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Mining the mysteries of Chalk Bluffs

Looking over the arid hydraulic mined expanse of the You Bet diggins, it’s hard to imagine the ancient river channel and massive rain forest that flourished there shortly after the time of the dinosaurs.

Now a rural homestead for a handful of hardy folk and a network of gravel roads popular with four wheel drive enthusiasts, the region is well known among geologists for its tropical leaf fossils, volcanic ash bluffs and once abundant petrified logs.

“It was vast in size. This was the granddaddy of all the rain forests on earth,” said local geologist David Lawler. Scientists from all over the world come to study fossilized remains of plants that can now only be found on other continents, Lawler said.



“We think it may have rained over 300 inches a year. This was a different world,” Lawler said.

Lawler is working with the owner of You Bet, Jerry Brady, and land trust groups in an effort to establish a 200 acre preserve called Chalk Bluffs for guided tours, an outdoor laboratory and school trips.




“We feel this area is unique enough it needs to be set aside and preserved for future generations,” Lawler said.

For now, areas are off limits, and the private property is marked with barbed wire and no trespassing signs. Still, a few outlaw types venture onto the Brady’s property to dump old washing machines and poach oak trees for firewood.

White exposed volcanic ash bluffs remain from deadly eruptions near Dayton, Nevada 22 to 25 million years ago. Emigrants traveling by covered wagon named the white peaks Chalk Bluffs when they streamed through the area in the mid 1800’s.

“It literally explodes like an atomic bomb. The eruption was so explosive, it came up and over the Sierra. Ash rained down on the river system, over this whole area. Most of it has been washed away except here, where it’s exposed,” Lawler said, pointing to the distinct land formations.

Walking to the blinding white bluffs is like stepping back in time or traveling into an Indiana Jones movie set. Indian trails left behind by the Maidu still ribbon along soft rock walls laced with fossilized roots.

Brady who was born in 1933, grew up in the You Bet community on his father’s ranch when the area was a noisy, lively hydraulic mining town with a population of 489 people. Every year he gives tours for the local historic society.

“Your backyard was as far as you could see,” Brady remembered on a recent trip up to You Bet on paved roads unheard of when he was a boy.

He remembers walking to Greenhorn with his brothers and sisters to watch the men dredge for gold and viewing sluice boxes shining with gold. He also remembers how pressurized hydraulic hoses altered the landscape from one day to the next.

“You go up there one day and the place you used to walk is just gone,” Brady said.

As only children can, Brady remembers exploring the ancient river beds and hopping dozens of petrified logs measuring 30 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. During the depression the logs were chopped up to be used as foundations for houses.

“They just dynamited them apart and hauled them away,” Brady said.

Every year, Lawler leads tours with the Nevada County Land Trust to Chalk Bluffs and the hidden hanging gardens he says are perched on a cliff overlooking a waterfall. Look for his tours this fall and next spring.

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@theunion.com or call 477-4231.


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