Spenceville Wildlife Preserve – Whether it’s birds, flowers or waterfalls, your senses will be delighted
On a recent sunny afternoon an elderly man and woman, flushed and smiling, ambled down the trail. When asked how far to the falls the man replied, “Ä couple miles, but it’s worth the climb!”
Fresh air and a long walk is nature’s remedy for spring fever. Spenceville Wildlife and Recreation Area has wildflowers, birds and a 40-foot waterfall to chase away any lingering winter doldrums.
“It’s a little piece of heaven in the springtime,” said Friends of Spenceville chair, Richard Thomas.
The 11,213-acre wildlife preserve was historically used by ranchers, the U.S. military, miners and Native Americans. Today, miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails make it an inviting get away.
At least 175 species of resident and migratory birds have been sighted here. Dry Creek, a tributary of Bear River, meanders through the preserve and offers spawning habitat to endangered fall-run Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.
The oak woodlands of Spenceville (the name of the town that once stood here) are a unique corridor for wildlife traveling from the Sacramento valley to the Sierra foothills. Large habitats like Spence-ville, undeveloped and open for public use, are fast becoming a rarity in California.
After the winter rains the meadows and grasslands explode in color. Lupines, tufted poppies, shooting stars and Chinese houses are just a few of the varieties that paint the hillsides. Carry an eight or 10-power hand lens to get a closer look. The flowers don’t last long. Catch them before they fade; mid-April is the best time.
A special turkey hunt continues through the weekend, closing the area to hikers until Monday.
Grab the canteen, a picnic lunch maybe a hat to shade your eyes. Don’t forget the camera and binoculars. Trails are not easily marked. The most popular trail by far leads to Fairy Falls, about a 2.5 mile comfortable walk.
To get to Fairy Falls cross Dry Creek, using the old cement bridge near the parking area and take a right. A metal marker labeled “Fallsa” at the start of the trail is the only one that has survived vandals. Follow it. Stay on the old road, known as the Old Spenceville Road Trail to avoid poison oak; it’s everywhere. Rattlesnakes are common throughout the preserve so be cautious. Keep eyes and ears open and have a bird book handy. Early morning and early evening is the best time to catch a glimpse of wildlife.
Pass a wooden fence on the left, take a bend in the road and stay to the right. Pass through a metal gate and climb a short hill and through an old cattle guard. The scenery opens to a wide grassy meadow valley ringed with large oaks. Be wary of cattle that graze here and step carefully to avoid their droppings. Stay straight on the main road. There will be two trails, the Upper and Lower Loop Trails heading up the hill. Stay on the Old Road – now known as the Fairy Falls Trail. This follows Dry Creek. Look for the bedrock grinding stones that the Native Americans, “Nisenana” used to crush acorns along the stream’s edge.
As the old road climbs and turns to trail listen for the roar of the falls. A small spur trail to the right leads to a lower viewing spot of the falls but is dense with poison oak. Stay on the main trail to get to the upper falls.
Watch your footing approaching the falls! A chain-link fence was built as a safety precaution but danger remains. Find a rock outcropping and take a seat. The falls drop 40 feet into a deep pool. Wildflowers and ferns cling to the jagged rocks. Butterflies and fat black bumblebees flit and buzz about. Some rusting machinery sits abandoned at the top of the falls. (This was used to dredge the pools for gold.)
Because of Spenceville’s isolation, it’s best to bring a friend. “It’s a little bit of the wild west out there,” said Thomas. There are no patrols besides the occasional Fish and Game warden and it’s a long way from anywhere. There are no phones, water or restrooms, so be prepared. Pack it in and pack it out. Spring is the ideal time to visit. Winters can be a bit muddy and summer is hot and dusty. Catch the swimming holes in late spring before the hot dry weather lowers the water quality.
Camping is not encouraged but is allowed at the primitive campground located near the cement bridge. It is open Sept. 1 through the end of turkey season for tents and trailers. Campfires are with permits only. After May 1, camping is closed due to fire danger. Those wanting to fish can do so in the ponds stocked with bass and bluegill.
Spenceville Wildlife Area gets its name from the copper mining town where 60 families lived in the 1800’s. All that remains is the toxic tailings of the mine located near the cement bridge at the parking area. After World War I a popular barn siding paint was manufactured here called ‘Spenceville Red’ but the business was abandoned after the high sulfuric acid in the paint ate the heads off nails.
Remnants of previous settlers can still be found throughout the preserve. A crumbling graveyard is located northeast of the Waldo Bridge on a knoll. There are stone foundations and old wells dotting the landscape. Imprints of the Nisenan’s ceremonial lodge pits remain if you know what to look for.
Today the biggest threat to the preserve is development. Several years ago engineers eyed this area as a potential dam site. For now that possibility is on the ‘back burnera’ according to Thomas, but a housing tract could be built in a couple of years. There are plans to build 5,000 homes adjacent to the preserve and Friends of Spenceville are concerned that the vehicle traffic and the increase in visitors will upset the area’s distinct natural balance.
For now, the classic California scenery is alive and well at Spenceville. Hawks ride wind currents above green grass seas and islands of giant Valley Oaks. Fairies are waiting at the falls.
Laura Brown is a mother of two and lives in Nevada County.
How to get there
To get to Spenceville Wildlife Area from Grass Valley drive 12.5 miles west from Highway 49 in Grass Valley on Highway 20 toward Marysville.
Turn south from Highway 20 at the Beale Air Force Base sign onto Smartville Road. After .9 miles, take the left fork and continue on Smartville Road about 3.8 miles to Waldo Road. Continue along Waldo Road for 1.8 miles to the Waldo Bridge which was built in 1901 to serve the now extinct towns of Waldo and Spenceville.
Look for Kiosk signs where maps are supposed to be available to the public. After crossing the bridge, continue to the left along Spenceville Road for 2.3 miles until you arrive at the turnout and trailhead by the old cement bridge and abandoned mine site.
To learn more
Click on ‘lands and hatcheries’ ‘Wildlife areas and eco reservesa’ then ‘Spenceville.’
To the Maidu-Nisenan, the Spenceville area provided an abundant supply of food, chiefly acorns. Bedrock grinding rocks where acorns were ground into flour called “ooti,” can be found along the watershed of Dry Creek.
Women also gathered bulbs, roots, fruits, seeds, fungus, insects and edible medicinal plants. The men supplemented the diet by fishing and hunting.
From their homes in the meadows and woodlands of Spenceville, native people could view the Sutter Buttes, called “Est-Yamani,” the place where the creator “Atkata” kept his spirit house.
Most Nisenans were forced onto reservations by 1857.
Recommended Field Guides for the hike: “A Field Guide to Western Birds” by Roger T. Peterson, “Pacific States Wildflowers” by T. Niehaus and C. Ripper, “Western Trees” by George and Olivia Petrides and “Yuba Trails 2” by Hank Meals.
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