Thomas Wolfe never would have written his book “You Can’t Go Home Again” if he had grown up in Placer County.
The reason is simple: The bliss that is in Placer County has never diminished in time nor is there a need to embellish its attributes or pan what it offers.
Placer County rises from the Sacramento Valley floor where you will find rice fields, pheasants, and Thunder Valley Casino & Resort, climbs through the foothills laden with small scale orchards with some of the sweetest fruit around as well as traces of a storied Gold Rush history and peaks with Sierra grandeur reflected in crystal blue Lake Tahoe guarded by world famous Squaw Valley.
In between there are a lot of surprises from stands of giant sequoias above Hell Hole Reservoir reached via the Foresthill Divide to Northern California’s ultimate shopping mall experience — the Westfield Galleria in Roseville that is thriving with 160 plus stores and three major anchors — Nordstrom’s, JC Penney, and Macy’s.
Those that know me get the fact I love everything about living in the 209 from Yosemite to Sonora Pass and everything to the edge of the California Aqueduct and beyond the imaginary boundaries of the area code you can find west of the Altamont Hills.
In all honesty I love California, period. And my first true love is Placer County.
It’s hard not to love a place where you were born, raised, and spent the first 35 years of your life. But I’m talking the love you get from exploring what Mother Nature created and man’s feeble attempt to match her mountains. For me it started when I discovered my nirvana pedaling 100 miles at a time on a road racing bicycle on the flat valley floor, the rolling foothills on trans-county excursions from the flatland to the rim of Lake Tahoe. It was cemented when my editor at the Press-Tribune in Roseville assigned me to walk from the Sacramento County line to the shores of Lake Tahoe where it meets the Nevada state line for a series about people, places and my general observations. I loved every step of the 120-plus miles.
While Manteca is my home, I can vouch a weekend trip to savor what Placer County has to offer can be good for the soul. And it’s not just Mother Nature making those offerings.
This is the place, after all, that inspired the one-day 100-mile Tevis Cup horseback ride where one participant decided to see if he could match the horses’ feat on foot by going the distance from Squaw Valley to Auburn in less than 24 hours. The birth of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run 43 years ago is a testament to man not simply rising up to the challenges of the Placer County landscape but embracing it as well.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Tevis Cup founder Wendell T. Robie is a distant relative while one of my cousins — Larry Wyatt — was crazy enough to run in the Western States 100 at least three times.
There are — for me anyway — four distinctive “Placer Counties” worthy of visiting for different reasons: The Flatlands, the Loomis Basin and Auburn foothills, the Sierra along I-80 and Lake Tahoe, and the Foresthill Divide.
Lincoln — where I grew up — has one foot in the valley floor and the other in the foothills.
The 20 miles to the western county line is often teeming with birds thanks to the bountiful rice fields. While you can get more birds by far heading up the Colusa Wildlife Refuge, down to the Merced Wildlife Refuge or the San Joaquin River Wildlife Refuge in our own backyard south of Manteca and across the Stanislaus River, there is something magical coming across birds as you pedal a country road.
If you haven’t guessed it, the Lincoln area is bird hunter’s paradise assuming you know the landowners. If not there are places such as the Yankee Slough Hunt Club.
Lincoln is also home to four golf courses — two 18-hole course in the Del Webb at Lincoln Hills community, Turkey Creek, and Twelve Bridges that has hosted LPGA tournaments. There is sky diving available at Lincoln Regional Airport.
Lincoln is also home to the venerable Gladding, McBean & Co. — makers of cay sewer pipe, roof tile, and terra cotta facades and specialty tile and such that graces structures such as the Wrigley Building, the Knesset in Tel Aviv, the massive rainbow on the Waikiki Hilton Hotel and more — that’s been around for 146 years. It is celebrated each year with a Feats of Clay-Lincoln Clay Day in Beerman Plaza although the pandemic sidelined it last year.
Although it is more foothills than flatland Camp Far West Lake is to the north with plenty of fishing and water activities such as water skiing as well as camping. The reservoir on the Bear River is similar to Woodward Reservoir but with a lot more trees around it.
And you can’t mention Lincoln any more without tossing in the 300-room Thunder Valley Casino Hotel Resort. It has emerged as one of the state’s top Indian casino resorts complete with a venue that regular attracts fairly big name acts.
Down the road in Roseville is the Galleria that is a haven for shopping enthusiasts.
The Loomis Basin was once a quilt work of small family orchards with some as large as 40 acres. There was any fruit imaginable that would grow in California soil. A century ago it was considered one of the world’s fruit baskets with packing sheds in Newcastle, Penryn, and Loomis that sent some of the sweetest fruits to markets across the nation. The secret was the well-drained soil. The Loomis Basin diminished in importance for fruit growing as it couldn’t match the tonnage yielded from Central Valley soil.
There are still orchards thriving although a lot less. The Loomis Basin — along with Lincoln — is also now dotted with boutique wineries and breweries. The website placergrown.org provides a perfect guide to farms and wineries compete with details including whether they are seasonal hours of operation and directions.
