A Bear Encounter on the Stevens Trail

A bear twenty yards away is just too close for my comfort.

Now that I have your attention, let me catch you up on my most recent hike with my pal Mary Ann on the gorgeous Stevens Trail down to the North Fork of the American River near Colfax, CA.

The Stevens Trail is one of the more popular trails in Northern California and it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful time to hike it than fall, although I’m told the spring wildflower displays are something to behold. We hiked 4 1/2 miles from the trailhead to the river, with an elevation change of about 1,200 feet (9 miles total if you’re slow at math). The down part took us about 1 1/4 hours but I was definitely pokier on the upward return. Most of the route is a moderate slope (<10%), but there are a few brief steeper patches (max 36%). Unfortunately (for my taste), the steepest “up” is right at the end.

Most of the trail is shady, but not so much that you lack vistas. After the first mile, you overlook miles of the clear green American as it winds through the deep canyon. At the river’s edge, you’ll be reminded of the power of this little river – pretty sleepy this time of year – when you see beach ball-sized round indentations worn into the rock by what must have been an incessant, strong current at some time in the river’s history. If you make it all the way to the bottom, you’ll also be rewarded with the unexpected delight of some artistic rock towers created by one of the area’s Bohemian residents.

The trailhead is easy to find off I-80 on North Canyon Road (exit 135). Tip: head uphill on the frontage road by the Valero station, which is on the east side of the freeway. (The owner of the Valero, by the way, is friendly and helpful and may be able to provide you with a free copy of biking and hiking trails in the Placer County area.) Below is the helpful tip posted in the john, and a picture of the trailhead, at the end of the parking lot.

After about a half mile through tall deciduous trees (I really need a botany book), the trail intersects a fire road. (Remember this spot later – it figures in the bear story!) Turn right. After the 3/4 mile point, you’ll come to fork in the and if you look carefully, you’ll see a metal trail marker leaning at an angle. At the moment, there’s a bunch of logs piled at the intersection, which makes it easier to miss the trail marker.

After a short stretch, you’ll come to yet another fork directing hikers to the left and bikers and horses to the right. In the spring, some hikers prefer the bike/horse trail because it avoids a narrow saddle and provides an easier crossing over a creek. We took the hiking trail on the outbound and returned on the bike/horse trail. (Note to bikers: there are two logs across the trail so don’t descend too quickly!) The trail is pretty narrow where it crosses the creek, which is a small waterfall in the springtime, but I never felt uncomfortable.

Along this stretch of trail is one of the most distinctive features of the trail, an immense rockfall of shale. High above is the Cape Horn section of the first Transcontinental Railroad, where the railroad bed was cut by Chinese laborers suspended from ropes and from which the peak gets its nickname, China Hill (yet another landmark that will figure in the bear story). Toward the end of the shale field is an opening to one of the old mine tunnels. Idiots: enter at your own risk! The trail, by the way, is on the National Register of Historic Places because of it was built as a toll road for miners heading from Iowa Hill to Colfax.

The trail, at first high above the river, slowly descends through manzanita, all the way to water level at Secret Ravine. With the water low in the fall, it’s easy to hop across a few rocks to the far side of the creek and walk along the impressive rock formations along the western bank. You’ll see signs of encampment on both sides of the river: a firepit on the west side with charred cans and a few plastic sacks (of which we weren’t about to investigate the contents), a small rock-enclosed bathing area on the far side of the river, and (this particular day) a small fire emanating smoke. The water is so low that I was able to use my hiking poles to wade out to a giant round rock in the middle of the river, the water never above my knees.

After lunch, we reversed our route and made the climb back up.

Oh, the bear story? My hiking buddy always gets a bit impatient toward the end of the hike, and it seems the steeper the terrain, the faster she is inclined to go. We agreed she could charge ahead.

Close to the end of the hike, where you turn left off the fire road to take the footpath back to the trail head, I thought I saw her ahead of me, waiting in the shade about 20 yards uphill. Only something about the silhouette didn’t look right. Was she bending down to get something out of her backpack? I’d taken off my prescription correction sunglasses when I donned my hat, so I thought I should double check before calling out to her.

I twisted around to pull my sunglasses out of my fanny pack.

When I turned back around, I watched as a very large brown-colored bear turned and ran back up the trail. I remember noticing how big her butt was, and that the fur bounced and rippled as she made her retreat. I hiked that last half mile in record time, texting my husband and hiking partner as I went:

12:37 p.m.: “Saw huge bear not sure I am on right trail – near trailhead”

#2: “Bear stayed on fire road. I took footpath”

#3: “I’m ok headed to car”

#4: “5% battery”

My phone then died. As it turned out, no one saw my texts. Mary Ann’s phone was off and my husband was in a meeting. I just thought someone should know where to look for the body.

I don’t mind snakes, even rattlesnakes, and most critters don’t bother me. But I admit to being a big fat chicken when it comes to bears and mountain lions.

I later learned from one of the some-time residents of Secret Ravine, who happened to be in the parking lot, that the bear lives on China Hill and takes the fire road down to Iowa Hill, which is just downstream from there. She’s a regular.

That said, she clearly does NOT want to bother hikers. She’s in it for the garbage. I do plan to hike the Stevens Trail again but I’d just as soon know about our furry friend.

More pictures below; just click on the picture to enlarge. Sorry, no bear picture!

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