Vital Ride Report: Downieville and the Second Gold Rush

In the autumn of 1849, with the California Gold Rush in full swing, the Scotsman Major William Downie led an expedition up the North fork of the Yuba river. At the site where Downieville now sits, they struck lucky. Fed by fever for the previous metal, Downieville quickly grew to a population of over 5000, and only narrowly lost out to Sacramento in its bid to become the state capital in 1853. After years of intense mining, the town had significantly declined by 1865, and only survived due to its status as the seat of the Sierra County government. Today, Downieville has about 280 permanent residents.

The gold may all be gone, but the Gold Rush explorers left something at least as valuable behind: their trails. Crisscrossing the valleys and peaks of the entire area, they were used to get around, but in 1990, somebody thought it would be a good idea to ride a bike on them too. Greg Williams’ family has been connected to Downieville since the Gold Rush days, and so it was only logical that he would put two and two together: his love for bikes and his roots in the area. He started organizing "metric century" MTB tours (60 miles) on the Chimney Rock trail, originally without shuttles. These were mainly set up as fun rides, with an aid station along the way.

The man who started it all...

In 1993, Greg started running more organized trips. They were still guided only, no shuttles, bringing people from Nevada City up to get to know the trails of Downieville. Again, a lot of the trails were here already, but people didn’t know about them - yet. Building on the early success of the guided tours, Greg opened his first bike shop in Downieville, housed in just a 10x15 space. Using shuttles to get to the top of the trails started getting popular, so Greg set up a one-van shuttle service based out of the shop. As time went on, shuttling took the place of the guided rides. Customers would get a map and a lift up to the top, and ride down by themselves.

In 1995, the first ever edition of the Downieville Classic put Greg and Downieville on the map for good. That first year, they had 277 racers take part. Today, the race sells out at 1150 riders over two days of racing. 800 riders are released in waves onto the grueling Cross Country course, a point to point race taking in 4500 feet of ascent and 5700 feet of descent. Out of those racers, 350 are also “All-Mountain” riders who will do the DH on the Sunday, where riders are set loose with 30-second gaps on the infamous Downieville Downhill course (15 miles, 5300 feet of descent with 1000 feet of ascent thrown in for good measure). You have to complete the Cross Country course within 3 hours to be eligible to line up for the Downhill. The All-Mountain classification combines both races with points system and the overall winner is crowned the “All-Mountain World Champion.” This is a self-bestowed title, but as Greg likes to point out, nobody has challenged it so in true gold-digger fashion, the claim has been staked and that's the end of that. Having ridden the course, we don’t feel like it’s inappropriate at all…it takes a well-rounded rider to slay this beast, for sure!

Big country, big possibilities.

One of the major factors behind this success is the fact that most of the trails maintained by the Stewardship around Downieville and the Lakes Basin are multi-use.

In the late 90s, public funding for trail maintenance started to dry up. Greg and a few other key people created the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, a non-profit organization that could apply for grants to keep the trails running. Today, this highly successful organization employs over 35 staff during peak season, all funded from various revenue sources like events/races, grants, trail sponsorship, as well as the shop and shuttle activities operated under the Yuba Expeditions banner (the shop is wholly owned by the Stewardship, and all profits are poured back into trail maintenance and other activities). Other than the Downieville Classic, the Stewardship puts on the “Lost and Found”, a 100 mile gravel/mixed surface race as well as the “Grinduro”, a mixed-surface event that loosely follows the enduro format. Incidentally, these three events together form the Lost Sierra Triple Crown, won the last two years by Carl Decker.

One of the major factors behind this success is the fact that most of the trails maintained by the Stewardship around Downieville and the Lakes Basin are multi-use. For example, the Pacific Crest Trail is reserved for hikers and horse riders only, and it was recently rerouted through the efforts of the Stewardship to allow for more access for other users on the “biking” side. Another example, California “Off-Highway Vehicle” or “OHV” tax revenues are put into a fund for building motorized trails, and because it also builds and maintains such trails, the Stewardship can access these funds. As a side effect, that also means that many trails here are open to e-bikes, and in fact there will be an e-bike “mapping event” and demos of e-bikes at this year’s Downieville Classic.

Yuba Expeditions, shop and base camp.

