Blog California

Dry is the new normal

May 31, 2021

I learned two things this weekend:

One: Mountain biking is mostly just about saying to yourself, “I can’t believe I didn’t wipe out just then.”

Two: You can’t trust the trail reviews on mountain biking sites.

Because no serious mountain biker would ever use words like “challenging,” “narrow,” “dangerous in places,” or “sheer drop-off” when describing a mountain biking trail. Instead, they use words like “fun,” “totally doable for a brave beginner,” and “rocky in a few places,” the latter of which is the closest to the truth you’re likely to get.

Anyway, I read this and thought, “I’m a brave beginner!” and “If it’s only rocky in a few places I can always walk my bike through those parts.” Ha. Ha ha ha.

Old Salmon Falls Bridge from Darrington Trail in El Dorado Hills, California. During wet years, this bridge is at the bottom of Folsom Lake.

My son and I did go down this trail to get to the Salmon Falls Hidden Bridge, which we’d been dying to see because (traditionally, anyway) it’s only supposed to appear once every decade. No, it’s not a phantom bridge, though that would have been super cool. It’s usually under water.

The trail was long, narrow, rocky pretty much everywhere and also there was indeed a sheer drop off next to a good portion of it. Fortunately, the other riders we encountered were polite and shockingly tolerant of how bad we were at riding this trail. And we did make it to the bridge. As it turns out, there was a much shorter, easier trail with free parking we could have done instead, but never mind.

Salmon Falls Bridge appeared during the last major California drought, was briefly submerged during the few years afterwards, and then again with this most recent drought. It, and the town that once shared its name, were flooded when Folsom Dam was completed in 1955. But the bridge still makes an appearance whenever the water level of Folsom Lake falls below 400 feet elevation, which these days is unfortunately a lot more often than it used to be.

In a typical year (a non-drought year, which actually may not be so typical anymore), Folsom Lake gets water from Sierra snowpack. This year, the Sierra snowpack was about 30% less than normal, which is not so bad except that we had some unseasonably hot weather early in the year, which caused the snowpack to evaporate instead of melt. So we lost a lot of that water into the air, and now the water levels of northern California’s major reservoirs — like Folsom — are frighteningly low.

Old Salmon Falls bridge appears when the water level of Folsom Lake reaches 400 feet.

Some experts aren’t even calling California’s current state of affairs a “drought.” Long, dry periods followed by shorter periods of very wet weather may just be the new normal.

It was fun to see this bridge, but I think it might not be such a rare event anymore.

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