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Natural Bridge
A great short hikeBy JEFF BENZIGER

There’s nothing like a short hike in the clear air to clean the lungs and mind.

Natural Bridge affords the perfect short 1.8-mile hike for individuals and families alike. Located near Vallecito in Calaveras County, the two-mile round-trip hike takes hikers to spectacular limestone caverns carved out by Coyote Creek, a tributary of the New Melones Reservoir.

The trailhead, which is maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is located on Parrotts Ferry Road, not far from the entrance to the popular Moaning Cavern. Visitors unfamiliar with the spot should look for the brown “Natural Bridge Day Use Area” sign along the road. Be advised that dogs and bikes are not permitted on the trail but you may see them anyway. Parking is offered along the small road that turns off of the main road. Be sure to visit the “portable” toilet at the parking area before the hike as none are available along the trail. Picnic tables are offered at the creek, however.

Starting at the 1,500 feet elevation, hikers descend 300 feet along a meandering easy-to-manage Bridge Trail. The way back up takes a bit longer and gets the old heart pumping. But there’s plenty of foliage – such as oaks, toyon, chamise, and other brush – along the way to offer shade for resting.

The reward at the end of the hike is a creek flowing out of a wide dark cave in the ground. During the wet season, a hundred beads of water rain down across the mossy mouth, adding enticing sylvan charm.

A path along the bank of the creek allows one to step below the overhang for a better look “beneath the bridge.” The ceiling is made up of bumpy, colorful pockets, resembling limestone formations found in a cavern deep below the surface. Within the dark void at the back of the cave, is a small halo of light, barely penetrating from the opposite end of the Natural Bridge.

Instead of the wide gaping hole at the lower end of the Natural Bridge, the other side looks more like a tall, round subway tunnel. Ferns hang down over the arched limestone walls to create another exotic landscape. Coyote Creek spills down a smooth-rock channel and disappears in the tunnel’s darkness. Those who are brave – and wearing a swim suit or shorts – float or swim through the 250-foot natural tunnel out the wider end, all while passing over some dark deep pools.

In the summer the creek is used as a popular swimming hole with people bringing inner tubes, small rafts and floatation devices to ride through the cool of the tunnel.

The trail site was acquired in 1972 as part of the New Melones Lake project. A plaque notes that the acquisition was made through the “cooperation and generosity” of Tone and Margaret Airola, descendants of a Calaveras County pioneer cattle-raising family. Tone’s grandfather, Emmanuel Airola, came from Italy to live in the now gone town of Melones (flooded by the dam) just a few miles from Natural Bridge.

IF YOU GO:Getting There:

From Highway 4, turn onto Parrots Ferry Road. Go about 4 miles and park at the marked trail head on the right.

Trailhead address:

Parrots Ferry Road & Airola Road,
Vallecito, CA 95222

Trailhead coordinates:

38.05201, -120.47138
(38° 03’ 07.2” N 120° 28’ 17”W)