Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: American River Canyon Overlook Park earns its popularity

The Mountain Quarries Bridge, popularly known as the “No Hand Bridge,” extends over the American River just below the confluence of the north and middle forks. The Foresthill Bridge, top, and Highway 49 crossing, center, are key roadways in the area.
The Mountain Quarries Bridge, popularly known as the “No Hand Bridge,” extends over the American River just below the confluence of the north and middle forks. The Foresthill Bridge, top, and Highway 49 crossing, center, are key roadways in the area. rpench@sacbee.com

Not that it matters, given the totality of Yogi Berra’s malapropistic production, but it’s doubtful he was the first to utter this twisted truism: “It’s so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.”

Sage words, nonetheless. Berra may have been talking about a certain overexposed New York restaurant back in the day, but does the same hold true when it comes to hikers, runners and equestrians thinking about starting their adventures at the American River Canyon Overlook Park in Auburn?

The park – or, at least, its parking lot – is packed well before noon most weekends, and widely used on weekdays as well. It is a high point, literally and figuratively, for those seeking to enjoy the many trail options of the Auburn State Recreation Area. You can start at this spot and run clear to Lake Tahoe, if the mood strikes, or go south through the Folsom Lake Recreation Area and reach Sacramento. It serves as a central point for any number of choose-your-own-adventure routes on trails too numerous to name here. With such a prime location, it’s no surprise that many trail races use the Overlook as either start-finish points or major aid stations.

But do a lot of the trail users in the know actually avoid Overlook Park because of its popularity with the masses?

From my experience, no.

I remember once speaking with ultra-running veteran Bill Hambrick, who was then organizing a race farther up the river along the South Fork American River Trail. He said he and his trail buddies always begged off the newer SFART, because “it was one of those things where everyone I’d run with just said, ‘Ah, let’s just meet at the Overlook.’ You know how that goes. We always go to the same places.”

Close (to downtown Auburn, that is), convenient (parking is free in the main lot and along the street just beyond, though a state park pass is required to park in the equestrian lot) and considerate (real bathrooms, not portables, ones that are actually kept reasonably tidy, given the extensive use), the Overlook almost is too nice for those who like their outdoor experiences harsh and rustic. (Not to worry, though, the trails themselves provide more than enough back-to-nature verisimilitude.)

I long had wondered why such an elaborate facility was built when most trailheads or staging areas are comparatively spartan. The answer, turns out, is deliciously ironic.

According to the tome “Western States Trail Guide,” whose historical information was provided by equestrian legend Hal Hall, Overlook Park originally was built in the 1970s so that people could get a bird’s eye view of the construction of a dam in the canyon below. Yes, the same Auburn dam that would’ve buried that same canyon under fathoms of water, wiping out such splendors as the No Hands Bridge and many lush trails and whitewater kayaking put-ins and take-outs. You know how the story turned out: The dam construction was abandoned (seismic fears, citizen and ecological outrage) and the trails, bridge and meandering river spared. The scarred hillsides are the the most obvious evidence of the dam’s aborted existence.

Proponents and opponents continue to debate resurrecting the dam plan, but all that kerfuffle is way beyond “Fresh Tracks’ ” purview. I’m just here to tell you about the trail options from the Overlook.

If you are a newcomer, or only have one chance to visit the Overlook, perhaps the best hike or run is a (relatively) simple 8.6-mile out-and-back to No Hands Bridge – officially called the Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge, built in 1912 – at the confluence of the American River’s north and middle forks. (Quick aside, regarding the sobriquet “No Hands”: According to the definitive third edition of “The American River Insider’s Guide,” by Protect American Rivers Canyons, “No Hands” was coined by stout-hearted horsewoman Ina Robinson who rode over it, sans reins, before guard-rail construction.)

Starting at the northernmost part of the parking lot, near the equestrian staging area, follow the trail straight (turning right at that initial junction, will take you, eventually, to the Pioneer Express Trail) as it swoops down. Almost immediately you’re enveloped in tree-canopied shade, the gurgle of a creek off to your right. You mostly descend the first mile, bearing left at a couple of junctions (look for arrows and, occasionally, signs saying “Western States Trail”). When you emerge from the grove, you are afforded your first real look at the canyon below, the winding American River, the deep quilt of trees on the other side of the north fork and, yes, the torn-up hill of the aborted dam construction.

About a mile and a half in, you reach a critical juncture. A sharp left will take you up to Robie Point; don’t go there. Instead, continue downhill for a few more feet and then make a left and follow a roller coaster fire road for slightly under a mile, beyond a sign on your left for the Robie Point Fuel Break Trail. In less than 0.3 of a mile, you’ll veer right at a small sign saying “Mountain Quarries Bridge.” It’s easy to miss, so look for another, brighter sign with a red slash through a sketch of a mountain biker.

You now enter the best part of the jaunt. It’s only another two miles or so to the bridge, but this section contains crazy switchbacks and, even in summer, can be muddy and slippery. It’s great fun. You’ll see a waterfall or two, cross a stream. Ignore trail offshoots, such as signs saying “Tamaroo Bar” and “Riverview.” The foliage is so dense in this section that occasionally you don’t immediately see bears crunching around in the brush. Once, during the latter stages of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, the leading women were stopped in their tracks by a recalcitrant mama bear in a tree protecting cubs.

In any event, bear encounters aren’t that common and eventually the single-track ends and a firm, slightly downhill double-track parallels the river and leads down to the confluence. One highlight is a waterfall with a covered footbridge constructed by volunteer trail crews. You’ll pass by some remains of railroad trestles but, really, your attention will be focused down to the confluence. Some mornings, low clouds give the scene and otherworldly aspect, but I like it when it’s clear and the water running under No Hands simply glistens.

Crossing the bridge is the turnaround point. Enjoy the 1,500-foot elevation gain back to the Overlook.

Of course, you can continue on the Western States/Wendell T. Robie Trail into Cool and beyond. Then again, the Overlook can send you on any number of routes – as short as 3 miles and to as long as ... well, long as you’ve got the energy to traverse. Grab a map at the Auburn State Recreation Area headquarters or buy “The American River Insider’s Guide” and get moving.

 

American River Canyon Overlook to No Hands Bridge

Trail length: 8.6 miles, out and back

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to the Newcastle exit. Head straight on Indian Hill Road, make a left on Auburn-Folsom Road, then a right on Pacific Avenue to Overlook Park.

Route: From the bathrooms at the north end of the parking lot, go straight on the Western States Trail. Make a few slight lefts to stay on main trail. After about 1 1/2 miles, at the Robie Point junction, stay straight downhill for about 20 feet, then go left on a fire road. About 2.4 miles into the route, just beyond the Robie Point Fire Break Trail, veer right at the sign for Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge (also a sign prohibiting mountain bikers) and follow the winding single track trail until it ends at a double track, paralleling the American River, that takes you to No Hands Bridge. Cross and then retrace steps to the Overlook.

Parking: Free.

Toilets: Yes

Water: Yes.

Dogs: (No signs prohibiting)

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