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Length 24 miles
Time 6 hours
Total Climb 3000 feet
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Downieville (Suggestion 2)


Downieville is a tiny gold rush town that today is a little slice of mountain-biking heaven. Arguably, this area's greatest claim to fame is its hosting of the Downieville Classic races. The most popular rides at Downieville are one-way shuttle rides, involving getting on a shuttle from the town center, being driven to a trailhead, and doing a ride that ends right back at the town center after thousands of feet of descent and usually (though not always) with very little extended climbing in the process. The most famous of these is the Downieville Downhill, which also happens to be the course of one of the Downieville Classic races and, it's probably safe to say, the ride that has put Downieville on the map. The ride on this particular page is a variation on that ride that follows a few other trails that surround that main course.

A great majority of the shuttled mountain bike rides done in the Downieville area start from "Packer Saddle", and that includes the ride shown on this particular page. This trailhead is about a 35-minute drive away from the town center by shuttle van. There are two outfits that I know of in Downieville that operate shuttles there regularly:

Downieville Outfitters
Yuba Expeditions

The rates of the shuttle rides are (roughly, if not precisely) the same between these two outfits as of this writing and they both follow a regular schedule of shuttle departure times, with fewer runs scheduled from Monday to Thursday, and more runs from Friday to Sunday. In addition, if you are part of a group of (I believe) four riders or more, both of these companies are willing to do a shuttle run purely for your group at any time you want, as well as taking you to trailheads other than Packer Saddle if you so desire, according to what I was told. (If you do plan to do that, I'd highly recommend that you double check this with them first, though.) Do keep in mind that these shuttle companies take advance reservations for their shuttle runs and that runs on popular dates could fill up early. Also keep in mind that a lot of the details that I've listed in this paragraph can vary over the years and may have changed considerably since I've written these.

Since this area has snow cover throughout the winter, the season that's suitable for mountain biking is limited. Roughly speaking, you can expect the trails to be cleared enough from snow to be ridable some time in early summer, and be buried again at some point in the fall. You can check the trail conditions via the website of either of the two shuttle operators I've mentioned above.

In addition to the option of staying overnight in or near Downieville in order to ride here, if you'll be coming from an area not too far away, such as from the Bay Area, it is entirely possible to arrange to do a ride here as part of a day trip as well. The best finish times for this particular route in the Downieville Downhill race are under one hour. Meanwhile, modest riders like me are bound to spend something close to three hours, if not more, to make it through—at least on your first ride, due to the extra sightseeing that would be involved. This would still leave time for a post-ride meal, the shuttle ride, and some overhead, if your one-way drive time to Downieville isn't more than, say, four hours. However, staying overnight would also make it easier to do more than one ride within the same day, which is fairly commonly done by advanced riders.

A few words about trail use safety are in order here. These are trails where world-class bikers ride. Most such advanced riders are inclined to ride fast. Moreover, many of these trails are also legal for motocross riders. So, while you ride here, make sure you keep the notion in the back of your mind at all times that another rider could be fast approaching behind you at any moment and, if you ever find yourself stopped on the trail for whatever reason, make sure you step away and stay away from the trail for your own safety as well as for that of others. Meanwhile, if you're one of the said advanced riders who is able to do this ride at double-digit average speeds, make sure you keep your speed to reasonable levels and don't overdo it. Don't forget that these are multi-use trails and also that some riders, though rare, do ride these routes uphill, and avoid riding at speeds higher than would allow you to stop within your line of sight. That one's generally good advice to any rider under any riding condition anyway; you never know when a newly downed tree may be waiting for you just past the edge of your sightline.


