The reason is obvious. Stopping at historic sites or scenic overlooks and taking brief walks adds immensely to the pleasure. We’ve noted four major routes (see Overview Map) and several side trips, plus a partial listing of the many opportunities to stop and discover more about our area. Most drives are suitable for families and can be driven with sedans (with one exception as noted). Take a few hours or several days, stop overnight, take a picnic, or dine at any of the many great places to eat. But drive carefully; driving mountain roads requires skill and patience.
160 mile loop, driving time 3.5 hours not counting stops or side trips, I-80, Highways 49, 89, 40, 20, year-round.
Heading north from Nevada City/Grass Valley, Highway 49 crosses the rugged South and Middle Yuba canyons. Foothill homesteads on the ridges add scenic texture to lush green hillsides. Shortly, the highway dives into the North Yuba canyon with river and highway intimately sharing the narrow valley as you head up river. In the spring, brilliantly colored flowers cling to rocky walls and on fall days the muted reds and browns and bright yellows highlight the brilliant blue skies. Huge pines and firs crowd close to the highway.
Suggested stops along the way: Grass Valley, California’s richest mining town with walking tours of the Northstar Mining Museum & Pelton Wheel Exhibit and Empire Mine State Park; Nevada City, The Gold Rush’s Queen City and in the National Register of Historic Places, provides a museum and walking tours of the Independence Trail or hike the South Yuba National Scenic Trail; French Corral, site of the first long distance telephone line; Bridgeport with the longest single-span covered bridge in North America.
Other stops include the Middle Yuba River with Oregon Creek’s covered bridge; Jouberts Diggings; the North Yuba River; Fiddle Creek Falls, and Indian Rock.
... Side trips: Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, Forest City/Allegany and Bullards Bar Reservoir.
Two quintessential Gold Rush communities lie ahead. Both now include modern amenities while retaining their rustic character and charm. Downieville hasn’t changed much from its Gold Rush days -- and probably never will. It boasts two museums, a walking tour, summer theater, and a robust nightlife. Sierra City, charming, historic and gateway to the high country, with the Kentucky Mine Museum, a walking tour, and summer concert series. Between the two, lies Loganville with the remains of an 1880s homestead. Just outside of Sierra City, take the opportunity to visit Loves Falls, well worth the 10-minute hike down the Pacific Crest Trail. Soon Highway 49 climbs from canyons and broad forests to alpine basins and deep lakes. Five miles from Sierra City, on the left, stop at Bassetts, an 1860s stage stop that now provides services for the modern traveler.
... Side trip: Gold Lake Highway, Lakes Basin and Sierra Buttes.
Thirty minutes from Bassets, you’ll cross Yuba Pass and drop into Sierra Valley, the largest alpine meadow in California. Numerous wildfowl (and bird watchers!) enjoy the wetlands and nearly 100 rustic 1880s era barns dot the wide-open expanse. Sierraville, the crossroads, provides real grub and accommodations, some with hot spring privileges.
...Side trips: Loyalton’s museum and dairy history; Beckworth and museum; Portola’s huge open-air railroad exhibit, where you can actually engineer an engine; golfing galore in the Graeagle/Blairsden area.
Out of Sierraville, head south on Highway 89, where a thirty minute drive takes you to Kyburz Flat with Indian rock art, a wayside hotel site interpretive tour, and a Basque sheep camp. The Little Truckee River flows through an open pine forest with several meadows and numerous wildflowers, and, in the fall, breathtakingly beautiful aspen. To add to your pleasure, take the Donner Party Campsite interpretive tour. Truckee, from emigrant wagons, to railroads, to logging giants, is now a Mecca for outdoor activities, with a museum and walking tour. With any visit to Truckee, Donner Lake and Donner Memorial State Park are must-sees, and you won’t be disappointed.
...Side trips: From Truckee northeast to Boca Reservoir (with the Boca -- famed for making ice and beer --interpretive trail), Prosser, and Stampede Reservoirs; or drive south to the Truckee River canyon (home to a returning population of eagles and rock climbers) and road to Tahoe City; Squaw Valley (with summer gondola rides, an ice skating rink, and 1960s Olympics Museum).
