Bike Rides & Hikes

Hiking the Assassin’s Trail near Applegate

Dried-up leaves cover the ground presided over by pines, manzanitas and oak trees late last month along the Assassin’s Trail in Applegate, a 7-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 1,100 feet.
Dried-up leaves cover the ground presided over by pines, manzanitas and oak trees late last month along the Assassin’s Trail in Applegate, a 7-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 1,100 feet. rpench@sacbee.com

Call me superficial, a total outdoors poseur, but I tend to be drawn to trails solely based on their names, the more colorful the better.

I seek out the unusual simply so I can tell people, in a burst of humble-brag, Yeah, Mount Diablo really kicked my butt last Sunday, but not as bad as the Devil’s Backbone Trail in Fairfield or Big Mama in Vacaville. And if that fails to impress my listener, I’ll add, Of course, this week I’ll take it easy and just go to Auburn, do Rattlesnake Bar to Dead Truck then over Goat Hill and finish with repeats up K2. After that, I’ll feign interest in their excursions, if they haven’t already walked off, rolling their eyes.

So, imagine my excitement when I recently learned of an out-and-back route in Applegate called the Assassin’s Trail. I knew nothing about it, other than its provocative name, and that it’s included on the course for the 2015 Ultra Race of Champions, to be held in the American River Canyon in September.

This was a must-do, even if I had no clue as to the Assassin’s Trail’s location, length and degree of difficulty. Hey, isn’t that what Google search is for?

Deep into Page 2 of the search results, there was a link to the Meadow Vista Trails Association, which provides a great primer on this little-known trail in the ridges above the north fork of the American River. I learned that its trailhead is only a short hop off Interstate 80 a few miles beyond Auburn, that it’s a 5-mile, one-way route (that can easily but shortened) on relatively smooth single track and erstwhile wagon roads with only one major climb to tax your fitness.

Great, but what about the name, Assassin’s Trail? There’s got to be a juicy back story.

And there is. About 3 miles into the trek, you’ll reach an unmarked, overgrown area that locals dub Assassin’s Garden. It skirts the edges of the former site of the Esoteric Fraternity, a religious sect founded in 1887 by Hiram E. Butler, who, according to The Bee’s archives, had members “surrender their possessions to the fraternity and attempt to achieve harmony with nature through meditation, celibacy and simple living.”

But, on Aug. 2, 1973, Esoteric member Matthew A. Bosek was murdered, execution-style, while tending the compound’s garden. The Placer County sheriff’s office had no leads and The Bee, which back then had a “Secret Witness Program,” offered a $10,000 reward for helping to solve the crime.

To this day, it remains a “cold case,” and I’m pretty sure The Bee is no longer offering a five-figure bounty.

I called Chris Sihner, Meadow Vista Trail Association board member, to make sure the trail remains well-maintained enough to traverse and check that the fires that scorched Applegate last summer didn’t do damage. He assured that the trail was still passable and, in fact, has been widened in places because “the CDF (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) or some other governmental agency must’ve hired people with heavy equipment and turned part of it into a fire break.”

Sihner then went on to describe how the trail meanders past the Esoteric grounds, and then he drops this bombshell: “Near the end (the turn-around), is the site where that poor Auburn girl – I can’t remember her name – was murdered by her boyfriend about 10 years ago. So, I guess there’s a double assassins’ out there, basically.” He was referring to the 2003 death of Justine Vanderschoot, who was strangled to unconsciousness and then buried alive on the trail in a 4-foot grave. A year later, boyfriend Daniel Lee Bezemer was convicted of first-degree murder.

But don’t let these grisly details of past crimes detour you, Sihner said. The Assassin’s Trail is a pretty, not-too-taxing trek among oak trees and gnarled manzanita, shaded from the sun in the morning and affording views of the canyon below, if not quite iPhone-worthy snapshots of the river itself, obscured by trees during my late-fall trip.

Winter and spring, assuming rainfall remains moderate, are the perfect times to make the trail. Oak leaves and pine needles provide a cushion along a path that, unlike many in the American River area, is mostly absent of roots and rocks. Thank the MVTA for that. The volunteer group, founded in 1995, has built and improved upon many trails outside the purview of the Auburn State Recreation Area. Its website gives detailed directions for finding trailheads and routes, as well as giving the history of the area. And after detailing the 1973 murder as the reason for the Assassin’s Trail name, the website quickly adds: “The trail today is better remembered for its quiet beauty and excellent views into the canyon.”

True on both counts.

On my late November trip, I was taken by the sounds of nature – birds singing, the crackling of critters scurrying over fallen leaves, the snap of branches in the wind – in an area near a major street, Boole Road, dotted with houses. But the trail plunges far enough down the ridge to make it seem as if you were deep in the forest. I admit that was a little unsettling, given my knowledge of the two murders along the trail. But, really, there’s no reason to be anxious about anything other than the obligatory warnings on the MVTA website about this trail being part of “Cougar Country.”

