The Mountain Quarries Bridge trail is one of the easier hikes you can take. It is a short but pleasant spring hike across an old railroad bridge along the north fork of the American River, near Auburn. This is a popular and very accessible trail, and you could be sharing it with hikers, dogs, mountain bikes and horses. Many people miss the flowers that you can find later in the spring, because they tend to be scattered and hidden along the way.
Some websites call this the “Black Hole of Calcutta Falls” trail, which sounds more interesting. The falls aren’t spectacular, but I’ve heard that they run year-round. If you hike from the trailhead to the falls and back you’ll cover a bit over two miles.
Note: Click on any photograph to see a larger image.
The trailhead is on Highway 49 (near Auburn) in the “American River Confluence Area” in the Auburn State Recreation Area – where the north and middle forks of the American River come together. This is a very busy recreation area.
This trail essentially runs along an old railroad bed that was used to haul limestone from a quarry into Auburn, in the early 1900’s. Shortly after you start the hike you’ll come to the Mountain Quarries Bridge, which was the longest concrete arch railroad bridge in the world when it was built in 1912. You get a spectacular view of the American River as you cross the bridge.
Since most of the hike goes along the railroad bed, this is a very level trail. There are places where you might have to scramble a bit, since the wooden trestles that the tracks used (for crossing smaller streams and gullies) no longer exist.
The trail is somewhat exposed and it can be hot, although there are intervals of shade that are welcome. We took this hike in mid May, when things are drying out in this area, but there were flowers all along the trail.
As you cross the small streams and gullies, take the opportunity to look off the trail (watch for poison oak, though), I found a different variety of flowers in these off-trail nooks, as opposed to what we found in the more exposed areas. Most hikers/bikers/equestrian riders miss these.
After about a mile you’ll come to the Black Hole of Calcutta Falls (I have no idea why it is called this), which is more of a cascade down the hillside. They fall into a pool right at the trail. Beyond this the trail does climb up a bit – we continued just a short way further to see what was on the other side (which was interesting, as we found yet more flowers a short way further). You can continue on this trail all the way to Auburn if you wish.
Timing is Everything
We visited this area in mid May of a dry year. Even though the hillsides were brown and dry, we were surprised to find a number of species of flowers. No great shows, not a huge variety, but some of them (like the Brodiaea at the top of the article) are ones that I’ve not seen before. I would like to come back earlier in the spring, as it was clear that a very different selection of flowers had bloomed earlier. I’ll also try this earlier in the day, as it did get a bit windy along the river’s edge (which made it hard to get good flower pictures). Any time of the year it will be a pleasant walk, if you avoid the hot part of the day.
From Highway 80 in Auburn:
- Take the Elm Avenue exit and go east on Elm Avenue.
- Turn left at High Street, following the signs for Highway 49/193 (you may see signs for Cool).
- Very shortly you will bear right onto El Dorado St – which is still Highway 49/193.
- You’ll follow this road as it winds down into the American River canyon, for about 2.4 miles. The road splits at the river, turn right to cross over the river (still Highway 49/193).
- Start looking for places to park, usually on the right side of the road, just after you cross the river. The fire/maintenance roads in this area have signposts with numbers that are fairly easy to see, you are looking for marker/gate 150. This is the first marker past the bridge.
- DO NOT park immediately in front of this gate as you will be ticketed. Just past this gate there is a small amount of parking along the road (it can be crowded on a weekend). There is no fee to park here.
There are other parking areas further up the river (before you cross the bridge) but there is a day-use fee to use those areas. There are no restrooms at the trailhead, but there are some in the day-use area.
Mountain Quarries Bridge Trail Wildflowers
Please feel free to help me with the identification of any “unidentified” flowers listed here, as well as correcting any errors I may make. Click on any photograph to see a larger image. I’ll start with a few favorites, and then the “gallery”. All pictures were taken with either a Nikkor 18-135mm zoom lens, or a Nikkor 60mm closeup lens.
Twining Snake Lily – fun name, weird plant. The stems twist and wrap up around whatever is there, thin and inconspicuous, until you see the head of flowers.
There was a lot of this larkspur on the hillsides above the trail. I’m not sure which one it is, and it was windy so the picture isn’t too sharp. A very interesting plant.
If you look at the just-opening flowers on the left you can see there is a sticky, gummy substance. Some company has patented an adhesive based on the compound in Gumweed.
I’m used to the flowers of Canyon Dudleya being redder than this. Leathery leaves, always clinging to rock outcroppings.
This is the “falls”, coming to a pool right at the trail. This is just about the point where we turned around and headed back (several of the flowers we found were on the hillside just past this).
I love the colors of Paintbrush. There are many different species in California, and I’m not very good at identifying them. But they are pretty!