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Length 23.5 miles
Time 4.5 hours
Total Climb 2450 feet
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Pioneer Trail

This is a long but unchallenging trail ride, featuring surprisingly little elevation gain for its ample length. In fact, I don't think I can name another trail ride (that's not a one-way shuttle ride) featuring this low of an average elevation gain per mile traveled, especially not one that includes this much singletrack. Since the vast majority of the trail mileage of the ride is fairly smooth and easy, the ride is also pretty suitable for less experienced riders. Not exactly for first-timers perhaps—at least not around the few techy stretches of the route—, but for riders who are in the process of graduating from being a beginner to being an intermediate-level rider.

The modest amount of total climbing on this route is especially surprising when you consider the location of the ride in the Sierra foothills. This is not exactly flat country. The explanation is that the trail very closely follows the spine of a long ridge of very even height. The bad news, however, is that the trail shares this ridgetop with a major roadway. You're never out of earshot from Route 20 on this ride. Furthermore, during the first six miles of the ride before you cross to the other side of Route 20, you are never more than 250 feet away from that road. In fact, along this segment, the trail occasionally is sometimes very similar to the roadside singletrack you find at some posh Bay Area suburbs that works as a cross between a trail and a sidewalk. Even over the rest of the ride, though, you're almost never far enough from the road to be completely free from the noise of motor-vehicle traffic, which hampers any effort to imagine yourself as being in the middle of pristine nature.

The Pioneer Trail was built by the Gold Country Trails Council, which is actually an equestrian group, with the cooperation of a number of other organizations. Their website explains that this is the first trail that they built and also that it gets its name from the fact that the trail follows the route taken by early emigrants coming over the Sierra Nevada and heading to Nevada City and further west. I've read that the Gold Country Trails Council was originally formed to build this trail in the first place and that the trail's completion arrived in stages between 1988 and 2002. The trail's total length is given as 25 miles, so this ride includes only a modest portion of that total. However, I'm under the impression that the portion of the trail included in this ride is the "original" stretch of the trail.

The parking lot pointed out by the Suggested Parking link on the left is actually a private parking lot, but it's meant for trail users and is free, though it has space for only eight cars or so. This location is adjacent to a small grocery/deli called Harmony Ridge Market, whose colorful sign might help you locate the spot. If you need to look for alternatives, your nearest option will be at the trailhead opposite the lone pioneer grave (featuring a small plaque), about two miles further northeast along Route 20. And you'll find other trailheads and campgrounds with parking available if you continue further east.

The ride is distinctly divided into two separate parts that are quite different from each other. The first of these is the six miles of Pioneer Trail before its only crossing of Route 20 on this ride. I could call this the "roadside" portion of the ride. This portion features few curves, and has very limited elevation change and only at very gentle grades. The trail here is often in the form of a wide and smooth forest singletrack and there are limited segments that follow even wider dirt roads. While constantly trending uphill (at the beginning of the ride), this portion isn't challenging enough to be called a "climb", but is kept at least somewhat interesting by the minor tree roots that are peppered along much of the trail. Since you also cover this segment of the trail in the opposite direction in the second half of the ride, this portion adds up to a little over 13 miles of the ride's length, making up more than half of the total mileage. Thankfully, this stretch of the ride can be quite a blast on your way back, when the gentle downhill grade allows easy maintenance of some good speed with barely enough minor trail features to have fun weaving through. Don't be off your guard, though, because this portion of the ride was where I encountered the highest concentration of other trail users (most of them hikers and joggers) and it's also where you will be crossing the driveways of numerous private residences.

Once on the southern side of Route 20, what changes first is the evenness of the elevation of the trail. Things start looking a little more like a mountain biking trail and a little less like a path that parallels a road. The ups and downs are still minor, though. In fact, substantial segments of this portion of Pioneer Trail is possibly even flatter than the part before you crossed the road, because this is the part of the ride where you encounter portions of the trail that follow an old flume. It might not be obvious to everyone immediately, but you'll know you're on the flume when the trail seems to start following the top of a low levee adjacent to a shallow ditch that parallels it on the uphill side. The trail dips into and climbs out of some temporary breaks in this flume and occasionally diverts to playfully follow the "floor" of the flume itself. There are interruptions, but the trail follows the flume fairly continually for nearly a mile as well as returning to it for much shorter stretches a couple more times later on. You'll also know the portions of the ride along the flume by the short segments on the elevation profile above that look unnaturally flat.

