Travel & recreation: Walk the cradle

Western life won’t last. So head to the hills and witness the Sacramento region anew

Take a hike<br>Summer is synonymous with the outdoors, and the Sacramento region offers many recreational opportunities. Come with us as we chase two dogs down a steep canal in Auburn, explore nuclear reactors and ride the coolest natural waterslides in California. Don’t forget the map!

Take a hike
Summer is synonymous with the outdoors, and the Sacramento region offers many recreational opportunities. Come with us as we chase two dogs down a steep canal in Auburn, explore nuclear reactors and ride the coolest natural waterslides in California. Don’t forget the map!

Diorama and photo by Andrew Nilsen

The face of this planet is evolving. Arctic ice melts at an unprecedented rate. Forests and species disappear. Pollution intensifies. The Earth exacts payback. Floods, earthquakes and droughts ravage the land. Locally, food, gas and energy prices skyrocket. Shopping malls, movies, TV, A/C—peak oil and climate change will permanently change life and leisure for Sacramentans.

So it’s time to get back to basics, which is why now’s as good a time as any to bid adieu to city life and head to the hills. Conveniently, Sacramento’s a great hub for all things outdoors, especially hiking—be it a jaunt in the grasslands or trek through the Sierra Nevadas. Pack four friends into a Prius and suddenly gas is $1.05 a head. No iPods or cell phones needed, just a compass and a large bottle of water. The First World’s luxuries won’t last, so you’d better get used to roughin’ it. Hiking’s the first step.

And taking this baby step is exactly how my girlfriend and I ended up chasing two dogs down the side of a canal in Auburn. We had a map, but couldn’t find our way along the American River Western States Trail. Lost, I suggested a 1,000-foot-drop detour. A shortcut, yes, but one to avoid at all costs.

Hiking tip No. 1: Trust your instincts. Longtime hikers often say they’ve acquired a sixth sense from time outdoors, so follow your gut. If it feels stupid climbing down the face of a canal, it likely is stupid. Stay on the trail. Don’t do anything unreasonable—like cut through brush or, ahem, take your 20-pound dog on a three-hour hike. You’re not Rambo. Your dog’s not, either. Go easy.

Regardless, hiking in Auburn is excellent for first-timers, and the area near Knickerbocker Canyon is a great place to walk the region. You can access the river via Cardiac Bypass Trail, which begins downstream from the former dam site. To reach the trailhead, take I-80 for 40 minutes to Auburn, exit Maple Street, continue straight for 1.6 miles on Auburn-Folsom Road, then turn left on Maidu Drive for a mile. Park in the first lot near the gate on the right across from the industrial buildings. Follow the paved road until you see Cardiac Bypass Trail. Once you get down to the river, near Oregon Bar, you can see the lower part of the Knickerbocker Falls.

Walking in the woods at first is leisurely, relaxing. After a while, it’s addictive. You’ll spend fewer and fewer weekends in Midtown and more time lost in the divide. Then you’ll get more comfortable and want to up the ante—discover the undiscovered, track down jewels of the foothills.

University Falls is arguably the region’s premier diamond in the rough. Hiking tip No. 2: The farther from the big city, the better. Located in the El Dorado National Forest near Georgetown, it takes 90 minutes to drive to the Falls from Sacramento (go 12 miles east on Wentworth Springs Road from Georgetown until Quintette, where the trailhead is marked by a yellow gate on the left side of the road). The hike itself is a mellow, 5.6 mile round-trip descent to Pilot Creek, whereupon you’ll discover four amazing waterslides, each crashing into giant wading pools. Warning: This isn’t the place to get high or lit on Coors Light and go sliding—though each year some toolbox does and smacks their head and dies. It’s a long way back to civilization if you get hurt.

Hiking tip No. 3: Loops equal never lost. If danger’s not your middle name, then Cool’s a safe place for a day hike. Take Highway 49 six miles from Auburn and park behind the local fire station (on St. Florian Court) to access the Olmstead Loop trailhead. This 8.5-mile trail is popular with mountain bikers and equestrians, but often you’ll have the path to yourself. Stick to the main loop and eventually, you’ll come across a 400-foot descent into the creek canyon, where the fresh spring water and shade is a welcome reprieve from the dusty trail. Deviate from the designated loop and there are all sorts of side routes, some of which lead to a couple of lakes. The area was once homestead, until the Bureau of Land Management seized the property for the Auburn dam project. Now, it’s all unfettered real estate, at once a taste of the future and the past. You could explore this area all day and not get lost.

Hiking tip No. 4: There is no truth, only time. A very different hike that also offers a glimpse at then and now is the Howard Ranch Trail near the defunct Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. You’ll have to cough up $5 to enter the park and access the trail, but so long as the weather’s in the 70s, it’s worth it. Campers and picnickers decorate the opposite shore of the lake, but it’s unlikely you’ll encounter a soul on the nearly 7-mile loop. The best season to visit Howard Ranch is in March and April, when the rains have subsided and it’s easy to check out the scattered vernal pools in the canyon valley which lead up to the foothills. Rancho Seco’s cooling towers are a useful reference point to the northwest while on the Howard Ranch loop.

University Falls in the El Dorado National Forest.

Photo By Nick Miller

It’s an eerie feeling having nuclear technology of the past lurk on the horizon while enjoying land where many once lived sans carbon footprints. Who knows: Will the reactor start up anew? Or will Sacramentans go back to the old ways, living like American Indians once did in the region’s cradle long ago?