So where does all this leave us? 20+ years of dedicated trail building has turned old mining routes into modern recreational gold. Other than the classic downhill there are now scores of other trails, many of which you can’t drive to the top of. If you fancy testing your mettle in a non-race format, try to take on the “Day of Descent”, shuttled rides of Downieville, Mills Peak, and Mt Hough in one big day. This package is a completely new offering (in fact, we may well be the first media to share this news with the world!), it will sell for $309 USD and include lunch - prepare to spend around 9-10 hours riding if you take it on. Yuba Expeditions is also bringing on a fully certified backcountry guide this year to offer guided tours going deeper into the Lost Sierra to ride trails that few know about. If all of this sounds like too much organization, you can always buy yourself a trail map and go out and explore other hidden gems in this vast area yourself. New for this year, the shuttle price has gone up to $25 per shuttle, but part of proceeds now go to providing medical assistance directly in Downieville (which sits far from bigger towns), so you can feel a little bit safer out there as well. If you haven’t already, it’s high time to tick this one off your list – we had the opportunity to do just that recently, and we’re certainly stoked we did!

Downieville Ride Report

We started our day at the Yuba Expeditions shop and base camp, where we set up our bikes for the day. The shop maintains a gaggle of high-end rental Santa Cruz bikes, so if you arrive without your own ride you should definitely be able to find something that meets your standards.

We picked out a couple of carbon Nomads with great parts spec, hopped in the van, and we were soon on our way to the top. Teal Stetson-Lee, Event Manager for the Stewardship and occasional EWS racer as well as Evan Ames, Head Shop Mechanic and semi-pro downhiller would be our guides for the day, in addition to Greg himself.

We were joined on the way up by a group from Colorado and a couple of visitors from California - some of which have been coming here for years.

45 minutes later, and we were dropped off at Packer Saddle sitting 7100 feet high, just below the summit of the Sierra Buttes at 8591 feet (a recently opened trail allows you to conquer the actual summit on your bike as well, setting up the all new “Tower to Town” descent boasting over 7000 feet of descending in one run). Our run followed the Downieville Downhill route which kicks off in the high alpine on the Sunrise Trail with about 2 miles of flowy, bermed singletrack that had us hooting and hollering 30 seconds into the ride already.

Greg showing the way, literally and figuratively!

From here, things get rowdy quick. The Butcher Ranch trail offers everything from flat out two wheel drifting to the infamous “waterfall” section, all of which provide plenty of fun and a good challenge if you wish to step up the pace a bit. There are fast sections and slow sections, tech mixed with smooth trail, but throughout it all we were struck by just how well everything flows here. Look ahead and stay off the brakes when you can, and you’ll be rewarded with seemingly endless sections linking up for minutes on end. If it weren’t for that 700 foot climb in the middle, that is…painful enough if you’re just cruising, but a lung-buster if you have any kind of aspirations in a race here.

Teal Stetson-Lee showing the author's son one of the lines through the "Waterfall" section.

If you hit this trail at mach silly and don’t make Star Wars speeder sounds as you weave through the trees, you’re either too young to know what you’re missing or too boring to know how to properly enjoy yourself.

After crossing the river and climbing out of the Butcher Ranch trail (and maybe resting for a bit), you are at the top of the Third Divide, positively one of the fastest bits of singletrack we’ve ridden to date. If you hit this trail at mach silly and don’t make Star Wars speeder sounds as you weave through the trees, you’re either too young to know what you’re missing or too boring to know how to properly enjoy yourself.

Evan Ames knows these trails like the back of his hand. He was hard to keep in sight...
Plenty of line options to explore.
Teal conquering The Gully.

We took our time riding these trails as we were also working hard to bring you the shots to do it all justice. The race record for the route we rode is 45 minutes, but getting anywhere near the 1-hour mark requires a serious dose of fitness and solid technical skills. Pinning it is only half the story here though, as the area is also very beautiful and worth the occasional breather break just to take it all in.

The ride ends with a bit of a slog along the river, followed by the last stretch of road back into town. From there, you can hop on another shuttle, enjoy some fine local cuisine, or dive into the icy cold Yuba river to recharge your batteries!

Tempted? Hit up yubaexpeditions.com to book a shuttle and/or a bike, or the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship to learn more about how you can get involved in the second coming of the Northern California Gold Rush and help safeguard this incredible legacy of trails for generations to come. And if you feel up to the challenge, try to book a spot in the Downieville Classic (good luck, it typically sells out in a matter of minutes!)

The Bikes

For this adventure we rode the latest generation Santa Cruz Nomad CC, with a high-end SRAM/RockShox build. This bike proved to be the perfect companion for the type of riding on offer here, with enough climbing abilities to tackle the uphill portions with ease, and downhill performance not easily rivaled by anything with less than 200mm of travel. The bikes are part of the large Santa Cruz demo fleet held by the shop (also featuring Hightowers and Hightower LTs), and were in perfect working condition.

Words and photos by Johan Hjord

Riders: Greg Williams, Evan Ames, Teal Stetson-Lee, Nils Hjord

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