May 1, 2013

Fresh Tracks: Don't delay trying the splendid South Fork American River Trail

Something so rare in these parts as a new trail is to be celebrated, cherished and, most of all, used.

PILOT HILL – Something so rare in these parts as a new trail is to be celebrated, cherished and, most of all, used.

Used often. Used not only for enjoyment, but to send a message that we'd like more of them, thank you very much.

So I was feeling a mite guilty that, more than two years after its well-publicized opening, I'd still yet to set foot on the 11.7-mile South Fork American River Trail that connects Magnolia Ranch (between Pilot Hill and Coloma) to the Skunk Hollow trailhead just over the Salmon Falls Bridge northwest of El Dorado Hills.

Sure, I had excuses. They ranged from the lazy – "Do I really feel like running the 23 1/2-mile out and back with this hinky back problem I've got?" – to the really lazy – "What a hassle it'd be to do a car shuttle between the two trailheads and, besides, I can't find anyone to accompany me."

Months passed and still I had not made the trek over the route with the schoolboy-snickering acronym of SFART. Something always came up, usually a trail closer to Sacramento.

But when I heard that a new trail race, the Gold Rush 100K on May 11, would use the SFART as part of its course that links Sutter's Mill in Coloma to Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, it was like a swift kick in the backside to get me out there.

Turns out, Gold Rush 100 race director Bill Hambrick had been using the same type of excuses to avoid the SFART. Hambrick, a veteran ultra runner who's completed the Western States 100 and numerous 50-mile races, had let inertia and trail familiarity get the best of him, as well.

"I'd always wanted to go; thought about it a lot," Hambrick said. "But it was one of those things where everyone I'd run with just said, 'Ah, let's just meet at the (Auburn) overlook.' You know how that goes. We always go the same places."

What it took to spur Hambrick onto the trail was being approached by the Sacramento Running Association to direct the organizations's first foray into ultra races.

Soon, Hambrick became intimately familiar with the Magnolia-to-Salmon Falls stretch. Now, it's one of his favorite spots.

Once I dragged my bloated carcass out to the Magnolia Ranch trailhead, I, too, became a fan.

How about if I give you 11.7 reasons, one for each mile, to get out there this weekend?

1. Obsessive signage

Everywhere you look, handsome wooden signs are hammered into the ground pointing the way on the south fork. The many side trails – some leading down to the river, others to the many offshoot trails swinging around back toward neighboring Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park – are marked with care.

One quibble, and it's so small that I really shouldn't mention it but have to because of my own ob-com tendencies when it comes to spelling, is that they've misspelled the Connector Trail ("Connecter") about 2.2 miles into the trek.

It's nearly impossible to get lost. My detailed map, downloaded from the American River Conservancy website, never made it out of my pocket.

2. Pristine trailhead

Veteran trail types come to appreciate even the most ghastly portable toilet. But when you come upon a pit toilet in pristine condition, one in which you don't have to hold your breath for the duration of your stay, it's worth noting.

3. The free parking

Yup, at both the Magnolia Ranch and Skunk Hollow (Salmon Falls) trailheads, there are no state or regional recreation area parking fees. No need to cheat by parking along the roadside for those too cheap to shell out $125 for an annual state parks Poppy Pass.

4. Well-groomed trail

Some trails sort of create themselves organically and later are "maintained" by volunteers. Because many portions of the SFART were carved by the ARC and the Bureau of Land Management, the trails are wide and mostly free of rocks and roots. Even the single-track parts, traversing hillsides or climbing up and down switchbacks, are not liable to lead to face-plants.

"You can almost run it blind, it's so clean," Hambrick said. "You don't have to worry about tripping. I like single-track trail as much as the next guy, but I definitely don't mind it up there."

One reason the ARC cut the trails so wide is to protect the many native plants. About 18 percent of all the state's native plant categories thrive along the trail, so the wide berths discourage people from going off-trail and harming species.

5. River views, sounds

Every mile or so, sometimes quite unexpectedly, you can look down and be treated by spectacular views of the American River. Even more often, you hear the river before you see it, testament to the power of the rushing water that makes this stretch a whitewater rafting and kayaking haven.

"Looking over the edge and seeing the river is special," Hambrick said. "I ran with a guy who's rafted there a lot of times. He'd say things like, 'Oh, there's Devil's Cesspool. And there's something else. There's where we have to ferry the boats out of the water because it'll drown people.'

"I never knew anything about that. It was great to see it from (above) and get a sense of it."

6. Degree of difficulty

My trusty GPS showed an elevation gain of 2,830 feet for the 11.7 miles. Ah, but there's this, too: an elevation loss of 3,080 feet. (Much of the loss comes in the final 2 miles, descending the switchbacks that lead to Salmon Falls Bridge.)

But you don't need satellite data to know that, while challenging at times, the course is not too taxing. Yet, it's not boring, either. There are two major stream crossings, at Hastings Creek and Norton Ravine, and most of the early vertical fun comes ascending the ravines.

