Hiking the Middle Fork Trail on the American River
If you enjoy hiking along the South Yuba River, give the North Fork of the Middle Fork a try – the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River, that is.
It’s a short, relatively easy hike into the little-explored American River canyon country, located just an hour and a half southeast of Grass Valley near the town of Foresthill. The area is one of the northern Sierra’s best-kept secrets, and it’s well worth a day trip at any time of year.
At least half the fun of exploring the North Fork of the Middle Fork is in getting to the trailhead. From Grass Valley, take Highway 49 south to Bell Road, turn left, and drive several miles to its junction with Interstate 80, where you’ll go west.
After one and a half miles, take the Foresthill exit and turn left, going back over the freeway.
After going straight through the stoplight at Lincoln Way, almost immediately you’ll come to the first highlight of the trip: crossing the mighty Foresthill Bridge, which at 730 feet above the North Fork of the American River is the highest bridge in California – that’s right, higher than the Golden Gate, even.
You may recognize the bridge from recent cameos in Vin Diesel’s “XXX” or Nike’s bungee-rific spot that aired during the Winter Olympics last year.
If you have time, park in one of the areas located at either end of the bridge and walk its half-mile length using one of the dedicated pedestrian lanes, which are protected from vehicle traffic.
The views are unforgettable. After crossing the bridge, drive another 15 miles or so to the outskirts of the little mountain town of Foresthill, where you’ll turn right onto Mosquito Ridge Road just before reaching the downtown area. (Look for the sign that says “French Meadows.”)
The distance from the stoplight at the intersection of Lincoln Way and Foresthill Road in Auburn to the Mosquito Ridge Road turnoff is 16.8 miles.
Once you’ve turned onto Mosquito Ridge Road, things really get interesting. Before you know it, you’ll have left the comparative civilization of Foresthill for one of the most breathtaking drives you’ll ever experience.
Narrow, well-graded, and well-paved, Mosquito Ridge Road plunges you into country so remote, you’ll feel like you’re on the edge of the world – and that’s a good feeling.
Around almost every corner you’ll encounter dizzying drop-offs to the Middle Fork of the American River far below.
As you drive you’ll actually be entering the endless, mysterious maze of canyons that looks so enticing – and even a little dangerous – when gazed upon from the west near Auburn or Colfax. Guardrails are almost nonexistent here, so drive with caution.
After about nine miles you’ll cross the North Fork of the Middle Fork on stately, curving Circle Bridge and see a Forest Service sign pointing off to the left that says “North Fork of the Middle Fork Trail.”
Find a parking place along the road. (Later in the season you can drive another 15 miles or so and take a walk through the northernmost grove of Giant Sequoias, the beautiful Placer Big Trees Grove – but that’s another story.)
The trail heads steeply uphill at first over rocky ground, then evens out and winds along above the river through mixed black-oak forest perfumed with the scent of bay.
The river, as well as the canyon itself, resembles the South Yuba to a remarkable degree. On a recent sunny Saturday the water quality was excellent – a stunning shade of transparent Tahoe blue.
The canyon is steep, so whitewater abounds, filling the air with music. Imposing formations of red lava rock tower over the river’s opposite bank, and tiny crystals grow in the white quartz outcroppings that lie along the trail.
Claim notices nailed to trees along the trail attest to the fact that the area is still an active mining region. Wildflowers abound here in the spring, while summer brings with it some first-class – and blessedly uncrowded – swimming opportunities.
For more information about the canyon country of the American River, visit the Tahoe National Forest office in Nevada City at the intersection of Highway 49 and Coyote Street (530-265-4531) or the Foresthill Ranger District office at 22830 Foresthill Road in Foresthill (530-367-2224).
A short description of the hike, with a map, is available as an Adobe Acrobat document at http://www.r5.fs.fed.us/tahoe/pdf/NFMFamericanTr.pdf.
There are no amenities on the trail or at the trailhead, so be sure to bring plenty of water – especially in the summertime, when heat can be intense at lower elevations.
Sylvia Jordan is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Grass Valley. Contact her at email@example.com.
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