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The Fam on Foot: On South Yuba, there's a bridge not too far

It may comfort you to know that there are no dragons living anywhere near the Bridgeport Bridge. Not one single dragon of any kind; please, proceed with confidence.

Perhaps this wasn't a particular concern for you, but it should have been, according to my friend Nicki, who regards dragons as a growing problem in the world today and believes it would be just like them to hang around a historic covered bridge.

Nicki is 7, and what she knows about dragons is a lot. When you invite Nicki and her family on a hike, you're just begging for a serious dragon hunt to break out -- which is exactly what happened recently when we hit the 3.2-mile Point Defiance Trail at South Yuba River State Park.

"That looks like a dragon skull!" said Nicki, one of the few people in the world who can spot a dragon skull at 50 paces. Alas, on this occasion, it was just a funny-shaped rock. But the point is, it could have been a dragon skull, and then we would've been awfully thankful to have such a wary dragon-watcher on hand, believe you me.

The clean dragon report was quite a relief, since the Bridgeport Bridge is a cherished Nevada County gem. Built in 1862, it's the longest single-span covered bridge remaining in the world, stretching 243 feet across the Yuba River's south fork.

Somehow the remarkable structure looks like a misplaced piece of Noah's ark, what with all the wood and the tiny windows on the sides. Why Noah would have chosen to park in such a remote location would be cause for much conjecture, but we must assume that the nifty Point Defiance Trail was part of the lure.

The trail begins on the far side of the bridge, where you're greeted with two big, posted signs confirming that - yes, believe it or not - there are rattlesnakes and mountain lions in them thar woods. As every hiker instinctively knows, you definitely want to avoid feeding the rattlesnakes and mountain lions (and we don't mean bread crumbs).

Upon encountering signs like those, most casual hikers will shrug them off with a lame joke and press onward while silently praying in italics that a really big bolt of lightning will immediately fry to a crisp any rattlesnake or mountain lion that comes within a freakin' half-mile! This is a common reaction and will pass once you have departed this earth.

Some people are good at hiding their nervousness about wild animals. And some just aren't - like, for instance, Nicki's mother, Pat, a wonderfully kind woman who can't help thinking that every 3-inch lizard is potentially equipped with 12-inch fangs.

"What was that?!" said Pat as an umpteenth lizard rustled the groundcover along the trail.

"I don't know," her husband, Mike, said with a grin. "But, boy, Patty, it sure looked big ..."

For the first mile or so, the Point Defiance Trail is one of those beautifully interesting treks that dips up and down over rocks, roots and bushes. We have decided that we like these slender trails far better than those brain-dead walks down fire roads. There's a sense of real trailblazing on little stretches like that, even though the trail has clearly been around since Noah first walked it, probably with his wife shrieking "What was that?!" every time a lizard bared its fangs.

The trail follows along the final swirls of the Yuba River as it spills into Englebright Lake, and at 1.2 miles, you run into the very cool Point Defiance Campground - a smattering of tiny, picturesque sites broken up by high berry hedges at the lake's edge.

It's the perfect lunch spot, and the skinny paths between the berry bushes are just begging for hide-and-seek of the highest caliber. Unfortunately, when you return to the trail, you find that it has suddenly become - curses! - a fire road.

Not just a fire road but a fire road with a rather long, steep incline. I'd worried beforehand whether a child Nicki's age could handle an incline like this. Predictably, now the three adults were groaning, the two preteens were whining, and Nicki was dancing breezily far ahead of us, as though she were Julie Andrews on a lark through the Austrian Alps.

Her older sister, 11-year-old Dani, tried to reel Nicki back in. "Hey, mountain-lion bait! Get back here!" she said.

Everyone laughed.

Everyone but Pat.

Eventually the incline flattened out, and the fire road took a couple of funky turns and became a real trail again. We were lost for about five minutes - our penance for not picking up a trail map at the excellent visitors center beforehand - but eventually we began winding our way back down toward the bridge.

"Hey, a skull!" said Nicki.

This time it wasn't a funny-looking rock. It was a real skull - possibly dragon but more likely small mammal. A few more steps down the trail, we encountered some real strong indications that it was probably a skunk.

Then again, the more we looked at the details of the skull, the more we were fixated on those two long, sharp front teeth.

You had to admit it: It could be a lizard.


Point Defiance Trail at Bridgeport

Rating (out of five): * * * *

Round-trip hike distance: 3.2-mile loop.

Round-trip hike time: 3 hours.

Degree of difficulty: Mostly easy, with one long, moderate climb on the back side.

Highlights: Bridgeport Bridge, at 243 feet the longest single-span covered bridge in the world. Picturesque Englebright Lake. Literally legions of lizards. Excellent visitor center, and several shorter trails nearby.

And another thing: No fee. Not wheelchair accessible. Restrooms at visitor center, none on the trail.

For more information: South Yuba River State Park, (530) 432-2546

Where it's at: Bridgeport Bridge, 16 miles northwest of Grass Valley; 75 miles from Sacramento.

Directions from Sacramento: Interstate 80 east to Auburn; Highway 49 north toward Grass Valley for about 24 miles; Highway 20 west toward Marysville for about 8 miles; at Penn Valley, take Pleasant Valley Road north for about 8 miles. Turn left into the parking lot next to the visitor center and covered bridge.

The Bee's Don Bosley can be reached at (916) 321-1101 or dbosley@sacbee.com.

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