Trail Love Letter: The Western States Trail From Last Chance to Michigan Bluff

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the sixth installment of a monthly series to pay homage to some of my favorite trails. These are not trail guides, per se, but rather tributes to some of the finest running trails in the United States.]

About 43 miles into the Western States 100 course, after traversing the high country and descending into the start of the portion of the course affectionately known as the “canyons,” runners trot into the old gold-mining settlement of Last Chance, home to the race’s 43.3-mile aid station. Beginning at this point and spanning the next 12.4 miles to Michigan Bluff is the finest section of trail I have ever run, the historic Last Chance to Michigan Bluff section of the Western States Trail. I get a heat rash just thinking about it!

One of the few trails in the country with an official listing on the National Register of Historic Places, this 12-mile section of trail is, in a way, the Rubicon of Western States. Cutting through two steep canyons, Deadwood Canyon and El Dorado Canyon, the sweeping singletrack trail exemplifies the beauty and challenge of Western States as it ascends 5,266 feet and descends 6,406 feet all in a mere 12 miles. If you want to have a successful day at Western States, you must be prepared, physically and mentally, for this excruciating section.

It begins innocently enough leaving Last Chance along a smooth, gently rolling trail with mining ruins and old buildings lining both sides of the trail. After about a mile, however, the trail makes a left-hand turn onto a much steeper, more narrow trail descending precipitously down to Swinging Bridge at the bottom of Deadwood Canyon. Once across the bridge and 150 yards up the trail is one of the most glorious springs on the Western States course where runners are advised to soak and fill up before beginning the 1,600-foot climb in 1.7 miles up to the Devil’s Thumb aid station. This section, consisting of 36 switchbacks, is the steepest climb on the entire course and is typically scorching in the midday sun on race day. Over the years I have seen countless runners keeled over on the side of the trail here just hoping and praying for it all to be over soon!

Most runners arrive at the Devils Thumb aid station (mile 47.8) needing a little break. This little oasis on the rim of the canyon provides a brief and welcome respite before beginning the long, gradual five-mile descent into El Dorado Canyon. This descent, which, like the previous descent into Deadwood Canyon, begins rather benignly, takes runners by the “pump” (a water pump installed in 2002 near the Deadwood Town Site which provides some of the most life-giving water on the course), Deadwood Cemetery (the burial place of many of the miners who built the trail in the 1850s), and Kaput Spring (named for a horse that was airlifted from this spot in 1966 following an accident during the 1966 Tevis Cup), the official halfway point of the course. After crossing the bridge at El Dorado Creek, a 2.8-mile climb awaits, bringing runners up to the historic mining town of Michigan Bluff and the race’s 55.7-mile aid station.

There are few, if any, views on this section of trail and the conditions are usually relentless and harsh. Nonetheless, there is something downright magical about this little section of trail and, if I had to pick only one section of trail to run for the rest of my life, this would be it. Here’s to all the runners who will be traversing this trail less than a month from now during the Western States 100.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Rusty Rail Brewing Company Fog MonsterThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Rusty Rail Brewing Company in Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania. Their recently released New England IPA, Fog Monster, is an instant classic. With many of the characteristics of the classics like Little Sip of Sunshine and Heady Topper, the team at Rusty Rail has produced a tasty beer with a nice hop-forward flourish that is not overly boozy. I have a feeling this one will win some awards!

Call for Comments

What do you have to say about this section of the Western States Trail? Leave a comment to share your stories of training and racing between Last Chance and Michigan Bluff.