Stevens Trail

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Doing this hike with a couple of hiking buddies was a bit of a winter-time impromptu outing. The trail selected was the Stevens Trail, a Bureau of Land Management trail just outside of Colfax, along I-80 between Auburn and Truckee. It turned out to be a good day for a hike, with an impending winter storm still a day away. The trail and local area have a rich history related to gold mining (see, for example, here). And the trail, which leads gently down the side of a steep canyon, at the bottom of which is the North Fork American River, was quite lovely. A big surprise was the number of wildflowers that were already in bloom in the first week of February; in fact, there were so many different wildflowers that I’m planning a second post devoted just to the flowers and a few plants.

Although the trailhead sign states that the trail is 4.5 miles long to reach the river, it is actually only 3.75 miles to Secret Ravine, at the confluence of Secret Town Stream and the North Fork American River. The orange dot on the GPS track shows the trailhead location on N Canyon Way on the east side of I-80 at the Colfax exit.

GPS track

GPS track

The first (upper) part of the trail passes through a pretty forested area.

image of upper part of Stevens Trail

Upper part of Stevens Trail

The outbound hike is almost entirely downhill. After ¾ mile of gentle descent, signage directs trail users to follow a dirt road for ¼ mile or so, climbing about 100 feet before leaving the road and continuing downhill and into the canyon. The end of the trail is about 1000 feet lower than the saddle where the trail leaves the dirt road.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

About 1.2 miles from the trailhead the trail splits, with hikers going left (the high road) and mountain bikers and equestrians going right (the low road) for less than ¼ mile before rejoining. For the outbound hike we took the hiker route, which follows just below a very steep hillside. We found a short spur trail to the right leading to a rock outcropping overlooking the canyon. This picture gives a good idea of the territory in which the trail is located.

photo of canyon view from Stevens Trail

Canyon view from Stevens Trail

In this area an intermittent stream cascades down the rock face in a waterfall or possibly a series of waterfalls. Due to the ongoing drought, the waterfall was just a sliver, barely visible through the brush. About 300-400 feet up the hillside the tracks for the Southern Pacific Railroad pass around the promontory above. This promontory is known as Cape Horn, and was one of the three biggest challenges in building the transcontinental railroad from Colfax to Donner Pass in the mid 1860’s. A retaining wall famously built using Chinese laborers is visible. Almost 50 years later a second track, now used by westbound trains, was built in a tunnel excavated through the hillside. The original track is used by eastbound trains. This picture was taken from the bike/equestrian part of the trail (on the return trip), from which the visibility is better.

picture of retaining wall for the Cape Horn section of the transcontinental railroad

Retaining wall for the Cape Horn section of the transcontinental railroad

Shortly after the split trails rejoin, at about 1.6 miles from the trailhead, there is an entrance to an abandoned mine. It’s considered dangerous to enter such abandoned mines, so we didn’t.

image of abandoned mine entrance

Abandoned mine entrance

Downhill from the mine entrance there are some narrower sections in the trail, as well as steep drop-offs into the canyon. It is interesting to note that the trail was originally built as a toll road for pack mules traveling between Colfax and the gold fields near Iowa Hill. The mine entrance also marks the first view of the North Fork American River as it descends through Slaughter Ravine and is crossed by Iowa Hill Rd. For the remaining 2+ miles of trail, the river seems almost continuously in view. Here is a nice view looking downstream from about 600 feet above the river.

photo of North Fork American River

North Fork American River

In several places we noticed various interesting fungi growing on tree trunks. Here is a particularly striking example. It would be interesting to learn the origin of the stripes and varying colors.

picture of colorful fungus

Colorful fungus

As mentioned before, there were also quite a few early wildflowers along the way.

By 3.2 miles from the trailhead the trail is much closer in elevation to the river. There is a little overlook, where we noticed someone in the edge of the river. Nearby there were several examples of paraphernalia that might be associated with panning for gold – or so we thought/wondered. One item was this tub, with a screen and a bucket.

image of panning equipment?

Panning equipment?

In some places the river dropped over some rapids, and in others the water was very calm. There were places where you could hear the river rushing over rapids, while the part you could see was completely calm. In some of the calm areas you could see underwater rocks simultaneously with a reflection of the hillside above.

photo of reflection in the river

Reflection in the river

On the far river bank there were rocky areas with the rocks covered by brilliant moss. The rushing water must generate a good deal of spray. The brilliance of the moss reminded me of a recent hike through a lush mossy forest in Northern Ireland.

picture of moss-covered rocks

Moss-covered rocks

As we approached river level at Secret Ravine there was another lovely view of the river, up close.

image of North Fork American River

North Fork American River

After crossing Secret Town Stream there is an area that has clearly been used as a camp site. The original gold-rush era bridge across the river may have been in this area. In any case, we stopped for lunch at the river’s edge. We noticed a couple of dippers (Cinclus mexicanus), or water ouzels, on the mid-stream rocks right in front of us. Dippers’ typical habitat is fast-flowing streams in or near mountains, and perhaps their most distinguishing characteristic is the short, stubby tail. I saw my first ouzel about 50 years ago, and not many since, so I was pleasantly surprised that I came up with the correct identification even before I consulted my favorite bird guide!

photo of dipper, or water ouzel

Dipper, or water ouzel

As we were getting ready to return up the trail, we noticed that a blue tarp left on the ground near the informal camp site was partly covered with lady bugs. Apparently it was already spring mating time! Note the variations in the spot pattern – including a few with no spots.

picture of crowd of lady bugs on a tarp

Crowd of lady bugs on a tarp

On the return trip I happened to see a fern with its frond tipped at an angle, so that the spore-covered underside was clearly visible.

image of spore-covered fern

Spore-covered fern

As we were about to leave behind the views of the river we paused once again to enjoy the view. We realized that we could hear a vehicle, and shortly we saw it pass a small gap in the trees on our side (the north side) of the river. Figuring that it was traveling on Iowa Hill Rd and would shortly cross the bridge, we waited and monitored its progress along a large switchback (see the GPS track southeast of the blue square labeled Burnt Flat). Sure enough, the pickup truck emerged from the forest and crossed the bridge.

photo of truck crossing the river on Iowa Hill Rd

Truck crossing the river on Iowa Hill Rd

The green area just to the left of the bridge in the picture contains picnic tables as well as what look like markers and either bear boxes or trash receptacles. I think it is Mineral Bar Campground, at the north end of Auburn State Recreation Area.

After enjoying the view we returned to the trailhead, taking the biking/equestrian part of the trail at the split.

This was a wonderful hike, especially for what is supposed to be the winter (rainy) season.

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One Response to Stevens Trail

  1. Pingback: Wildflowers along Stevens Trail | trailhiker

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