Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Folsom Lake Recreation Area’s Rattlesnake Bar

Avery’s Pond is a little more than a mile into Pioneer Express Trail, which hikers and runners can greatly extend by continuing on to Auburn.
Avery’s Pond is a little more than a mile into Pioneer Express Trail, which hikers and runners can greatly extend by continuing on to Auburn. rpench@sacbee.com

Lo these many years, in the vast annals on Fresh Tracks reportage, I occasionally have served as something of a cautionary tale, an example of what not to do on the trails.

(Hey, it’s a living.)

Usually, my foibles concern getting lost without a map, or heedlessly careening down rocky terrain and losing layers of epidermis, or freaking out all out of proportion at cow encounters – relatively harmless stuff like that.

But I come to you today chastened and remorseful, poorer but wiser.

For years, I have broken a basic rule any sensible trail user should heed – and, in fact, signs explicitly alerting people of the dangers often are posted at staging areas – and I finally paid for it. I left “valuables,” such as my wallet and smartphone, in my car early one morning in October at the Rattlesnake Bar Horse Assembly Area of Folsom State Recreation Area. Two hours later, upon returning from a pleasant 11.2-mile jaunt along the Pioneer Express Trail headed to Auburn and back, I saw that my passenger side window had been smashed and that everything not nailed down in the car was taken.

Credit cards. Driver’s license. Smartphone with photos of my dogs (oh, yeah, my kids, too). Reporter’s notebook. Copy of Leonard Gardner’s seminal boxing novel, “Fat City.” My change of clothes for work. Yes, Dear Reader, they even took my underwear and socks. I would later learn that, at 8:35, when I was on about Mile 3 on the trail, the felonious new owner of my debit card already had put $75 worth of gas in his getaway car at the Valero station in Newcastle.

The only good thing to say about the experience was that State Parks Peace Officer Brad Cheshire, who dutifully cataloged my losses, didn’t scold me for the doofus move of leaving my backpack on the floor of the front seat. In my defense, I did scooch the bag as far up as it could go, but, c’mon, it probably still was as obvious as if it had a neon light flashing “Take Me.” Cheshire said there’s been an uptick in car break-ins at Rattlesnake Bar, including another vehicle robbed on the same morning. And two weeks after my incident, Bee photographer Randy Pench had his car window smashed. Pench, being wiser than yours truly, had kept his valuables with him.

So, to recap: Keep your phone and wallet surgically attached to your hand when you park at trailheads, not oh-so-cleverly hidden in your car.

Now, about the Pioneer Express Trail, specifically the final, northern-most 5 1/2 -mile segment.

Whenever I feel particularly lazy or sore – or a combination of both – but still need to get in a trail run, I take the Newcastle exit off Interstate 80 and follow it until it dead-ends at Rattlesnake Bar, a boat-launching and horse-saddling area next to what’s left of Folsom Lake.

It’s a relatively easy, straightforward out-and-back, which means you can go as short as 2.4 miles, round trip, to Avery’s Pond, or 18 miles and follow Auburn State Recreation Area’s continuation of the Pioneer Express, called Cardiac, all the way up to the American River Overlook in downtown Auburn. A challenging, but not too taxing, compromise is to go as far as the brown sign reading “End of Pioneer Express,” at 5.6 miles, turn around and head back to Rattlesnake. (I’ve done this segment at least a dozen times, and not once have I encountered a slithering reptile for which the trailhead is named; not that I’m complaining.)

The first three miles are lush and smooth single track with a few undulations but nothing you can’t handle. You weave around oaks that provide shade and, through the manzanita branches, can look hard down the ridgeline where the lake peters out and becomes the American River once more. Avery’s Pond isn’t looking too hydrated, either, its northern half exposed to show its cracked silt bottom.

There’s only one tricky logistical section, coming shortly after Avery’s Pond. You reach a road, paved for 10 feet, then crushed gravel. Bear right and take the road leading to PG&E’s Newcastle Power Plant. It is an aural pleasure to hear the roar of running water on this stretch, even if it is muted in these drought days. At the Mormon Ravine bridge, the single track resumes and remains so for the rest of the trek, which traverses meadows of star thistle, more oaks and a few creek crossings. The closer you get to Auburn, the rockier and steeper the trail becomes.

Sad to say, there’s slightly more uphill on the return trip. Each time I complete this trek, I am mildly surprised to look at my GPS watch and learn that I’ve climbed 1,419 feet in elevation. I would’ve liked to compare this particular trip to earlier outings on the Pioneer Express Trail, but the app where those statistics reside was now in the hands of a scofflaw with a full tank of gas.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Folsom Lake State Recreation Area – Rattlesnake Bar Staging Area

Trail length: 11.2 miles (out and back)

Elevation gain: 1,419 feet

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to the Newcastle exit. Turn right onto Newcastle Road and take it to its end at the park gate.

Route: From the horse assembly area, turn right onto the single track trail. At Avery’s Pond (1.2 miles), the trail forks. Both forks lead around the pond and meet. At 2 miles, follow a road past the PG&E Powerhouse and back onto single track. At 5.6 miles, at a sign noting the end of the Pioneer Express Trail, retrace your steps to the trailhead.

Parking: $12 (unless you have a state parks “Poppy” pass)

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