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Length 18 miles
Time 5.5 hours
Total Climb 3600 feet
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South Yuba Trail

This ride is a loop that takes you through three dirt roads and four singletrack trails. With that in mind, the fact that I've named the ride after only one of these trails should make it clear that South Yuba Trail is supposed to be the highlight of the ride. This is an advanced singletrack trail that is listed as having a length of 15 miles, of which just under 8 miles is included on the ride route you see on this page. The entire trail closely parallels its namesake river through its deep and narrow canyon. The setting is rugged, pristine, and very pretty.

I would qualify the ride as a difficult one. Only strong intermediate-level riders to advanced riders should attempt it. Other than the steepness of Missouri Bar Trail (which is not a big deal unless you're careless with your speed), all of this difficulty arises from South Yuba Trail itself. More specifically, it's due to a four-mile stretch of South Yuba Trail. I've seen one source that rates South Yuba Trail at "black diamond to double black diamond" difficulty level. I would agree. More on this below, but you have been warned.

The singletrack portions of the ride feature good tree cover. The density of this cover varies, but it should be enough to make the sun's heat a little more bearable when doing the ride in the summer. Mostly the dirt-road portions of the ride feature some open sky, and even that's sometimes partial.

I'm not a regular rider around this area, so I don't have good firsthand knowledge about this, but as far as I understand, only the highest elevations of this route occasionally get snow cover during the winter. I've read that the route should otherwise be ridable year-round.

The first thing that's noticeable about the ride is its remoteness. It's not like these areas of the Sierras are particularly urbanized in the first place, of course. But, even for this area, at least the starting point of the ride feels a little bit off the beaten path. As you drive to the beginning of this ride route at South Yuba Campground, you first pick up North Bloomfield Road, which is a minor road; and just past a lightly settled area that may be called "Blue Tent" (if I'm reading Google Maps correctly), the road narrows even further and the surface becomes rough; and then, when the road dips to the level of South Yuba River, you cross it on a bridge with a wooden surface (Edwards Crossing Bridge), after which the road turns into a bumpy (though wide) dirt path. I'm sure there isn't any shortage of biking trails in this area that are accessed via such minor and out-of-the-way dirt roads, but there aren't many such rides listed on this website so far.

To begin the ride, you start pedaling uphill on the same dirt road you took to the parking lot, North Bloomfield Road. Ironically, this part of the road was smoother at the time of my ride than the parts over which I had to drive, especially compared to its initial stretches after crossing the river. The climb up this wide dirt road through a relatively sparse conifer forest is an easy one. Over two miles, the grade stays at or below 10%. Just as you approach the town site of Lake City and the landscape starts to open up a little more, the slope hovers around 13% for a little bit. But then this sole extended climb of the ride is over as soon as you turn right at a junction to head into the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.

As you continue this way on what is still North Bloomfield Road, you'll soon pass by a sign announcing your arrival at Malakoff Diggins. Don't expect to be able to see much of anything, though, because you won't from the vantage point of this road. After less than a mile on this gentle descent, you'll be turning onto singletrack. This trailhead is a bit easy to miss unless you know to look for it, because it's easy get caught up in the fun glide down this road, but it did have a trail sign at the time I did this ride.

This first singletrack on the ride is Rim Trail. This is a narrow singletrack threading through woodlands. Its first mile and a half is mostly flat on average as the trail alternates between a tight squeeze through tall, dense brush and snaking through spacious groves of tall conifer trees. After that, the trail starts climbing for about half a mile and gains roughly 300 feet. There are at least a couple of spots here where the grade reaches 20%, but most of this climb is not steeper than 12 or 13 percent grade. Meanwhile, the technical difficulty of the trail is fairly low throughout all of this. The middle stretches of Rim Trail skirt very closely the top of the bare hillsides of Malakoff Diggins, but this is not at all obvious while you're on the trail, due to the geography and the foliage. In fact, in a few spots, the trail is mere feet away from those washed away slopes.

At the end of the half-mile climb on Rim Trail, you are essentially at the highest elevation of this ride and will soon find yourself at the Chute Hill Campground, which you'll know when you've reached a gate. This campground is where you pick up Blair Trail. It's also where you get your chance if you'd like to take a look at the Malakoff Diggins landscape. Simply follow the paved campground driveway southwest (or "right" as you approach it) for a quarter mile and you'll reach the "Diggins Overlook" spot. I haven't done that on this ride.

Once you're on Blair Trail, you start a descent and some of the real fun begins. It's nothing to get overly excited about, though, and you quickly reach a signed junction where you turn onto North Bloomfield Trail. This trail starts out much more technically than your brief stint on Blair Trail. North Bloomfield Trail has a few steep stretches in its early part punctuated with lumber steps where you'll get to put some of your line selection skills to good use. As you get lower, it turns tamer very quickly and loses its teeth way before it drops you off at the historic town of North Bloomfield.

North Bloomfield is a partially restored gold-rush town site. Apparently, it used to be the main base for the mining operations at Malakoff Diggins. Today, there are about a couple of blocks' worth of the buildings on the town's main street that can be seen. Almost all of these appear to be restored rather than preserved, but the effect is convincing anyway. The buildings include a general store, a barbershop, a drugstore, a church, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, and a post office, among others; not to mention a current museum. North Bloomfield works well as a distraction on your ride and a rest stop to chill out a little.

