A Hiker’s Guide to American River Canyon

The allure of Placer County, California, comes in part from its friendly locals, rural charm, and growing foodie scene. But before people settled in places like Auburn and Foresthill, the area was known for its oak and manzanita laden hills. Here, the sun shines brightly on tall grasses and shade trees offer welcome respite on a hot day. At the heart of the region, you’ll find the American River Canyon. Home to hundreds of miles of trails, it’s one of the region’s most loved hiking destinations, with scenic vistas and challenging climbs. The American River Canyon is filled with great options for every level of hiker—and plenty of opportunities for enjoying your time off the trail as well.

Where to Fuel Up

Before hitting the trails, get a good breakfast at Awful Annie’s in Auburn. Known as a comfort food hotspot, it has a name that couldn’t be less true. This breakfast-and-lunch spot is the local favorite for folks looking to dine on eggs bennies or huge breakfast scrambles to fuel them up for a day outside.

Where to Hike

The American River Canyon is a dry, riparian landscape. If you meander along the river, expect cool breezes, shade from oak trees (and the occasional ponderosa pine), and the sound of fresh snow melt tumbling through rapids. Or opt for a hike in the hills above the river, where you’ll find sweeping vistas of the snakelike American as it winds its way through yellow and green grasses. Regardless of where exactly you travel in the American River Canyon, you can always expect panoramic views that look out over the horizon without a building in sight for miles and miles. Here are some of your top trail options:

Auburn State Recreation Area: A classic destination in the greater Sacramento area located just outside Auburn on your way into the canyon, the Auburn State Recreation Area features more than 35 trails and is popular for trail running, hiking, fishing, swimming, and mountain biking. It's a must-see in the American River Canyon.

Stagecoach Trail: A moderate 3.6-mile trail with sweeping views of the American River and the world famous Foresthill Bridge, the Stagecoach trail features 744 feet of elevation gain and is used by hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers. It was initially a gold-rush era toll route that connected miners to the Foresthill area.

Lake Clementine Trail: The Lake Clementine Trail is a mellow path that offers panoramic views of the North Fork of the American River. It’s an ideal hike on a hot day thanks to the shade provided by the conifers and oaks that line the trail. You’ll also find easy access to the river for a quick dip via several side trails. Be cautious of the current here, however, as it’s colder and swifter than it looks. Hikers who stick with the trail will be rewarded with views of a deep pool beneath the North Fork Dam, where they can admire the cascading water over the dam’s rim from below.

Western States Trail: Famous for the iconic 100-mile race from Squaw Valley (elevation 8,500 feet) to Auburn (elevation 2,000 feet) that draws world-class ultramarathon runners each year, this trail is a great place to log many miles. But you don’t have to be a long-distance hiker to make this route worth your time. Several parts are very manageable for shorter day hikes, including the Railroad Bed Section. The lower elevation part of this trail is accessible year-round. From Auburn, the trail crosses the Middle Fork of the American River several times as it ascends up toward Foresthill.

Foresthill Divide Loop Trail: The Foresthill Divide Loop Trail is a longer route, totaling 8.2 miles, but shorter loops are possible. The scenery is beautiful, especially in the spring when wildflowers cover the rolling green hills and oak trees offer an occasional respite in the shade. Farther along the loop, the manzanita and shrubs thicken as the trail becomes more wooded. It’s common to see bikers and horseback riders here as well as hikers.

Where to Eat

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Find the best places to eat in Placer County.

Brenna Huff

After some time on the trails, there’s nothing better than sitting down to a good meal. Here are some of your best dining options in the region:

Maker’s Mountain Eatery, Foresthill: For those ending their exploration of the American River Canyon closer to Foresthill than Auburn, this fun tap house and wine bar is where the locals will steer you if you ask for a recommendation. Try the beer batter fries—you likely deserve a hearty and filling reward after hiking along the American River.

Old Town Pizza, Auburn: If you are looking for a cozy, classic pizza parlor, you would be hard pressed to find a better fit than Old Town Pizza. It’s located in the heart of historic Auburn, a place that’s as fun to explore as well, so save some energy after your hike to stroll up and down the street. And be sure to try their breadsticks at Old Town Pizza—you won’t regret it.

Tre Pazzi Trattoria, Auburn: Another fantastic place for local fare that will fill you up post-hike is this casual but classy Italian restaurant. The warm, brick-wall establishment has a fun atmosphere, excellent entrees, and classic pasta dishes.

Where to Stay

Day trips are nice, but you can’t see everything that Placer County has to offer without spending some time here. Spend the weekend (or more) and enjoy a good night’s rest at these area lodging options:

Park Victorian, Auburn: The Park Victorian is, in short, a gem. If you want plenty of character, class, and comfort, you’ll find it here. As its name suggests, it’s located in an old 19th-century villa. The rooms are bright and offer a surprising modern vibe that will have you falling in love with this tried-and-true establishment at first glance.

Holiday Inn, Auburn: If you want a comfortable place to stay that’s low-key and friendly, the local Holiday Inn in Auburn fits the bill. It offers all the charm of the city’s small-town vibe with all the amenities you could want.

Miner’s Camp, Foresthill: A nostalgic retreat center, Miner’s Camp offers a wide variety of cabins, which are rustic, quaint, and full of charm. The camp plays up the area’s gold rush history, and the cabins are named after local mines like Blue Eyes Mine, Bogus Thunder, and Hidden Treasure. It’s popular for weddings, retreats, or simply fun family getaways.

Written by Jill Sanford for Matcha in partnership with Visit Placer County.

Featured image provided by Ray Bouknight

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