Highway 49 Road Trip – see the un-Tahoe
October 2, 2002
It is Scenic Highway 49. And scenic it is, beyond belief, what with its canyons, boulder-bestrewn Yuba River and thick evergreen forests. But there’s much more than scenery. This route gives you a glimpse into the history of the Gold Rush you won’t forget – but it’s not all historic, either. And there’s so much to do, but at a relaxed pace. The route is full of picturesque places to visit, outdoor sports to enjoy, and events to see. It can be easily done in a day, but why deprive yourself of the added pleasure of staying over a night or two on the way?
So leave your cares and pagers and cell phones behind and take a drive up Highway 49.
First stop is the U.S. Forest Service, on the corner of Highway 49 and Coyote Street, in Nevada City, to get all the information about campgrounds in the Tahoe National Forest to which you are headed. Don’t miss the brochure “49 Miles on 49,” which gives helpful and informative tour stops along the scene-filled drive.
Not too far out of bucolic Nevada City you’ll start to see canyon views that are the hallmark of this route, dipping and soaring in fascinating configurations. Seven miles out of town on your way down into the canyon a sign reading ‘South Yuba River State Park’ is the alert that Independence Trail is next. One of the few trails maintained for people in wheelchairs, it offers views and wildflowers that make this trail particularly exquisite. Not far beyond, just before you cross your first bridge on this tour, is a great place to get a good view of the active south fork of the Yuba from the deck of a 1920s concrete bridge that was closed to traffic in 1993.
Get Fueled at Toki’s
The place to start your day with a hearty warm breakfast is 14 miles up the road in tiny, rustic North San Juan, population 130, at an eatery known as Toki’s Fountain. Belly up to the counter and choose one of the ceramic cups with your name on it for a cuppa. A friendly lady, Toki, 60, came to this country from Okinawa and started her cafe 30 years ago. In that time it’s nearly become a country treasure to many of the area residents and workers who come in at their regular times to gossip and get some wholesome home cooking under their belts. As the old saying goes: Look to where the locals eat.
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Toki’s signature dish is Yakisoba, a tasty Japanese mixture of vegetables and noodles. Burgers, both meat and veggie, and milkshakes are big sellers too. But eating isn’t all you get here. At Toki’s you can find out what’s going on around town, get directions to a couple of nearby historic cemeteries, and argue national politics.
One of the most time-honored pasttimes at Toki’s is watching the “local color” come and go. Some of these folks make precarious livings mining gold from the Yuba. You might even hear talk of the 16-to-1 Mine up the road a piece. Toki, though, says she stopped accepting gold dust in return for a meal a year ago. “It was dirty gold and some was even fake,” she says disgustedly. Instead, she now sends miners across the street to L. Boone Jewelers to translate dust into dollars.
Consider gassing up in North San Juan, although gas stations appear about every 10 miles or so, and the road itself is well maintained.
From this point on Highway 49 winds, dips, and ascends with gusto, often amidst displays of flowering Dogwood in the spring and a gazillion wildflowers. About 40-45 miles per hour is a reasonable speed on this two-lane road. At its lowest, patches of the road are practically level to the river itself. At its highest it looks down deeply etched canyon walls into the cascading river below – sometimes without guardrails, which can produce a great adrenaline high.
Highway 49 criss-crosses the Yuba River, finally settling down to follow its north fork at Indian Valley. This is a river with a real reputation – a good one, that is. Deep emerald green swimming holes can be found for the looking, or ask at one of the restaurants that dot the highway. Lounging on smooth river boulders in the summer sun is a pasttime that has been raised to an art form by locals and tourists alike.
Experience Gold Rush History
Soon the places where Gold Rush history was made start increasing. Not far out of North San Juan is a historic 100-foot covered bridge at Oregon Creek. Built in 1871, it was once used by stagecoaches to take miners toward their ultimate destination: the rich Comstock Silver Lode in Nevada. If the kids are along on your Highway 49 jaunt, be sure and include these bits of California history they’ll be studying from fourth-grade on. There’s nothing like seeing these landmarks to make history come alive!
Eight miles out of North San Juan is another U.S. Forest Service Station, as well as the turnoff to the great boating reservoir of Bullards Bar. It is also the site of a town named Camptonville, notable for one thing above all – it has the best pizza in the world.
