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Exploring the Sierra's uncrowded Foresthill Divide between the North and Middle Forks of the American River.

Auburn Foresthill Bridge in the Sierra, image
Photo caption
The Auburn-Foresthill Bridge straddles the confluence of the north and middle forks of the American River.

Forest where? It’s a fair question, since it seems that anyone acquainted with the Foresthill Divide is trying to keep it a secret. Follow the Foresthill Divide Road into the mountains between the North and Middle Forks of the American River, and you’ll understand why. The road meanders through the Auburn State Recreation Area—42,000 acres of fishing, mountain biking, and a slew of other outdoor adventures. Shutterbugs and acrophobes take note: The Foresthill Bridge traverses the North Fork at a height of over 700 feet.

Foresthill, originally a crossroads trading post, sits 18 miles from Auburn. Local legend holds that in the 1850s, it was believed the area’s gold yield would cause the town’s fame to eclipse San Francisco’s. To capitalize on this perceived notoriety, or perhaps give the city of St. Francis a raspberry, Main Street was made wider than S.F.’s Market Street. Guess who had the last laugh.

In the 1850s, prospectors came here looking for rivers of gold. Today the only rush is the one people get from rafting the rapids. Once, pack trains followed the narrow dirt paths from mining camp to mining camp. Now they are trails through time for hikers and downhill runs for fat-tire fanatics.

The Foresthill Divide may not be as familiar as the rest of California’s Mother Lode, but it got noticed anyway, thanks to the glitter of gold. Running through the southern end of the Tahoe National Forest, the Divide still offers up treasures—ancient sequoias, challenging river runs, and the Western States Trail.

Today it’s a great place to load up on supplies before heading into the wilds. The historic Forest House has been a town staple since 1860, at times as a brothel and gambling saloon. Now, it’s a restored hotel, with indoor and outdoor dining. Phone (530) 367-2840. Other local eateries include the Robber’s Roost, the Red Dirt Saloon & Ore Cart Steakhouse, and Laurie’s Kitchen.

For local history, there’s the Foresthill Divide Museum (open weekends May-October). A walking tour brochure is available from local merchants.

The best way to experience the Divide is via its backcountry trails. The Western States Trail, running from Squaw Valley to Auburn, is the setting of two high-stamina, single-day races: the Tevis Cup 100 Mile Ride (for equestrians) and the Western States 100 Mile Run (for ultra-marathoners).

Of interest to non-superhumans is a 13-mile section known as the Michigan Bluff to Last Chance Trail. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it connects the former mining camp sites of Michigan Bluff, Deadwood, and Last Chance.

Pick up a free copy of the Forest Service’s "Foresthill Road Driving Tour Guide." Among the points of interest is the Foresthill Forest Genetics Center, where seeds are germinated for replanting in the Sierra. Tours are available by contacting the Ranger District.

Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts will find the China Wall staging area a good jumping-off point. In winter, these OHV trails are groomed for snowmobiles and backcountry skiers.

At Robinson Flat, 30 miles from town, you’ll find a campground, access to the Western States Trail, and the Duncan Peak Lookout, used by the Forest Service for spotting forest fires.

Looking for more? Try Mosquito Ridge Road. It parallels the Middle Fork of the American River, popular for both its scenery and the occasional Class IV and V rapids. Rafting trips on both the North and Middle Forks of the American are offered by several companies—among them O.A.R.S., (800) 346-6277; Mariah Wilderness Expeditions, (800) 462-7424; and EarthTrek Expeditions, (800) 229-8735.

Be sure to stop at the Placer County Big Trees Grove, the northernmost grove of giant sequoia, protected since 1892.

The road ends up at French Meadows Reservoir, a hot spot for boating, fishing, and shoreline camping. Even if you’re at a dead end in the Divide, you’ve still got options.

Photography courtesy of Moiseiko at en.wikipedia

This article was first published in July 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.