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Stories from the valley

Exploring the Swan-Henry Toll Road

Contributed by Carl Gwyn

This interesting historical hike along the Swan-Henry Toll Road follows the original Highway 50 route from Strawberry to Slippery Ford. Hikers can use their imaginations to visualize pioneers, stagecoaches, and early motorists traveling on what was once a major passageway over the Sierra. In its heyday, this section of Highway 50 featured a roadhouse and was even paved, but the ravages of time have reduced it to a rocky, narrow hiking trail in many places.

Starting from the trailhead at the Lover’s Leap Campground (see directions below), you will begin hiking east along the Pony Express Trail. This is now a rocky path that no longer resembles the highway it once was, so wear sturdy shoes. Fairly soon you will see Monk’s Rock, recognizable from an 1866 photograph of the famous stagecoach driver, Hank Monk, with his coach parked next to it.

As you continue, the path will widen, and you’ll notice large boulders bearing blast marks made during construction of the original Highway 50. These are recognizable due to slight center depressions where the dynamite was placed and the fracture patterns around them. If you look carefully, you may even see a few remnants of asphalt from the highway.

At this point, be sure to look up as you pass Lover’s Leap on the right. If the weather is good, you might see climbers ascending the almost sheer face, a favorite climbing spot. You will also pass a peregrine falcon preserve, located on the face of the cliff.

After another half of a mile or so, you’ll come to the site of the Slippery Ford House, a way station for weary travelers for many years. The trash piles around the site contain artifacts from bygone days that would be interesting to the amateur archeologist: pottery shards, cans, glass, and even a few car parts from the 1920s.

A little further along the trail, you’ll pass Register Rock, where the names of some earlier pioneers are still visible, and then come to a stone building ruin on the left. This was a Civilian Conservation Corps project in the 1930s that was never completed and is now fun to explore.

Another hundred feet or so, and you’ll reach the end of this hike at Slippery Ford, a granite area down which the American River cascades. In the spring, the beautiful vista is breathtaking. Just up from the bridge is the site of the original twin bridges that gave this area its name. The Pony Express Trail (identified by XP markers) continues from here, up and over Echo Summit.

To arrive at the trailhead, turn onto Strawberry Lane at the Strawberry Lodge, and follow it east. Just after the Pony Express marker on the left side of the road, you’ll cross the American River. Turn left onto Strawberry Court, which you will follow to the trailhead in the Lover’s Leap Campground. There is a $5 day use fee or use your Senior Pass.

This three-mile round trip hike would make an excellent fall hike before the snow arrives, but it would also be grand in the spring and summer. For more historical information, visit the Lincoln Highway Association site.