Lost Luigi’s, only open from 3 to 9 (a great dinner stop) has 13 types of pizza that range from Hawaiian to Mexican and beyond that to a personal favorite, Greek. You can even build your own from a selection of meats and fresh vegetables (in the summer the tomatoes might well be from the owner’s garden). But what is the secret ingredient that brings people 25 miles from Grass Valley to Lost Luigi’s? “It’s the crust,” says owner Mary Krokick, “We’ve used the same sourdough starter we first used when we opened in 1988, and we mix our crust from scratch three times daily.”
A couple of miles out of Camptonville is the Willow Creek Campground, the first of several RV facilities, complete with dump station and hot showers. There’s another RV park in Sierra City (opening this year on May 1), and a couple in between. If you’re willing to dry camp, however, plenty of lovely spots are available on a first-come, first-served basis in the campgrounds dotting the North Fork of the Yuba.
So far the highway has traversed two counties, first Nevada, then Yuba. Now it goes into yet another, Sierra County, and the scenery gets even more breathtaking. This is the ‘North Fork of the Yuba River’ country. Here begins family camping sites down by the river’s edge, starting with Carlton Campground and going up to the Buttes. Thirteen dollars is the usual daily fee.
Whitewater Rapids Ahead
Here also begins something this fork is famous for – whitewater rapids. “The kayaking,” says Danny Childs, owner of Wolfe Creek Wilderness in Grass Valley, “is spectacular. The North Fork of the Yuba is a world class river with class IV+ and V whitewater from Sierra City to Goodyear’s Bar, and class III and IV between Downieville and Camptonville.” Definitely not for the inexperienced, he emphasizes. The river’s reputation has skilled European kayakers including it on their itinerary, stopping first at Wolfe Creek Wilderness to load up with gear and get supplied.
For rafting the cool, clear Yuba, Childs recommends Tributary Whitewater Tours in Grass Valley at (530) 346-6812 or (1-800-672-3846). They are one of only three outfitters granted a permit by the Forest Service to run the rapids on the North Fork, says office manager Lorraine Hall, and have been in business for 24 years. Tours usually begin at the end of March, says Hall, “and continue until we run out of snow, which means running out of water. Because we’re 130% of snow pack now (at the end of January), we might go well into June this year, but it’s hard to tell.”
It’s always good to take turnouts on Fabulous 49 because you might learn something. One, not too far from nearby Goodyear’s Bar, provides a stunning view of the river along with a plaque about the Nisenan Indians, who used to fish this part of the river ages ago until the intense mining of gold pushed them out.
You can even see the cone-shaped tailings from the dredging operations that eventually ended in 1941. The scars on the land, if not the Indians, are slowly healing.
“Postcard Town” Ahead
Now comes the county seat and the least changed of all Gold Rush towns in California – the town of Downieville, which the sign proclaims is at 2,865 feet elevation with a population of 325. On the outlook overlooking the entrance to the town a plaque tells its history (founded in 1849), population then (3,000), and richness (one mine reported yielding $300 to the pan). First called the ‘Forks’ (because it is the confluence of the Downie River and the Yuba), the town got its present name because a miner, Major Downie, is said to have offered to throw a pan of gold dust in the street if they’d name the town after him.
Downieville is definitely picturesque, full of good things to eat, neat places to stay, and it sponsors events that bring in folks from far and wide. This includes a couple of nationally-known happenings, such as the quilt show the first weekend in October (a great time to see the Fall colors – oh those aspens and cottonwoods!) and a bike race in early August that swells the town’s population to 3,000; a theater (The Yuba Theater) that hosts the Banff Film Festival of Mountain Films in April; and, this year only, the town’s sesquicentennial (150th birthday), which will be celebrated on the actual birthday of April 16, as well as in the month of June.
This is a great old town to walk around in. Park your vehicle right after you enter the city limits and explore on foot like the miners did in bygone days. Then walk over to the information kiosk and talk with Al Pratti about what to see. He’ll give you all sorts of brochures, including a walking tour of the town. Ask for the story of Juanita, a woman who was hanged here in the mid 1800s for killing a man, in self defense, she claimed.
Hungry? You can stock up at a grocery store that has been there in that capacity for 100 years. Eateries include a diner, a pizzeria, and a bakery. The last – the Downieville Bakery & Cafe – has turned into a traditional stop for passers through who want their last melt-in-your-mouth apple fritter before doing some serious hiking. Owner Tom Byg, 52, (who also is the co-owner of Silk Road restaurant in Nevada City that serves modern mideastern cuisine) serves as baker of some creative breads (15 in all) and pastries galore. Although the building he is in dates back to 1849 and the bakery has been in operation for 25 years, he is a relative newcomer of eight years. To the question of what attracts tourists to this town, he answers “Hiking, the mountains, the isolation. It’s also picturesque, a postcard town that everyone dreams of living in.”
