NORTH FORK AMERICAN RIVER: Checkin' Out Historic Stevens Trail
I had the car and some time on my hands, so I drove up to Colfax with my mountain bike in tow and hit the trail by7:30 am. Ah, what a delicious time to be hitting a North Fork trail! Of course, throughout the years I had always raced right past Colfax, on my way to “bigger and better places”, because, obviously, there was nothing there, right. I mean, Colfax? C’mon! Ah, but how nature’s secrets are so slowly revealed sometimes, if at all!
I figured, too, with my early start that I could get a jump on any crowds that might descend this multi-purpose and historic trail, having read on the Internet with a resigned sense of “oh-well-I-can-deal-with-it” about overflow parking, equestrians, hikers and bikers galore who cherish the “easy” switch backing traverse of nearly 1300 feet and four and a half miles to the river. I figured I’d have at least an hour, maybe more, of peace and quiet before the hordes arrived. I figured I could always bush up or downstream, too, to find a secluded nook all my own beside lavish pools and hot rocks.
I bid hello, and adieu, to a father (Scott Peterson look alike) and his young son at the trailhead, then tore off down the narrow rocky trail on my Gary Fisher, down, down, winding, winding, veritably zooming along without having to worry about anything or anybody except concentrating on navigating through the obstacle-laden trail—quite technically challenging, even for an “old hand”. More than once I got off and walked my bike across some sketchy stretches. I did not need to injure myself! Soon, the canyon views opened up. Iowa Hill Bridge was way down there on the shimmering ribbon of river, and it was all I could do to occasionally look out and catch glimpses of it without missing a curve or slipping off the edge of the two-foot wide trail that just dropped off hundreds of feet below. By the time I reached the main level of the North Fork, maybe a hundred or so feet above, I had encountered exactly two backpackers coming out and one older man. The father and son duo eventually reached the river in a couple of hours and I saw and waved to them as they explored in their underpants.
This new view of the North Fork American River simply stunned me—I had not expected such grandeur! The river was anfractuous, narrow, and often lazy, gathering here and there in huge blue-green pools of amazing clarity and depth—in fact, this one pool in particular at the very end of the trail (where I figured the hordes would soon be descending, for it must be famous among locals and those in the know) just blew me away, instantly jumping to the top five of my favorite all-time pools. Rimmed by a wall of rock thirty feet high on the south side that curved around like a small amphitheatre for twenty feet or more, this legendary limpid pool measured, I’m guessing, sixty feet across and one hundred feet wide, and was, without exaggeration, probably thirty feet deep in places. I jumped in, the day already hot this early in the morning, and was engulfed by the most delicious, velvety and, for the North Fork, warm water I’ve ever swum in! It was absolute paradise!
I hung around the pool for a while in utter slack-jawed amazement at this splendid North Fork wilderness so rife, as the sun rose higher, with life abuzz all around: uncountable numbers of various species of glittering, polychromatic dragonflies; flittering mottled butterflies; lovely aerially-looping hummingbirds very curious about my presence; darting lizards; large trout coming to the water’s surface to check me out; many water ouzels; and the unmistakable evidence of large cats (I found their “outhouse”!)
I gathered myself together and hiked a thread of the trail upstream, see what I could see. The rocks along this portion of the North Fork (help me, here, Russell!) were alternately dense and creamy-like, and tortured and fractured of the type seen around the “little red gorge” at Big Granite/NFAR confluence. The dense, creamy boulders spilled down to and beneath the river’s surface, disappearing into the bed, sculpted into fantastic shapes and polished smooth as marbles. One stretch of the river here was particular lazy, stretching perhaps 500 feet or more and no deeper than to your knees, layered with colorful, shiny rocks that glistened in the sunlight like jewels. It was an amazingly peaceful and beautiful scene!
Farther along, I heard our old friend, Canyon Wren, sing her loud, clear, joyous whistle, and watched water ouzels flirt and skirt at small waterfalls. Then I heard a muffled sort of gurgling noise, and turned to see a pride of ten brown ducks swimming along in unison. They were so merrily proceeding it made my heart sing. They had dark brown necks and light brown bodies. I looked in my bird book and was unable to recognize the species from the pictures. What do you think they were, Russell? At one point, they approached a flurry of water spun madly about by protruding rocks, and I could see them visibly getting excited, then with aplomb, one by one, they jumped the little falls and continued on their way upstream.
By this time, the trail had completely petered out and it was all bush-rocking. (Quite easy going though, as these shoreline rocks have excellent hand and footholds.) I estimate I had gone about a mile upstream—it’s always difficult for me to gage mileage on the river—let’s say a good twenty-five minutes worth at my quickened pace—when suddenly I looked up, saw a billowing cloud of camp smoke, and there was this guy standing there looking at me, sort of like, where the hell do you think you’re going? I stopped in my tracks, said, hey, how ya doin’? He grunted back at me something less-than-pleasant, then disappeared beneath his rock shelter. Obviously an anti-social loner type. Should I report him to the BLM office? Nah, to hell with it, let him be in peace.
I turned around and headed back. On the way back, I spotted a kingfisher, I’m pretty sure. Apart from the tern, the kingfisher is the only small bird that dives headlong from the air into the water to catch fish. I saw him hover briefly, then hit the water, but coming up empty. He flew to a perch on a dead tree and I watched him through my binoculars for about five minutes, a gorgeous little bird indeed.
I retraced my steps back to the Big Hole, fully expecting to see it filled with yahoos and revelers. . .but amazingly, no one, except the father and son, were around. Here it was, a gorgeous hot sunny Sunday in July, and there was no one around! I relished another hour or so swimming, eating blackberries, meditating and reflecting in solitude, then, just scorched and reddened from the sun (I had forgotten sun block and my hat!) I hit the trail for the long grueling climb back up. . .and it was a long, grueling climb back up! No wonder only the hardiest of hikers, and very few, if any, bikers, come down here. (Equestrians must love it, though.) Before, though, I took another side trail down to another spectacular pool for a final swim. A couple was there, that’s it. Here the river coursed through open bedrock creating waterfalls, waterways, over smooth polished rocks, before spilling languidly into another large pool. But I knew I had to get out of the sun. The main problem down here is lack of shade; the exposure will kill you. And so, back on my bike, I grunted and grinded it out. The first two-thirds were pretty easy-going, but the final ascent found me pushing my bike up nearly the entire way. I was thoroughly trashed and dusty, with a flat tire, by the time I got to the car at 3 pm.
What a thoroughly satisfying day of discovery and fun on the North Fork American River! How many other such marvelous, magical, secret places must exist deep in secluded canyons? Russell, have you had the opportunity to explore Fork where Stevens Trail ends? Or like me, always assumed there were “bigger and better places” to explore and frolic?