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Auburn State Recreation Area

Western Pioneer Trail
From Ruck-a-Chucky Campground to rapids is 4 miles round trip

The dam builders didn’t get their way on the American River.

In 1967, construction began on Auburn Dam, which would have turned the gorges and canyons along this stretch of the river into Auburn Lake. But a Montana dam, similar in design to the one under construction at Auburn, collapsed. This incident, along with conservation efforts by such groups as Friends of the River, put a halt to the project. The federal Bureau of Reclamation then allowed the state of California to use a portion of the river as a recreation area.

Since it’s possible, though unlikely, the project could be revived (the dam was conceived in the 1940s and a few die-hard locals have been push¬ing for its construction ever since), no expensive roads or facilities have been constructed in the 30,000-acre recreation area; any such improvements would be covered by water if Auburn Lake came into existence.

Fishing, river-rafting, hiking and camping are popular activities at the park, which is located along more than 30 miles of the North and Middle Forks of the American River. Rafting excursions are available by commercial tour operators.

Folsom, one of the state’s big reservoir parks and part of California’s vast waterworks system, seems very much a part of the Central Valley; however, adjacent Auburn, sans dam, has a wilder vibe and seems more closely linked with the nearby Gold Country parks. Scenic Highway 49 winds through the recreation area and offers a glimpse of the sharp canyons and rugged coun¬tryside characteristic of the Mother Lode foothills.

A major part of the recreation area’s 58 mile trail system is the Western Pioneer Trail, which travels from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe. Weekend backpackers can pitch a tent at a number of trail camps along the river.

Trail information and permits are available at a field office, located just off Highway 49, one-half mile south of the Auburn city limits.

Rangers recommend a stretch of trail along the river from Ruck-a-Chucky Campground to the Ruck-a-Chucky rapids. Early spring wildflowers brighten the pathway. Ruck-A-Chucky got its name from late 1800s gold miners, who found the “rotten chuck” served at most mining camps hard to digest. Over the years, this slang became the even more colorful ruck-a¬chucky.

Directions to trailhead: From Interstate 80 on the outskirts of Auburn, exit on Auburn-Foresthill Road and head east eight miles. Turn right on dirt Drivers Flat Road (bumpy, but suitable for passenger cars with good ground clearance) and proceed to 2.5 miles to Ruck-a-Chucky Camp¬ground and road’s end at the trailhead. Note: Drivers Flat Road may be closed during inclement weather.

The hike: From the signed trailhead, follow the closed road along the “warm side” of the river. The American River, which has its headwaters in the deep snows of the Sierra Nevada, has deposited quite a collection of sand, rounded cobblestones and great boulders en route, and carved an impressive canyon here as well.

The mighty American River broke off and carried away bits of gold from upstream quartz veins. It was this placer gold that brought 10,000 miners to the area, shortly after its discovery on the south fork of the river in 1848.

As you look down at the river, you might spot a merganser, one of those large diving ducks common on American River. If you look up high above the river banks, you might see some little platforms marked by rock walls; Gold Rush-era miners lived way up there.

Ruck-a-Chucky rapids is not a stretch of river that sane river-rafters run, so there is a portage trail that leads along the banks to get around the rapids. A lookout point over the rapids is a good turnaround point. For a longer hike, you can continue another two miles to Fords Bar.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at