After a winter that consisted of much more skiing, my mind kept going back to one of the best summers I’ve ever had, working for Yuba Expeditions in Downieville and documenting the adventures for Mtbr. Now that the snow is melting and the flowers are blooming at the foot of the Sierra Buttes, it’s time to go back to Downieville. Last summer, I only scratched the surface of all the rich history, crazy stories, and colorful characters that make this mountain hamlet so unforgettable, so this year I’m going to scratch a little deeper.
Although the news headlines would have you think the northern Sierra Nevada range got hammered by El Nino last winter, the truth is that high above Downieville, it was merely an average winter. The Sierra Buttes are still blanketed in snow; the road to Packer Saddle is still under drifts as deep as five feet once you get up the steep and narrow part of the road; and kayakers are reveling in the Class IV and V rapids on the North Yuba River. But with some rain in the forecast for this weekend, the high spring sun angle, and warm temperatures, the snow should melt off enough for the shuttle vans to reach Packer Saddle in the next couple weeks.
The trails are absolutely primo right now, with virtually everything open below 6,500 feet on south-facing aspects. North-facing aspects are clear of snow below 6,000 feet, but there are still some big drifts on north and east facing slopes above 6,000 feet. The classic Downieville Downhill is snow free from the Butcher Ranch gorge down, however Sunrise Trail still has snow in spots, as does the Butcher Ranch OHV double track above the gorge. The parent non-profit of Yuba Expeditions, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS), has been hard at work clearing fallen trees. And with extensive erosion repair work that’s been done on Third Divide, the trail has never been better.
On the other side of the hill, Lower Mills Peak trail is clear of snow, with upper Mills above the jeep road clear for about two miles. All of lower Lakes Basin is absolutely stellar right now, including Smith Creek and Gray Eagle Creek trails. The tops of Mount Elwell and Jamison Creek trails are still under considerable snow, as is most of the upper Lakes Basin, so figure those won’t be fully rideable until late June. Just last week some friends and I were able to ride all of Mount Hough trail in Quincy, an absolutely ripping 11-mile, 3,800 vertical foot descent off the 7,200 foot peak that was completed last summer by the SBTS.
New Leadership, New Trails
One of the most positive developments since last year is a change in staffing at the Tahoe National Forest Downieville Ranger District. After more than a decade of management by someone who was less than accommodating to recreational needs, new blood by the name of Paul Hart has arrived in town, focused on enhancing and expanding the trail network surrounding Downieville. It also helps that Hart is an avid moto rider and loves mountain biking.
Already there are big things happening, including new trail proposals connecting Halls Ranch to Chimney Rock with 12 miles of new singletrack, as well as new singletrack on Rattlesnake Creek, Big Boulder, and Lavezzola Creek trails. But perhaps the biggest news is that the first four miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Packer Saddle north to Gold Lake OHV will eventually become legal for mountain bikes and motos once the PCT is rerouted off the crest. As a bonus, once riders hit Gold Lake OHV, two new miles of singletrack will be built, connecting over to the notorious “Baby Heads” section of rocky Jeep road that’s used in the Downieville Classic cross-country event.
Another important development in the Plumas National Forest, Beckwourth Ranger District, is approval for building the final section of singletrack on Mills Peak, which will make this trail an incredible 12-mile singletrack with 3,100 vertical feet of descending.