Walk These Ways

The heat has died down and the crowds have thinned out—fall is the perfect time to tackle our region’s stunning trails. So we’ve tracked down 10 of the absolute best—from scenic strolls to challenging treks—all close to home. Now go take a hike!
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by Matt Jaffe and Tim Swanson

The heat has died down and the crowds have thinned out—fall is the perfect time to tackle our region’s stunning trails. So we’ve tracked down 10 of the absolute best—from scenic strolls to challenging treks—all close to home.
Now go take a hike!

 

Directions: From eastbound U.S. 50, exit at Sly Park Rd. Turn right and go for about 5 miles past the entrance for Sly Park Recreation Area, then turn left on Mormon Emigrant Trail. You’ll cross two dams and immediately after the second, look for a parking pullout on the right. The trail begins on the left side of the road.

Length:
About 8 miles round-trip
Time: 4 hours/
Difficulty:
Moderate because of distance
Elevation Gain:
Virtually flat

 

 

SLY PARK RECREATION AREA

Jenkinson
Lake Trail

The big question at Jenkinson Lake in Pollock Pines is whether to channel your inner Magellan and circumnavigate the reservoir, or opt for the more natural experience of an up-and-back hike along the Southshore Trail. Here’s a suggestion: Unless you’re a fiend for loops, stick to the south shore. The trail begins inauspiciously along a fence just past the second dam. Soon, however, you leave road and fence behind and the trail edges the shoreline. Set at 3,500 feet, the trail is flat overall but gently roller coasters as it travels through the forests of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and incense cedar that give the hike its high country flavor (and aroma). There’s a parallel route for equestrians and sections for mountain bikers, whom you’ll also see on portions of the hiking path. The lake noticeably narrows, then you’ll hear cascading water before crossing Park Creek Bridge about three miles from the start. A side trail (potentially muddy and wet depending on recent weather) leads to a picturesque waterfall that flows from a diversion tunnel. Back on the main trail, you’ll reach an ideal turnaround point in about a mile. Hazel Creek Camp offers picnic tables and a boardwalk trail over a restored meadow habitat, where interpretive panels point out bat boxes (there are five species here) and a bald eagle nest. Beyond Hazel Creek, the trail becomes more urbanized and follows sections of road as it winds through numerous campgrounds. So just turn around. Look for black-tailed deer in the forests and scan the sky for eagles. And remember, Magellan never made it around the world. He got whacked in the Philippines.  jenkinsonlake.com  —M.J.

You don’t expect to find a French gourmet shop in tiny El Dorado. But Allez! is well worth the quick side trip off U.S. 50. Christian and Jennifer Masse have taken the humble box lunch and turned it into an art form. Choose from three sandwiches on baguettes: chicken with applewood-smoked bacon, vegetarian with roasted vegetables and feta, and tri-tip with caramelized onions. They come with bean, pasta or potato side salads, a brie wedge, and two desserts. So bring the chocolate chip cookie on the trail and save the more delicate seasonal fruit tart for a post-hike treat. 6180 Pleasant Valley Rd., El Dorado. 530-621-1160

Next: Sutter Buttes

Directions:  Take Hwy 99 north to Yuba City. Guides will set a meeting location in town and drive you 11 miles to the trailhead. 

Sutter Buttes

Buttes Transect

Length: 
7-8 miles
round-trip
Time:
6-7 hours
Difficulty:
Hard
Elevation
Gain:
1,800 feet

Let’s be honest. Part of the pull to explore the Sutter Buttes—that stark and dramatic outcropping of volcanic spires exploding out of flat farmland near Yuba City—is its velvet-rope appeal. Since it’s privately owned, the only public access is through limited excursions during the spring and autumn organized by the Middle Mountain Foundation (MMF). Starting in late October, MMF offers around two dozen fall hikes, and they are as diverse in theme as the terrain they cover (moonlight stroll, anyone?). But the scrapbook experience has to be the heart-pounding Buttes Transect Higher, which takes sure-footed trekkers through the range’s grassy apron and almost 2,000 feet up to the soaring ridgeline of its castellated core. Guides will tell you that the Native Americans who lived here believed that after death, their souls ascended to its highest peaks. A journey through this pristine landscape certainly feels just like heaven. Hikes run $35-$50 per person. middlemountain.org —T.S.

