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Length 15 miles
Time 2.5 hours
Total Climb 1600 feet
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Salmon Falls (Darrington Trail)

Salmon Falls is a well liked and often recommended singletrack ride along the shore of Folsom Lake. The ride is most typically done as an out-and-back route on one trail, Darrington Trail, though there are a couple of possible variations that could be added. It's a lot of fun and as scenic as you could reasonably expect any ride to be. The trail is not overly technical, though some stretches are more challenging than others. With moderate technical features and an unambitious amount of elevation gain, this ride seems tailor-made for riders of intermediate skill level (while brave beginners wouldn't have too difficult a time either), but I think that even very experienced riders would have a blast here. After all, there's no rule that says advanced riders constantly have to be riding "at nine tenths" in order to enjoy a ride.

I don't know the story behind Darrington Trail, but it did stand out to me that it's labeled as a "mountain bike trail" on at least two of the maps I've seen online. This seems to suggest that it was built primarily with mountain bikers in mind. That wouldn't be surprising to me, because there are parts of this trail where it seems to twist and undulate for no apparent reason other than fun. This is a singletrack that ranges from narrow to medium width. The trail merges with remnants of an old road and a fire road or two for brief distances, but never for long. The main theme of the technical trail features on Darrington Trail is angular rocks jutting out of the ground. Their density varies from a rare sprinkling to short rock gardens, which is just enough to be a lot of fun in my book. There are also a few technical obstacles on the ride that will stop most riders in their tracks, but those do not hurt the overall flow of the ride. Since the ride takes place in a very narrow range of elevation, it's easy to maintain a good flow. This doesn't mean that there aren't any challenging climbs. It's just that all of those climbs are invariably very short, often so short that you don't even need to change gears.

Let's start by clarifying one thing for those who are not familiar with the area: Seeing that the ride is called "Salmon Falls", don't expect that one of its perks will be the sights of a cute waterfall. There is no such waterfall. Salmon Falls is the name of a small settlement that is now under Folsom Lake. Its location is near the bridge that emerges from the lake when the waters recede around fall and winter. (More on that below.) Judging by the geography and the name itself, my guess is that any falls that may have given this hamlet its name couldn't have been very spectacular to begin with. They were probably low enough for salmon to travel upstream. Meanwhile, there are numerous remnants of this settlement that are revealed on the lake bed when the water level is low. Since I did this ride right after the record-breaking drought of the winter of 2013-2014, the photos you'll see linked from this page show the lake's water at probably its lowest level within anyone's memory, although I did not go out of my way to explore the settlement remnants that are exposed by the low water level.

A quick note: If you pay attention to the elevation profile plot shown above, you may wonder why it's not perfectly symmetrical for a pure out-and-back ride route. If you look carefully, you'll notice that the patterns of the ups and downs in the two halves of the plot actually do match up as mirror images, but it's just that the second half seems to be skewed up by up to 40 or 50 feet (though it seems to have corrected itself just before the end of the ride). This is well within the amount of measurement error that can be expected from a barometric altimeter (like mine) over the course of 2.5 hours, since the altimeter has no way of reliably differentiating between barometric change due to elevation change and barometric change due to weather change. It's just that this minor skew is much more noticeable on the plot for this particular ride because the entire vertical range of the plot represents a very narrow range in the first place, no more than 150 feet.

The ride starts from a parking lot that's right at the beginning of Darrington Trail. This is the smaller one of the two parking lots here of Folsom Lake State Recreation Area (the larger one is almost directly across the road), and as such, parking in this lot is subject to a day use fee. At the time of my ride, the fee was $10. This is paid by depositing cash in an envelope and dropping it into a slot. Plan to have the right amount of change with you and a pen. For those who would rather park for free, the most convenient option is very close at hand, right across the river from those two paid lots. There seems to be space for 15 to 20 cars in that free roadside parking area, and it appeared to me on the day I did my ride that these spaces, understandably, fill up more quickly than the paid lots.

Darrington Trail splits into two almost as soon as you start the ride, before reconnecting in a quarter mile. On this ride, I've followed the lower trail. I don't know this for a fact, but my guess is that the upper trail was opened as a way of bypassing a short, extra-difficult stretch of the lower trail. This includes the only scary trail feature of the ride, followed by a steep and techy descent (as you're heading out). In fact, as I was heading in the other direction at the end of the ride, I noticed that this same segment on the lower trail is preceded by a "walk your bike" sign. I'm not sure why there isn't a sign for riders approaching in the other direction.

The first mile or so of the trail is twistier and a bit more consistently rocky than most of the rest of the ride. So, if things seem a bit intimidating to you at the start of the ride, don't let that discourage you. The rest of the ride is more subdued, although you do keep encountering the occasional rocky trail feature all the way to the turn-around point. The trail also crosses a number of small streams along the way. These are among the things that make the ride so much fun. Add to that the lake scenery available from many spots and the beauty of some of the minor creek beds heading down to the lake that you weave through, and the appeal of this ride should become pretty obvious.

Near the 3.5-mile mark, there is another split in the trail and the inland trail segment shortcuts the coastal one to save you just under half a mile. Frankly, I don't see the appeal of taking the shorter and straighter route at the expense of the longer, twistier, and more scenic "coastal" option. Perhaps if you realize on your way back that you're running short on time, that shortcut might become a sensible option. There's one more split shortly before the 3-mile mark, but that's almost too short to be worth a mention. On this ride, I've opted for the option closer to the water on all such splits in both directions.

As you get closer to the turn-around point of the ride, for about the last mile before you get there, the character of the trail changes considerably. This part of the trail is much more consistently smooth and more constantly in the form of a very narrow singletrack snaking through grass. The point from which I turned around on this ride is the junction where Darrington Trail merges onto a fire road and starts a climb. This fire road climb has very moderate grade and it can (eventually) take you all the way to the Peninsula Campground if you follow it. But, the fire road is much less enticing than the singletrack that is unbroken (with brief exceptions) for 7.5 miles from the beginning. Therefore, I simply opted to head back from here and repeat the singletrack portion of the trail, which still results in a satisfactory 15 miles of ride length.

There are at least a couple of common ways of extending or varying this ride. The first would be to continue past the turn-around point all the way to Peninsula Campground and return to Darrington Trail via a set of fire roads. This doesn't increase your mileage by too much, but it does add trail variety. It also involves the dubious trade-off of more fire roads for less singletrack, but it might provide some welcome variety for those who do the ride regularly. Another option is to sample Darrington's "sister trail", Sweetwater. This is a shorter singletrack, but it's marked on maps in the same (seemingly) mountain-bike-specific way as Darrington Trail. If I'm not mistaken, it starts from a third fee-based parking lot of the SRA that is a stone's throw from the free roadside parking lot I've described above and heads in the same direction but on the opposite side of the river from Darrington Trail. In fact, during those times that the Old Salmon Falls Bridge over the river is exposed due to a low water level, Sweetwater Trail could be incorporated into this ride as a side trip near the beginning or the end of your ride by taking that bridge and connecting to Sweetwater, which follows the edge of the lake closely around there. You might need to know where to turn off Darrington Trail in order to reach the bridge, though. I had originally expected that this bridge would be clearly visible from Darrington, but I was wrong. You will need to look for a turn off Darrington just past the 3-mile mark from the beginning of the ride in order to connect to the bridge and get to the other side. Incidentally, taking the Old Salmon Falls Bridge across the river will also afford you the possibility of wandering around the densest area of the building remnants of its namesake settlement that are often submerged.

© Ergin Guney


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