Malakoff Diggins State Park – Recreation in our own backyard
A scenic 26-mile drive from Nevada City will lead you into the heart of the 3,000-acre Malakoff Diggins State Park, rich with history and natural beauty. Once the site of a 19th century hydraulic mine located on a remote corner of the San Juan Ridge, the park is now a haven for those seeking a day to get away from it all.
Spring weather is unpredictable and travelers are advised to prepare for all conditions; this time of year it’s hit or miss. It can be really beautiful or really nasty, said Christy Sherr, state park ranger. With elevation levels ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level, it’s not unusual for the park to get some snow.
It’s best to start at the museum, which also serves as the ranger station, located in the heart of the restored mining town of North Bloomfield. This is where the $6 per vehicle day-use fee can be paid. Visitors can pick up trail guides, brochures and miscellaneous books by local authors. Bottled water and sodas are available here if you forgot to bring some from home. The museum is centrally located and there is much to see within walking distance.
For those interested in the town’s history, a guided tour is held at 1:30 p.m. on weekends, weather permitting, and meets in front of the museum. The tours are held daily during the summer. The quaint white clapboard homes and storefronts that line Main Street look much as they did during the Gold Rush. Once a thriving town – home to nearly 2,000 people – it came into disrepair after environmental restrictions closed down the mine. During the 1960s, it became a state park and has undergone massive restoration. The tour showcases restored and reconstructed buildings, such as the livery stable, saloon, barbershop, drug store and general store.
Shaded grassy areas with picnic tables are located on either side of the road at the south end of town and offer a pleasant stop for hungry, road-weary travelers. Clean bathrooms are located next to the picnic area as well as a faucet to fill up on potable drinking water. Fruit trees planted by the original settlers and later by preservationists are just now coming into bloom.
After a picnic lunch, why not try one of several easy trails found in and around town? Take a stroll to the China Garden where a three-acre vegetable garden was once worked by Chinese farmers. Look for the old terraces and irrigation ditches that can still be found. Or take the Church Trail from the picnic area .21 miles to the cemetery, church and school house. Choose the Upper Humbug Trail for a .56 mile shaded walk along the Humbug Creek to the Blair Trail.
Blair Lake began as a hydraulic mine and holding pond before becoming the swimming hole it is known as today. Sheltered by towering ponderosa pine and cedars, the 100-acre lake is a welcome retreat from a hot summer day. There are some bass and bluegill and every May the lake is stocked with rainbow trout. A fishing derby for children will be held this year on May 7. Anglers 16 and older must have a fishing license. The lake is open during daylight hours with no lifeguard on duty. Kayaks, rafts and other non-motorized flotation devices can be used at the lake. Picnic tables and barbecues are situated at the water’s edge. Dogs are not allowed. Park at the Blair Lake parking lot or hike there from the campground starting at the campfire center. All the water in the park is tested each year for mercury and the lake has been dredged several times to remove any dangerous residue in the sediment.
Want to try your luck at gold panning? A half-mile section at Humbug Creek starting at the Relief Hill Bridge down to the China Gardens is open for pans only. There are 30 pans available for loan at the museum but advanced reservations are required for large groups. To get to Humbug Creek take a 10-minute walk from the museum, down North Bloomfield Road through the pole gate at China Gardens; walk parallel to the road to the end of the gardens area and then along a foot path to the creek. No other tools besides the pans are allowed. Beginning June 12, the art of gold panning will be taught at 3 p.m. every Saturday by park rangers.
Be sure to wear hiking shoes and keep a trail map from the museum on hand. Hikers of all abilities can chose from 15 miles of trails. Two trails offer a view of the massive pita formed when hydraulic mining took place here over a century ago. It’s been called a man-made grand canyon. Within 18 years miners excavated 41 million cubic yards of earth and left behind an open pit over a mile in length and up to 600 feet deep. Ghostly spires of barren soil rise from a gaping hole in the land, an eerie reminder of the destruction that occurred here when miners blasted away hillsides with pressurized water canons.