After you leave the main segment on this flume behind, you'll begin to find more challenging trail features caused by tree roots here and there. But the main technical stretches of the ride that are worth noting start arriving in the "loop portion" of this route, between the "Overlook Equestrian Staging Area" and Skillman Horse Camp, as you near the halfway point of the ride. You'll find a couple of significant rock gardens here, as well as one or two challenging techy climbs. Some of these short stretches also happen to be among the few portions of the ride without tree cover. This stretch of Pioneer Trail looks like it would be a hoot to descend. Unfortunately, you don't get to experience that on this particular ride. Save it for another variation of this route.

Near Skillman Horse Camp, you go through a couple of junctions to pick up Hallelujah Trail. (If you need directions to find your way, simply remember to always turn right.) This is another singletrack that's primarily of the same character as Pioneer Trail. In fact, it even picks up an old flume and follows it for a while, just like Pioneer Trail. Before long, though, it merges onto what looks like an old and flat dirt road. At the time of my ride, this part of the trail was narrowed in by bushes growing in from either side, occasionally giving it the appearance of a flat singletrack passing through dense vegetation. Since this is also the part of the ride where you will be the farthest from Route 20, you'll also find relative piece and quiet on Hallelujah Trail, though loud vehicles passing by will still make their presence felt.

You'll reach a signed junction where a singletrack (also named Hallelujah Trail) splits off this flat and narrow road on the right. The ride continues on this singletrack which is the most entertaining part of the ride. This frequently narrow singletrack descends, occasionally steeply, to the creek bed that falls within the loop. There are several wide switchbacks along the way and the trail surface is often rocky and a little loose; enough to make it only mildly technical but still plenty of fun.

On your way back to Pioneer Trail, you'll once again find yourself following a wide dirt path as you start climbing. This segment ends at a wide junction with another fire road. If you look at the GPS track closely, you'll notice that I made the mistake of following the wide fire road uphill from the junction, though I noticed my mistake quickly. What you do instead is to take another singletrack that starts on your right just a couple of dozen feet after that wide junction. (It's signed but the sign is off to the side and is easy to miss.) This singletrack climbs back to Pioneer Trail less steeply and more pleasantly than the wide road.

Once back on Pioneer Trail, what's left for you is mainly to retrace the route back to the beginning. There is still one more divergence from the original route that I did on the way back. At a distinct fork in the trail as you near the crossing of Route 20 again, another singletrack continues along a flat and straight path that appears from the map and elevation profile to be possibly the continuation of the same flume encountered on Pioneer Trail. This short segment emerges from tree cover briefly and provides the only thing on this ride that might pass for a "vista point", from which you can catch a glimpse of Scotts Flat Reservoir in the distance. The view is nice but not exactly breathtaking. In fact, for a ride in the Sierra foothills, this ride might be considered a little surprising in its almost complete lack of open scenery. This is mainly due to the tree cover on the ride, which is almost unbroken from beginning to end. This would also make the ride a good option on hot days when escaping the sun attains paramount importance.

It's worth pointing out that the location of this ride will have snow cover in the winter. I've read that "the first few miles of the ride stays clear for most of the year", with the implication being that the higher elevations are more prone to be snowbound. Of course, the lower elevations of Pioneer Trail also are its less interesting portions, but it might be better than nothing when your options are limited by the winter.

The only option that I know of near the trailhead for some food or drinks after your ride is the Harmony Ridge Market. In addition to regular supermarket fare, they feature a rich deli section, which also makes them a good option for those who'd rather grab something portable that can be consumed while on the go. Beyond this, anyone who has a longer trip back and more time they can devote to a meal will find a wider selection in Nevada City, which is less than five miles away from this trailhead.

© Ergin Guney


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