One highlight comes at about the 7-mile mark, where a 2-mile stretch features up-and-down running that treats you to lovely vistas as rewards for doing the uphills. Even the uphill switchbacks as you get closer to Salmon Falls won't deplete your aerobic capacity while still giving you a decent workout.

7. Brief whiff of Hollywood glamour

After you ascend an oak- laden 0.2 miles at the junction of the Down and Up Trail (part of SFART) and the Hidden Valley Cutoff Trail, you emerge in a grassy valley with several ramshackle wood cabins that look as if the next strong wind might collapse them.

This is designated as a "movie set" on park maps. Which movie? Official literature on the ARC website doesn't tell you. But a spate of ob-com Googling finally reveals that this was the setting for a 2003 Hallmark Channel TV movie called "Love Comes Softly," starring Katherine Heigl and directed by Michael Landon Jr., and that parts of the 2005 "Memoirs of a Geisha" were filmed in the general area around the trail.

8. Feeling of solitude

On an early April Sunday, I traversed eight miles before I saw another human. Several deer made cameo appearances, though.

But in the last three miles – shortly after crossing a river tributary and right after a sign thanking Proposition 50 for making funds available to complete the trail linkage – you finally meet up with humanity in the form of scores of mountain bikers making their way from Salmon Falls.

9. Mellow bikers

Except for one dude hellbent on reaching about 40 mph on a downhill, most of the mountain bikers were willing to share the trail and acted almost apologetic. Occasionally, one even yielded to me on foot. That's not trail protocol, but I appreciated it.

The ARC put in several "soft shoulders" so hikers or bikers can step aside without trampling the delicate native plants in the Pine Hill Preserve.

10. Eye-candy descent

The final two miles, studded with rock and manzanita, is something like a victory lap. The downhill switchbacks are wide enough so that you can cruise at a fast pace without fear of falling. The whole time, you can gaze to Salmon Falls Bridge and the widening river headed to Folsom Lake.

11. Convenient bridge

Once, before unification with the rest of the SFART, hikers and bikers who used the trail above Salmon Falls Bridge had to ford a fairly substantial stream at Acorn Creek, a mere 0.2 miles from the parking lot. The wide Acorn Creek Bridge now stands, meaning your shoes can stay dry when you reach the destination.

11.7. The lift back

Actually, your correspondent's daughter deserves a full numeral for sacrificing a chunk of her Sunday to drive to Salmon Falls, pick me up and deposit me back at Magnolia Ranch.

I gave her plenty of excuses why I needed a ride – aftereffects of the flu; the hinky back; my advanced age – but she just shook her head and knew they were nothing but lame excuses.

South Fork American River Trail

Magnolia Ranch to Salmon Falls Bridge

Trail Length: 23.4 miles out and back; 11.7 miles point to point

Directions: The trailheads are at Magnolia Ranch (between Pilot Hill and Lotus off Highway 49) and at Skunk Hollow at the Salmon Falls Bridge, seven miles northwest of El Dorado Hills.

Directions to Magnolia Ranch: Take Interstate 80 to the Elm Avenue offramp in Auburn. Turn left at the traffic light onto Elm, then a left onto High Street. That turns into Highway 49. Go 2.3 miles to the confluence of the American River and turn right to continue on Highway 49. Drive about 10 miles beyond Cool and Pilot Hill to the Magnolia Ranch Trailhead on the right.

Directions to Skunk Hollow (Salmon Falls Bridge): Take Highway 50 to exit 30B to El Dorado Hills Boulevard. Go about four miles until you reach Green Valley Road. Stay straight. El Dorado Hills Boulevard turns into Salmon Falls Road. Drive seven miles to the trailhead parking lot on the right after crossing the bridge.

Route: From the Magnolia Ranch trailhead, follow the trail left with signs saying "South Fork American River Trail" and "Gerle Trail." At about 2.2 miles, you'll turn left on the "Connecter Trail" (sic). After crossing Hastings Creek and climbing, at 3.2 miles, go left on the Down and Up Trail, also marked "SFART." From there, follow the signs for SFART for the rest of the trek. There are two more stream crossings (well-marked with directional signs) and switchbacks. At mile 10, descend the switchbacks and briefly go northwest, away from the Salmon Falls parking lot. Cross the Acorn Creek Bridge, turn left on single-track trail to the parking lot.

Either retrace your steps back to Magnolia Ranch or ride in a car shuttle back to the Magnolia trailhead.

Difficulty: Moderate

Exposure: Mostly exposed to the sun. Some covered single-track canopied by trees in the first half of the trek.

Toilets: Yes

Parking fee: Free

Poison oak possibility: Moderate to high

Probability of getting lost: Virtually impossible

Will there be blood? No. Trails are smooth and well-groomed. There are some rocks on switchbacks heading into Salmon Falls.

Slideshow: South fork American River Trail
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

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