Pinecrest to Columbia on Sugar Pine Railway and Ditch Trails

Frosty morning in Strawberry

Frosty morning in Strawberry

This bike ride is about as easy as an almost forty mile long unpaved ride can get since it’s a shuttle and return on descending railroad and ditch trails. But it’s still a long haul with lots of nature and the thumbprints of history along the way. Finish up in Columbia with coffee or a beer and reflect on your day–nobody needs to know it was (almost) all downhill.

The trails for this ride form an unpaved east-west corridor parallel to the South Fork Stanislaus and Highway 108, so they are handy for all kinds of connections for loops between the Middle Fork Stanislaus and the North Fork Tuolumne.  The Sugar Pine Railway segments along the South Fork are of particular note both as parts of the “off-road highway” and as popular individual short rides. The Sugar Pine from Twain Harte to Lyons Reservoir has been covered previously; this post will address the two other Sugar Pine segments along the river prior to discussing the long ride from the mountains back to civilization.

PDF file maps for the Sugar Pine segments are available on the Tuolumne County Transportation Council Trails page.

Sugar Pine Railway, Lyons Reservoir to Fraser Flat

The least popular portion of the Sugar Pine Rail Trail is the part in the middle–from Lyons Reservoir to Fraser Flat Road. The trail passes through multiple jurisdictions including Stanislaus Forest, PG&E, and Sierra Pacific Industries, so there are multiple gates (with bike/ped access provided) and the quality of the trail varies from quite good to pretty funky. What it lacks in ease, it makes up for in adventure.

Gate at the bottom of Lyons Dam Road

At the bottom of Lyons Dam Road look for the trail heading east past a green metal gate opposite the parking lot. The railroad bridges are gone, so the trail has a bypass over a creek and a hill before resuming along the lake.

Trail adjacent to Lyons Reservoir

Trail adjacent to Lyons Reservoir

Just past the end of the lake watch for a large meadow and a shallow ford of the river. The Sugar Pine  had a crossing in this area.  The original mainline ran along the South Fork toward Fraser Flat, the Strawberry Branch, Cow Creek, Bumblebee, and Herring Creek. When Pickering Lumber decided to cross the Middle Fork at Beardsley to log areas to the north, it built the crossing and re-routed the mainline with a switchback to the west on the north side of Lyons Reservoir. The re-routed mainline remains as minimally improved railroad grade with some pretty difficult single-track volcanic soil sections and lots of rocks. Continue on along the south side of the South Fork.

Chunky gravel in spots

Chunky gravel in spots

One of several gates

One of several gates

The rail trail rambles on along the south side of the South Fork with short patches of chunky two-inch gravel, generally loose material, and sand with cobbles.

Cobbles on 4N90

Cobbles on 4N90

As the trail enters the Stanislaus Forest, it transitions to Forest Road 4N90. The road widens and the surface degrades due to vehicle access. The railroad also crossed the river at Fraser Flat; the footings of the trestle can be seen from the Fraser Flat campground. There’s a short trail out to the trestle site from 4N90. Look for the trail at the bottom of the hill where 4N90 leaves the railroad grade and heads uphill to Fraser Flat Road. Since the the bridge is no longer, the Sugar Pine trail continues on 4N90 up a steeper and more eroded path up to Fraser Flat Road. After the climb, the route descends on paved Fraser Flat Road to the South Fork Stanislaus and the start of the Strawberry Branch.

SPRR trestle footings viewed from Fraser Flat campground

SPRR trestle footings viewed from Fraser Flat campground

Lyons to Fraser Flat: Nine miles one-way and about 1,000 feet of climbing.

Sugar Pine Railway Strawberry Branch

Strawberry Branch

Strawberry Branch

The Sugar Pine Railway Strawberry Branch is maintained as a rail trail by the Stanislaus National Forest and has an interpretive guide keyed to numbered posts along the trail.  The gently sloped trail along the South Fork Stanislaus is a very popular multi-use trail and scenic bike ride.

The Strawberry Branch trail extends three miles from the South Fork bridge on Fraser Flat Road to Old Strawberry Road. Even with some single-track, it’s an easy ride, but it climbs about 500 feet from Fraser Flat to Strawberry. If you have small kids, starting east from Fraser Flat is a good idea, so they’ll have a downhill ride going back.

Parking is available at both ends of the trail, but the parking areas on Fraser Flat Road and at the Fraser Flat trailhead have much more room. Better yet, there’s camping near both ends at the Fraser Flat Campground or Pinecrest Lake. Riding to the trail from Pinecrest adds two miles and uses roads open to vehicle traffic including a crossing of Highway 108.

Fraser Flat Road trailhead

Fraser Flat Road trailhead

Old Strawberry Road trailhead.

Old Strawberry Road trailhead

Philadelphia Ditch flume. PG&E manages flow in the ditch based on water levels at Pinecrest Lake.

Philadelphia Ditch flume. PG&E manages flow in the ditch based on water levels at Pinecrest Lake.

