotch broom and (in spring) blackberries at your feet, the American Canyon trail also features back-to-back stream crossings at the Hoboken and American Canyon creeks. In winter, the water runs high, creating a nice soundtrack and giving you a challenge to boulder-hop without drenching your shoes.
Way Too Cool race director Julie Fingar changed the traditional course two years to add the American Canyon Trail, and the move has drawn rave reviews from participants.
"Very few people had seen that trail as it wasn't part of any previous race," said Tim Twietmeyer, five-time winner of the Western States 100 and a Way Too Cool regular. "But that trail is a delight. It's a steady climb but certainly runable for the most part, and the meandering of the creek takes your mind off the steady uphill."
Fingar, for her part, said, "I personally think it is one of the most gorgeous pieces of scenery on the trail, especially in the springtime."
If you don't want to experience the American Canyon Trail as part of the 21-mile odyssey that starts near the American River confluence in Auburn, drive a bit farther on Highway 49, then turn onto Highway 193. After a few miles, and a left turn on Pilgrim Court, you will be at the trailhead (called Third Gate) just outside one of the entrances to the private Auburn Lakes Estates.
The 5.3-mile loop begins with a significant downhill for the first 0.8 miles, dropping about 800 feet. Take it easy here because, of course, you'll have to go uphill on the way back to complete the semi-loop. After a few hairpin turns – follow the brown directional signs, and don't mistakenly go on the Wendell Robie/Western States cutoff – you'll reach the water.
Now, there are two ways to approach stream crossings: (1) forge on ahead and splash on through to the other side because, hey, isn't that what "waterproof" Gore-Tex shoes are for?; or (2) delicately hop from rock to rock, arms extended for balance like a tightrope walker.
Maybe in the summer, during relatively dry spells, you can play in the water with impunity, but the American Canyon streams have been running high this winter. It's more prudent to tread lightly.
After the double stream crossing, the trail travels along a ridge lined with manzanita and with only slight undulation until you reach the junction with the oddly named Dead Truck Trail.
If you continue on the American Canyon Trail, you'll reach another stream crossing. But that's not part of this course. (You'll do that in the opposite direction on the 21-miler.) Instead, make a right straight uphill on the Dead Truck Trail.
Yes, there actually is a dead truck – white, overturned, resting down a shallow ravine – but you've got to go a ways before it comes into view. Thinking about said truck will divert your attention from the steepness of this section of trail. There's a vista point to ogle about two-thirds into the climb, a good place to catch your breath.
Dead Truck finally levels off at its junction with the Robie Trail. Follow the signs and turn right toward Cool, lest you go left and follow the Western States Trail all the way to Squaw Valley. Stay on the main trail – there are several unsigned off-shoots – cross one more creek, and ramble back to the American Canyon Trail, heading uphill to the Third Gate trailhead.
If this five-mile loop whetted your appetite for more, there is the aforementioned 21-miler and a slightly less extreme 12-mile loop. Both start at the Quarry Trail trailhead, off Highway 49 not 100 yards past the confluence.
Both options begin on the Quarry Trail, which parallels the river for 5.6 miles.
The first mile is wide and mostly flat with cushiony crushed granite for footing. Soon, however, some climbing begins – first, a steep, short stretch you'll see to your right (away from the picnic area) which features a cordoned-off old limestone cave. What follows is a series of ups and downs, the road eventually narrowing to single-track by the time you reach the Maine Bar junction picnic area.
(An aside for those who'll participate in the Way Too Cool 50K: Fingar says to take it easy on the Quarry Trail. "Runners think it is 'flat' and you should run every inch of it," she said. "But it has some rolling hills and descents. Quarry Road can also be very monotonous and a mental challenge for most runners.")
For those just out for a nice training run or hike, the Quarry Trail is a nice change from the often technical, roots-and-rocks maneuvering on other sections.
"That route to the picnic tables (at Maine Bar junction) makes for a great tempo (run) or fartlek (periodic short bursts of speed) workout," Twietmeyer said, "because there aren't any real long grades but plenty of quarter- to half-mile climbs and downhills to give the legs a real challenge."
Those doing the 12-mile course will make a right at Brown's Bar at about the 3.5-mile mark, travel up the canyon across a stream to meet up with the Robie/Western States Trail, where you'll turn right and head toward the legendarily steep Goat Hill section.
Those doing the 21-mile course will continue on the Quarry Trail beyond Brown's Bar for another two miles to Maine Bar. From there, you make a quick right turn, then an even quicker left onto the American Canyon Trail, which leads past those aforementioned streams to the junction with the Robie/Western States Trail.
After turning right on Robie (the sign points toward Brown's Bar and Cool) you wend your way about seven miles until you reach a wooden bridge. Cross that bridge, go uphill for 100 feet, and then turn left heading to Goat Hill. (Turning right will lead down Brown's Bar.)
Both the 12- and 21-mile users must scale Goat Hill, an unsigned trail to the right. Crane your neck because it's almost straight up. It starts with a few switchbacks, but it then just becomes a steady climb.
(Again, for those racing Cool, unless you plan on winning, Fingar and Twietmeyer say it might be best to "power hike" that section, especially since it comes five miles from the finish of the 31-mile race.)
Twietmeyer warns that "even though the terrain is milder after (the initial climb), there's still quite a bit of very tricky single-track after that so you better have some coordination left or there's a good chance you'll hit the deck."
You'll alternate between rocky climbs and descents for 2.5 miles until you reach Highway 49, where you must jaywalk across the busy road to a gate where the trail resumes. There's a yellow sign warning motorists that horses and hikers are around but, still, use caution crossing.
From there, you go slightly uphill about a mile to a meadow that's part of the Olmstead Loop. On race day, you'll veer left and go to the Cool Fire Station for the finish line. But for our purposes, you veer right and follow signs to the Robie/ Western States Trail, which heads down about two miles to the confluence, where you can see the Quarry Trail lot.
As you finish, give yourself a high-five. You don't have to pretend you covered the Western States and Cool courses. You actually did. Well, part of it, at least.