This past weekend was the busiest Downieville has been this season, with nearly every shuttle packed to capacity on both Saturday and Sunday. It was hard to find a parking space in town and all the restaurants were bustling. And when I say “all the restaurants”, I mean all two – the pizza place and the Mexican joint.
Downieville has been on the mountain biker’s map for a long time, but it seems that with each passing year, this tiny mountain town of only a couple hundred year round residents gets more and more popular. While the growing popularity of Downieville is terrific for a place that’s been decimated by the disappearance of jobs in both the mining and logging industries, there are still a number of challenges that keep this historic mountain hamlet from returning to its former glory as an economically flourishing community.
The first challenge is that in the last 10 years, there’s been an exodus of locals. It seems each year another house is sold to an out-of-towner who immediately puts it up for rent on VRBO or Airbnb, furthering the reduction of full-time Downieville residents. While this is great for accommodations, it’s bad for the local economy. With every home sold to an out-of-towner, there’s that many fewer people who can actually live in Downieville and operate a business. It also happens that Sierra County, of which Downieville is the county seat, is one of the few counties in California that actually has fewer residents today (3,250) than it did in 1860 (more than 11,000).
The new owner of St. Charles Place, Steve, recently moved up to the mountains from the East Bay to run the legendary bar, and the biggest challenge for him was finding a place to rent. Unless you have the money to actually buy a place, there’s virtually nothing to rent anywhere near town. Rentals for folks who want to live in Downieville full time are few and far between.
This is part of the reason why if you’ve been to Downieville lately, you’ve probably noticed that food options are extremely limited. A long-time favorite, the Grubstake Saloon, has been closed for the past two summers, and the entire building is actually for sale right now. For someone who wants to move to a vibrant mountain town, own a colorful restaurant in a perfect location, and live upstairs, it’s an amazing opportunity. But for whatever reason, nobody has been knocking on the door despite the property being reasonably priced.
The market and gas station are hollow shells of what they used to be, too. There was a time when the market had fresh produce and a well-stocked deli. Now it’s barely comparable to a half-stocked 7-Eleven. The gas station used to have amazing breakfast burritos and fried chicken. Now the store is completely closed and the gas pumps are the only thing that work – occasionally. And forget about diesel fuel. Although the station used to sell it, for whatever reason, the current owners don’t feel it worth the effort to offer diesel to customers. It should come as no surprise that both the gas station and market are owned by the same person – and that person doesn’t live in Downieville.
There’s currently no good place for breakfast in town. Not even a decent place for coffee. Thankfully the Coyoteville Cafe is only a half-mile down Highway 49 to the west. And for folks headed through Sierra City, I always recommend a breakfast burrito at the Red Moose Cafe on the way to Packer Saddle. The Red Moose opened last year after its owners moved to Sierra City full time from the Bay Area; one of the few new businesses in the region with full-time residents.
Although food choices are very limited, there’s plenty of opportunity for alcohol in a place considered “a drinking town with a mountain biking problem.” Aside from the St. Charles, Downieville locals Will and Jeanne of 49 Wines are always smiling and have a wide selection of beer and wine, along with a wealth of stories about the history of the region.