If you’re thirsty after a challenging bike ride, chill out with a cold dessert coffee at the Double Shot (whose owner is also the town’s basketball coach). For something stronger, the saloon on the main drag is the place to go. Ask barkeep Feather Ortiz to make you her famous Bloody Mary. “It’s all in how you pour the tequila,” she said with a wink. While draft beer on tap is the most often ordered drink, Ortiz also has had orders, mostly from visitors, for Pink Cadillacs and Sex on the Beach, a strange drink that has several versions of recipes depending on who you talk to in the bar.
Friendly people are the rule in this town. A chat with energetic Dee Bulanti, co-owner with husband Greg of Sierra Realty and head of the Downieville Chamber of Commerce, reveals a known fact that the town’s economy turns on tourism. Visitors, therefore, are most welcome. Indeed, Bulanti even walks this reporter around town to meet some of the locals and point out the changes that are about to take place (“The saloon is moving across the street this spring”) or rumored to be about to take place (“The Forks restaurant might be opening again.”)
There’s also the museum of Gold Rush days to see, the scale model of the town at the turn of the century, and the gallows, a reminder of justice in the 1800s. Try your hand at panning for gold behind Riverview Pizzeria. Pan and instructions can be obtained at the Sierra Gold Shop.
Of course all this history will be front and center during the sesquicentennial celebration on April 16. Bulanti prints out a calendar of events showing such things as a plaque dedication (most likely by the folks of that notorious miner’s fraternal order, E. Clampus Vitus), a historical skit, birthday cake, and an evening program at the Yuba Theater. Of course, as Bulanati points out, this is on a Tuesday when, even though Channel 10 will be present, most tourists won’t. June 22, therefore, will be the really big celebration, complete with the Wells Fargo Stage and everyone in period costume. “And most likely there will be old cemetery tours too,” she said.
Motels and resorts abound in and around Downieville. At least three places in downtown (the Carriage House Inn, Riverside Inn, and Downieville River Inn) are right on the river. In season rates usually run from $75 a couple a night to $99 for a one bedroom cottage at the Downieville River Inn.
Amongst the outdoor sports that are the most popular, such as hiking, biking, and “rivering,” comes yet another: Fishing. Ah, yes, this is indeed an angler’s paradise. Word has it that on the opening day of the fishing season (this year it’s Saturday, April 27) they line up all along this stretch of the Yuba to catch trout (rainbow and brook) and 3-pound German browns.
Fishing’s the ‘Lure’ Here
Just out of Downieville is the Lure Resort with its 11 beautiful housekeeping cabins right on the river. Complete with fireplaces, chunky knotty pine furniture, full baths and complete kitchen, these newly built cabins are so attractive and comfortable that Manager Lesley Austin said she’s even had a mock offer to buy one. A powerful testament to the glories of fishing the Yuba is a photograph in the office that shows a sizeable baby on a towel lying right next to a big fish, presumably just caught by one of his parents. They matched in size.
In season (April 1 to Oct. 31) $195 will rent you a cabin for four for a day or just over a thousand for a week. The Lure also has cheaper camping cabins for $50 a night for two.
As you leave Downieville, a sign says ‘Sierra City – 12 miles.’ Along the way you’ll find the Union Flat Campground, the Kokanee Kabins, and the Loganville Campground. It’s here that a town flourished over a 100-year period beginning in 1852, boasting at its peak a population of 4,000 inhabitants. Now it’s serene and quiet. Another postcard town.
Telluride of the West
Right after the sign that announces Sierra City and gives the elevation as 4,147 feet, Herrington’s Sierra Pines comes into view. The complex provides a motel, restaurant, gift store, trout pond, and access to the river, plus your first real view of the majestic Sierra Buttes.
Now this is a tiny town – population 225. In the twinkling of an eye you could be through it.
But you’d be missing something. For all its smallness, Sierra City has a store, a library, a post office, a real estate firm, an antique shop, a snowmobile store, an RV park (which opens May 1 this year), a restaurant that serves “Old English Fish & Chips,” and no fewer than four places to stay (and eat and drink – all four have a bar). Whew!
