Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Favorite trails of 2013

This year, our monthly Fresh Tracks features have taken us from the enticingly scented eucalyptus groves of the Oakland hills to the panoramic blue of Lake Tahoe seen from one of its highest peaks, from towering redwoods along the north coast in Del Norte County to the jutting granite boulders of the Fairfield foothills.

We’ve made you work hard climbing Mount Diablo to view the fire-damaged ravines and taken you on a stroll on one of California’s first wheelchair-friendly trails.

Along the way, we’ve encountered snorting cows blocking the path in Crockett, banded-wing grasshoppers hovering like NSA-launched drones in Tahoe, and a retreating (thankfully) black bear in the American River canyon.

At this point we’re supposed to say how difficult it was to pick the top four trails for a year-end review. But, really, the ones chosen below were clearly the highlights. We’ll refresh your Fresh Tracks memory with a synopsis of each – the full stories can be seen online at

Independence Trail

Tops on the list for 2013 is the Independence Trail, north of Nevada City.

You might just pass the trailhead by as you wend your way along Highway 49. But do yourself a favor and stop for a 3- to 4-mile, out-and-back jaunt amid the fragrant cedar and ponderosa pines and the shadows cast by the twisted madrone and live oak. Late naturalist John Olmsted and friends built the trail themselves, taking an old flume trail and leveling and compacting the dirt so that those using wheelchairs or those too frail for jagged paths can experience nature. It is the very definition of win-win for outdoor lovers of all abilities.

The 3-mile, out-and-back west route is the preferred route. That branch takes you along a twisting irrigation canal with stone walls covered with lichen, followed by flumes standing on trestles that afford gorgeous views of the river and, closer still, Rush Creek.

“I first did this trail 20 years ago and at the time it was, like, wow, impressive,” said Bonnie Lewkowicz, director of Access Northern California, a Bay Area nonprofit advocacy group for trails friendly to the disabled. “Is there still that switchback ramp that goes down to the waterfall?”

Well, yes and no.

The original wooden ramp that Olmsted and cohorts built years ago still leads down to the stream bed. But rains over the winter washed out the last section of the ramp, meaning wheelchair users now can only get close to the water. There are plans to repair and rebuild.

Difficulty: Easy (out-and-backs); moderate (Jones Bar loop)

Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 to the Highway 49 exit. Continue on Highway 49 through Auburn, Grass Valley and Nevada City. Turn left at the sign “49 to Downieville” and continue about 7 miles to the pullout just after a sign for the Independence Trail.

Flume Trail

A trail partially built over a flume in Lake Tahoe is the locale for our second selection. It’s called the Flume Trail, a 13.2-mile point-to-point run that actually connects several trails from Spooner Lake and Marlette Lake before hitting the 4.4-mile Flume and then finishing with a downhill slalom on Tunnel Creek Road to Incline Village, Nev. For the past 25 years, it’s consistently been on the top 10 lists of trails in every mountain bike magazine. This, of course, is a summer-only trek, with the snow only starting to recede by late May.

The view along the edge of the Flume Trail’s single track, 1,600 feet above the east shore of Tahoe (Nevada side), is sublime. As you move along, the sparkling cobalt blue of the lake and the still-snowcapped peaks framing it give way to subtle gradations of blue – celeste, turquoise and what Sherwin-Williams calls “sea salt” – as you peer down to Sand Harbor below.

Because you start at Spooner Lake and finish at Incline Village, you need to work out the logistics. Some people take two cars, park one at the finish in Incline and the other at the start at Spooner. Much more pleasant is to take a shuttle van from the Tunnel Creek Cafe in Incline to Spooner. Primarily used to shuttle mountain bikers, but open to hikers and runners as well, the Flume Trail Bikes shuttle service costs $15 and runs every hour until the early afternoon.

Once on the trail, it’s a high-altitude trek (highest elevation: 8,161 feet), but with not a lot of climbing (well, OK, 2,116 feet of uphill).

Difficulty: Moderate (because of altitude and early climbing)

Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 to the Highway 267 exit. Take 267 for 11 miles south and turn left on Highway 28 East (North Lake Boulevard). At the traffic circle, stay straight on North Lake Boulevard. Turn left on Ponderosa Ranch Road, then an immediate right on Tunnel Creek Road. Park at the Tunnel Creek Cafe parking lot.

South Fork American River Trail

Another point-to-point trail, the South Fork American River Trail (11.7 miles one way; 23.4 if you’re really ambitious and do an out-and-back), is our third selection. Two years after a joint effort by the American River Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management linked the trailhead at Magnolia Ranch near Coloma to the Skunk Hollow (Salmon Falls) trail head near El Dorado Hills, the trail is getting lots of use by hikers, runners, mountain bikers and (on some allowable sections) equestrians.

Because many portions of the SFART were carved by the ARC and the BLM, 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, “ said Bill Hambrick, race director of the Gold Rush 100K, 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.

The wide trails make it easy to appreciate the views. 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.

Difficulty: Moderate

Directions: The trailheads are at Magnolia Ranch (between Pilot Hill and Lotus off Highway 49) and at Skunk Hollow at the Salmon Falls Bridge, 7 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 4 miles until you reach Green Valley Road. Stay straight. El Dorado Hills Boulevard turns into Salmon Falls Road. Drive 7 miles to the trailhead parking lot on the right after crossing the bridge.

Judge Davis Trail

Our fourth selection, the Judge Davis Trail in Lake County, leads to another body of water – Cache Creek.

Signage on the trail can be a tad confusing early on. But once assured that you are on the correct trail, it’s mostly rolling downhill to the creek. The terrain is primarily open space, so it gets hot in the summer, and the openness gives the purported mountain lions plenty of opportunity to spot and stalk you. However, there are some spectacular, gnarled manzanita bushes amid the sage and greasewood. You’ll also hit several copses of blue oaks at which you can stop for a respite or picnic.

Because the trail is well groomed and mostly absent of rock gardens, you can be safe in peering down into the gorgeous views of Wilson Valley, but you’ll neither see nor hear Cache Creek until you are less than half a mile from it on an overlook.

Jordan Summers’ seminal guidebook, “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Sacramento” (Menasha Ridge Press) suggests stopping at the creek’s edge near a distinctive foothill pine and waiting for the wildlife to shows itself. Remember, too, that most of the 2,600 feet of elevation gain comes on the return trip. Summers writes of seeing a bald eagle nesting near the creek banks, so that’s worth sitting a spell to see.

Wildlife, including the occasional mountain lion, is said to be everywhere on the Judge Davis Trail. No such luck for me. I didn’t even see a single lizard, newt or turkey vulture. But the solitude is wonderful. We had the trail to ourselves for the entire two-hour round trip.

Difficulty: Moderate

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 5 north to the Williams exit (Highway 20). Take Highway 20 west for 22.6 miles. Just past the Colusa-Lake County border, turn left into the trailhead parking lot. Alternate directions: Take I-505 to Highway 16, and travel about 30 miles to the junction with Highway 20. Turn left and go to the county line and park at the trailhead.

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