With its sizable Sikh population, Yuba knows South Asian, and locals will tell you that the best Punjabi can be found at Star of India. Ensconced in a mini-mall near the Sutter Buttes gate, the low-key spot specializes in savory curries with just the right postscript of heat, as well as snowy idlis and accoutrements such as coconut chutney. The lunch buffet, which costs less than $10, lets you take advantage of the myriad choices, including silky saag paneer, deep red chicken tandoori and hearty garlic naan. 1538 Poole Blvd., Yuba City. 530-673-1999

Next: Auburn State Recreation Area

Length:
4.4 miles round-trip
Time: 2 hours
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Gain: 400 feet

 

 

 

 

 

Directions:  Take I-80 east to Auburn. Exit on Elm Ave. and go left at the light. Head left on High St. and follow it to Hwy 49. After it becomes Old Foresthill Rd., continue until you cross the curved Old Foresthill Bridge.
The small parking area is on your right. The trailhead is toward the bridge, on the opposite side of the road, with a gate marked Trail 139.

AUBURN STATE
RECREATION AREA

Lake
Clementine Trail

Think of Lake Clementine Trail as the SportsCenter of hikes, a highlight reel of touchdown dances both natural and man-made, offering instant gratification for the entry-level country ambler as they trek among the pines, valley oaks and big-leaf maples. This rolling sojourn begins near the confluence of the north and middle forks of the American River. The first payoff comes a half mile down the river-view path, when hikers pass under the towering Foresthill Bridge, which skyrockets 730 feet, making it the highest bridge in California and third highest in the U.S. (and a star in movies like the Vin Diesel action flick xXx, and the Katherine Heigl rom-com The Ugly Truth). The hawks that cruise beneath the 2,248-foot span amplify the bridge’s sensory-overloading height. When you reach the paved Lake Clementine Road, head a quarter mile down and take the short spur on your left. Your reward: an unbroken view of the 718-foot North Fork Dam on Lake Clementine, with drapes of thundering whitewash misting incandescent sunbursts on cloudless autumn days. parks.ca.gov  —T.S.

The recently opened Little Belgium Deli & Beer Bar in Auburn offers sandwiches that are elemental but not elementary (including a phenomenal Reuben with slow-steamed pastrami on fresh marbled rye) to accompany its 14 Belgian and Belgian-influenced draft handles and 40 bottled beers. Feeling indulgent? Ask for one of its inspired paired recommendations, such as the lemon meringue pie with a zesty pint of white Chimay Tripel. 780 Lincoln Way, Auburn. 530-820-3056

Next: Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park

Length: 4.2 miles round-trip
Time: 3 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Gain: 350 feet 

 

 

 

 

 

CRONAN RANCH REGIONAL TRAILS PARK

West Ridge &
Long Valley Trails

Directions: Take Hwy 50 to Placerville. Turn left onto Hwy 49.
After passing through Coloma, turn left on Pedro Hill Rd., and take a slight left into the gravel parking lot.

When he wasn’t musing on humankind’s futile search for meaning in an irrational universe, French philosopher Albert Camus was always down for a good fall hike, remarking that “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” It’s an axiom that certainly holds true at Cronan Ranch—12 miles of interconnected trails that dash up and down blue-oak-embroidered terrain near the American River’s rushing south fork. After a brief jog on the main road, head up the immediate incline of the West Ridge Trail, where you’ll hear the pleasant clank of cowbells coming from the green-canopied ravine on your right. The path slims into a star-thistle-lined single track as you first witness the brilliant blue slash of the American River ribboning through the hills on your left. When you descend (stay alert for overzealous mountain bikers, horseback riders and trail runners), hang a right at the “American River Trail” sign. You’ll see a similar sign about 10 minutes later, and when you do, take the switchback down the hill and you’ll find yourself at a secluded sandy beach on a luxuriantly slow section of the river, complete with a single wooden table that’s ideal for a private picnic. When you’re done snacking and soaking your feet, head back up and take the trail in the opposite direction. You will eventually see a series of weathered structures, including a dilapidated two-room ranch house—the remains of a movie set, used in 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha. The entrance for the Long Valley Trail is right there; it will take you past verdant patches of flowering reeds—signposts for an underground stream—before depositing you back on the main road to your car. arconservancy.org   —T.S.

Barbecue fans won’t want to miss the tender ribs, nicely barked brisket and succulent pulled pork sandwiches at Hog Wild in Placerville, where the southern-inspired sauce (by way of Hawaii, where owner Kat Markwell hails from) has just the right amount of savory-sweet tang. A recent addition to the Hangtown food scene (it opened in May), this family-run joint prides itself on quality grub with friendly service. The fall menu promises to add stews, chowders and a gigantic pork steak to its list of mouthwatering smoked meats. 38 Main St., Placerville. 530-622-3883

Next: Effie Yeaw Nature Center

 

EFFIE YEAW NATURE CENTER

Observation Trail

 

Directions: From Fair Oaks Blvd., turn onto Van Alstine Ave. Turn left on California Ave., then right on Tarshes Dr. into Ancil Hoffman County Park (day passes are $5).
Go left on San Lorenzo Way, then right into the parking lot. 2850 San Lorenzo Way (off Tarshes Dr.) in Carmichael.