What I love about the foothills is the general rolling terrain with a few semi-steep climbs tossed into the mix that’s covered with oaks and scrub oaks. It is where I headed from Lincoln most days when I wanted a pleasant bicycle ride.
The Loomis Basin also touches on Folsom Lake and one of the nicest beaches on a Bureau of Reclamation reservoir in California — Granite Bay Beach. There are of course boat launching facilities but the beach is the big draw.
If you are into bicycling or even if you just like causal pedaling, the No. 1 reason to visit Placer County starts at Folsom Lake in Placer County —the 33.7-mile American River Bike Trail. It runs from Folsom Lake to Discovery Park at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers north of downtown Sacramento. Along the way it hugs the American River passing through riparian woodlands.
There are only a handful of street crossings in the 33.7 miles that gains 1,759 feet and drops 1,319 feet for a net gain of 440 feet making it a do-able ride for almost anyone. There are also plenty of restrooms along the way.
Auburn is just above 1,000 feet. It was founded in 1848 when Claude Chana found gold in the Auburn Ravine. Old Town Auburn with a complete array of unique shops and restaurants is in the shadow of what is the most high-profile 19th century building in all of the Gold Country — the historic Placer County Courthouse that looms above Interstate 80 as it snakes through Auburn.
Started in 1894, it was dedicated in 1898. A major restoration took place in the 1970s, under the guidance of Lardner Architects whose lead architect on the project was my older brother Richard Wyatt. Today there is a museum on the ground floor that is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. while Placer County Superior Court uses the upper floors in addition to other locations.
Sierra & Lake Tahoe
The drive from Colfax to Donner Summit on Interstate 80 is the best Sierra scenery you can see in California while zipping along at 65 mph.
While most see it as pleasant scenery to kill the time while heading to Reno, Sierra ski resorts, or Lake Tahoe, you can take pleasant short trips all the way to the summit by simply taking an exit and driving for a mile or so.
Exit at Emigrant Gap and you can see one of the few remaining “one-room” school houses in California. Its enrollment has grown recently as it now takes two hands to count the K-8 enrollment of six students.
Further up at the Soda Springs exit you will find the Rainbow Tavern & Lodge that is temporarily closed for upgrades and will reopen mid-summer. Even with it closed, the area is a great base to enjoy the South Yuba River that has steady flows and is a favorite for swimming and fishing in the summer. From here you will find the trailhead for hiking the 7.3-mile Loch Leven Trail a couple hundred yards from the lodge.
The general area also features a lot of off-road trails for ATV enthusiasts. You can also hike a portion of the nearby Pacific Crest Trail.
Placer County contains the northwest quadrant of Lake Tahoe. While I can go on and on about the joys of bicycling the 74 mile loop around the lake — I’ve done it six times — I’d advise against it unless you start out early morning at Tahoe City and head toward Emerald Bay so you clear the west side and South Lake Tahoe before the traffic picks up.
As far as hotels and motels, you can’t go wrong. My favorites are at the base of Brockway Summit right on the lake where Highway 267 T-intersects into Highway 28 in Kings Beach after you pass the Old Brockway Golf Course. (Yes, there are golf courses at Tahoe for the golfing enthusiast). I try to book in the small motels right after you turn left toward Nevada on the lakeside. If you book early enough you can land a room overlooking the narrow beach. Some don’t like such rooms as winds will create a non-stop lapping sound just yards away from your window. For me it’s a soothing lullaby. A lot of people also tend to walk by and the motels lack the amenities of newer nearby lodgings. That’s true but I’m there for the lake and relaxing.
Tahoe City has a lot of great restaurants with stunning lake views. It also has the Truckee River Raft Co. They offer an easy self-guided raft trip starting near the Lake Tahoe dam gates down the Truckee River. Most of the season it is low key and more of a float trip with little danger involved. The only thing that would make it better is being farther away from Highway 89.
No trip to the Tahoe area in Placer County would be complete without stopping by Squaw Valley and its Olympic Village. The site of the 1960 Winter Games is breathtaking. But you don’t have to lose your breath getting to the top of the runs. The aerial tram runs even in the summer. Wildflowers are incredible in June.
Want to raft? Want to hike or ride a horse on Sierra trails? Want to go on off-road trails? Want to camp or backpack? How about fishing?
Then the Foresthill Divide country is for you.
It has the Middle Fork of the American River, French Meadows Reservoir, and aptly named Hell Hole Reservoir. There’s also Oxbow Reservoir, the North Fork of the American River, and Sugar Pine Reservoir for all sorts of trout, salmon and bass. There are even two creeks home to native trout — Peavine Creek and Spruce Creek.
The Divide is also how you reach the northernmost grove of giant sequoias. The Placer County Big Trees Grove trail is less than a mile and has an elevation gain of 140 feet. It consists of four smaller trees and two older ones that are more isolated. It is the smallest remaining grove of sequoias but the lack of crowds makes it all the more stunning.
For more details on Foresthill Divide offerings go to foresthillchamber.org.