The South Fork American River Trail, abbreviated SFART, is a relatively new trail (dedicated in October, 2010) in the Sierra Foothills several miles below Auburn. The trail was a project of the American River Conservancy and is now operated and maintained by the US Bureau of Land Management, BLM. I hiked the trail with a group, so we were able to do it as a point-to-point hike. We started out with cool weather, in the low 40’s, and finished in the low 60’s. It was both amazing and enjoyable to essentially have T-shirt hiking weather in late December.
The trail begins at the Magnolia Ranch Staging Area trailhead, which is on CA-49 about 3 miles past Pilot Hill, a crossroads town about 10 miles east of Auburn. The lower end of the trail is at the Skunk Hollow Staging Area on Salmon Falls Rd between Pilot Hill and El Dorado Hills, at the upper end of one arm of Folsom Lake. Skunk Hollow is about 270 feet lower than Magnolia Ranch and we’d been alerted about the longish climb (or descent) at the Skunk Hollow end, so we decided to hike in the “downhill” direction as a group, rather than have two groups and do a key exchange midway.
Quick history note: Another few miles past Pilot Hill is the small town of Coloma, where James Marshall discovered gold in 1848 and set off the California gold rush.
The trail is relatively level for the first couple of miles, heading east, then south, then west, curving around a hill. The sky was brilliantly clear. Well-defined airplane contrails signaled little wind or turbulence at higher elevations.
Just over 1 mile from the trailhead was the first view of the South Fork American River through the trees, perhaps a teaser for the more dramatic views to come. The trail alternates between open and forested areas, including oak and some pine in the forest. In warmer weather the shade would be welcome.
Most of the trail is within the Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park. The signage is excellent, a feature that is especially appreciated by first-time visitors but is helpful for repeat visitors as well. The first part of the South Fork American River Trail is along the Gerle Loop Trail. After dipping down to cross Hastings Creek, the SFART follows the aptly-named Down and Up Trail. For about 5½ miles the trail stays within about a 300-foot elevation range, gaining and losing more like 800 feet along the way (see elevation profile).
I have seen numerous “woodpecker trees” in other parks – dead oak trees in which acorn woodpeckers have made rows of holes for storing acorns – but it was a first to see acorn storage in a fence post.
About 3.1 miles from the trailhead there is a dramatic view of the South Fork American River, about 300 feet below, winding its way along the bottom of the canyon.
About 4.8 miles from the trailhead there is a surprise: the remains of several buildings that formed part of a movie set! The buildings were built for the movie in 2003 and were evidently not intended to last.
Shortly after this the trail passed through some open hills with beautiful views.
As the trail descended to cross a tributary stream there was another view of the South Fork from lower elevation.
Shortly after the stream crossing a picnic table invited a pleasant lunch stop. After the lunch break the trail climbed again, and there was a nice view up the river canyon. It’s amazing that the trail doesn’t have more elevation changes!
The trail begins to curve from southward to westward and rolls up and down 100 feet or so several times. From one of the high points there is another view of the river before the trail turns away. During the section going east the trail leaves Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park and passes through the Pine Hill Preserve, which contains rare plants that only grow in the area. The trail climbs one final hill, reaching the 1000 foot elevation level. The last 2 miles are a steady descent, with the exception of a short 100-foot climb. About 1 mile into the descent, and 1 mile from the ending trailhead, there is a great view of Folsom Lake and the Salmon Falls Bridge 300 feet below. The lake is currently at historic low levels, probably not seen since Folsom Dam was completed in 1955.
After pausing to enjoy the view, we continued down to the trailhead on Salmon Falls Rd near the bridge. This hike was an inspired suggestion as a winter hike at lower elevation, at a time when there was too much snow for hiking at higher elevations, yet not enough snow for robust snow activities. It was nice to get a preview of several other trails in Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park, a beautiful area in which to hike some more on another occasion.