Rail Trail above the South Fork and flume

Rail Trail above the South Fork and flume

Rail Trail above South Fork Stanislaus

Rail Trail above South Fork Stanislaus

The main attractions along the trail are the river canyon and the Philadelphia Ditch flume and diversion dam. The Philadelphia Ditch diverts water from the South Fork Stanislaus along the north side of the canyon to a penstock at Spring Gap. The penstock drops the water 1,900 feet to a powerhouse on the Middle Fork Stanislaus. A stay at the Fraser Flat Campground provides an opportunity to hike the ditch and flume as well as ride the rail trail. Follow the road across from the campground entrance uphill to catch the ditch where it crosses the road. Hike west to Spring Gap or east to the flume and diversion dam. The Fraser Flat Campground itself is a former railroad lumber camp, and  4N01/Fraser Flat Road on the north side of the river is mostly built on railroad grade.

Single-track through meadow.

Single-track through meadow.

Closer to Strawberry the trail climbs away from the river on gentle single-track. Finding the start of the trail from Old Strawberry Road can be a challenge. The official signage is small, but a neighbor has posted more conspicuous signs pointing toward the trail in an attempt to reduce use of the road on their property, the former Boy Scout Camp Bray and, previously, Strawberry Camp 1 of the Sugar Pine.

To ride from Pinecrest to the trail, ride out from the lake/campground to the Ranger Station on Highway 108 and turn right onto the highway. Look for a dirt road across the highway just barely east of the Ranger Station. Cross onto the dirt road (4N51Y) and continue as it changes to pavement (Pine Ave.) and eventually ends at Old Strawberry Road. Turn left and look for the trail on the right after 1/2 mile.

Strawberry Branch: Six miles out-and-back with 600 feet of climbing. Ride to the trail from Pinecrest Lake: Add four miles out-and-back and 500 feet of climbing

Pinecrest to Columbia

Pinecrest Lake at winter draw down

Pinecrest Lake at winter draw down

The two Sugar Pine segments in this post along with the Twain Harte to Lyons Dam segment  form part of a pretty impressive string of railroad and ditch trails that stretch from Strawberry to Twain Harte and onward to Columbia with a minimum of climbing or riding on paved roads with vehicle access. Throw in the short piece from Pinecrest to the Strawberry Branch and you’ve got a long shuttle ride from Pinecrest to Columbia. It’s usually not that hard to talk someone into going to Pinecrest. If they could just haul some bikes and riders…

Strawberry Branch

Strawberry Branch

Old Oak ditch segment

Old Oak ditch segment

After leaving the Sugar Pine at Confidence South Fork Road, the mapped ride follows paved roads in Twain Harte to the Mt. Elizabeth/Cedar Ridge ditch segment and continues on the ditch to Old Oak Ranch Road. I prefer to ride lightly traveled Old Oak Ranch Road to the next ditch segment starting on a small single-track trail starting at the intersection of Old Oak Ranch and Northridge Road. That segment is narrow with numerous obstacles, and it ends at the Big Hill Water Treatment Pond. Continue through the pedestrian gate past the pond to descend to Big Hill Road and either descend on paved Big Hill Road or on mostly unpaved Five Mile Creek and Yankee Hill Roads (mapped). See the Yankee Hill/Five Mile Creek post and ride it backwards.

Be aware that the ditch trails do not have formal trail easements for public access. They have been used by the public for years for fishing, hiking, and riding, but use of the trails involves crossing private property. Please be quiet and respect private property.

Top of the descent on Yankee Hill Road

Top of the descent on Yankee Hill Road

Yankee Hill descent

Yankee Hill descent

Riding along contours gets very windy, especially on the ditch. Adding a little climbing on pavement can reduce the obstacles and shorten/speed up the trip considerably. Middle Camp Road has moderate traffic, and upper Big Hill Road usually has very little.

Sunset on Big Hill Road

Sunset on Big Hill Road

These photos are from a ride in November. I love the colors and lighting of fall, and I don’t mind the cold, but keep in mind that most of this ride is on the north side of the hill. It is cold in the shadows. Lunch on a sunny picnic table at the seasonally deserted Fraser Flat campground was welcome.

Pinecrest to Columbia: 39 miles, approx 3,500 foot net drop with 800 feet of climbing.

Connections and Alternate Rides

Sierra Village to Columbia transit shuttle–Lyons Dam Road to Lyons Reservoir, Sugar Pine Trail to Twain Harte and the ditch/roads to Columbia or onward to Sonora.  See the schedule for Tuolumne County Transit Route 2 which terminates at Sierra Village and Columbia. There are three daytime buses Monday-Friday. The buses only hold two bikes, so start early and have an alternate plan.

Paved Road to Nowhere Plus–try the Paved Road to Nowhere with return via Dodge Ridge Road and the Sugar Pine to Lyons Reservoir. Get back to Long Barn on Lyons Dam Road and a short trip on Highway 108 on a segment with good shoulders.

Click on “View Larger Map” to allow selection of individual trail segments.

pinecrest columbia GE map
Download the Google Earth bike map featuring this loop

Download or update Google Earth for free: http://www.google.com/earth/download/ge/
Get help with using Google Earth to view the map file
Download the .gpx file for the loop if you want to upload it to a GPS

  • Downside—Excepting the Columbia end of the ride, it’s kind of flat.
  • Upside—Historic and scenic routes, good range of options for varied abilities and interests, lots of lodging and camping options.
  • roads and trails: mostly dirt, some gravel, very little paved.
  • terrain: mostly level riding on contours.
  • tires: cross to mountain, most will prefer mountain.
  • seasons: Lyons Dam and Fraser Flat Roads are closed during winter (Dec 16–April 14). Winter snow, spring mud.
  • current weather
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