 

 

 

Length: 1.5-mile loop
Time: 1 hour
Elevation Gain: 40 feet
Difficulty: Easy

 

It’s 3 p.m. on an after-school October day, and the only nature your family has seen this week has been on Go Diego Go, where protecting the environment often involves riding a motorcycle through the rain forest with a talking jaguar. Is there any hope of redeeming yourself as the earth-loving parent you really want to be? Thankfully, local naturalist and teacher Effie Yeaw was ahead of her time in the 1950s when she fought to keep Sacramento wild at heart. Today, 77 acres near the American River have been set aside as a surprisingly serene preserve that includes an interpretive nature center named in her honor as well as a series of flat, winding, tree-shaded paths perfect even for toddlers. Grab a map and head out on Observation Trail, an easy hour-long loop with access to the rocky bend of the river, where kids delight in skipping stones into the water as ducks, egrets and hawks cruise overhead. Go in November and December, and you’re likely to spy salmon diligently working their way upriver to spawn. Along the way, pass through still woodlands where herds of deer wander alongside rafters of wild turkeys. The wildlife is so shockingly abundant that it’s common to see dozens of bucks and does slowly munching on the tall grass. Quiet the tykes and listen for the acorn woodpeckers tapping on the oak and walnut trees, then head back to the nature center where Sophia the saw-whet owl and Rocky the American kestrel make their home along with salamanders, turtles and snakes. sacnaturecenter.net  —T.S.

With the kids still buzzing about all the animals, take them to nearby Lido Bar & Grill for one more creature sighting—pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse (they can also order the Shirley Temple entrée with blueberry pancakes or the Little Rascal with chocolate chip pancakes). Adults won’t go wrong with the cinnamon-laced sweet potato pancakes that carry just the right note of nuttiness. Lunch offerings include a wide array of sandwiches, salads and hot dogs. Speaking of dogs, if you bring your pup, Lido has a dedicated “Doggie Menu”-—chicken, beef or bones—all served outside with a bowl of water.   7739 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael. 944-8243

Next: Cosumnes River Preserve

COSUMNES RIVER PRESERVE

River Trail

Directions: From I-5 south, exit at Twin Cities Rd. and go east for one mile. Turn right at Franklin Blvd. and continue 1.7 miles to a left turn into the visitor center lot.

Length: 3-mile loop. Stay right at trail junctions to complete loop.
Time: 75 minutes
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Gain: Virtually flat

The Cosumnes River Preserve is part heartland, part Heart of Darkness. A National Natural Landmark, the preserve protects an untamed jungle of tangled vines and valley oak woodlands set along sloughs and swamps where Huck Finn might feel at home. The Cosumnes is the last unregulated river flowing from the Sierra Nevada into the Central Valley, and the River Trail, which begins near the visitor center, leads you into this boggy vestige of the way things used to be. The route crosses an iron footbridge, where plaques depict creatures from fairy shrimp to great blue herons. Turn right and the trail edges along a marsh before reaching a view of Middle Slough. Near the water, look for river otters, beavers and migratory waterfowl. Thanks to its location along the Pacific Flyway, this is also a birders’ haven. More than 250 species have been spotted here and you’re constantly serenaded by a steady patter of pips and peeps, and even the brash trills of sandhill cranes. Take a break on benches beneath a valley oak canopy before continuing on for views of the Cosumnes. Near a placard about invasive plants, there’s a gorgeous bit of Americana where the river perfectly reflects an old truss bridge. With I-5 within earshot, the preserve may not be pristine. But for otters and hikers alike, it’s still a living remnant of a bygone Central Valley. cosumnes.org    —M.J.

Spaans Cookie Company may be a commercial bakery that produces 64,000 cookies per hour, but set beneath a clock tower, it’s truly a corner bakery at heart. Come in for coffee and blueberry scones that twinkle with a generous layer of sugar crystals. Or go for the delectable chocolate cream, apple and other fruit pies. Other sweet offerings include giant, chewy and fresh-baked chocolate chip and fudge brownie cookies.  456 C St., Galt. 209-745-1974

Next: Valley View Regional Park

VALLEY VIEW REGIONAL PARK

Valley Vista Trail

Directions:  Take Hwy 16 east from Woodland for about 35 miles to Rumsey. Across from Camp Haswell, the trail begins on a dirt parking area on the left side of the highway.

