Inherently, all hikes are good. Some hikes, however, have more merit than others. The South Fork American River Trail is lacking in many of the characteristics of a good or great hike. While it is a nice trail, you need to choose carefully when you decide to hike it and where you start.
South Fork American River Trail best for horses and bikers
The full length of the trail goes from Salmon Falls Bridge to Magnolia Ranch Bureau of Land Management property next to Hiway 49. At a little over 11.5 miles one way, traversing from a starting point and then back is a real stretch of a day hike. It is a great trail for equestrians and mountain bikes, but far less thrilling for the hiker to complete in one day.
Start on the eastern side of trail
My suggestion would be to start at the eastern end of the trail and hike west. The eastern portion has the best and most scenery with several opportunities to hike down to the river for lunch. The western portion from Salmon Falls Bridge keeps you high above the river with few places for a rest stop. Greasewood is the main flora of the western portion of the South Fork American River Trail which gets old after a while of hiking.
Western side of little scenic value
Solid walls of greasewood, manzanita and poison oak are the main scenic attributes along the western part of the trail. Occasionally you get a glimpse of the river, but mostly you pray for something interesting around the next corner. The trail between Norton’s Ravine and Magnolia Ranch is the most interesting and fun to hike. While there are some steep areas like “Up and Down Trail”, you are mostly hiking along moderate foothill slopes on the eastern portion of the path.
My criteria for a good day hike include:
- 5 to 15 miles round trip or loop trail.
- 4 to 6 hours of hiking, plus time for a snack.
- Visual interest such as vistas, water features, flora, fauna, geology and history.
- Varied terrain with some hills to climb.
- Variety of habitats such as meadows, woodlands, savannahs, deserts, marshes etc.
Too long for day hike
As a solid horseback or mountain bike ride, the full length of the South Fork American River Trail is great. As a total day hike, 23 mile round trip, there will be few people that will find it truly inspiring if not a down right chore. The eastern side of the trail is good anytime of the year. I would only suggest hiking the western portion if you have run out of other good treks and probably only in the fall through spring.
Photos I took along the South Fork American River Trail, click on thumbnail to enlarge.