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WS Trail History

The Western States Endurance Run traverses the trans-Sierra portion of the historic Western States Trail, starting in the Olympic Valley near Lake Tahoe and finishing in the foothills of the Sierra to the west. The history of the trail begins with the Indigenous Peoples — the original stewards of the land. The Washoe inhabited the region around Lake Tahoe, “Da ow aga” (edge of the lake), traveling to its shores in the spring to harvest plants, pick berries and seeds with nutritional and medicinal value, and catch the lake’s abundant fish. The Nisenan lived on the other side of the Sierra Crest, to the west and into the foothills of Northern California. With sophisticated trade routes and seasonal migration patterns, the Washoe and Nisenan lived for thousands of years off the abundant natural resources of the land. Other Indigenous groups in the area included the Miwok to the south, the Maidu to the north, and the Patwin to the west.

With the arrival of settlers and miners in the 19th century, the Western States Trail was used as the most direct route between the gold camps of California and the silver mines of Nevada. The westward migration of settlers and miners had a devastating impact on the Indigenous Peoples who were largely displaced from their ancestral lands.

From Olympic Valley to Foresthill, the trail follows the historic track covered on August 28-30, 1863, by Professor Brewer in his survey for State Geologist Josiah Whitney, as recorded in Up and Down California in 1860-1864; The Journal of William H. Brewer. Today, most of the trail remains in its natural wild state – the last intact crossing of the Sierra Nevada.

The description below divides the trail into six distinct sections.

Section One: The Wilderness

The Western States Endurance Run begins in Olympic Valley, California. Rising more than 2,500 feet in its first four miles, the trail crests at Emigrant Pass at 8,750 feet. It then passes through the Granite Chief Wilderness Area and follows beautiful, rugged Red Star Ridge to Duncan Canyon and Robinson Flat.

This stretch, averaging 7,000 feet in altitude, passes through magnificent old-growth forest, and in many years has been covered entirely in snow.

Section Two: The Canyons

Leaving the Robinson Flat checkpoint, the trail climbs to the top of Little Bald Mountain before descending 1,043 feet to Miller’s Defeat. From there it follows fire roads and trails past Dusty Corners, around breathtaking Pucker Point and on to Last Chance, a mining ghost town that marks the jumping-off point for the section of the course known as “the canyons.” Learn more about the Last Chance mining district.

The first of the canyons, Deadwood, drops about 2,000 feet and then ascends an extremely steep 1,500 feet to Devil’s Thumb. The second canyon, El Dorado, is more gradual but deeper, with a descent of 2,600 feet followed by an 1,800-foot climb to the old mining community of Michigan Bluff. This most rugged 13 miles of trail between Last Chance and Michigan Bluff is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

After the cold of early morning in the high country, runners may encounter temperatures as high as 110° F (43°C) while traversing the canyons.

Section Three: The Divide

From Michigan Bluff , the trail follows the Foresthill Divide as it dips in and out of the small but difficult Volcano Canyon before reaching pavement for the first time on the outskirts of Foresthill. After a brief excursion through the relative civilization of “downtown” Foresthill, runners head back into remoteness on the California Trail, a 16-mile rolling descent to the bottom of the American River Canyon.

Front runners will have to deal with the most intense heat of the day in this stretch, due to the oven effect of the mid-afternoon sun reflecting off the south-facing wall of the canyon.

Section Four: Rucky Chucky Crossing

The next major checkpoint is Rucky Chucky, where the trail crosses the American River just below a class 6 rapids.

When possible, the water flow is reduced on race day through retention at an upstream dam. Runners will have the benefit of a cable running from bank to bank, and numerous volunteers to help them if needed. In high water flow years, boats are used to transport runners.

Section Five: Darkness

From Rucky Chucky, the trail climbs up the canyon to Green Gate and then follows gently undulating terrain through Auburn Lake Trails and Brown’s Bar. It then drops down to the river again before climbing to the Cool limestone quarry where it crosses Highway 49, less than seven miles from the finish.

The slightly easier trail in this section is more than offset by the weariness of the runners, and the fact that most traverse this section at night by flashlight. As a result, many runners find this the most difficult part of the course.

Section Six: No Hands & A Climb to the Finish

After departing the Highway 49 checkpoint, the trail passes through the magnificent oaks and grasses of the newest addition to the California State Park system, Pointed Rocks Ranch. Then descending for the last time into the canyon, the trail crosses the American River on the historic No Hands Bridge, the longest concrete-arch bridge in the world at the time of its construction. No Hands, officially known as the “Mountain Quarries Bridge,” is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

From this lowest point on its entire length, the trail then begins the final climb to Robie Point and the outskirts of Auburn. Here, stepping onto pavement for the third and last time in 100 miles, runners are just 1.3 miles from the finish line at Auburn’s Placer High School stadium.

After a short, steep climb followed by a half mile of flat, it is all downhill to the ultimate circling of the stadium track and the applause of crews and spectators.

Trail Protection Efforts

In late October 2007, the State of California took title to Pointed Rocks Ranch, the magnificent oak-and-grass meadow that the trail goes through after clearing the Highway 49 aid station. The ranch will be the first ownership by California State Parks in the Auburn Recreation Area, and sets a precedent for greater state involvement in the permanent protection of the American River canyon. This acquisition resulted from the partnership of the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and WSER; TPL provided the funds to secure an option on this parcel, and expertise and advocacy to secure the State buy-out. WSER contributed advocacy, and 20 years of initiative to save this land — once proposed for residential subdivision and a refuse transfer station — for future generations.

On April 24, 2008, Senator Barbara Boxer, for herself and Senator Dianne Feinstein, introduced Senate Bill 2909, the Western States Trail Study Act. This bill represents the initial effort by Congress that could lead to designation of the Western States Trail as a National Historic and Scenic Trail. The bill authorizes the Forest Service to determine the eligibility of the trail for national historic and scenic designation, thus leading to further legislation that would bring the Western States Trail into this highest level of federal recognition and protection.