by Kelly Bastone
Population: 325 Median income: $53,646 (household)
Overview: Walk into the St. Charles Place—Downieville's only bar—and you sense you've left the Big City on another planet. Housed in an 1852 brick building, this real-deal watering hole boasts the kind of character money just can't buy—and that's true for the whole town. The wooden sidewalks and second-story balconies lining main street hearken back to the gold rush days, when 10,000 claim jumpers, gamblers, and hopefuls made this Sierra foothill's city a candidate for state capital. Gold mining still employs a handful of locals, and some old-timers trace their family heritage back to the original prospectors. But today, outdoor tourism is Downieville's new mother lode: Surrounded by the vast Tahoe National Forest and 100 miles of trails, Downieville rivals Moab as a mountain bike destination. Since its founding in 2004, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship has devoted 24,000 volunteer hours to building and maintaining sustainable trails. Behind the Yuba Expeditions bike shop sits the confluence of the Downie and North Fork of the Yuba rivers—both of which offer supreme whitewater kayaking and trout fishing. All of the town's races, including the famous Downieville Downhill bike extravaganza, appeal to core outdoor enthusiasts. "You couldn't live here and not be active in the outdoors," says Wayne Hoffman, who co-owns Yuba Expeditions. "At the bar, you have guys with no teeth sitting next to guys in Lycra, but it works, because everyone feels such a connection to this place. No one's getting rich up here, but there are other ways to measure wealth."
The skiing: Backcountry skiing in the surrounding National Forest is the most popular winter pastime. Lift-served slopes sit two hours away: Plumas-Eureka Snow Bowl is open on a limited basis, and hosts longboard races (where skiers on 10-foot-long wooden planks try to hit 60 miles per hour). Squaw Valley and the Lake Tahoe resorts are also within a two-hour drive; the closest is Northstar-at-Tahoe, which excels at the family scene: Its four Adventure Parks provide kid-tailored slopes and jumps, including the chance for kids to re-create the Amped 3 video game on actual snow.
Real estate: "There are no cookie-cutter places here," says Greg Bulanti, a Downieville realtor. Which makes sense, given that Downieville doesn't have any chain restaurants either. The average asking price for residential property is $325,000, which spans everything from modern estates to chop-your-wood-and-carry-your-water-style cabins. Values have dipped 20 percent in the last two years, says Bulanti, but Downieville still sees a steady stream of buyers, especially city-dwelling boomers and Gen Xers looking for a laid-back second home. The small-town vibe isn't likely to change: Public land makes up most of the county, and access isn't easy (getting here requires a twisty mountain drive no matter where you're coming from). "Other places get loved to death," says Bulanti, "but Downieville has stayed small."
From the Winter 2009-10 issue