One of the most accessible and picturesque hikes in Amador County has to be the China Gulch Trail in the Lake Camanche North Shore Recreation Area.
The trail gets its name from Chinese immigrants who dug tunnels during the mining days of old, though most historic relics are now inundated by the waters of Camanche Reservoir. China Gulch’s 5.1 miles of trail end where the old town of Lancha Plana once stood.
Before you hit the trail, be sure to purchase a trail pass from the North Shore front gates. It’s $2.50 for a one-day trail pass or $10 for an annual pass if you regularly traverse trails that the East Bay Municipal Utility District maintains, which are open from dawn to dusk year-round. The passes can also be purchased online from the EBMUD website.
Through the front gate, follow a sign pointing to China Gulch. A short drive gets you to a staging area with plenty of parking. Once on the trail, which also serves as a fire road, you’ll realize the benefit of the maintenance done to it. With the width of most roadways and a smooth surface with little loose gravel, it’s about as safe a trail as you can ask for, making an excellent path for running, horseback riding or just a pleasant hike. Sprained ankles or any other injuries that could be caused by uneven ground have slim to no chance of occurring. A well-maintained portable toilet at the staging area is also a nice resource if necessary.
Dogs aren’t allowed on the China Gulch Trail due to the abundance of wildlife that can be found along it. Deer, turkeys, squirrels, foxes, cows and various birds, even bald eagles in the first few months of the year, frequent along Camanche’s trails.
Before getting one mile into the trail, you’ll notice a sizable pond off to the right that many ducks and geese visit. Just past that pond is a footpath that leads off to the right, with a sign clearly labeled “loop.” If you’re looking for a shorter yet still scenic hike, this would be the way to go, as the China Gulch loop is three miles long and winds through trees and around hills, though without any extreme climbs. The footpath isn’t nearly as wide as the trail it sprouts off of, though.
If you forgo the loop and want the full China Gulch experience, there are a few moderate hills to go over and down past that mark, but none have too steep a grade. A few twists and turns down the road and you’ll notice a big ravine, green in the springtime, and typically where cattle are most abundant. A spectacular viewpoint for the main body of Camanche Reservoir is certainly earned by trekking across the gulch. Once you’re to the top, you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy the scenery out of sheer necessity. It’s an ideal spot to plop a blanket down or just find a comfy-enough rock and enjoy a snack.
A fair complaint of the China Gulch Trail is that it lacks shade in many parts, so dressing light is recommended. A breeze is often found through its many gullies, though, so it’s still a lovely trail for most months of the year, save for the dead heat of summer, when scenery is scorched to shades of brown. And though it provides nice views of the lake, the trail doesn’t pass close to the water so don’t plan to work any swimming into your jaunt. Lastly, be careful how far you go, because, anti-climactically, you’ll just have to turn around and walk back, meaning you’d have gone 10.2 total miles if you followed the trail to its end and then turned back. But no matter your required degree of difficulty, the China Gulch Trail can suit your needs and easily provide a wonderful journey.