On the Road: Following the Forty-Niners - Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains
During the California Gold Rush, and in the years that followed, 19th-century Argonauts carved countless roads through the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. While most of the miners ended up broke, they nonetheless left behind a wealth of old mountain roads that wind through a landscape still marked by diggings, ruins, and dashed dreams.
Three backroad tours in particular offer the chance to spend a weekend following the trails of the Forty-Niners in which to enjoy superlative Sierra Nevada scenery.
East-West Henness Pass Road, a rare trans-Sierra back-country way, courses along high ridges through meadows of the seemingly impenetrable Yuba River region north of Interstate 80. It extends between Verdi, Nevada (at the eastern end), and California Highway 49 near Camptonville (at the west end). A mix of rocky, two-wheel-drive high-clearance roadbed and paved two-lane segments, it covers upward of 90 miles, depending on whether the scenic spur to the 8444-ft Verdi Peak at the east end is included in the trip.
Patrick Henness developed the route around 1850, and for years it was the primary freight road across the Sierra between the mines of the Comstock Lode at Virginia City, Nevada, and Marysville, California. Today, those who travel it encounter sparkling lakes, ruins left from its heyday, grand vistas across Tahoe National Forest, and even Native American rock art.
Another sojourn through the region of the northern mines begins at historic Nevada City. It mixes dirt county roads with narrow and fairly rough high-clearance trails.
From Nevada City, North Bloomfield Road (No. 552) twists and bends to cross the South Yuba River, then climbs through mountains that remain scarred from hydraulic mining. At places like Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, visitors can see the lingering effects of the mining, where mountainsides were hosed away to expose gold-bearing gravels.
After passing through the old town of North Bloomfield, Sierra County Road 200 makes its way down into Gold Canyon, then crosses a remote stretch of the Middle Yuba River on a narrow, '30s-vintage steel bridge. It climbs north to another historic mining town, Allegheny, then continues northward as Mountain House Road. It arrives at Highway 49 just west of the Gold Rush village of Downieville on the North Yuba River.
East of Downieville from Sierra City, little Sierra Buttes Road (S551) and Butcher Ranch Road (93-2) make an exhilarating ascent to reach 8587-ft Sierra Buttes, where a lookout provides a head-spinning panorama across much of Northern California.
From Canon Point on Highway 49 (west of Downieville), Saddleback Road (509) goes north through more rugged and remote gold country, where one can pause to scan the Northern Sierra from the lookout on 6690-ft Saddleback Mountain. The route eventually arrives at Canyon Creek and Poker Flat, made famous in writer Bret Harte's tale, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." From there, four-wheel-drive Poker Flat Road climbs steeply to Howland Flat and passes an old cemetery. Finally, almost 30 miles from Highway 49, the traveler arrives at paved Quincy-La Porte Road, near La Porte in Plumas County.
For more information, contact Tahoe National Forest's Downieville Ranger District in Camptonville at 530/288-3231. You'll need a forest visitor map. Henness Pass Road is also shown on the California State Automobile Association's Feather River and Yuba Regions map.
Editor's Note: Mud on your windshield give you chills? Four-wheeling your weekends away? Got a good story to tell about it? Send us all the gear-popping seatbelt-tightening dust-kicking details in 500 words or less, along with your best photos (slides, preferably). Truck Trend, c/o "On the Road," 831 S. Douglas Street, El Segundo, CA 90245. We'll publish your adventures.
Be advised: The facts presented in this column are, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend calling the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting.