Codfish Falls, American River March 2000 |

Codfish Falls, American River March 2000

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Difficulty level: Easy

Length: 3 miles round trip

Map: Tahoe National Forest, 1994 edition. (Hike not within the forestOs boundaries but route included on the map.)

This winter suddenly shaped up to be a big snow year, so we’ll be restricted to lower-elevation hikes for a while. This American River canyon hike is a short, pretty way to flex your hiking legs between lingering storms. By the time you go, wildflowers should be out.

Dan and I hiked it on a drizzly day early last month. We took Highway 174 to Colfax to the I 80-east exit. We drove a few miles miles to the Weimar Cross Road exit, crossed back over the freeway, and headed right on Canyon Way. We drove 2.3 miles to Ponderosa Way and crossed the railroad tracks (look for the Ponderosa Ranch Store with the pink airplane crashing into its roof). We passed a bullet-ridden “Auburn State Recreation Area” sign and an open gate.

We wound down into the steep canyon in greens Dan called “lush as Hawaii.” We parked near the steel and wood Ponderosa Bridge, at which I once took out a “rubber ducky” raft after a float from the Yankee Jim Bridge.

We parked near an ineffectual “15-minute parking” sign and stepped over a rusted barrier above a large beach. (I took a mental note to come back here with a bathing suit and book.) On the far side of the sand, the trail continued up the rocks. An improbable outhouse here serves summer bathers.

Toyon (Christmas berry), oaks and bay laurel pressed in on us. The wet manzanita was a brilliant red with feathery, pale-green lichen in its crannies. Bright-orange turkey feather, or rainbow, fungus fringed decaying oaks. We saw four species of toadstools with mouse-nibbled edges, including a bright-red one. Someplace, I read that “toad” is a reference to the German word “tod” or “death,” referring to the fungi’s poisonous qualities.

We passed a smooth, gray rock face with a weeping trickle falling off it. The jade river holds a lot of warm-weather swimming potential. The Sierran bedrock here is compressed into interesting vertical and parallel layers.

A second outhouse appeared on the edge of a wide, grassy delta. The trail forked; follow the sound of the falls’ termination to the right. A white, hand-painted sign high on a pine says “Codfish Falls Creek Trail – Dedicated to Ruthe McKee and Helen Wauters and to all those who share the joy of nature.”

According to Eric Peach of Protect American River Canyons (PARC) in Auburn, McKee and Wauters were conservationist who died within a short time of each other. McKee was killed in a freak fall while hiking in her beloved American’s canyons.

Now the sound of the falls became loud. Peach said Codfish Creek is fed strictly by runoff, not snowmelt, and its drainage begins far away, in Weimar. The falls are about 100 feet long, and their spray creates a fern-filled ecosystem. They are bordered by bedrock with quartz veins. It was this quartz that the Vore Mine – on private property above the falls- plumbed for gold, Peach said.

Heading back, we took the very steep trail on the left to the rapids at the falls’ headwaters. Back at the river, we explored the creek delta with its sandy mine tailings studded with quartz chunks. We were delighted to hear a harbinger of spring: “gluk-gluks” of vanguard robins returning from migration.

Pat Devereux is a member of The Union staff and the Nevada County Hiking Club. Contact her at The Union, 11464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, CA 95945, or via e-mail at

This article was originally published on 3/2/2000.

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