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The Lost Sierra

Unplugging in Downieville, California.

mountain biking downieville california

Rider: Jenn Berg Photographer: Scott Markewitz

By Megan Michelson

The best thing about mountain biking Downieville, California, is its crappy cell phone service. Some people may consider Verizon’s inability to build towers in the remote Sierra foothills a drawback, but those are the same dullards who write work emails on Sunday mornings. When I go away, I like to really go away. Disconnect. Unplug. Leave screens, notifications, and my annoying Facebook feed in a dark, untouchable place—the office. There’s a reason they call this part of the state the Lost Sierra. And anything that gets lost in hyper connected California is OK with me.

My first time on the Downieville Downhill—a 15-mile long rollercoaster of a trail that drops 4,000 vertical feet from the top of the Sierra Crest—my phone sits useless in my Camelbak. But I did stop to snap a photo with it along the way, the tumbling creeks, oversized pines, and buttery singletrack were too beautiful not to. Still, I ripped a two-hour-long descent without a single text pinging in my backpack. Ambitious riders can squeeze in two laps on the downhill in a day.

Downieville is not a destination resort. With a population of 200, it’s barely a town. Once inhabited by thousands during the gold rush, ever since, it’s been a sleepy village with a couple of empty brick saloons. That is, until the first mountain bikers showed up in the late 1980s and started clearing old trails and hosting events to lure gravity riders.

All told, Downieville and the surrounding backcountry boasts more than 80 miles of flawless singletrack, most of which was built by the miners more than 150 years ago. The first commercial shuttle operator began giving riders bumps in the mid 1990s and the town’s first two bike shops opened soon after. “At the beginning, we’d get maybe 30 people a day. Now, we’ve quadrupled that,” says Greg Long, who’s owned shuttle operator Downieville Outfitters since 1996. “I joke that those miners had no idea how good they were setting us up with those trails they built.”

Despite the surge in visitors the last couple of decades, town still feels barren. The Downieville Grocery, stocked like a gas station mini-mart, sells cold drinks, salty chips, and a few campfire staples like marshmallows and canned beans. As for dining out, good luck. Your best bet are the tacos on the riverside patio at La Cocina de Oro.

After I buzz the downhill into town, I grab an ice cream at the one shop that sells smoothies and sundaes, then my friends and I convene at our campsite along the shores of the emerald green North Yuba River for an afternoon plunge. The best mountain destinations are short on swanky hotels and big on first-rate car camping. We log many hours on the bikes, then post up at camp with lawn chairs between swimming hole dips, and begin the night with enchiladas cooked in a cast iron pan over an open flame.

The next morning, our crew opts for some uphill riding—I did gorge on two s’mores around the campfire after all—so we ride Mills Peak, off the Gold Lakes Highway not far from Downieville. You can do an out-and-back ride up Mills Peak for a 3,000-foot, quad-crushing climb to a fire lookout station with views of the valley below and Mount Lassen to the north, followed by a raucous descent. From there, it’s a quick jaunt into the town of Graeagle, which looks like an old movie set with matching red-painted shops and carved wooden bears. We refuel with BLTs at the Bread & Butter food truck, then follow it up with a game of disc golf and a pint of Take a Hike IPA on the stone outdoor deck of the Brewing Lair.

On day three, with weary legs, we opt for another classic climb—the trail to Mount Hough in nearby Quincy, which punishes with 25 miles of relentless singletrack and fire roads that climb and descend over 4,600 feet. The full face helmets and body armor set shuttle this ride, while the trail riders climb it.

At the end of our trip, driving out of town with views of the spiky Sierra Buttes in the rearview mirror, I feel a pang of sadness as my phone starts beeping back to life, buzzing like the civilization I’d blissfully left behind.

If you go:

Grab a trail map, load up on spare tubes, and book a bike shuttle at Yuba Expeditions, the go-to bike shop in Downieville. yubaexpeditions.com

Don’t miss the slabs of homemade bread that accompany most dishes at the Bread & Butter food truck, parked in an empty lot on the outskirts of Graeagle. eatbreadandbutter.com

All of the towns in the Lost Sierra have divey saloons that serve frosty pints morning and night, but you can’t beat the ambiance and the local brews at the Brewing Lair, which doesn’t serve food, but lets you pack in your own picnic. thebrewinglair.com

Book a riverside campsite at Union Flat or Loganville, on Highway 49, for trout fishing, swimming holes, and woodsy campsites. bookings at recreation.gov

Drive By Singletrack — Presented by MTB Project

Drive: San Francisco to Downieville

Ride: Round Mountain Loop. Bring a swimsuit for a dip in the Yuba River after descending more than 2,000 vertical feet on Round Mountain’s fast and tight singletrack. Don’t forget Fido—dogs are allowed off-leash.

From our High Summer 2016 issue.

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