From Truckee, head west on I-80 and then on old Highway 40 with Nevada City/Grass Valley an hour’s drive away. Along the way, see (and stop when or as often as you want): Rainbow Bridge with views of Truckee Lake, railroad snow sheds, China Wall, and the historic Lincoln Highway; the Emigrant Trail’s, Donner Pass, Cold Stream Pass and Roller Pass (the last two require hiking). Continuing west on I-80, stop and enjoy any of these places: Soda Springs, Western America Skisport Museum (skiing history); Big Bend Visitor Center (interpretive exhibits and guided tours to still visible remnants of the historic emigrant trail), and Cisco Grove.
Take the Highway 20 exit from I-80 and continue west to return toward Nevada City/Grass Valley. Worthy stops: Bear Valley, Emigrant Gap, the Alpha-Omega viewpoint and rest stop with a forest interpretive trail, the Washington Overlook and the South Yuba canyon, the Lone Grave, Scotts Flat Reservoir.
...Side trip: the little town of Washington noted for laid back ambiance and lifestyle.
......Community services -- Gas, restaurants, accommodations, and groceries are all available in: Nevada City, Grass Valley, North San Juan, Downieville, Sierra City, Bassetts, Calpine (no gas), Sierraville, Truckee, Donner Summit/Soda Springs, and the little town of Washington (no gas). Food and limited groceries are also available in Camptonville, Sattley and Cisco Grove. Other than Grass Valley and Nevada City, only Downieville and Truckee offer medical facilities.
......Alternate, I-80 direct route to the Sacramento Valley: Even the shortest way back to the Central Valley doesn’t mean a lack of scenery and places teeming with history. Emigrant Gap overlooks the steepest wagon hill along the entire Truckee Route of the California Emigrant Trail. Dutch Flat, one of the area’s most influential Gold Rush communities, remains as one of the most historically intact. It was the eastern terminus of the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Road, one of the earliest toll roads, which was also used for hauling the construction supplies to build the continental railroad. Gold Run is the location of the some of the biggest hydraulic mines and the town founded to support them. Colfax: mining, orchards, and lumbering grew this town, but hosting several great eateries, active nightlife, and an ideal spot to live and raise families have kept it alive. Clipper Gap, once roaring with ironworks, lime works, and powder works (early manufacturing of black powder), is now but a sleepy little community and content to stay that way. In Bowman, fruit and viticulture kept it active until I-80 bisected its soul. But many of the orchards are still there and produce great fruit and pie shops that know what to do with it. Auburn began as humbly named “Dry Diggings.” But the boomtown soon became “Rich Dry Diggings,” eventually “Auburn” and a perfect foothill location to live and play.
Additional literature to take on your drive: Tahoe National Forest pamphlets 49 Miles Along Highway 49, History of the Big Bend Area, Placer County pamphlet Heritage Travel, 1-Day Ride, and walking tour guide pamphlets for communities as noted.
Roughly 107 miles, driving time 4-5 hours not counting stops or side trips, paved, gravel, dirt with rocky section above Forest City to Jackson Meadows Reservoir -- high clearance vehicles advised, trailers and large RVs not recommended, seasonal -- usually late June through October or first snow.
By connecting the Central Valley via Bridgeport and Oregon Creek covered bridges and Camptonville, CA to Verdi, NV, historical Henness Pass Road originally served to supply the Comstock mines and Virginia City. Travelers and freight carriers regularly used this route over one of the lowest Sierra Crest passes at 6920’. Now it makes a marvelous backcountry byway for one or a leisurely two days. See the Tahoe National Forest brochure “From Gold to Silver -- the Comstock Connection, a Historic Driving Tour of the Henness Pass Road.” The brochure covers the roughest 88 miles from Camptonville to Verdi. About 19 miles southwest of Camptonville, at Bridgeport, the full tour begins. Pleasant Valley Road and Highway 49 approximately follow the route. Beginning at Camptonville, historic stops are designated and the brochure (with a map) gives a brief history of each location. The Forest City Historical Association maintains a museum in the tiny city (listed on the National Register of Historic Places). But beside the sometimes museum the only services are a telephone booth and picnic site. Please call 530-287-3413 for hours of museum operation.
Traveling high above the Middle Yuba River on the west and crossing through open pines and meadows above the Little Truckee River on the east, scenic views abound. Visit sites of ranches, rustic inns and stage stops, or rowdy hangouts that hoped to separate lonely miners from their gold dust. With the tour brochure and a little imagination, you’ll be able to hear whisky glasses clink in the wind. Webber Falls is doubly inspiring: the top 25’, small pool, then plunging nearly 80’. It is east of Webber Lake, but you have to look for the turn right (south). No signs but it is a bit east of the sign to Lake of the Woods.
