Last weekend, I overheard a rider proclaim, “Yeah, Downieville is cool, but after a while Pauley Creek, Butcher Ranch, Third Divide and First Divide get old.” My interest was piqued, so I walked over and asked the guy what else he’s ridden in the area. He looked at me quizzically and then said, “That’s it. I mean, what else is there?”
One of the biggest misconceptions in Downieville is that the trail networks used in the cross-country and downhill events of the Downieville Classic are the only good trails in the entire region. Truth is, the trails used in the Classic barely scratch the surface of all the mind-blowing terrain that surrounds this isolated mountain town, population 300’ish.
During the Gold Rush of the 1850s, Downieville had upwards of 5,000 people and the entire region was crisscrossed with wagon routes, prospecting trails, and dozens of hardscrabble runs up countless streams and tributaries. Although nature has reclaimed many of them, there are still dozens of trails that rarely get ridden and stay perfectly buff months after Butcher, Pauley, Third and First get dusty and blown out. It’d take all summer to ride every trail the area has to offer.
If you’ve been to Downieville and have never ridden Big Boulder, shame on you. Accessed by climbing up a rocky fire road right after crossing Pauley Creek, Big Boulder is a seemingly endless, rip-roaring singletrack descent that starts at 7,000 feet with spectacular views of the Sierra Buttes and the Downieville basin more than 4,000 feet below.
One of my favorite ways to ride Big Boulder is to get dropped off at Packer Saddle, descend Butcher Ranch, climb upper Pauley Creek and up again to Big Boulder, descend Big Boulder, then jump over to Second Divide and finish with First Divide. This is a hardy 3-plus-hour ride that few experience.
It also amazes me how many people drive up to Packer Saddle yet never go up to the Sierra Buttes Lookout. Towering above the world at 8,500 feet, the fire lookout building sits on a giant rock spire that literally drops off a thousand-foot cliff. The lookout can be accessed by climbing a four-mile fire road to the top, then returning to the saddle on a fun, steep and rocky singletrack descent. If you want more downhill, continue on Tamarack Lakes Trail all the way to Sardine Lake, 2,500 feet straight below the Buttes.
For an even bigger adventure off Packer Saddle, ride Deer Lake OHV to Oakland Pond or the rowdy Snake Lake OHV descent, then over to the historic Spencer Lake Trail, a barely cut-in singletrack that is overgrown in spots and too rocky and steep in spots to ride down, but utterly beautiful and primitive. Assuming you survive Spencer Lake, the reward is nearly 10 miles of absolutely ripping singletrack down Lavezzola Creek Trail which delivers you back to town.
Want to go bigger? Last weekend my buddy Cameron Faulkner went on a six-hour mind bender off Packer Saddle, conquering the absolutely rowdy and rewarding Mt. Elwell, over to the stair-step riddled lower Jamison Creek Trail, up the fire road from Jamison Campground to the “A Tree”, then a screaming 4,300-foot descent back to town on Lavezzola Creek Trail.
For those who want to forego the shuttle all together and truly earn their downhills, there’s plenty of pain and pleasure to be had right from Downieville. Climbing nearly 4,000 feet in 12 miles on Saddleback Mountain Road, Chimney Rock Trail is an otherworldly experience, snaking along the crest of a moonlike landscape with mixed boulders, decomposed granite and wind-scarred trees. The views of the Sierra Buttes and the dozens of deep canyons surrounding Downieville from Chimney Rock are spectacular, and give you a real appreciation of just how unforgiving the area’s terrain is.