My old truck sped along the Yolo Causeway and I found it hard not to watch the colors of the sunrise. It reflected mirror like on the parceled, patchwork of flooded summer fields, glowing red and gold through a thin tule fog spread across the Sacramento River floodplain.
Above me a long line of birds flew south in an endless, living string, moving like a single animal. To the north that same line stretched as far as I could see, branching with one V formation after another breaking off the main thread. Each began a new strand which twisted and wrapped itself over and under the other lines. There were thousands of migrating, synchronized birds, the twenty to thirty strands creating a living, aerial tapestry woven into the colors of dawn.
It was magnificent and at freeway speeds, made it hard to drive. But there was nowhere to pull over to just watch it or get a picture. I stopped looking for a turnout and just let myself imagine the vast web of life that the California Delta and Bay waterways must have supported a hundred and fifty years ago. One of the great migratory flyways of the world, the Delta in winter is still a wonder of nature.
This was an auspicious beginning for a day of hiking in the Motherlode country south of Auburn. I was meeting my trail friends Zinger and Why Not -- AKA: Jim and Nancy -- for a hike of the Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, it was purchased over 16 years by the American River Conservancy, and is part of over 12,000 acres they have preserved within the American and Consumnes River watersheds.
Our trailhead was just ten miles south of Interstate 80, off Highway 49 on Pedro Hill Road and at 9am the frost still sparkled on the grass the sun hadn’t reached. We weren’t cold for long, however, as Zinger led us up a gradual rise on the West Ridge Trail through dry grasslands, chaparral and oak woodland. The view from the top embraced the South Fork American River Canyon ahead of us and to our left, the line of Sierra Peaks rising out of Desolation Wilderness. Pyramid Peak -- the high point of that wilderness -- was clear, though I wouldn’t have known it without Zinger’s local knowledge.
Below us in a grassy swale above the river, we could see what appeared to be a ramshackle, old ranch. This is the movie set for the film, Love Comes Softly, directed by Michael Landon, Jr. in 2003. Cronan Ranch wasn't opened as a park until 2005, and the set has been left on site.
A little over two miles along we joined the South Fork American River Trail which kept us high above the river, hiking in and out of chaparral covered canyons with occasional drop dead views onto the river below.
Six miles in, we came to a lovely, shaded picnic spot, the end of Cronan Ranch but the beginning of the Pine Hill Preserve. A bench and brushes as well as instructions were provided so we could clean our shoes and clothing of grass and weed seeds before entering the “area of critical environmental concern” (ACEC). No horses were allowed beyond this point.
At risk is an environmentally sensitive plant community, much of it endemic to the rare, high mineral, gabbro soils found from the South Fork of the American River in the north, to Highway 50 near Cameron Park in the south. In five separate units, the Pine Hill Preserve protects eight rare and endangered plants, as well as a whole rare plant community, in an area totaling over 4,700 acres. Of the eight endangered species, the Pine Hill Ceanothus, El Dorado mule-ears and El Dorado bedstraw grow only in these gabbro soils of western El Dorado County.
We continued our hike another mile or so until we found an outcropping of rock overlooking a nearly dry finger of Folsom Lake, the main body of which gleamed blue on the horizon. We took a lunch break here basking in the warmth of the midday, midwinter sun and proclaimed the glories of California weather. A January day like this almost makes the congestion and smog worth enduring.
Why Not is a prior PCT thru hiker like myself, and Zinger is an ultra runner, having competed in the Leadville Trail 100 as well as the Western States 100. When we turned around after lunch we seemed to fly back over the trail. These folks can move and in a very little time we were back at the shady picnic site on the edge of Cronan Ranch.
There to meet us was a group of horsemen and women having lunch, who invited us to stop for a bit. Their horses were wet with sweat, winded by the miles they’d come, but beautiful, tethered to the trees in a picturesque nineteenth century tableaux. I love walking on a trail and have no desire to travel any other way, but there’s no denying the emotional draw these arresting creatures evoke in me whenever we meet. I know this is linked to my own romantic vision of the past but I always cherish a glimpse of them on trail and a few words with their riders, who are even more passionate about their mounts than I.
They were very friendly and the “patriarch” in the bunch made sure we knew he was 88 years old, clearly proud, as rightly he should be, of the miles he had ridden to this far corner of the park.
As we took off down trail several of them hollered that they’d catch up with us, a good natured challenge, but one we doubted they’d be able to keep.
So much for our bravura for no matter how fast we hiked, we stopped at every beautiful turn in the trail, every mushroom or abandoned bit of rusting, mining machinery. While investigating a huge iron water tank dumped unceremoniously on its side in a stream, that Zinger told us had provided him shelter in a downpour, they came cantering up the far side, clearly pleased at making good on their challenge. They rode past us in high spirits, led by their “patriarch” and their own very evident joy at being outside on a trail with their marvelous steeds.
When we reached the West Ridge Trail which we had come in on, we branched right and wound down, as close to the river as we could get. For nearly a mile, the trail hugged the river, crystal clear in the low runoff of this dry winter. I could see that this place must be very popular in summer as we passed sandy beaches and idyllic swimming holes scooped in the river bed near every rocky outcropping. A few spots took on the appearance of Zen rock gardens, rippling water echoing the almost raked appearance of the wave stippled sand.
I could have spent a day anywhere along this stretch, but the afternoon was beginning to cool. It was January after all. So we headed away from the water up the East Ridge Trail climbing onto open rolling hills and the last warmth of the sun.
A mated pair of white tailed kites, hovered, silhouettes against the late afternoon blue, and dove on prey in the pasture below. Whenever I see this elegant, raptor behavior I hear the first few lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great poem, Windhover, in which he equates the aerial dance with majesty and even divinity.
“I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend...."
This evening they were the darlings of the setting sun, a bird almost extinct in California by the 1930s and ‘40s due to shooting and egg stealing. Like the habitat we’d been hiking in all day with its endangered ecosystem, they are worth saving, worth preserving for their little part in the diversity of life on earth.
As we walked back to our beginning, we sensed a bit of that divinity in the wild, ever the reason for taking a stroll up a trail.
“We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.”
- June 9, 1872 letter to Miss Catharine Merrill, from New Sentinel Hotel, Yosemite Valley, in Badè's Life and Letters of John Muir