Bitchin’ escapes

From Cache Creek’s mother of all rapids to California Cavern’s ‘Womb Room,’ refuges from Sacramento’s swelter are all around

Denny Armenta (foreground) and a trio of Pearsons (Jenny, Andy and Danny) take the plunge at South Yuba River State Park.

Denny Armenta (foreground) and a trio of Pearsons (Jenny, Andy and Danny) take the plunge at South Yuba River State Park.

Photo By Eric Whalen

This year, why not elude the dragon fire breath of the city with a quick escape to paradise? A one- to two-hour drive is all that separates you from wild adventure in some of the rawest terrain on the planet. When the temperature skyrockets, I like to bail on the heat by swimming, running rivers, caving, climbing, hiking and cycling.

Come summertime, the sun bakes the world in a liquid haze of heat, and my hair sticks to the back of my neck like a dead marmot. That’s when I head to a bodacious swimming hole.

South Yuba River State Park has a spot where the scenery is luscious, the water warms up just right, and it’s not too crowded. This is the kind of swimming hole locals kill for, just 90 minutes from Sacramento.

The best place is a 10-minute walk upstream from the covered bridge known as “Wood’s Crossing,” one of only nine covered bridges left in California. On one of this year’s first scorchers, we take the trail starting under the new bridge and follow it until the path dead-ends at a rocky beach. The river rushes through a short canyon and empties into a low, wide spot containing phenomenal boulders. The green river flows so smooth and clear across a gravel bottom we can see fish swimming in pools and eddies.

We stash our stuff under a shady tree and hit the water with our chocolate lab, Abbie. It’s early in the season, so we’re still talking snowmelt. Brrrrrr. The dog paddles around like a giant beaver. Saner people picnic or catch rays on top of boulders and gravel bars.

The sun grills our flesh enough to make jumping into the river seem like a good idea. Eric knows what a cold-water wuss I am, so he goes first. He climbs a boulder rising 6 feet out of the river and launches into a pool about 8 feet deep. He pops up with a facial expression I’ve never seen before.

Denny Armenta, 20, cannonballs into the river. The San Diego resident comes out half-frozen, his arms clutching his chest. He jumps in again with his friend, Jenny Pearson, 21, of Grass Valley. They talk her 22-year-old husband, Danny, and his brother Andy, 20, into plunging in with them the next time.

I hurl myself into the water and blast back out cursing. But there’s nothing like hucking your meat off a boulder into the river to wash winter’s apathy off your soul. So, all the parts that don’t shrivel up and fall off the first time go back in three more times.

Rafting and kayaking
River running is a bitchin’ way to ditch the heat. Thanks to the snowy Sierra Nevada, Northern California has plenty of killer whitewater.

The south fork of the American River is one of the most popular rivers to kayak or raft in the country, and it’s right in our backyard. Others within two hours of Sacramento are the south fork of the Yuba, the north fork of the Feather and the Mokelumne. You also can float the tranquil Sacramento River in rafts, inner tubes and canoes.

The author in a rare moment of stillness.

Photo By Eric Whalen

Yolo County hides a well-kept secret 50 minutes west of Sacramento: Cache Creek. The Cache flows east out of the Coast Range, making the water way warmer than that of Sierra rivers. The hardest rapid is endearingly named “Mother.” You’ll be whining for yours when you hear this Mother calling your name.

Rapids are rated on a scale of I to VI. Most of Cache Creek’s rapids are Class I (gentle riffles) and Class II (starting to get fun). Class II rapids on this creek include Twisted Sister, Eye Opener and Oh Shit. Class III rapids are bigger and require technical skills. Class IV is gnarly, Class V is sick, and Class VI rapids have been considered un-runable until an elite group of kayakers recently started taking them on. Mother is the creek’s only Class III. She dishes up serious whitewater for the length of a football field.

Cache Canyon River Trips, a company based in Rumsey, sets you up with a raft for one- and two-day, self-guided trips. Owners Linda and Rick Wilson and their 16-year-old daughter, Jessica, start each trip with instruction and shuttle you wherever you need to go. Two-day trips begin with wilderness runs down 3,000-foot-high canyons accessible only by water. These trips include four meals and private riverside camping with horseshoes and volleyball. Each day covers eight to nine miles, leaving time to swim and hang out.

If the air conditioner’s not working and sweat’s coating me like batter on a corn dog, I know a place where the temps never rise above 53 degrees. California Cavern is a bellyful of dank, dark beauty year round. We show up one day at the cave near Mountain Ranch for a guided trip, the Mammoth Cave Expedition.

We enter the 13-chamber system by dropping down a 5-foot-deep hole only 24 inches in diameter. We land on a slope under a low ceiling. A humongous chamber yawns in front of us. Our guide, Art Holley, makes us shut off our headlamps before we can eyeball the 120-foot-long Cathedral Room.

He says this way, we’ll truly appreciate how dark it is down here. Then he starts spouting homegrown poetry—something really creepy about blackness and isolation.

The poetry is good but unsettling. Eric and I both secretly wonder if he’s really from the tour company.

We soon find he knows his stuff. He shows us where the cave was used for secret political meetings and a tavern in the 1800s. Legends say European Americans led candlelight tours of the cave during the Gold Rush and charged miners a pinch of gold dust for the adventure.

We wind through marble halls to other chambers containing underground pools, a giant white stalagmite, sparkling cave crystals and flow stones that look like ice falls.

We dive headfirst through another hole. The three of us end up in a stone tomb—a 4-foot-high pocket about 5 feet by 8 feet. Twenty-six Boy Scouts once wormed into the “Womb Room.” There’s only one way out: that small hole we came down through. I don’t wait for any more poems.

When a high-pressure weather system parks over the Sacramento Valley and slams a lid over these tomato-sprouting flatlands, temperatures climb, and so do I.

