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Exploring Auburn on Foot

Kotomyan Big Hill Preserve and Auburn SRA

For years I’ve passed the Auburn area without stopping to investigate the area’s outdoor opportunities. I see now that I’ve been missing something.  Hiking trails abound near this charming town in the foothills of the Sierra. 

Recently, as part of the Outdoor Writers Association of California spring conference, I got the chance to explore a small part of this trail network. This was the tail end of the spring season, before the onset of the hot, dry summer .

As an introduction to the area, I joined a docent-led hike at Kotomyan Big Hill Preserve, on the edge of town. This 160 acres on Big Hill in the Bear River watershed was protected in 2007 and isn’t open to the public other than on scheduled hikes. Contact them at Phone: 530-887-9222 Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or go to www.placerlandtrust.org for more information.

The area between Coon Creek and the Bear River represents the largest contiguous area of oak woodlands remaining in Placer County. Approximately 331 species of wildlife inhabit Placer County’s oak woodlands including mountain lions, bobcats, several species of hawk, rodents, snakes, owls, and songbirds. There are also many shapes and sizes of metamorphic rock outcroppings, which, mixed with the oats and wildflowers, make the area visually stunning.

We explored a four-mile loop starting at the gravel parking lot. We walked the gravel road for perhaps a quarter mile and then started climbing up an unmarked trail on the right.  This steady uphill had us wandering around and between these colorful metamorphic rocks until we reached a place where we could look through the trees at the Sacramento skyline, some 30 miles distant.  Along the way we encountered fences where we had to open and close the gates to proceed. We continued to climb, catching site of the Sierra, still covered with snow in late May.  Finally we reached a dirt access road, where we turned right for a short walk to another unmarked trail and a few dozen yards scramble to a large rock-face, the view point. There we took a break and enjoyed the view. We could see the sierra in one direction, the valley in the other. This was the high point on the property.

On the way back we took another trail downhill and soon discovered ourselves back on the trail we had climbed. As in all good trails, things look different coming down than they did going up.

On the way out to Big Hill, on Bell Road, Placer Land Trust is working with Placer County and area landowners to construct a public recreational trail connecting Hidden Falls Regional Park along Coon Creek and up to the Bear River. You can access Hidden Falls, for a fairly short climb to the falls along the Poppy Trail, with a another short walk to the observation deck. Look for the sign along Bell Road on the way to Big Hill. Note that there is very little parking at Hidden Falls, and it fills up early on a weekend.

Another place to hike near town is Auburn State Recreation Area, a multi-use area that, while close to town, makes one feel that the unban world has been left behind. Back in the 70s there was a plan to build a dam and inundate the huge valley carved by the confluence of the north and middle fork of the American River. Seismic activity put the plan on hold, and nothing has happened since. In the meantime this has become a recreation mecca as well as the final stage of an endurance contest, the 100 mile foot race from Squaw Valley to Auburn, over some very high mountains. While I think running 100 miles is damn near crazy, it has brought much publicity to the area.

We started out at the ranger station along highway 49, a short way out of Auburn. Our guide was Scott Liske the head ranger and a fountain of information about the history of the area .  He led us along the Manzanita Trail from the parking lot. This single track trail undulates high along the hillside, giving occasional views of the river below. 

After close to a mile, the trail ended at a dirt road, offering more views and easier walking.  We paused at a bench to take in the rivers, the roads along them and the people enjoying a day on the water. Then we came to the Tinker Cutoff, which we took down to the highway, three tenths of a mile down through a dense forest  to Highway 49 and all the cars parked along the road, people sunning and fishing.

After  stepping out on Hwy. 49, we walked across the bridge to the Old Forestville Road: gate number 150. Walking around the gate, we started up a gradual rise along the Middle Fork of the American River. This old road is the last stretch of that very long run from Squaw Valley. Walking along, I looked down to see people sunning themselves on cement abutments that were built for reasons I’ve not learned.

Shortly after starting down this road, we came to No Hands Bridge, originally a railway bridge. Just before crossing it, was found a trail junction. The left fork leads to the town of Cool, three miles away and to Squaw Valley, 97 miles and a twenty-four hour run away.

The road climbed until it passes two abutments, places where a railroad bridge was to be built many years ago. After the road became a single track trail it crossed a small creek right by a trickling waterfall, a place where a family was enjoying playing in the water.

After a bit the trail started to become a road again, and then we saw the sign for the road heading off and up to the right: .4 miles to the ranger station. Since we’d come a long way down, we had a serious climb that last .4 mile, a real aerobic workout. Short and steep, this trail took us back to 49, and all we had to do was cross the highway and walk a few yards to our cars.

On this hike, according to Laske, we walked 4.5 miles with an elevation gain of 925 feet, with great views of the confluence  of the two forks. The entire canyon we walked above and then down through almost became a lake, and while the project is still open, it’s unlikely that this lovely valley will ever become inundated.

To access Auburn SRA, from downtown Auburn find where High St. and Lincoln Way come together and take El Dorado Street (Hwy49) down into the canyon. The ranger station will be on the left.

For Big Hill and Hidden Falls, take Grass Valley Highway from I-80 about 3.5 miles to Bell Road, Turn left. You will see the sign for Hidden Falls, and Big Hill is at the end of the road.


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