Stevens Creek Trail – March 1997
STEVENS CREEK TRAIL
Difficulty level: Moderate
Length: 9 miles, round trip
Map: USFS Tahoe National Forest
March is an oddball month to hike. The wildflowers aren’t out yet, and the classic High Sierra trails are still snowbound. It’s a great time to explore a low-elevation gem, the lesser-known Stevens Creek Trail, just outside of Colfax.
Hikers are rewarded with views of the blue-green American River in one of the steepest canyons in the region. A tremendous array of wildflowers start blooming in mid-April. Hike the full distance to the river – 4.5 miles – or turn around whenever you want.
Take a weekend drive out bucolic Highway 174 past grazing horses and apple orchards. At the Shady Glen Restaurant, Highway 174’s junction with Rollins Lake Road, turn right to parallel Highway 80 toward Colfax. Follow the signs to the 80 West entrance, veering left, but then go left, back over freeway, before the 80 onramp.
Turn left on Place Hills, 80’s frontage road, at the Texaco gas station, past the Colfax Max snack bar – where you can reward yourself with a cold drink or shake after the hike. After about a mile the road dead-ends in the parking lot of the clearly marked trailhead.
Descend through a blackberry and wild rose bramble (that may be a little swampy this time of year) to a bridge over a pretty creek. Follow the arrow to a fire road to your right, entering a dry, chaparral area that ascends gradually. Begin to notice the wildflowers – poppies, tritelia, bush lupine, vetch, milkweed – then see how the species soon change.
The trail leaves the fire road at another arrow indicating a left turn into a manzanita thicket. Here you will see Indian pinks, shooting stars, larkspur and your first of many fairy lanterns. The trail ambles down to the left then breaks out of the manzanita through a field of poppies, meadow foam and lupine for your first views of the river at the edge of a rocky cliff. Look for stonecrop and dudleya succulents growing on the cliff and for a disappointed gold miner’s shallow tunnel.
Look downstream for the Iowa Hill Bridge. The ridges to the left include Capehorn Mountain, one of the most notoriously difficult stretches of the Sierra railroad to build.. At the State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento is a description of how Chinese workers were lowered in baskets over the Capehorn canyon to set dynamite into holes they had hammered into the cliff face. They inserted the explosive, lit the fuse, yanked on the rope – and hoped their co-workers hauled them up fast enough to avoid the blast. Several men lost their lives building this stretch of track.
The trail descends in twists and turns down to the river. You can go all the way to its banks or cut off down one of many side trail down through oak scrub (watch for poison oak!) a little ways above it. Last summer a friend and I met at Colfax Max at 3:30 after work, hiked down to the river for a picnic dinner and an impulsive skinny dip in a beautiful pool, then hiked back to the car through a late, hazy sunset. A nice way to end a work day!
This article was originally published on 10/13/1999.
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