Since committing to running a trail marathon (me) and 50k (Will) in June, we’ve been doing a LOT of trail running lately. One of my favorite things about trail running is the ability to get out and explore new places without taking all day to do it. Sure, we do a lot of exploring while hiking, but running makes trails that would normally be a half day excursion accessible as an after work run.
Steven’s Creek is a perfect example. A popular trail in Colfax, CA, Steven’s clocks in at about 7.5 miles round trip with ~1300 ft of elevation lost then gained, a perfect candidate for one of our medium length training runs. We’ve been meaning to check it out for the last few years but hadn’t gotten around to it – last time we tried it was closed because of a dangerous mountain lion!
We arrived at the trailhead on a late Thursday afternoon and I was less than impressed. Located right next to Highway 80, it’s loud and not incredibly scenic. After checking the message board for dog rules (None! Hilde could roam to her heart’s content.) and other information we set off down the trail. Of course, in the first 50 yards, Hilde had to relieve herself. Because nobody likes to run with eau-de-poo and we’re not big on the “just pretend you didn’t see her do it” philosophy, Will volunteered to take the bag back up to the car while I carried on with Hilde.
Within 100 yards the trail changed completely – the scrubby, loud parking lot ambiance quickly faded away as we ran into a lush, green rainforest. With a good downhill grade Hilde and I zoomed along the singletrack, running faster than we usually do. There were a few other groups on the trail who were all excited to see Hilde; it’s hard not to be happy when you see her bopping down the trail! She moves like a bouncy ball, stopping abruptly at times to sniff (ok, taste test) a flower or speeding up to chase a butterfly. I get to enjoy her pure happiness on a daily basis, but it’s always fun to see how she lights up other hiker’s days!
The jungly forest continued for about a mile before the trail opened up onto a wider, more exposed fire road for a quick uphill. Luckily it turned back downhill just as quickly, and continuing into the canyon. Eventually we came to an unmarked crossroads. I went left, figuring that Will would choose that direction as well. A few yards later, another intersection. Not wanting to get too separated from him, I turned back. Hilde was confused,giving me a look that said “What the heck are we doing?!” but when Will arrived a few minutes later she was back to bouncy puppy mode.
Together, the three of us set off to find the way down to the bottom of the canyon. It turns out that the junctions I encountered were just little splits of the same trail, all ending up at the crossing for what might be a roaring waterfall in a rainier season. We stopped for a minute to let Hilde gulp up a few mouthfuls of water (she won’t drink if she thinks we’re leaving her behind) and continued on our way.
Almost immediately after the crossing, the trail opened up on to views of the most amazing river canyon. One of my least favorite things about California is how dry our forests are, and how mucky our waterways can be. The North Fork of the American River and its surrounding canyon is a major exception to this rule at this time of year, and I was so surprised! The canyon walls were lush and green, and the water down below was crystal clear. From several hundred feet up we could see individual stones on the riverbed, not something I’d ever experienced on a big river in California.
One of the reasons that this section of the river is so pristine is that there are no dams upstream to slow and silt the water. The North Fork was declared “Wild & Scenic” a few decades ago and it certainly lives up to its name. We continued speeding down the slight downhill for a few more miles, enjoying the view and remarking on everything around us: the poppies and lupins that were just beginning to bloom, the streams we were passing over, and overall how great the day was.
Eventually our trail descended all the way to the river and turned into smooth rocks instead of dirt. Hilde had clearly had enough running and charged into the water – swimming has become her favorite part of trail running, and she’s getting quite good at it! The water was so clear and inviting that we followed suit, stripping down and jumping in to join her. It was absolutely freezing, but the air was warm. So worth it!
There are few things more rewarding than arriving at a beautiful, remote location solely on your own power, but when that place is a pristine river the feeling is so much sweeter. We relaxed for a few minutes, tossed a stick for our now soaked and muddy pup, and eventually headed back up the trail.
The way back was a reverse of the way down – all of the speed I enjoyed on the nice downhill grade was recouped on the uphill. Luckily it wasn’t too steep and I was able to run most of it; Will, of course, decided he wanted a “little extra vert” and did an extra lap in the middle. We arrived back at the trailhead just as darkness fell, happy and tired. I think I’m really starting to like this trail running thing.