Cascading waterfalls, cool swimming holes, lush meadows, old growth forests, and dramatic rock formations – the Caples Creek roadless area on the Eldorado National Forest has it all.
Features: Located north of Highway 88 and south of Highway 50, the Caples Creek area is a short 90- minute drive east of Sacramento. The area consists of a broad glaciated valley dropping down from the volcanic crest of the Sierra Nevada, through jumbles of granite rock formations. Small sub-alpine lakes dot the area’s higher elevations. Caples Creek and the Silver Fork American River bisect the area, tumbling over numerous cascades and waterfalls and flowing through lush meadows. Groves of old growth pine, fir, and lodgepole pines may be found throughout the area.
The highly scenic and visually distinctive Caples Creek area is a popular destination for day-hikers, backpackers, anglers, hunters, and those seeking a wilderness experience that is relatively easily accessible. It’s a rare middle elevation roadless area, ranging from 5,600 to 8,400 feet in elevation (most undeveloped wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada are well over 8,000 feet in elevation). The U.S. Forest Service recommended about 13,700 acres of the 17,900-acre Caples Creek roadless area for Wilderness protection back in 1989. Caples Creek is also adjacent to 22,500 acres of roadless land straddling the Sierra Nevada crest, separated by narrow jeep road and motorized trail.
The Caples Creek area provides important summer range and fawning areas for black-tail deer and wild brown and rainbow trout are found in its namesake creek and the Silver Fork. Nesting and foraging habitat for California spotted owl, goshawk, and golden eagle, can be found in the area. It’s relatively undisturbed red fir and lodge pole forests, studded with rock outcrops, provides ideal habitat for the pine marten. Extensive stream and meadow-side willows may provide nesting habitat for the willow flycatcher and migrating songbirds. The area also supports rare plants, including Kellogg’s lewisia, which is a Sierra Nevada endemic (found nowhere else).
The Forest Service’s 1989 wilderness recommendation for some of the Caples Creek area stopped a proposed small hydroelectric project that would have dewatered the Silver Fork. Conservationists are interested in seeing the recommended wilderness expanded to better protect the area all the way to the Sierra crest. The agency also determined segments of Caples Creek and the Silver Fork to be eligible for Wild and Scenic River protection due to their outstanding recreation and wild trout fishery values. The Forest Service is currently gearing up to revise its Eldorado Forest Plan, which will provide the public an opportunity in the next few years to advocate for increased protection of this beautiful but fragile area.
Hiking directions: Travelers enjoy an outstanding view of this wild place while driving on Highway 88 between Caples and Silver Lakes. Two trailheads on Highway 88 provide popular “in-out” access to Lake Margaret and Shealor Lake respectively in the Caples Creek high country. However, visitors accessing this area from Highway 50 may start at the Silver Fork bridge (a.k.a. Fitz Ranch Bridge) and hike a short way up the Silver Fork to its confluence with Caples Creek. Further upstream, this trail provides access to beautiful Jake Schneider Meadow. Before you reach the meadow, a foot bridge crosses Caples Creek and proceeds south through granite ramparts to the Silver Fork, which tumbles through a series of spectacular cascades. Portions of this trail system continue to climb up to Highway 88 but may be intermittently maintained. The popular Silver Fork and China Flat campgrounds are located just down the Silver Fork road from the trailhead, providing excellent base camps for multi-day explorations of this area.
How to get there: Drive 73 miles east on State Highway 50 from Sacramento to the small town of Kyburz, CA. A mile east on Hwy 50 beyond Kyburz, turn right on the Silver Fork Road (Forest Service Road 11N40). Drive 10 miles southeast on the Silver Fork Road, past the China Flat and Silver Fork campgrounds. Just before the paved road crosses the bridge, continue straight on the dirt spur road to the trailhead. The higher elevations of the Caples Creek area, including the popular Lake Margaret and Shealor Lake trails, may be accessed from Hwy 88.
The trail system is marked on the 2015 Eldorado Forest map, which is sold by the Forest Service. USGS topographic maps for this area include the Caples Lake and Tragedy Spring quads. Please check with the Forest Service about road and trail conditions before visiting this area. Contact numbers include the Placerville Ranger District at (530) 644-2349 (for Hwy 50/Silver Fork access) and the Amador Ranger District at (209) 295-4251 (for Hwy 88 access).
Caution: Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials.
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