Length: 3 miles round-trip
Time: 90 minutes
Difficulty: Moderate to hard
Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet

The Valley Vista Trail earns its name thanks to a panorama of Capay Valley, where Cache Creek meanders through a landscape of farms and orchards. If anything, the name doesn’t do this sweet, steep trail justice. That’s because clear-day views extend beyond the valley and all the way to the 10,462-foot Mount Lassen and the Sierra Nevada’s Crystal Range. Even on hazy days, you’ll see Sutter Buttes, riding like a ghost ship above a ridge. The trail in Yolo County’s Valley View Regional Park begins along State Highway 16, where the road enters Cache Canyon. Lovingly built by volunteers from Tuleyome, an organization focused on protecting the Putah-Cache bioregion, the trail looks across the canyon to slopes latticed by game trails. The well-designed route follows switchbacks that alternate from long, graceful stretches where you can savor the view to tight, serpentine sections designed to ease the steepest climbs. Short as it is, the hike is certainly a workout. By the time you reach a pair of blue oaks and a picnic table (hauled up and assembled as part of an Eagle Scout’s project) you’re ready for a break. Once there, take in the view and you’ll realize why the Valley Vista Trail lives up to its name. yolohiker.org  —M.J.

Despite a location next to Woodland’s Dead Cat Alley and its copious amount of feline bric-a-brac, the Fat Cat Cafe still reveres dogs. At least hot dogs. They come 10 ways at the café, most famously the Stroski Dog, which is adorned with Jack cheese and generous strips of bacon.  For something more hike-friendly, it’s tough to beat the sandwich made with Buckhorn Steakhouse tri-tip stacked high on a hoagie roll. The tri-tip, which also comes as a salad, is available Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (ask on other days and you might luck out). And if you get here early, the Fat Cat has breakfast items from scones to breakfast burritos. 317 Second St., Woodland. 530-661-6113

Next: Spenceville Wildlife Area

Directions: From Marysville, go east on Hwy 20 about 19 miles. Turn right onto Smartville Rd. (look for the Beale Air Force Base sign). In a mile, turn left on Smartville (also labeled Chuck Yeager Rd.). Go 4.5 miles and turn left onto Waldo Rd. until a Y intersection. Veer left onto Spenceville Rd. and go 2.4 miles until the road ends.

 

 

Length:
5.8 miles round-trip
Time: 3.5 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Gain: 330 feet

 

 

 

SPENCEVILLE WILDLIFE AREA

Fairy Falls Trail

Looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure that (literally) gives you some bang for your buck? Then pull the trigger on this pleasantly challenging hike with a stunning payoff. Leave civilization behind at the turnoff onto the gravel crunch of Waldo Road where it meets up with a local shooting range (don’t worry—the menacing pop-pop-pop quickly attenuates). In a few miles, pass over a 1901 wooden bridge and you’re at the trailhead. Cross an old concrete bridge over the gentle waters of the misnomered Dry Creek, and you’re off on a 2.5-mile trek through rolling meadowlands and groves of blue oaks, gray pines and yellow-leaved cottonwoods. Past the metal cow fence with a “Please Keep Gate Closed” sign peppered with buckshot, and through a savanna-like stretch where the trail turns ocher (from the copper in the soil), you’ll partake in a short but steep, half-mile climb where hikers are rewarded with the dramatic six-story plunge of Upper Fairy Falls into a lake-sized pool below. Follow the trail down the hill to dozens of smaller falls cascading into idyllic swimming holes, some so serene that wading into them on a warm day may prove irresistible. Along the bank of the lush stream are picnic-perfect hideouts, sheltered by large volcanic rocks that look as if the sun has melted their surface. Take a break and scan the sky for endangered bald eagles that visit the area post-summer. spenceville.org  —T.S.

For those who passed on packing a picnic but still crave an adventurous eating experience, hit the brakes in Marysville and swing into El Rey Mexican Restaurant. Arrive before noon on a weekend, and you’re likely to see a line of locals at the counter ordering the signature breakfast burrito—a giant wrap of eggs, cheese, hash browns, ham and bacon. If you want to avoid this kind of heavy lifting, try the Taco de Pollo Dorado  and savor the chili-coated shredded chicken served with chilled lettuce and cheese in a crispy tortilla. Pair it with a bottle of Mexican Coke—made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup—and groove to the Norteño music on the jukebox. 512 East 19th St., Marysville. 530-741-3221

Next: Folsom Lake

FOLSOM LAKE STATE RECREATION AREA

 

Rattlesnake Bar

Directions: Take I-80 east, exit at Newcastle Rd. and make an immediate right. Stay on Newcastle for 4 miles until the road turns into Rattlesnake Rd., and proceed to the guard kiosk (passes cost $10). Veer right at the fork and up a dirt road to a parking lot.