This particular route is one of the options available to those riders who have already done the shorter (and more typical) Downnieville Downhill route and are now looking for a slight variation. What this route achieves essentially is to swap out Butcher Ranch Trail from the typical Downieville Downhill route for a side trip aimed at traversing Big Boulder Trail, as well as exchanging the stretch on Third Divide Trail with the Second Divide Trail. That makes this a longer ride than the standard route (24 miles instead of 15.5) and adds to it a significant amount of climbing (3000 feet of total elevation gain instead of 1150). It's also worth pointing out that Big Boulder Trail is a pretty technical trail. On the trail map of the Downieville area by BikeMapDude, this is the only trail marked with a double black diamond. That doesn't mean that you won't be able to get through it without a dedicated downhill rig, though. I'm not an all-out-gravity-rider kind of biker (quite the contrary, actually), and I haven't had too many hairy moments on this trail. But, if you are relatively new to riding technical singletrack or someone in your company is, you'd be ill-advised to attempt this trail.

Also, let there be no mistake: This ride is an advanced and challenging one overall. Inexperienced riders, and those who might feel like bringing along a first-timer riding buddy would quickly find themselves in trouble. Plenty of such Downieville fiasco stories can be found on the Internet. An outright downhill rig is not a requirement to be able to handle the ride (though there is no shortage of places where it would help) and much of the ride is smooth and flowing singletrack. Any experienced rider on a dual-suspension bike would be able handle it comfortably, while hardtail riders doing this ride are not a rarity either, and even riders of rigid bikes on this route aren't unheard of. Still, there are so many highly technical, rocky, and/or loose sections (sometimes for long stretches), not to mention a handful of places that can be outright dangerous, that anyone other than experienced riders who appreciate technical trails are likely to be suffering throughout most of the ride rather than enjoying it.

The very first trail in the route is the newest one (as of September 2011): Sunrise Trail. Before this singletrack was built, this ride used to start from Packer Saddle with a dirt-road segment that took you all the way to the beginning of Butcher Ranch Trail. Sunrise is a very playful and very twisty singletrack that loses elevation with a lot of economy. It seems to have been designed with nothing in mind other than mountain biking pleasure. The earlier parts of the trail are under little to no tree cover. Therefore, due to the high elevation, these parts are open to pretty nice vistas of the surrounding ridges and peaks as you glide down this trail. If I'm not mistaken, this trail uses an easement through private property. So, it would be to the benefit of all of us if riders using this trail would behave responsibly, by avoiding things like skidding, riding outside the trail, taking shortcuts, etc. (though that same principle should apply equally well to every trail anywhere, really).

Sunrise Trail drops you onto Butcher Ranch Road. This transition from a tight singletrack to a wide gravel road is impossible to miss. While Butcher Ranch Trail (which the typical route for the Downieville Downhill follows) starts only a few dozen feet down this road, this ride continues straight past this well marked junction by staying on Butcher Ranch Road (also labeled as "FS 93-3" on many maps). This is a wide and smooth gravel road that starts to gain elevation gently right after the Butcher Ranch Trail trailhead. In nearly two miles, you gain a bit over 300 feet. These are some of the highest elevations of this ride and you are surrounded by a sparse conifer forest, allowing distant views to open up onto wide alpine vistas here and there. After you descend even more gently for a bit over a mile and a half, you reach a junction with signs pointing to Gold Valley and Pauley Creek. Follow those signs by turning left to head west and you'll be continuing your descent toward Gold Valley as it starts getting technical. This is a 1.5-mile descent on a rocky fire road that occasionally gets steep. When I say "rocky", I do mean rocky. On the trail map of the area by Yuba Expeditions, this segment of the ride is simply labeled "Baby Heads" in reference to the many fist-sized, round rocks jutting out of the ground.

