Kurt Gingher has mountain biked around the world, ridden solo from Europe to Mongolia, and experienced adrenaline rushes in just about every terrain possible where two wheels can descend. Yet he chooses to spend plenty of his leisure time in one of the least populated parts of California, a spot in the middle of Tahoe National Forest whose boom days were more than a century and a half ago.
Sierra County may be short on people and cultural attractions, but it is big — very big — on mountain biking, as Gingher attests.
“There’s nowhere in the world where you can get an experience mountain biking like this,” says the banking professional who lives primarily in Thailand. “You can ride for 60 kilometres and not to see another human in this forest.”
The exception to that rule is July and August, when Tahoe National Forest welcomes thousands of hikers and mountain bikers. The majority of hikers arrive while making their way through the Pacific Crest Trail, a gruelling endurance test of 2,650 miles (4,265 km) that normally takes five months to complete. Mountain bikers, meanwhile, hit small towns such as Sierra City and Downieville looking for the kind of thrills Gingher covets.
The height of activity is the Downieville Classic, which takes place in early August and hosts more than 300 riders who compete during three days of intense challenges in downhill and cross-country races.
The main attraction is a 7,200-foot summit called Packer Saddle that is the launching point for a 16-mile descent that sounds like it would be a good fit for an action sequence in a James Bond film. Bikers drop 4,200 feet from Packer Saddle to the level ground of Downieville, which is 2,900 feet above sea level.
“There are very few places in the world that have 4,000 feet of downhill at once. I’m not saying there aren’t places like it but this is an oddity for sure, and it was always here. It’s natural and a lot of it is still raw, and that’s why it’s so popular,” says Greg Long, who quit his job selling agriculture equipment in Ohio more than two decades ago to pursue his passion for mountain biking in northern California. His shop, Downieville Outfitters, provides equipment rentals and services for the mountain-biking community.
According to Long, mountain biking started to gain prominence in Sierra County in 1993 when enthusiasts realized the old mining trails used during the gold rush of 1848-55 were good enough for racing. By the turn of the 21st century, better equipment and the rise in popularity of enduro racing turned Sierra County into a destination for bikers.
California a Dream for Pacific Crest Trail Hikers
Meanwhile, elite hikers have their own reasons to trample through Sierra County. They hit the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs from San Diego to just over the Canadian border in the province of British Columbia, with zeal to complete an extreme physical and psychological test. The months-long journey of the PCT inspired the autobiography and film, “Wild”, whose popularity sparked more interest in the trek that goes through seven national parks and 25 national forests on a route that mostly hugs the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.
When the hikers arrive in Sierra City, they find an oasis of relief and provisions. Red Moose Cafe, which is in a circa 1873 building, is an ideal respite for the weary and hungry. Run by a husband-and-wife team, the cafe serves large, delicious breakfasts and filling lunches that will nourish any group no matter how long or short their journey. Another destination for food and supplies for the road is the Sierra County Store, known among PCT hikers for its burgers and milkshakes, and the number of items on its shelves that an adventurer heading into the woods would need.
You don’t have to be a hard-core biker or hiker to venture to Sierra County, though. Located about three hours northeast of San Francisco and two hours from Sacramento, the county of 2,850 residents attracts road-trippers, too. Laden with waterfalls, the area welcomes day hikers to enjoy the scenery that is close to the towns. Pauly Falls runs through Downieville in a thick burst of glacier-fed white water while the Yuba River’s Loves Falls is one of the PCT highlights in Tahoe National Forest. Historical attractions include the charming Loyalton Museum that has recently erected a large-scale model train. It measures 8 feet by 27 feet and took three years to build.
While Sierra County is small, its proximity to major destinations adds to its appeal for travelers. Lake Tahoe is about 90 minutes south by car while Reno, Nevada is less than an hour away.
For those with a passion for the outdoors and a desire for adventure, there are reasons to consider trekking, biking, or driving through this part of California. Sierra County is as far from Hollywood as you can imagine, and that means the epic tales you find here will all be for real.
MORE ABOUT VISITING SIERRA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
Where to Stay: The Buttes Resort in Sierra City features private cabins on a cliff overlooking the Yuba River. The cabins are appointed with full kitchens, gas fireplaces, and rustic furniture. It’s a good spot to recharge, whether you’re a hiker or a driver on a road trip. Cabin rates start at around $100 per night. (See map below for location.)
Fun Fact: Downieville is home to California’s oldest newspaper, the Mountain Messenger, and Mark Twain once wrote for it. The publisher, Don Russell, has many stories to tell and you just might find him at the delightful St. Charles Place Saloon across the street from his office.
Driving Tip: Some of the windiest stretch of road you will drive on in North America is on California’s Highway 49, the route that takes you into Sierra County. Be sure to plan for extra time and to take it slow as the highway has numerous switchbacks and hairpin turns.