Sierraville and Truckee are only minutes away when the byway crosses Highway 89 about midway between the two towns. Several nice campgrounds are available on Highway 89 as well as Jackson Meadows Reservoir, which is roughly mid-way. Verdi straddles the California/Nevada border and casinos are only minutes away.
25 miles, driving time 5-6 hours without stops or side trips, paved, gravel and hiking only segments, sedans okay, trailers/RVs not recommended on the Lowell Hill Road, seasonal, June (or snow melt) though October.
The Tahoe National Forest brochure and map “Historic Overland Emigrant Trail” discuss 19 stops and historic points of interest along the drive. We urge you to get it at NF stations for both its detailed map and the interpretive narrative.
In 1844, the first crossing of the Sierra Nevada by wagon train was led by Elisha Stevens and guided by a Paiute Indian named Truckee. The eastern ascent was characterized by overwhelming cliffs, forested slopes, or dangerous rockslides. The western descent seemed an endless challenge of narrow ridges, deep canyons, exposed granite, and hazardous steam crossings. By 1845, new locations, detouring around the Truckee canyon, and locating better passes over the Sierra crest, improved the travel somewhat. The Donner Party tried the newer route but were stranded by a November snowstorm; some survived after wintering near Truckee in 1846-47.
The tour begins at Verdi, NV, and ends near Colfax, CA, but can be done in segments. Provisions, food and/or comfortable overnight stays are offered at midpoints along the route in Truckee, Donner Pass/Soda Springs, and Cisco Grove. The first segment over the Sierra Nevada took emigrants roughly twelve tough days to travel. We can follow much of their trail in one or two relaxing days. However, it will require over 125 miles of various roads and highways to cover the distance from Verdi, NV, to Colfax, CA. Allow your mind to picture the rugged route pioneers saw day after day, and you may soon feel the ache in your own muscles. Especially if you hike the Pacific Crest Trail to the Cold Stream Pass and Roller Pass above (south) the original Donner Pass. Tour the interpretive trails at the Donner winter camp, or the rest of the party’s camp at Donner Lake; visit the State Park museum and guided tours, imagine over twenty feet of snow, and you’ll feel the chill deep in your bones.
Near the Big Bend Visitor Center you can see rust stains on boulders and barked trees marked by wheel hubs of the wagons. Look carefully and you can even see wheel treads worn into granite. Forest Service personnel lead guided tours from the Center. Emigrant Gap can be viewed from the top at the I-80 interpretive stop or from the bottom in Bear Valley on Highway 20. Stop and look down the long, steep slope and imagine pioneers lowering their wagons down. Via the Lowell Hill Road (rough, unimproved route, no trailers/RVs) stop to visit Mule Spring where deep snows stopped rescue parties as they tried to climb over the crest to bring provisions to the stranded Donner Party. From that point, everything was carried the last 50 miles with snowshoes and backpacks to the site of the stranded pioneers.
Over 70 miles, driving time 3-4 hours without stops or side trips, but shorter options available, paved and gravel roads, trailers and large RVs not recommended on the sometime rough, and (occasionally) steep connection road (#43), seasonal -- June through October or first snow.
Above Foresthill lies an area as rich in history as it was in gold. Located only a few miles over the ridge from Marshall’s 1848 gold discovery in the South Fork, this area is one of the earliest to feel the Gold Rush. Today little remains, but two brochures and a Forest Recreation map will guide you back in time. The Tahoe National Forest “Foresthill Road Driving Tour Guide” and “Placer County’s Heritage Travel, 1-Day Ride” will lead you to places historically teeming with Gold Rush miners. Plus some outstanding canyons and forested scenery. Both pamphlets are available at Placer County’s Visitor Center in Auburn or the Foresthill Ranger Station in Foresthill.
Foresthill, the historic crossroads, now offers all amenities plus great restaurants and a historic hotel that modern travelers seek; walking tour map available. Stop and refresh here. There are no services above Foresthill. Adventure travelers (sedans okay) will loop out and back using the adrenaline-building Mosquito Ridge Road, cross over on graveled (sometimes) Forest Service road #43, and return down Foresthill Divide Road. Traveling in either direction of the loop or just using the two paved roads (trailers/RVs okay) independently offer pleasant days. Don’t forget your picnic lunch!