Wait, I take that back. You might have a little anxiety about making wrong turns on this trail, because it’s unmarked throughout, not even at the trailhead. Thanks to the MVTA’s directions, though, you can easily suss out the way to go, as well as where to park along the roadside. You can park along Boole Road at a turnout at the four concrete posts that serve as a marker about 11/2 miles off the freeway, but that area can handle only two cars, maximum. A larger parking area is 0.2 of a mile farther on, just after you make the left turn from Boole onto Cerro Vista Road. If you park there, it’s an easy stroll on a dirt path, northwest, back up to the trailhead.

The trailhead itself should be named for Robert Frost. You know, “The Road Not Taken,” about paths emerging from the woods. Instead of only two to choose from, there are paths in all directions, a total of five. You can head straight up to the west on a path that dead-ends after 300 yards, or a path next to it, still going west, that’s popular with ATVs. Or you can go east on a wide dirt road, the Upper Clementine Trail. But those wanting the Assassin’s Trail need to keep a sharp eye for a single-track path, partially covered with foliage, that leads northeast.

After perhaps 100 yards, the trail widens a little and becomes what the MVTA calls a “wagon road,” which in this case is something slightly wider than single-track. It’s fairly flat going around the edges of the canyon for at least a mile.

From there, the MVTA and my calculations differed. The MVTA states you go 2 miles before reaching a junction, where you veer slightly left and go uphill with a half-mile. My trusty GPS watch told me the I had arrived at the junction at 1.4 miles. Regardless, make sure to take the fork left for a fairly steep uphill. If you go right and stay on the flat trail, it will dead-end in about 0.3 of a mile at the edge of a cliff. Don’t bother making this diversion; the view is obscured by trees.

The half-mile uphill will test your aerobic capacity. When the climb ends at a T-junction, go right. That will lead you to the “Assassin’s Garden,” scene of the crime. Unless you look closely, you will not see what remains of the garden, but the Esoteric Fraternity land (owned by the BLM) is fenced off, which gives you an idea of the breadth of the grounds.

Farther on, you reach a padlocked gate. On the other side is the back entrance to the Esoteric Fraternity. Trails lead up the hillside, but they are open only to MVTA members who have a key to the padlock. Moving on again, you can still peer in at the facility, seeing abandoned homes and crumbling facades of buildings.

Still farther, nearing the 4-mile mark, the trail continues on. Sihner of the MVTA said the trail continues all the way to a junction with the Codfish Falls Trail (part of the Auburn State Recreation system). I wasn’t feeling spry enough on this day to make the trip down (and, more arduously, back up) the canyon. So I was looking for the turn-around point at about the 5-mile mark.

Turns out, I didn’t make it even to the 4-mile mark. A large hand-painted sign with “KEEP OUT!” was nailed to the trunk of a tree. Just beyond that, a yellow ribbon stretching across the trail confirmed it – I wasn’t going any farther.

Now, I admit I’ve occasionally disregarded “no trespassing” signs in the wilderness, but because I was on a trail called Assassin’s, and I knew a bit of the history, I cut it short and retraced my steps to the trailhead. My GPS watch measured the out-and-back at 7 miles, with slightly over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. A satisfying enough outing. Not too hard, not too easy.

Of course, when I detailed the trek to friends and family later, I embellished it all out of proportion. Oh, the Assassin’s Trail. It’s a killer, man. My quads and calves are still feeling it ...

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

ASSASSIN’S TRAIL, APPLEGATE

Trail Length: 7 miles (out-and-back, can lengthen or shorten)

Elevation gain: 1,100 feet

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to the Applegate exit. Go east (right) off the freeway and make a left turn onto Applegate Road. After crossing through a tunnel, turn right onto Boole Road. Travel about a mile to a pullout on the left (just past Roland Lane, on the right). There is room for one or two cars. A larger parking area is 0.2 of a mile away. Make a left onto Cerro Vista Road. The dirt lot is on the left.

Route: From the clearing near Boole Road, where five trails intersect, follow the slightly obscured single-track path northeast for about 1.4 miles. At a junction, veer left onto an extreme uphill single-track. Go uphill for 0.5 miles. At a T-intersection, turn right and follow the trail for about a mile. On your left will be the remains of Assassin’s Garden and beyond that the erstwhile Esoteric Fraternity site. Stay right beyond a locked gate. Continue on the unmarked Assassin’s Trail until you feel like turning around. Retrace steps to the trailhead.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate.

Exposure: Some shade, but sun exposure on the ridgeline.

Toilets: No

Water: No

Probability of getting lost: Be vigilant. No trail markers.

Will there be blood? Mostly a soft and forgiving surface.

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