The Diggins Loop Trail is the best way to see the interior of the Diggins and there is easy access from North Bloomfield Road south of town. The only trail open to bikes, the 3.29 mile Rim Trail runs along the upper rim of the Diggins.
Another point of interest is the Hiller Tunnel, a 556-foot drain tunnel that is passable during low water periods. Right now it is awash in spring run-off. Adventure seekers wear water shoes and take a flashlight. Take the Hiller Tunnel Trail then look for the creek that crosses under the road.
For those seeking a physical challenge, try the extremely steep Missouri Bar Trail. It’s a Forest Service trail that is open to bikes, dogs, horses and hikers. It meets up with the South Yuba River Trail. Another trail that leads to the Yuba River is the Humbug Trail. No dogs or bikes are allowed. Camping is available half a mile from the North Bloomfield Road trail head. Register for camping at the museum.
The Chute Hill Campground is open year round and has 30 sites for tents, RVs up to 24 feet and trailers up to 18 feet. The campground is named after the water chutes that dropped into the Diggins. Registration is located at the entrance and costs $15 per night. Group camping is available for up to 60 people. Amenities include piped water, heated bathrooms with flush toilets and fire wood for sale. Each site has a picnic table and fire pit. Pets are required to be on a leash at all times. Saturday evening campfire programs begin June 12. Reservations are required April through Labor Day for weekends and holidays. Rustic mining cabins are also available year round. To make reservations call 1-800-444-7275 or visit the web at http://www.reserveamerica.com/
The annual “Humbug Daysa” held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on June 11, is the kick off for summer activities. This will be the 36th celebration and by far the busiest and wildest day of the year. Originally called “Homecominga” and set aside for previous settlers of the town and their families, it has become a large community event bringing in crowds of up to 600 people.
The day offers a range of activities including a barbecue picnic, wagon rides, gold panning, candle making, tin punching, an historic plant walk, the world’s shortest parade, shooting of the water canon and blue grass music by Mountain Laurel and Alkali – The Last of the 49ers.
For more information call Malakoff Diggins State Park at (530) 265-2740.
Laura Brown is a former newspaper reporter and mother of three who lives in Grass Valley.
History of Malakoff Diggins
Malakoff Diggins was not the biggest hydraulic mine of its time but it did stand out as one of the most controversial. As the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Co. grew, so did the amount of “tailings” (gravel, mud and other debris) that flowed downstream.
Fish died, debris destroyed farmland, gravel choked streams and rivers and was seen washing out to sea through the San Francisco Bay. Landowners and farmers brought the miners to court and a litigious battle between the two groups began.
In 1884, the Sawyer Decision was reached, making hydraulic mining no longer economical. Mining eventually ceased and the once prosperous town of North Bloomfield began to die.
Things to know before you go
Plan to spend a day of traveling and exploring. Be sure to pack a lunch and any other essentials for a long day away from home.
Once at the park, there are no convenience stores. The park is located 26 miles from Nevada City. Drive north on Highway 49 toward Downieville for 11 miles.
Turn right onto Tyler Foote Crossing Road and follow pavement for 17 miles. The road name will change to Cruzon Grade and then to Backbone. Make a right turn onto Derbec Road and into the park.
Hikers should be prepared before setting foot on the trail. Bring drinking water, wear comfortable walking shoes and dress appropriately for the weather (during summer bring a hat, mosquito repellent, sun block; during winter weather have extra warm clothing).
Be wary of poison oak and wildlife such as rattlesnake, bears and mountain lions. Dogs are not allowed on most trails or in the Blair Lake Area. There are two exceptions – the Missouri Bar Trail and Slaughter House Trail. Pets must be on a leash at all times. Mountain bikes are welcome on the roads but not on the trails, except the Rim Trail and Missouri Bar Trail.
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