Length:
4.3 miles
round-trip
Time:
2 hours
Difficulty:
Easy
Elevation Gain:
115 feet

An apology to the lovers of hops, grapes and grain: Rattlesnake Bar to Horseshoe Bar isn’t a pub crawl. Instead, this picturesque lake-hugging section of the Pioneer Express Trail is the perfect excuse to get out and enjoy some easy-access exploration. And the good news about this trail in the fall: Lake traffic declines and the voluminous powerboats are scarce. Head out on the well-marked trail (shared with horses that will occasionally leave their mark, but no mountain bikes are allowed) that dips into shaded tunnels of oak, butterscotch-leaved cottonwood and pine trees before crossing the first of several quaint wooden footbridges. As you pass thick patches of blackberry bushes and emerge into a grassy meadow, look left and you will be struck with an incongruent image: palm trees dotting the shoreline, giving the area a fleeting tropical feel. The trail then travels back into the woods. Head up the steep-but-not-strenuous path and savor the elevated views of the lake’s islands and shores afforded with multiple breaks in the intense foliage. About two miles in, the path splinters. Not to worry; it’s virtually impossible to get lost. The bank around Horseshoe has narrowed because of high water, but therein lies a valuable lesson: Oftentimes, it’s the journey, not the destination, which ultimately provides the most satisfaction. parks.ca.gov  —T.S.

Not many restaurants throw their creative energies into milkshakes, malts and freezes, but Taylors in nearby Loomis sure has. In fact, they’ve concocted more than 116 flavors that range from the hedonistic to the head scratching—pancake, s’mores, chocolate bacon and bubblegum, to name a few. The creamy beverages complement their charming no-fuss burgers (which seem to be derived from an In-N-Out varietal). And don’t miss the house-made potato chips that are both crispy and chewy with every salty nibble. 3636 Taylor Rd., Loomis. 652-8255

Next: Cold Canyon

UC DAVIS STEBBINS COLD CANYON RESERVE

Homestead-
Blue Ridge Loop

Directions: Along Hwy 128 about 9.5 miles west of Winters.
Park in the second lot on the right just after crossing Putah Creek.
The trailhead is on the left side of the road.

Length: 5.1 miles round-trip
Time: 3-4 hours
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: 1,300 feet

High along the Homestead-Blue Ridge Loop, you go eye to eye with turkey vultures. Soaring gracefully, the vultures finesse the thermals with minute adjustments of their six-foot wingspans. They glide near enough for close looks at their bald, red, wrinkled heads. At which time you may have a couple reactions. The first? That is one seriously ugly bird. And the second? Envy. Because the turkey vultures are having an easier time than you are. Located in UC
Davis’Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve (interpretive brochures are available at the trailhead), the route travels along Cold Creek. It crosses the creek (use caution during heavy flows) then climbs steadily through forests of scrub oak, bay and manzanita. And lots of poison oak, too (so wear socks and long pants to be safe). At Marker 32, a side trail leads to the stone foundation of the old homestead’s cold storage unit (used for goat cheese) that’s set among big-leaf maples. Then, after a long set of steps, the main trail leads through stands of chamise, turns right at a junction, and sets off along the ridge. But be warned: Just when you’re expecting a relaxed ridgetop ramble and the promised panoramas of Lake Berryessa from 1,500 feet up, the footing gets tricky. The trail leads across boulders and stumbles up, then down three short but decidedly steep peaks. For an easier hike, just climb the first peak, enjoy the view, then turn around. Or just take your time and push on. The boulder-hopping creates a terrific workout and the lake and canyon views keep getting better before a long downhill.  Plus you’ll have that much more time for the rapture of the vultures. nrs.ucdavis.edu/stebbins.html  —M.J.

Temptation comes fast and furious at Putah Creek Cafe. From the moment you arrive at this Winters landmark, you’re hit with the aroma of pizza crust (it’s tough to beat the prosciutto and pesto combo) crisping up inside a brick wood-fired oven on wheels outside the entrance. Next to the register, a towering chocolate cake, thick with swirls of frosting, sits inside a glass-domed stand like a precious work of art. For breakfast, get the French toast piled high with fresh berries. And for dinner, the cioppino—thick with Dungeness crab, little neck clams, mussels, prawns and salmon—earned raves when the café was featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. 1 Main St., Winters. 530-795-2682