Gold Country Treasure Hunt

Ride your motorcycle in the footsteps of the gold miners in Northern California. From the October 2001 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser. Story & Photos by

Nestled among the precipices of the northern Sierra Mountains, Downieville is far from the beaten track of modern-day travel. It's a tiny, forgotten town left rich in heritage from the days when men and women risked their existence to borrow a bit of wealth from the earth. Now it 's a great place to visit on a motorcycle.

When we took a group of readers on a ride in Northern California last year, everything went like clockwork. We covered a variety of scenic roads, the weather was fair and stopovers agreeable. However, there was one tiny town we rode through which wasn't marked as a stop, and later that day everyone commented on how enchanting it seemed. It may have been the one faux pas of the whole adventure, missing Downieville.

At an elevation of 6000 feet, this little boomtown must have been brutal in the winter months, leaving the inhabitants (some 5000 in 1851) virtually stranded under their tin roofs. Today, there are less than 400 people in this settlement, which some say is the last true-to-life gold mining town. The crooked streets clinging to the bank of the Yuba River are lined with original buildings, and a creaky walk inside any one of them is enough to conjure ghosts.

Getting to Downieville is a delight, and I couldn't wait to retrace last year's path along the northernmost course of Highway 49 from Nevada City as it sweeps and climbs through the oak tree-encrusted foothills. Nevada City is another boomtown rich with emotional tailings, but it is celebrated with great fervor, and over the years, has been restored to suit an interpretation of the past, rather than what was surely a stark reality. (Let's just say they didn't have a Friar Tuck's or Starbucks in 1850.)

It's 50 miles north from Nevada City to Downieville. Highway 49 is a famous riding destination and it winds through countless historical sites during its 298-mile duration. Most of the southern portion of the road, however, is so tightly twisted and overly trafficked you can't enjoy the ambience. I really prefer the upper section, which is quite empty -- although every time I've ridden it, I have been disappointed by the amount of dirt and rocks in the corners. Rock slides are common in this part of the Sierra. Also, the shoulders on this highway are often abrupt and sandy. When I pulled up to an upside-down Harley-Davidson Electra Glide and its dusty rider the other day, I was reminded that caution on this road is crucial.

You pass through several remnant towns along the river before you reach Downieville. Comptonville is the most substantial, but you'd never guess that its Main Street (a mile-long plank affair in the 1800s) once supported several dozen stores, hotels and saloons. These towns, built in the river canyon, have all seen their share of fire and flooding. Some were rebuilt, while others were left for the elements to devour.

Your first view of Downieville is from far above, as you are swept down a cut in the canyon wall and toward the river confluence around which the town was built. In fact, the town was originally named The Forks. The integrity of the old brick, wood and clapboard buildings is intriguing, making you feel like you've really stepped into the past. There's no polish going on here, just a bunch of hearty folks who love mountain life and are satisfied to eke out a living in the shells of history. On the crooked streets, linked by two single-lane bridges, you'll find an assortment of small shops and restaurants, and even an authentic gallows in front of the courthouse. The Downieville Bakery is a favorite stop for those who can sniff out the rising bread. Also, you can try your hand panning for gold. (A 24-pound chunk once came from a Downieville dredge.)

There is a wonderful museum on the south side of the river. One book I read likened the place to an attic. The moment I stepped into the town I thought that's exactly what it felt -- and smelled -- like. The place is brimming with relics, photos and whatnots of the town's distant, but obviously treasured heyday. The building itself, erected in 1852, is an artifact, and once served as a gambling house and store that sold goods to Chinese laborers. In 1854, folks in Downieville started a weekly paper called The Mountain Messenger to keep the miners up on the local poop. The paper is still printed, making it California's oldest continuously produced weekly newspaper.

This town is a wonderful place to stop and spend an afternoon, but the roads surrounding it make the trip irresistible. I left Downieville traveling north on Highway 49, then cut south on Highway 89 toward Truckee. This road carries you into a gigantic mountain valley where the meadow grass is so lush and green, it made me think that if God has a living room, this would be His carpet. You'll pass through two other distinctive gold mining towns, Sierra City and Sierraville on your way to Truckee and Interstate 80. Truckee, like Nevada City, is more tourist-driven than the interior settlements, but it does offer lots of character. Just ignore the McDonald's.

During last summer's Readers' Ride we stopped in Truckee and had milk shakes in an authentic dining car downtown. Returning to the area brought back a lot of good memories about the adventures we had. As I rode down Interstate 80 toward home, however, I was secretly glad we had missed the treasure of Downieville. Otherwise I wouldn't have had an excuse to ride that great stretch of highway again.

Now it's your turn.

Don't miss: Malakoff Diggins State Historical Park (27 miles north of Nevada City), Gold Exhibit at Sierra County Courthouse, Downieville and gold panning along the Yuba River
Season: This route is closed much of the winter. In the spring, the wildflowers make it especially pretty. No season is too crowded.
Road Notes: Dirty corners and sandy shoulders. This route features mostly sweeping turns, which invite speed. Watch for deer -- lots of deer -- around dusk.
Contacts: Sierra County Museum (530) 289-3423; Nevada Country Chamber of Commerce (530) 273-4667

The author, a Northern California resident, can be emailed at

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