On your way out of North Bloomfield, there's a little more climbing that awaits you on Relief Hill Road, which starts directly off the North Bloomfield main street at a signed junction as a paved road but almost immediately loses its pavement to continue on as a wide dirt road. The climb ends before it gives you much to complain about, in about half a mile. This is when you turn onto another dirt road (Buck Road) that brings you down to the trailhead of Missouri Bar Trail. You can't miss the turn or the trailhead, they both had signs that mention the name of the trail as of the date my ride.

Things start turning more serious on Missouri Bar Trail. The trail is not technical; at least not due to rocks, roots, or steps. The trail surface is fairly even and unbroken. It's just that the trail descends at a grade that's persistently and very evenly steep. You lose about 1000 feet in less than 1.5 miles, implying an overall average grade of -15%. There is no shortage of spots where the grade momentarily reaches -20%. The fall-off next to the trail is very steep in some stretches, too. That's the only impression Missouri Bar Trail left me with: very steep and straightforward.

Missouri Bar Trail hands you off to South Yuba Trail at a junction that was "partially signed" at the time of my ride; it only had a sign announcing Missouri Bar Trail, which I had to turn around to see. It's hard to mistake South Yuba Trail for anything else, though, since you'll know it by the noise of the river itself.

The part of South Yuba Trail on this particular ride consists of two portions of roughly equal length that are distinctly different from each other in character. The "changeover point" is at the South Yuba Primitive Campground, which also happens to be the lowest elevation point of this ride. It's not that one of these halves of South Yuba Trail is narrower than the other; both are narrow singletrack, though almost never perilously narrow. It's not that one half has a steeper fall-off on the water's side; both are bordered by a very steep fall-off at least in some segments. It's not that the trail surface of one half is more technical than that of the other either; neither half has any overabundance of rocks or roots. The entire trail surface looks quite well maintained, in fact; though that doesn't mean that there aren't some black-diamond trail features scattered throughout its entire length. The main difference I could see between the first half of South Yuba on this ride and its second half is the repeated steep ups and downs in the first half, compared to the more steady and more manageable grades you encounter in the second half. To me, this made all the difference in the world, however.

The first half of the trail made me nervous. The constant struggle with the extra steep climbs and descents left little room for fun. I found myself mostly preoccupied with trying not to tumble down the hillside when I repeatedly got on an off my bike as I negotiated the numerous stretches where I had to walk. In this portion of the trail, it almost felt like any uphill or downhill slope has a minimum grade of 15% by default, and a lot of times reaches 20% or even steeper. I'm under the impression that this trail was built for recreational purposes (rather than being an old mule trail, say). If that's the case, it must have been that someone said "let's shoot for 17% grade as the average slope of all ups and downs, and up to 20% should be fine in some cases as well". I find this inexplicable. "Flow" is not a term that comes to mind on this portion of South Yuba Trail. One explanation for this phenomenon might be that the trail was originally meant only for hikers. The slopes should be fine for those on foot, but even for highly experienced riders, the constant struggle with the steep slopes would not leave too much room for fun.

Moments after passing through the South Yuba Primitive Campground (the sign announcing its name was lying on the ground at the time of my ride) and just before reaching Humbug Creek, South Yuba Trail completely loses its mind and devolves into a rock scramble along the edge of the river bed. This is one more piece of evidence that seems to support my theory that parts of this trail originally must have been meant only for hikers. A few short stretches of this portion actually have a narrow strip of concrete along the line of the trail, but that doesn't exactly make it ridable. This short stretch won't be ridable for anyone but the most serious trials riders. In all fairness, though, the setting here is full of solitude and rugged beauty.

It should be clear by this point that I did not enjoy that first half of South Yuba Trail. As soon as you pass the junction with Humbug Creek Trail, South Yuba Trail starts climbing at a moderate grade and gains about 200 feet in around half a mile. Then something happens and the ride becomes less interrupted, and slowly but surely, it starts becoming fun again. In fact, the 3.5 miles or so of South Yuba Trail that follows that climb out of Humbug Creek was the most fun portion of this ride. I was actually pretty astounded to notice how much difference a change in the evenness of the grade made to the enjoyability of the trail, when it had the exact same width, surface character, and exposure as the preceding segment. Meanwhile, the occasional views of the very picturesque South Yuba River continue to accompany you in this portion, including one postcard-worthy vista at the sharp bend of the river at North Canyon.

One of the side attractions of this ride is the possibility of taking a dip in the river at one of multiple swimming holes. The opportunity for cooling down that this provides could make this route an even better ride option on hot days for some riders. One such spot is mere steps away from the junction of Missouri Bar and South Yuba trails. Simply turn left instead of right at that junction and the trail will take you there in seconds, though I haven't visited that spot on this ride. Another obvious option is the South Yuba Primitive Camp where the trail conveniently descends down to water level once more. These spots also happen to be good places to take in the gorgeous scenery of the river.

In addition, if that kind of thing is your cup of tea, panning for gold is also allowed in South Yuba River, although I can't picture a scene where mountain bikers would come down the trail, whip out pans from their backpacks and start panning for gold in the water. Apparently, the rule here for this is "hands and pans only", which must be a term that means something specific to those who are familiar with this pastime. There are also at least a couple of "mining claim" signs that I've noticed nailed to trees right on South Yuba Trail. This is a fascinating detail for someone like me who is coming from a large urban center.

© Ergin Guney


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