Previewing the American River Trail extension.

Photo By Eric Whalen

Temperatures are always cooler in the Sierra, and there’s all that rock to climb. Crags and bouldering spots are strung out on the way to Tahoe. The farther you get, the cooler you’re gonna be. As a general rule, the National Weather Service says, temperatures cool off by three to four degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation.

Rock formations and cliffs with names like Sugar Loaf, Phantom Spires and Lover’s Leap are just off Highway 50. Near Highway 80, you can climb routes at Indian Springs, Rainbow and Donner Summit. More choices exist around the lake.

Lover’s Leap is a legendary climbing area near Strawberry. The granite cliff stretches out for more than half a mile. Most of the climbs are moderate and require traditional climbing skills, with climbers placing their own gear for protection from a fall. Lover’s Leap also has boulders to climb.

A few friends and a trail are all it takes to find cool, wild solitude in the mountains on day hikes or overnight backpacking trips.

Plenty of sweet, world-class hikes are within a two-hour drive. Hikes in Desolation Wilderness, Tahoe National Forest, Eldorado National Forest and the Lake Tahoe area are just a start.

One of the most well-known is the Pacific Crest Trail. This national scenic trail runs 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. Nearby, the trail runs west of Lake Tahoe and continues in both directions. So, you can sample a slice practically out your back door.

One option is to hike the trail from Carson Pass north to Showers Lake. This moderate hike takes you through volcanic hills, lodgepole pines and incredible wild flowers to Showers Lake, an alpine lake surrounded by granite boulders. The hike is five miles in and five miles out, starting at 8,580 feet in elevation, peaking at 8,800 and dropping back down to 8,600. The trip should be made in July or August.Another choice trek is yours on the Tahoe Rim Trail. The 150-mile trail around the lake takes you across ridges and mountaintops, through alpine meadows and thick forests, and along creeks and small lakes.

Closer to home, the American River Parkway boasts 5,000 acres of open space, dirt trails and river access from Discovery Park in Sacramento to Nimbus Dam close to Folsom. During the summer, hiking Sacramento’s primo green hideaway is best done in the early morning or evening. The parkway also contains a paved trail used by hikers, rollerbladers, runners and cyclers. Speaking of which …

A rad spot for off-road cyclists isn’t open yet, but they (or you, for that matter) can help make it happen.

Roadies find a handful of heaven on the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail—commonly called the American River bike trail. The paved path rolls through often-lush riparian habitat for nearly 32 miles from the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers in Old Sacramento to Beals Point at Folsom Lake. This November, people may get a chance to vote on a half-cent transportation sales tax intended to raise $30 million to maintain the bike trail and parkway.

Many mountain bikers think it’s bogus that they have to stick to the flat, paved trail and have no legal access to connecting single-track trails—dirt paths wide enough for one bike. Within two years, off-roaders may be able to grab their own fistful of nirvana on the proposed American River Trail and surrounding new recreation area.

Because once is never enough …

Photo By Eric Whalen

An eight-mile trail is planned to link Highway 49 in Coloma to a mountain-biking area at Salmon Falls. The American River Conservancy already has bought more than 2,000 acres of land along the south fork of the American River to form a corridor for the trail.

In addition to the unpaved main trail, more than 20 miles of dirt road will become open to cyclists and other users. A sneak preview let me bomb and carve through a maze of foothills so beautiful Hollywood once paid a visit, even though it was just for a made-for-TV movie. River views come with the real estate. Large oaks bust out the shade for a break from riding.

The nonprofit is trying to raise $2.75 million to buy the last 528 acres by this July in order to create the main trail by July 2006. Later, the main trail is expected to hook up with trails in Folsom State Recreation Area and, through there, the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail. The land is currently a private ranch, so this stretch of the river has been seen only by kayakers and rafters.

This summer, people can check out the area on fund-raising raft trips and organized hikes. Later, the conservancy will work with government agencies to open the new recreation area to mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing and hiking.

A scorching Sacramento summer throws you a chance to escape into mountains, rivers and caverns. Heed the call and make this summer your season of exploits.

Bitchin’ things to do


• South Yuba River State Park: (530) 432-2546.

Directions: From Sacramento, take Highway 80 west to Highway 49 north to Highway 20 west, and then go north on Pleasant Valley Road to park. Dogs are no longer allowed at main beaches. May through September.

Kayaking and rafting

• Cache Canyon River Trips: (800) 796-3091,

Illustration By Elwood Smith

May through August. One-day trips cost $25 Thursdays, $30 Sundays and $40 Saturdays (all season). Two-day trips are $95 per person in May and $145 per person the rest of the summer.

• California Canoe and Kayak School: (916) 353-5177.

• American River Recreation: (530) 622-6802 or (800) 333-7238.

• Friends of the River: (916) 442-3155.


• California Cavern: (866) 762-2837 or (209) 736-2708, Location: about 90 minutes away, on Highway 12 near Mountain Ranch.


• Alpine Skills International: (530) 426-9801.


• Pacific Crest Trail, Carson Pass north to Showers Lake. Pacific Crest Trail Association: (888) PCTRAIL or (916) 349-2109,

Directions: Take Highway 50 east, go south (right) on Highway 89, and then go west (right) on Highway 88. Drive about five miles to the second, well-marked Carson Pass Trailhead on the right side of the road (past the first Carson Pass Trailhead on the left side, which is for the southbound trailhead). A Pacific Crest Trailhead sign also will be on the right side. Park in the big lot. Head north on the trail.

• Tahoe Rim Trail Association: (775) 588-0686,

• American River Parkway Foundation: (916) 456-7423.


• American River Conservancy: (530) 621-1224,

Call for information on fund-raising raft trips and organized hikes of the proposed American River Trail area.