A day’s adventure
July 21, 2005
Picture yourself on a Sunday drive. Good music is playing, and the air conditioner works. The road twists and turns through alpine forests, quaint towns and golden valleys. Traffic doesn’t exist. And when a sight beckons you to stop and get out of the car, your lungs fill with sweet-smelling mountain air.
No, you’re not dreaming. This day trip is in your own back yard. The Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway is a beautiful 160-mile loop that begins on Highway 49 just outside of Nevada City and winds its way through the towns of Downieville, Sierra City, Bassetts, Sierraville and Truckee.
The landscape changes dramatically along this quiet stretch of California – offering a full spectrum of outdoor exploring. The drive takes three and a half hours with no stops, so expect to put in a full day of driving and sightseeing. If you just haven’t had your fill by the day’s end, there are plenty of lodgings along the way.
Begin your journey by crossing the canyons of the South Yuba River. Venture past the familiar territory of the San Juan Ridge and follow Highway 49.
Soon you’ll come to the Middle Fork of the Yuba where it is intersected by Oregon Creek. This is a popular place to swim. There is a picnic area and a historic covered bridge.
After Camptonville, the road begins to wind, then meets up with the North Fork of the Yuba. For a time, Highway 49 flows alongside the river, offering plenty of places for motorists to pull over and enjoy the water. Several campgrounds and picnic areas are located before reaching Downieville.
Look for Fiddle Creek, Indian Valley, Hall’s Ranch, Convict Flat, Indian Rock and Ramshorn. The water is swift and chilly and running with rainbow and brook trout, making this fly-fishing heaven.
After driving about an hour, you’ll reach the historic mining town of Downieville. The streets are busy this time of year with tourists and tired- looking mountain bicyclists. Check out the Visitor Center located near Lions Park for a walking tour map.
The town looks much as it did during the Gold Rush, and many of the historic buildings are still in use. Check out the two museums, blacksmith shop and the Craycroft Building, where town legend Juanita fled after stabbing miner Jack Canon.
Downieville is home to the Mountain Messenger, the oldest weekly newspaper still published in California, boasting Mark Twain as a previous contributing writer.
The Gallows, now standing in front of the Sheriff’s Station, was used only once in 1888 and is a grim reminder of the old justice system.
There are plenty of shade trees growing along its banks and the Tin Cup Diggins Park near the Jersey Bridge is a pleasant picnic site. Just a short walk on the outskirts of town, 1,000 yards past the third bridge (Hansen) behind the dark green pump house is Pauley Creek Falls.
Once you’ve stretched your legs, had a smoothie or coffee, you’re ready to head up the road again. Sierra City is the next town and offers more historic buildings, food, etc. Just outside town, another waterfall awaits. Loves Falls is a 10-minute hike on the Pacific Crest Trail and well worth the stop.
Another popular destination three miles outside of town is the 118-acre privately owned Big Springs Garden. A romantic getaway for weddings and anniversaries, the garden is surrounded by National Forest land and offers trails, tours and Sunday Brunch.
Follow a few bends in the road, and the Sierra Buttes dominate the landscape. Bassetts Station, an old stagecoach stop, marks the turn for the Gold Lake Highway where numerous high mountain lakes, trails and lodges get a steady stream of visitors in the summer months. The station serves up giant hamburgers, if you’re hungry for lunch.
The temperatures are cooler here, and wildflowers, such as lupine and yarrow, still color the roadside. Following Highway 49 past Bassetts, the road keeps climbing in elevation, passing several campgrounds until it reaches the highest point, known as Yuba Pass, with an elevation of 6,700 feet. A snow park is located here and offers cross-country skiing and snowmobile trails in the winter months. Yuba Pass Road begins here, which connects with the historic Henness Pass Road used by early travelers as the main route to the Comstock Load in Nevada from California’s Central Valley.
Stay on Highway 49 and twist your way through the last of the lichen-covered alpine forests until you come to the Sierra Valley overlook. The large meadow valley bordered by mountains stretches out below in a checkerboard expanse of cattle and dairy ranches. Descendants of the ranchers who first came here in the mid 1800s continue their family farming traditions. Black and tan cows flick their tails in the hot sun. Nearly 100 crumbling wooden barns built over a century ago struggle to remain upright. Many are still in use.
This is the largest alpine valley in North America. Besides making choice grazeland, it is a wetland sanctuary for over 14 species of waterfowl and 25 species of other birds. Birdwatchers this time of year may spot sandhill cranes, bald or golden eagles and rough legged or red tailed hawks along with mergansers and ducks. Be sure to stop by the ranger station in Sierraville to get a listing of trails in the area and directions to the best spots for viewing birds.
From Sierraville, take Highway 89 south toward Truckee. Along the way, the highway follows the Little Truckee River, and several campgrounds are located within this part of Tahoe National Forest. For a side trip, look for the road leading to Independence Lake and Jackson Meadows. Further down Highway 89, look for Kyburz Flat signs. Take the gravel road on the left for one mile. Here remains a broken boulder decorated with “copules” or small round Indian petroglyphs ground into the rock surface dating back at least 2,000 years. Just around the corner is a wood-planked, wheelchair-accessible interpretive trail once the site of a stagecoach stop and hotel on the historic Henness Pass. Bits of ceramic, glass and cast iron are still lying in the dirt beneath the sagebrush. Large meadows make for a relaxing backdrop.
Back on Highway 89, you may want to visit the Donner Camp Picnic Site located five miles south of the Sierra County line. The meadow here is where the Donner Party camped during the winter of 1846.
From here it is a short drive to Truckee, where you will find civilization. Stop along Donner Pass Road for a full range of shopping and eating pleasures. Truckee’s Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Information Center is loaded with upcoming events for the town and is located in the yellow train station across from the main shopping boulevard. Donner Lake and Donner Memorial State Park are popular destinations near Truckee.
From here, it’s back to Interstate 80 for a brief time through the granite peaks of Donner Pass and then onto Highway 20 toward home. Along the way you may want to stop at Bear Valley, Spaulding Lake, the Alpha-Omega viewpoint or the Washington Overlook and the South Yuba Canyon.
Traveling the Yuba Donner Scenic Byway changes with the seasons. It offers an endless combination of adventures. There are too many trails, campgrounds, lakes, streams and rivers to name them all, so get out there and do some exploring on your own.
Laura Brown is a mother of two and lives in Nevada County.