Sunday, May 8, 2011

Stevens Trail South, Auburn State Recreation Area

Above: a view from the trail of the roiling North Fork of the American River, boisterous and quick flowing due to all the snow melt in the last few weeks.

Maria and I decided to return to the Auburn State Recreational Area for this hike because we wanted to explore Stevens Trail South, the trail they call the "forgotten side" of Stevens Trail, and what an adventure it turned out to be.

To get to the trail, you drive to Colfax, and use the Canyon Way exit, and then turn on Iowa Hill Road. This little road will lead you past the Mineral Bar Campground along the bridge you can see from Stevens Trail South.

Below: A view from the suspension bridge we saw from Stevens Bridge North on our last hike. This view is looking back up to the North Trail.

Once past the campground, you drive up a squirrelly little one lane windy road until you reach the Iowa Hill Store.

To the right of the store, you'll see, set back a little, the trail sign (above). It's an unassuming start to the trail, but it's well worth the trip.

Once we reached the store and the trailhead, we found plenty of parking (opposite the store), and we also found ourselves surrounded by several large and friendly dogs, with a pit bull appearing to be particularly excited to see us arrive. As we unpacked our gear, a young man from the store emerged and asked us if we'd like to bring the dog along with us on our hike.

We're unsure what to say to his offer because we don't know this dog at all. The dog is a pit bull but appears to be very friendly and extremely enthusiastic about the upcoming walk. As we wondering what to say, the man further notes that the dog will keep bears away, and since that seemed like a reasonable argument to us, off we all trundled down the trail, with the pit bull, named Shorty, leading the way.

The trail starts out right by the store, but travel about 200 yards, through the forest, and then you pop out onto a southwesterny type of trail, lined by colorful river rocks, and altogether a delightful surprise.

Below: Beginning of trail--a southwesterny type of trail--well maintained and clearly signed.

Below: You can see an exuberant Shorty, galloping toward me at the start of the trail. At this point, I was wondering what we had gotten ourselves into with our guide, but it turned out great. :)

The trail continues, well marked, but soon transforms into a shaded, foresty trail for almost the entire way with periodic glimpses down to the North Fork of the American River about 1500 feet below.

Below: View of North Fork of American River from trail:

Throughout the hike, Shorty was a wonder. He led us throughout the entire trail; he would bound ahead, check things out, and then come back to check on us. Very sweet and great company, and we felt safe with him.

Now--I don't know if you've seen bear scat before, but I hadn't before this trail. We saw a few impressive examples of bear poop on this trail, and all I can say is that that animal is HUGE with a hefty appetite. The poop looked fairly recent, and it was good to know that Shorty was ahead, disturbing bears away from the trail. We felt probably unreasonably safe with him, but it was a good feeling to have.

If you go on this trail, therefore, and you're offered the hiking services of Shorty, I highly recommend taking the store owners up on the offer.

Shorty's a great dog--big and friendly (although he looks like he could eat your arm off), and he wants nothing more than to keep you company and to lead the way. He didn't beg for food, he drank from the creeks and from the river, and he was a great guide. He even has his own business card. :)

Below: I don't know what Shorty was looking for in the trees, but he spent a lot of time peering up into the branches along the trail.

The trail belongs to the Bureau of Land Management, but it appears that economic cuts have prevented their visiting the trail recently because there were about six downed trees, over which we happily scrambled through, over, and under, along with some eroded trail. It's an adventurous hike, therefore, but a fun one.

Below: The trail is somewhere under this mix of tree branches.

Below: About half way along the trail, you climb a small hillock wit the help of a thoughtfully placed knotted rope. :)

Eventually, at about 3.7 miles of gradual but constant descent, the forested trail pops you out on the shores of the North Fork of the American River, and you realize that you can see hikers on the Stevens Trail North just on the opposite bank. That was a fun perspective to have because Maria and I had hiked that trail a few weeks ago, so we could see what they were seeing. I felt as if we had achieved a 360 view of the trail, having hiked both the North and the South side of the trail.

At this point too, on the river's side of the trail, we found some old thick braided iron cables that, we think, could have been part of the original bridge across the river, joining the two trails together. That was a fun historical discovery for us to find. It helped us realize the intricacies of Stevens' work in the area. He ran a toll trail, maintained it (I guess) and the bridge, and he earned enough money to sustain himself in a decent way of life and then retire successfully. I wonder if he employed the same Chinese workers who built the rock wall on the early part of the Stevens Trail North.

Below: Maria on riverbank; we went down the bank and scrambled over the rocks to find the perfect lunch place on some flat rocks on the bank. Shorty found some shortcuts around and over the rocks, and he was happy mucking around exploring as we munched on our trailmix and sandwiches.

After lunch, we retraced our trail, with Shorty leading the way, and we realized that the return trip is where we pay the piper--it's all up hill, but not that bad. Just be ready for it. It's easy to forget you're going downhill on the way out because the grade is pretty subtle on the descent.

Once we had returned to the store once more, we could see that Shorty became visibly relaxed, because his charges were at last safe, and we had the chance to chat with the store owners to learn more about our canine guide.

It turns out that Shorty has been hiking for a while but has only recently decided that he's going to accompany all the hikers on the trail, to ensure that they return safely to the store. He's such a sweet dog, and the store owners are great people.

Stevens Trail North Trail vs Stevens Trail South:

The North trail is much more heavily traveled than the South trail; it has a little easier access from the trailhead, and it is more recently maintained. It offers some phenomenal views of the river, and it has unimpeded views of the surrounding canyons and hills. The popularity of the trail, however, means you have to give up some of the feeling of isolation that sometimes you need, and the crowded trailhead can mean some creative parking solutions, I think.

Still, those North Trail unimpeded views will translate into some hot hikes once the summer comes, and so the South trail is well worth a visit. It's a shaded trail for most of it, so it's good in summer, and it's more isolated, so it's good that way too. The views are fewer between, but they're also phenomenal, and ultimately, you get to have a quiet, isolated lunch, across the river from the crowded trail, and feel special that way, because you really did take the trail less traveled, and that does make all the difference (with apologies to Robert Frost). :)

Trail Stats:

Length: 3/7 miles to the river; about 7.5 miles total. Allow extra time for working through the downed trees and bouldering on the rock bank.

Weather: predicted to be showery, but dry. Mid-60s and sunny for the past, so great hiking weather.

Trail: duff, loam, some rocky gravel trail about 200 yards in. Forested for the most part.

Animals: definitely bear territory. I wouldn't go alone unless you're like the Grizzly Man. Do accept the store offer of Shorty, who's no trouble at all and is great company.

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