AMERICAN RIVER DRAMA
Elevation: 1,227 feet
WHAT TO DO IN AUBURN
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Test your fitness level and see how winded you get on an American River Confluence hike on one of the Auburn State Recreation Area trails.
Look for oranges on the trees in late fall and eat a Mandarin once winter comes. The citrus is a local specialty.
Pay tribute to Sacagawea’s son and find the plaque honoring Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (aka Pompey). He was born into exploring on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and later on spent time around Gold Country with Jim Beckwourth.
Portal to the Past & Picturesque Endurance Tester with a Famous River
Like other Gold Country towns, Auburn also lured treasure-seekers in its early days, but now its riches grow on trees. The area has a thriving mandarin orange industry thanks to its foothills micro-climate with warm days and cool nights.
Auburn attracts Gold Rush fans with its historic Old Town, but it draws athletes and other thrill-seekers with what’s beyond the city limits. Auburn State Recreation Area and the surrounding foothills have played host to a variety of lengthy and challenging runs, bike races and even a 100-mile equestrian event (the Tevis Cup). Because so many now come here to test their fortitude, it is also officially known as the Endurance Capital of the World.
The American River also lends to Auburn’s character. A mecca for white-water rafting, the waterway has three forks, and those who like to ride the rapids know them as three distinct experiences. The North is wild and rugged, the South is tame and good for beginners (and also where the Gold Rush began) and the Middle lives up to its name by being a middle ground between the two.
The Foresthill Bridge: Tall & Controversial
The North and Middle Forks of the American River converge not far from Auburn, setting the stage for a bridge that is California’s highest and also the fourth-tallest in the United States. It’s the Foresthill Bridge, situated 700 feet above the North Fork. But it wouldn’t have held these titles if it hadn’t been for a change of plans. Originally, there was to be a dam at the confluence. And not a small one — something massive akin to the Hoover Dam that would have created one of the largest reservoirs in the state.
The ambitious project was approved in 1965, and work got underway in 1968. By 1973, the half-mile bridge that was to stretch above the pooled water was finished.
Questions about Earthquakes & Dams = Indecision
But in August 1975 — with hundreds of millions of dollars already spent — an earthquake called the dam into question. It happened 50 miles away in Oroville, and though the dam there withstood the 5.7-magnitude rattler just fine, it raised fears as to whether the arch design for Auburn would do the same if a quake that powerful struck in its proximity. There were also worries that the seismic event had been triggered by the Oroville Dam itself. Scientific research had already linked large reservoirs and earthquakes in areas that wouldn’t otherwise be prone to them.
Much uncertainty would follow, but the project would progress. Geologists and engineers spent a year examining the safety concerns before finally concluding that the Auburn Dam would likely fail if tested by a quake like the one in Oroville. New designs were drawn up in hopes of finding a more secure solution that wouldn’t be as risky to the levees downriver that protected Sacramento from flooding. Environmentalists and fans of the recreation opportunities in the popular and picturesque canyon argued against flooding it.
In 1979 the project reached a crucial decision point — the preliminary work was done, and the next phase was building the dam itself. As the debate raged, work halted. And it never resumed. The Auburn Dam fell into a protracted limbo. There would be numerous studies on the earthquake threat and best course of action, but no decisions.
Modern Water Wars Debate
The saga has also served as an additional chapter in California’s Water Wars. As the state has grappled with various droughts, there have been multiple calls to revive the dam, all unsuccessful. As another brutal wave of dryness persists, discussions have risen up again that the Auburn Dam would be a soothing water source for parched farms and homes. But its fate is likely sealed as unbuilt; water rights for it were revoked in 2008.
A View Both Thrilling & Sad
So the Foresthill Bridge will continue to overlook a canyon far below, with a footpath on both sides and commanding views. A seismic retrofitting was completed in 2014. (If you want to see the scenery put to Hollywood use, the Vin Diesel film xXx includes a scene where his character plunges off the bridge in a car, jumps out midway and parachutes to the canyon below. The action is real. A car was indeed sent over the edge of the bridge, with a BASE jumper inside who served as the stuntperson.)
Like other iconic bridges in beautiful settings — notably San Francisco’s Golden Gate — there is an element of tragedy here as well. There have been dozens of suicides over the years. In hopes of thwarting would-be jumpers, the railings were raised by two feet.
The No Hands Bridge: Testing Brave Equestrians & Standing Up to Floods
The Foresthill Bridge gets the lion’s share of attention, but another confluence overpass also boasts an interesting history. The Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge — more familiar as the No Hands Bridge — became a California historical landmark in early 2014 when it turned 102. Made of concrete and built 150 feet above the canyon floor, it was used by trains until 1941. After the railroad went out of service, it became popular with brave horseback riders who didn’t mind that it had no guardrails until 1984.
The No Hands nickname honors how Ina Robinson traveled across the span when she was the first woman to participate in the Tevis Cup. Without the reassuring presence of anything that would prevent a drop over the edge, most riders chose to dismount and walk with their horses. Not Robinson. She would not only ride across, but be sure to drop her reigns showoff-style.
The No Hands Bridge has only allowed auto traffic once. In December 1964, the just-finished Hell Hole Dam 40 miles upstream broke when its reservoir was being filled. The raging flood that ensued took down two far newer bridges, but No Hands held its ground and for a short time was used to restore vehicle traffic between Placer and Eldorado Counties. As further testament to its strength, it also survived a 1986 flood that destroyed a down-river coffer dam. The torrent submerged the No Hands Bridge for a time, but didn’t damage it.
Hawver Cave: Fossil Finds & a Paleontologist Dentist
In 1906, the American River Canyon gave up a treasure trove of long-held secrets when three high-schoolers discovered the Hawver Cave. Inside they found curious bones and took one home for a souvenir. Because local dentist John Hawver had a reputation for also being a self-taught paleontologist, he was the best person to consult about the find. And when he would go to the limestone cave himself, he would realize that it held an astounding collection of prehistoric fossils. The bounty of remains included mastadons, saber tooth cats and more — as well as human bones dating back 10,000 years. Hawver would spend the next few years excavating fossils in the cave that would bear his name, sending them to Berkeley, which has more than 400 Hawver Cave specimens.
The cave then became part of the Mountain Quarries Mine, which operated into the 1940s. In later years, the rather spooky abandoned environs and underground lake attracted troublemakers — vandals, teenagers seeking a place to party and, apparently, devil-worshippers. Gates were installed in 2006 to keep them out, but efforts are underway to ready the cave for guided tours.
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