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Joan Merriam: From the Sierra Westward — Part 1: Nevada County’s Pioneer Trail

Listen carefully, and you can hear them in the whispers of the wind, in the shivering of the trees: the weary footfalls of the long-ago pioneers who claimed this land as their own, this golden land of California.

The year is 1850, just six years after the first wagon trains crested the Sierra. By now, the California Trail has brought tens of thousands of emigrants over those treacherous mountains, some heading north, some west, some south as they made their way to California’s gold fields and rich farmlands.

Following the footsteps of the past

The main route over the Sierra is the Truckee Trail, which drops down from Emigrant Gap into Bear Valley and then jogs southwest toward Sutter’s Fort and the new city of Sacramento. But this year, one band of pioneers opts to split off from that main trail at Bear Valley, heading west for the rich gold strikes of the Mother Lode on what became known as the Nevada City Road.

Closely shadowing that original emigrant road between Nevada City and Bear Valley is the 25-mile-long Pioneer Trail, designated in 2003 as a National Recreation Trail.

Today, the western stub of the trail is just a few yards east of the quaint Harmony Ridge Market about five miles above Nevada City off Highway 20, although there are numerous trailheads throughout the route, and easy access points along and near the highway.

From its western terminus, the trail flows eastward, edging alongside the course of those early pioneers over granite-strewn ridges and through lush forests of black oak, dogwood, fir, cedar, and Ponderosa and sugar pine. While sections of these timberlands were logged or burned in wildfires a century ago, some expanses of dense forest remain, and there are still places along the trail where you can find huge, ancient pines and incense cedars that once stood watch over the migrant sojourns.

About two miles east of the trail’s western boundary and on the opposite side of the highway, is the Lone Grave. This is the 1858 burial site of two-year-old Julius Apperson, whose family were early settlers in the area.

Contrary to popular belief, Julius didn’t perish along the emigrant trail, but in fact died of burns suffered while he was playing alongside a fire at his home near White Cloud.

Several sections of the Pioneer Trail’s lower 13 miles parallel Highway 20 quite closely, sometimes barely 50 feet away from the road’s shoulder. With cars whizzing by at 60 miles an hour it’s hard to get a sense of the route’s antiquity until the trail crosses to the south side of the highway, then snakes much deeper into the quiet, fern-filled forest just east of White Cloud.

Into the woods

While it follows the arc of Highway 20, the route of the Pioneer is far enough removed so that there are times, especially on an early morning when the highway is still, amidst the gathered trees standing silent sentinel, you can almost hear the drudging clomp of oxen hooves and squeal of rusty wagon wheels as the settlers wound their way toward Nevada City.

For some miles, the Pioneer alternately skirts the highway and then dives deep into the forest, drifting through the woods surrounding Skillman Campground and beyond. Crossing and re-crossing Highway 20, the trail loops and twists as it burrows into the dusky mountain woodlands; then, just west of the Omega Rest Stop, it follows the ancient emigrant road for some two miles before returning to the south side of the highway one last time on its journey to Bear Valley.

Once the trail crosses Lowell Hill Road, it begins a slow descent, eventually fording the shallow Steephollow Creek then rising uphill again along the ridge to the panoramic Bear Valley overlook. After this, it declines steadily through the woods, still following Highway 20 but once again, far enough away that the traffic noise ebbs until the only sounds are the ghostly footsteps of those dusty emigrants.

Finally, the Pioneer reaches Bear Valley where the old Nevada City Road split from the Truckee Trail and where you can still find 4,000-year-old petroglyphs, drawn on the granite boulders by the ancestors of the Washoe Indians. From here, the trail crosses Highway 20 once again and continues north and east, eventually meeting up with the Spaulding Lake Trail.

Today, the Pioneer Trail allows us to take a step back in time when steadfast pioneers crossed over the fearsome Sierra, forging a path westward to a new life in a new land.

Next month: discovering the historic Nevada City Road.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach her at joan@joanmerriam.com. And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.


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