Placer County leaders eye major expansion for popular Hidden Falls park


Cruising down Mt. Vernon Road in north Auburn, it’s easy to believe it’s a dead end – albeit a charming one dotted with wineries and cattle ranches. Those who endure the few more winding turns to the entrance of Hidden Falls Regional Park will discover a gaping canvas of meadows and canyons beyond the current network of trails, a landscape that will also open soon to the public if Placer County park officials succeed in their expansion efforts.

The Placer County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to move forward with a project that will more than double the size of Hidden Falls Regional Park in the next few years, creating even more recreation options for the dozens of local hikers, bikers and horseback riders who roam the area every day.

The park is named for its popular 30-foot waterfalls, currently spewing noisily with overflow from recent storms. Its 30 miles of trails wind in layers around the rumbling Coon Creek, offering more than two dozen hikes of varying difficulty to outdoor enthusiasts and their animal companions.

Initially built on just 220 acres of land in 2006, the park recently underwent a multiyear, 1,000-acre expansion as part of the Placer Legacy Open Space Program, and opened anew in May 2013. That allowed for more trail options for bikers and horseback riders and caused a spike in the park’s popularity, said John Ramirez, Placer County parks administrator. About 12,000 people visited the park between July and December of 2014 – the highest number at any park in the Placer County system.

Hidden Falls is one of the most accessible parks in the area, and one of the few to offer waterfalls, well-maintained trails and observation decks, hikers said last week.

Park officials have for several years been planning to expand the park even further into a 3,000-acre area owned by Placer Land Trust, a conservancy group partnering with the county to make the trails publicly accessible. Connecting the county land to the trust’s land will be the first step in the project, though it may take a while given the need to construct bridges, said Ramirez. Once connected, the park will offer a total of 60 miles of trail, all the way to Bear River.

“The new mileage is going to provide additional trail loop options so people can go short distances or long distances,” Ramirez said. “They’re multiple-use trails, for horses and mountain bikers as well as hikers. It would be an extension of all the activities going on already at Hidden Falls Regional Park.”

Finding a place to build longer trails is a challenge in the foothills because the area is so fragmented by parcels of private land, said Jeff Darlington, executive director at the land trust. This all-public trail system, once completed, will be one-of-a-kind, he said.

“If you’re in a coastal area or in the Sierras, you have a lot of long trail systems,” he said. “In the foothills we don’t have a lot of public land, so you don’t see these big systems. When they do show up, it’s very special.”

The land trust has already raised more than $500,000 of the eventual $750,000 it hopes to have by June – money needed to build and maintain the additional trail mileage on their property. They’ve already used some of the money to build the first three miles of trail, completed in December, at Taylor Ranch, Darlington said. Though they aren’t part of the park yet, the trails are open for docent-led hikes every second Saturday.

In the meantime, Placer County parks staff is focused on the first phase of trail construction that heads east toward the land trust property, which first requires an environmental review. To cover those costs, the parks division has requested about $200,000 in funding from the State Department of Housing and Development’s Housing Related Parks Program, which is available only to counties that invested in low-income housing projects, and must be used specifically on parks.

The proposed park extension would go over Big Hill, offering 360-degree views of the Sutter Buttes, the Sacramento skyline, Mount Diablo and more, Darlington said. The whole trail system would move through oak woodlands, adding to the already diverse natural profile of the park. Come spring, its terrain will bloom with lupine, globe lily, California poppy and other native wildflowers. The park expansion area also houses a variety of wildlife, including cottontail rabbits, coyotes, golden eagles, screech owls and red-tailed hawks.

“It’s important for our quality of life, our health and well being, that we’re able to enjoy natural open spaces and connect with each other and the land,” Darlington said. “It’s why people live here, and why people work here or move here or retire here.”

For local mountain bikers Scott Bigley, Kevin Wegener and Rich Perry, the scenery is just a perk of what they call one of the area’s best trail systems for cyclists. The trails are designed for bikes, without too many tight turns, Perry said, and it’s always pretty no matter the weather.

The group had heard about the possible expansion, and noted that they were looking forward to more parking options, which are currently limited on crowded weekends. Ramirez said finding an additional access point for a second parking lot is a top priority.

“We’re excited for it,” Bigley said. “It’s good to have that much more trail. This area is starting to turn into a place where you don’t have to travel too far to go mountain biking – it’s all right here.”

Hiker Charlotte Bolinger of Grass Valley said she is enjoying the park as often as possible this winter as an alternative to suboptimal ski conditions.

“There’s all these hidden little pieces of trail,” she said. “It’s not just hidden falls, it’s hidden this and that ... hidden beauty.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.