As soon as you complete some of the steepest descents on this road, you'll arrive at its junction with Pauley Creek Trail, just before spilling into Gold Valley. If you find yourself in a flattish, open, high meadow (as I initially have), you've gone too far. You stay on Pauley Creek Trail only for a short distance. This is essentially a narrow and very rocky fire road. It takes you to the other side of Gold Valley and you ford Pauley Creek as well as one or two of its tributaries on the way there. As soon as you turn right onto Big Boulder Mine OHV Road, the only major climb of the ride begins. The nature of the trail doesn't change much; it's still rocky and technical. This climb lasts for just under 1.5 miles and averages 9% grade. However, its later parts are steeper and stay steeper than 10% most of the time, not to mention reaching up to 20% a few times. At a sharp left-hand curve, the worst of the climb is over. Soon you find yourself on a much gentler climb, cruising on a smooth trail along a hillside lined with tall conifers. You catch some more mountain vistas through the trees on this stretch. This cruise quickly flattens completely and you can even coast downhill a little, before you arrive at the beginning of Big Boulder Trail.

Big Boulder Trail is arguably the highlight of this particular route. This is a narrow singletrack. It descends for almost four miles. It's a technical trail that frequently throws really techy trail features at you. Its steepest portion is its first half mile. While the remainder is less steep, it's no less technical. In fact, more than the rocky surface of the trail, what I often found challenging was how loosely rocky the trail was. Big Boulder Trail also features the only dangerously exposed spot on the route of this ride. It's not too big of a deal and is literally just one spot. It would take mere seconds to walk your bike a few steps past it, if you need to, as long as encountering it isn't a complete surprise.

At the end of the descent on Big Boulder Trail, you connect to Third Divide Trail. In order to get to Second Divide Trail, you need to take the sharp left turn here and "backtrack" uphill for a few hundred feet to the beginning of that trail. Second Divide Trail is essentially an alternate route for the more popular Third Divide Trail. Before doing this ride, I remember reading that it requires "some pedaling". That's a bit of an understatement. It's a forest singletrack, just like Third Divide Trail, but, while still trending mostly downhill, it has a lot of short "humps" that you have to pedal over. Each of these is to pass "behind" (on the uphill side of) a tree or a rock outcrop. Some of these humps can be very rocky and/or have ridiculously steep approach angles, too. Other than this, though, the trail surface is typically fairly smooth and not very technical, actually. This means little, however, as the trail keeps following an increasingly steep hillside along the increasingly narrow canyon of Pauley Creek as you keep heading west. Over its last third or so, Second Divide Trail is dotted with a number of "rock scrambles", steep and narrow dips and humps, and hair-raising, tight, and narrow curves over craggy bedrock where a single misstep would send you tumbling all the way to the creek. I'm sure there must be hard-core mountain bikers who savor this sort of stuff, but this is above my pay grade. The next time I ride at Downnieville, I'll be sure to stick to Third Divide Trail on this part of the route.

When you emerge from Second Divide Trail onto Lavezzola Road, you take a right turn and ride a fast descent for a quarter mile over this wide and smooth dirt road to catch the beginning of First Divide Trail.

First Divide Trail follows a flat profile on average. It will have you pedaling more than you've had to up to this point on the ride. Initially it's a verdant narrow singletrack that follows along a steep hillside a little above the creek bed. Roughly at the midpoint of its length, First Divide crosses to the southern side of Lavezzola Road. Shortly before and for a brief distance after this crossing point the trail morphs into a fire road. Not long after the junction with Lavezzola Road, it sets off on the right as a singletrack again, at a junction that might not be hard to miss if you're not paying attention. The slope turns slightly uphill in these final stretches of the ride, and once that uphill stretch is at an end, you shortly find yourself swooping down onto the streets at the outskirts of Downieville after descending steeply along a short chain-link fence.

Once the ride is over and you're back in "downtown" Downieville, thoughts may naturally turn to food and drinks. There are a number of options available there, though perhaps not as many as you'd expect. I was pleasantly surprised when I tried the garlicky shrimp tacos at the cute little La Cocina de Oro Taqueria. They have a few outdoor tables available in their backyard patio overlooking the creek, too. The town is so tiny that you'll have no problem spotting this place or any of the other alternatives if you do any walking for more than two minutes near the town center.

© Ergin Guney


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