Mosquito Ridge Road initially hangs spectacularly above the Middle Fork American and the North Fork of the Middle Fork canyons. The road offers eye-catching views of a curved bridge on the North Fork, as well as views up the Rubicon River, and down to Oxbow Reservoir and the Horseshoe Bar Tunnel rapids. For a short side-trip option about 21 miles from Foresthill, drop down the paved, (but narrow and curvy with steep drop-offs) road to Ralston Dam and the very fishable Oxbow Reservoir. Drop below the dam and watch whitewater action up close as the thrill seekers spurt through the old mining tunnel-turned-river that’s become a whitewater shortcut to an adrenaline rush. For a more peaceful side-trip, go to Grouse Falls. The trail (1.0 mile, easy) and overlook lies north (left) off graveled (but a slow dusty drive) Peavine Road (FS#33). Follow the well-marked signs at the turn-off lying about 22 miles east of Foresthill. The must see Placer Big Trees Grove (interpretive pamphlet available) lies a short distance (and an 0.5 mile easy hike) on a well-signed road to the south lying about 27 miles east of Foresthill. The grove (the northernmost Sequoia grove in the Sierra Nevada) consists of six Giant Sequoias surrounded by huge pines and firs. On the Mosquito Ridge Road continue east past the Forest Service #43 road intersection to another side trip and visit French Meadows Reservoir (a beautiful lake until it’s drawn down by late summer has several campgrounds), before returning to the #43 gravel road connecting north to Foresthill Divide. The #43 road is for the most part a fairly good gravel and native material road that connects the Mosquito Ridge and Foresthill Divide Roads. It’s dusty in summer, sometimes rough and at one point there is a steep pitch that is also rocky to the point that only experienced mountain drivers should take sedans over it. My sedan and I do it all the time. The lure of the loop drive is too much to pass. But remember, both paved main roads can be driven independently and done in one long day.
...Foresthill Divide Road: Robinson Flat, first used by Indians to camp and trade wares, then a ranch, and finally a fire guard station. The 1911 residence remains, as do several buildings from the 1920-30s. The campground was totally refurbished in 2001. Since the 1950s, Robinson Flat has served as an important station for endurance runners and Tevis Cup (horse) racers on the 100-mile long Western States Trail events. Side trips: From Robinson Flat, go up the signed dirt road (definitely no trailers/RVs) to Duncan Lookout and view Duncan Canyon and the overwhelming effects of the 2001Star Fire. Another option: From here a rough dirt road follows the 1850s Placer County Emigrant Road easterly with one branch going by The Cedars to Soda Springs and I-80 (no trailers/RVs). But the driving tour returns to Foresthill via the paved road. Sailor Flat, Canada Hill, Secret House, and Westville remain only as memories, but the brochures share a little of their history. Views into the North Fork American River canyon are awesome. Stop by and walk the short trail to the Forks House Plantation, which features Giant Sequoias planted nearly 90 years ago as one of the first attempts to re-establish Sequoias into the area. View the plantations of the National Forest Genetics Center dedicated to seed production, tree breeding, and genetic improvements. Since 1900, three major wildfires burned much of the ridge; today the vibrant young plantation has been thinned to promote the rapid return of forest cover. Return to Foresthill on the Foresthill Divide Road.
...Side trips: Seven miles east of Foresthill turn north on the Sugar Pine Reservoir Road and follow it to the pleasant lake and campgrounds. Then continue on the main road (narrow, curvy) to the left (at the intersection to Sugar Pine Reservoir and campgrounds) twelve-miles to visit historic Iowa Hill. Still a vital little community, there is no electricity except by generators, no telephones except wireless. But I said “vital.” The one-room school has computers, and one tavern in town still operates out of the Iowa Hill Store. To continue another 10 miles to Colfax, drop down the paved road to cross the North Fork American and climb back to Colfax, returning to neon lights and a more hectic pace. But this sometimes narrow, several times a bit nerve-wracking road is not recommended for trailers, RVs, or the squeamish. The only barrier between you and the drop to the river is a thin white line painted on the blacktop. Drive carefully and watch for traffic. Another option: Visit Michigan Bluff, the bustling mining town that had to move uphill when hydraulic mining undermined the original community. Now it is the western terminus of the most historically preserved segment of the Western States Trail. Originating from here in the 1850s the toll trail served Deadwood and Last Chance. Still another: take the Yankee Jim Road from downtown Foresthill down, down into the North Fork canyon and climb north to Weimar and I-80 -- but not if you’re timid about sheer drop-offs at the road edge (trailers/RVs not recommended).