Humbug Trail – April 2000
Difficulty level: Moderate
Length: 6 miles round trip
Map: Tahoe National Forest, or Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park Hiking Trails map
For me, spring arrives as a catalog of firsts: the first time I see individuals of my favorite wildflower species, the first time I hear a grosbeak on my acreage, the first day I don’t wear stockings to work, the first night I strip off my down comforter and sleep with the deck door open. The day Dan and I did this hike was the first time I hiked in tank top and shorts.
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park’s Humbug Trail undulates for three miles with only 1,000 feet of elevation loss. It is great for sturdy kids, with neat water features, shade and the promise of a dip in the Yuba. Get there two ways: Take Highway 49 to Tyler Foote Crossing Road, then follow the signs to the park via Lake City Road. But, I prefer the back route: North Bloomfield-Graniteville Road, over Edwards Crossing, up a not-too-bad dirt road, following signs to the park. The trailhead on the right has a small brown sign with a hiker and the “No Great Danes” (i.e. dogs) icon.
We crossed a wooden bridge and the first of several tributaries. The rusty, opaque trickle joined Humbug Creek with a clear line of demarcation in the canyon below us.
We hiked under a canopy of Doug fir, incense cedar, sugar pines and oaks. Riparian species include broad-leaf maple, bay, alder, buckeye and dogwood. Look for the lacy-leaved native Western raspberry, growing next to alien blackberry.
Examine a 3-inch Doug fir cone: junior hikers will delight in the three-pronged protrusion under each bract – which I was told were the hind legs and tail of a mouse.
After about a quarter mile is a picnic area with an outhouse sign explaining how to protect food from bears. Presently, we saw a sign with a tent and green “E” in the corner. This was a sun-dappled “environmental campsite,” i.e. walk-in site – marred by a miners’ midden of rusty cans and stove parts.
Stepping across rocks in freshets, we saw at least four species of ferns. Show kids the brown spoors, which the primitive, non-flowering chain fern uses to reproduce, on the underside of the fronds. Halfway was a stand of horsetail ferns, which brontosauruses munched on. This species was called “scouring fern” by miners; run your fingers gently up the leafless, jointed stalks and feel the ridges of sharp silica, which 49ers used to clean pots.
We were puzzled by three fenced-off, deep ponds. Later, we read they were probably some of the eight, vertical, 200-foot shafts down to the 7,874-foot North Bloomfield Drain Tunnel. Completed in 1872, the tunnel funneled water out of Malakoff Diggins. Piles of gravel, unnaturally small rocks and rusty miners’ junk indicate the effects of hydraulic mining; this pristine canyon was once filled with 60 feet of tailings.
After maybe 1 1/2 miles, you reach the signed junction of the Humbug Trail and a road. Angling around a ridge, we heard the creek picking up speed. The trail dips down to an area of sand among outcrops of bluish Sierran bedrock. This drops off into channels and chutes of solid rock, forming a series of exciting falls. Get a good grip on your young ‘un’s hand before you take the spur trail to the tallest – 30 foot – cascade with its deep pool and little stone “bath” on the edge. As the trail starts to drop, look back at achingly pretty views of sun on rocks and water.
We were a bit early for wildflowers, but did see star tulips, buttercups, yellow violets (gently push back the upper two petals to show their purple blush to children), hounds-tongue with its bright-blue forget-me-not blooms and bleeding heart. We almost missed the hard-to-spot brown bell lilies, one of our few green wildflowers.
The path veered away a bit from the creek. We caught glimpses of large, turquoise-green pools, then the trail popped out on the signed junction of the South Yuba Trail and a picnic site.
Head upstream to read a large sign where the silty creek meets the Yuba about the construction of the tunnel. We found a small beach, ate lunch, and took our first springtime snooze in the sun.
Back at the car, we walked up the road about 100 yards to another big sign about the tunnel and took the little path to see where it pours out of the bottom of the diggins.
Pat Devereux is an editor at The Union and the Nevada County Hiking Club.
This article was originally published on 6/17/2000.
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