Carlo Giuffre, 56, owner of Busch & Herringtonlake Country Inn (one of the four places in town to stay) since 1987 is one of those that is open all year around. He has lots of good things to say of Sierra City. “We are the unTahoe, the Telluride of the West. This is like a little village in the Austrian Alps – small, inexpensive, and full of authentic character.” He says he gets people coming to his place from Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Reno, and Grass Valley/Nevada City – most to enjoy the great outdoors. “After working up a little sweat in this great scenery,” says Giuffre, “they come back to a hot tub, a bottle of wine, and a nice dinner. Mostly I get people up here who want to get away, relax, read a good book, and not be bothered by pagers and cell phones (they don’t work in this hilly terrain, anyway!) while they’re fishing.”
Giuffre will rustle you up some excellent chicken cacatorie for a modest $10. A stroll away at the Old Sierra City Hotel you can find pecan crusted catfish for around $10 and a big prime rib (on Saturday) for around $15, although, says owner Robert Morales, “There are those who will eat nothing other than Bob’s mountain meatloaf. It’s a huge hit here.” There’s karaoke in the bar, and you can stay the night in season for $70.
You might have gotten the feeling by now that what is referred to as “in season” is amorphous. You’re right. For a few establishments the season begins sometime in April; for other it’s mid-May. And closings range from September to the end of October. It might be thought that the higher in elevation you go, the shorter the “in season” is. Bassett’s Station blows that theory out of the water, as it is open all year around. The best rule of thumb is: the “in season” officially starts on Memorial Day Weekend and ends with Labor Day Weekend. You’re safe with that. On either side of those dates, call the establishment to verify.
Everyone in Sierra City seemed mighty friendly. A couple of folks smile and nod as I pass by. Giuffre tells of an uptight man from the city who upon arriving at his inn had the look of “did we do the right thing.” Giuffre encouraged him to take a walk and take it easy. The guy sat down on bench in the center of town. “When he came back he said three people had waved at him. He was sold.”
Postmaster Diane Neubert, a hiker of repute when she’s not behind the counter of the small post office, points out the obvious when she says “There’s not a lot of flat ground around here. If you’re coming up here to 4,200 feet from sea level, don’t expect a real easy hike, but the Forest Service trails are great. Lots of switchbacks.” Three-quarters of a mile away, she says, is a trail head for the famous Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. The Forest Service has a large collection of hiking trail maps, which are free for the asking.
Sierra City will celebrate its history day on July 27 with guided walks, demonstrations, a dance, and tours at the Kentucky Mine, where you can also attend concerts each Friday night throughout the summer. Be sure to make time to see the Big Spring Garden, just a little ways out of town. It offers a plethora of cultivated flowers, open meadows, trails, and a 1,000-gallon-per-minute artesian spring that cascades down the mountainside to the river below. It can also host your reception or conference.
Time for a Bassett Burger
Five miles beyond Sierra City is Bassett’s Station, gateway to the Lakes Basin Region and home of the signature Bassett Burger, a delicacy people come from miles around to eat and pay more than $5 for. “It comes with our oven baked — not deep fried, mind you — French fries,” says Owner Lee Dougherty with a twinkle. “And throw in a milkshake made the old fashion way – 16 flavors to choose from.”
A slender man with a steady gaze and a sense of humor, the 66-year-old Dougherty, who is also the area’s fire chief, is lots of fun to talk with. He gives a brief history of the station that 130 years ago was started by Mary Bassett as a stage coach rest stop, an inventory of the necessities his store carries for visitors (“You’ve got everything,” people say), waxes poetic about the hummingbirds that frequent his feeders, and finally slips in a plug for the kids who work for him.
But perhaps the most fascinating thing he talks about is the fish and weather updates he dispenses far and wide. “I send photos of the fish that are caught to the ‘Western Outdoor News’. And now with my new digital camera I’ll have these pictures on the Web site, along with my regular weather news” (which Dougherty also reports to the U.S. Weather Service). So, now you know — to see what the weather’s looking like in the Sierra Buttes or how the fish are biting, log on to http://www.sierracity.com
“A well-kept secret,” says Dougherty in closing, “is winter sports. This area is made for snow-mobiling, cross country skiing, snow boarding, and family play. The average snow fall is 320 inches a year.” It won’t be secret much longer, however. A film crew came to the area in February to film a James Bond X game movie “Triple X,” which features great winter stunts. But winter, having just finished its time here, is for another article, don’t you think?
If you enjoyed reading about my trip from Nevada City to Bassett’s Station in the Sierra Buttes, you won’t be disappointed in the real thing. Is it the unTahoe? I think they’re onto something.