Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Make an epic climb up to Foresthill Bridge in Auburn

Sacramento residents Gracie Leal, left, and Rosam Ruiz, middle, hang out on rocks beside the Foresthill Bridge with Peter Stewart of Orange County in mid-January near Auburn.
Sacramento residents Gracie Leal, left, and Rosam Ruiz, middle, hang out on rocks beside the Foresthill Bridge with Peter Stewart of Orange County in mid-January near Auburn.

In a moment of madness a couple of months ago, I signed up for this race in Auburn called the Foresthill Uphill Challenge 1K.

Why madness? It’s right there in the name: “Foresthill,” as in the bridge; and “Uphill,” as in one hellacious climb.

C’mon, how bad could it be? It’s only 1 kilometer, a mere 0.6 miles. Piece of cake. As an incentive, the race director promised “special prizes” for those who could finish in under 10 minutes. Geez, really? That’s a 16:38 pace, pal, something my octogenarian, but spry, mom could pull off. Truth be told, I mostly wanted to compete to get the beanie with the distinctive race logo that featured the provocative initials of the event.

In any case, I survived mostly intact and only slightly hypoxic. Yes, I was one of the 11 runners who completed the course from the American River Confluence to the east end of Foresthill Bridge – 730 feet of elevation gain, with an average slope of 27 percent and max of 63 percent – in under 10 minutes. (Prize: a trucker’s hat. Meh.) I’d like to say it was fun, but that would only be true in retrospect. It was painful and, at the finish line, runners were strewn on the ground like Civil War re-enactors.

I came away thinking that everyone should make that climb at least once in their lives. You don’t have to set any speed records. Take it slow and steady and, on the really steep pitches, do it simian style – on all fours – hands digging into the moist clay.

But in order to make this a fleshed-out “Fresh Tracks” offering, I needed more than just a 1.2-mile up-and-down trek. (That downhill, by the way, is a killer on middle-aged knees; had it not been so rocky, I might have glissaded down.) So I consulted the all-knowing third edition of “The American River: Insider’s Guide,” by the sage folks at the nonprofit Protect American River Canyons, and cobbled together a loop just under 5 miles that winds its way through a meadow, along a ridgeline, down amid oak-shaded woods and above the middle fork of the American River before finishing with the mondo climb.

There are several trailheads from which to start, but I chose to park the car at the dirt parking area just northeast of the Foresthill Bridge, identified as Gate 114 on a small sign. You could start at the confluence (Gate 139) and make the climb at the start, but that would sort of tire you for the rest of the jaunt and make it seem anticlimactic, now, wouldn’t it? You also could park at the Mammoth Bar OHV Area (Gate 108) about midway through the loop, but I really liked the idea of leaving the climb for the end, as something of an exclamation point.

You start heading uphill on the Fuel Break Trail, which parallels Foresthill Road for the first half-mile before veering north to lose some of the traffic noise. You’ll climb 387 feet on the Fuel Break, which is slightly under a mile. Consider it a warmup for the steep climb at the finish. Honest, it’s the only climb you’ll have in the first 4.2 miles of the loop. Once you reach the junction with the Culvert Trail, it’s literally all downhill (gently so) to the confluence.

Fuel Break is a wide, manicured double track lined by manzanita and oak trees. On a cold, overcast morning, with nary another trail user afoot, I was a bit startled when a few manzanita branches started rustling and I heard a distinct growl. It wasn’t a car engine revving. I picked up my pace and kept moving. Later, I would read this about the Fuel Break Trail in the “American River” guidebook: “… (T)he trail is popular with local wildlife. … They are seldom seen, but their tracks show this is a busy roadway for both large and small animals.”

After just under a mile, the Culvert Trail veers to the right. You can immediately see who uses this winding path: mountain bikers. It’s a veritable slalom course of single track, often punctuated by banked turns where the bike tires carve into the berm. My only problem with the Culvert Trail is that, at 1.2 miles, it just isn’t long enough. You’ll lose about 600 feet of elevation on that path, but it’s not so steep as to affect your gait. After a half-mile, you’ll cross under Foresthill Road via a culvert (hence the trail’s name) and you’ll ramble another half-mile or so until you reach the trail’s end at Old Foresthill Road and the entrance to Mammoth Bar.

I’m sorry to note that you must traverse 0.2 of a mile of paved road – no way around it, trail purists – to reach the Middle Fork Confluence Trail, a glorious 1.8-mile slightly downhill stretch that gives you a bird’s-eye view of the river (and the wildly popular Quarry Trail on the other side). Mountain bikers frequent this trail, too, their tire grooves conspiring with jutting boulders and remnants of crumbling asphalt to keep footing somewhat challenging.

The Confluence Trail dips and rises and, being singletrack with many blind curves, keeps your mind off the epic climb to come.

But, nearing the confluence, you catch sight of the concrete pillars of the tallest bridge in California. Much as you try to stay focused on the road ahead, you cannot help but crane your neck and take in the heights you must scale in the next 0.6 miles. After crossing Old Foresthill Road and going through Gate 139, you have a 100-yard reprieve before you reach a junction.

You want to turn right on the barest of single track and head straight up. Stay on this extreme uphill all the way – avoid the fire road – to the top. The path is eroded in places but, in a way, that’s good, because the seams and depressions give you a foothold (and handhold) so you do not slide down.

I won’t lie to you; this is a challenge. And for those with back or knee problems, well, maybe this isn’t the challenge for you. But when you reach the bridge and then look back down at where you began, you feel almost giddy at your accomplishment.

Or maybe just because you’re light-headed and about to pass out.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Auburn State Recreation Area - Foresthill Bridge Climb Loop

Trail length: 4.9 miles

Elevation gain: 1,292 feet

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to the Foresthill Road exit. Cross Foresthill Bridge and park at the pullout on the northeast side, next to Gate 114.

Route: From Gate 114, take the Fuel Break Trail for 0.9 miles to the Culvert Trail. Turn right and go 1.2 miles to the entrance to Mammoth Bar OHV area. Follow the paved road down to the trailhead for the Middle Fork Confluence Trail. Turn right and follow the trail 1.8 miles to the confluence. Cross Old Foresthill Road and pass Gate 139. Go about 100 yards and make a sharp right turn on an extreme uphill. Follow it a half mile to the Foresthill Bridge. Cross Foresthill Road and return to the Gate 114 trailhead.

Parking: No fee

Bikes and dogs: Allowed

Toilets: Not at Gate 114, but at Mammoth Bar and at Confluence