The Northern Sierra: Plumas Country

Oma H. Barnett

Today’s travelers find Plumas National Forest and its surroundings bursting with fishing, hiking, and memories of the Gold Rush era.

All of the Southern Sierras in California are well-known thanks to treasures like Yosemite National Park, the northern end of this famous range also has a great deal to offer. Northern California and their counterparts across the border in Nevada find it especially attractive. And just where is the north end of this 400-mile-long range? Probably the words that say it best are Plumas National Forest.

This million-acre-plus National Forest, which ranges from 1000 feet to 8372 feet in elevation also encompasses nearly all of the Feather River drainage. The uplifting of the Sierras and the erosion from the Feather River has led to a mountainous, deeply-cut landscape. Geologists believe that the river eroded through the Sierras to claim the east side streams for itself.

The easiest part of the Plumas to reach is the forest’s neighbor along the Feather River, the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area, 75 miles north of Sacramento. From Oroville, along State Highway 70, you can reach the visitors center by heading east on State Highway 160 and left to the end of Kelly Ridge Road. It has a small movie theater and extensive exhibits covering the natural and cultural history of the Sierra foothills area around it and on the dam.

You can find out that Oroville dam is a multi-purpose dam of the State Water Project operated by the California Department of Water Resources, that it is the tallest and one of the largest earthen dams in the United States, standing 770 feet high. It’s more than 80 million cubic yards of material consist of an inner core of impermeable clay surrounded by tailings left from early 20th-century gold dredging along the Feather River. This is enough material to build a two-lane highway around the Earth.

A highlight of the visitor center is it’s 47-foot-high observation tower that gives you a commanding view of the lake, the dam, and the surrounding foothills, and points out the major landmarks with interpretive signs. The center also has a self-guided nature trail.

Another nature trail focuses on Indian uses of native plants at the nearby Loafer Creek Campground (no hookups). At Bidwell Canyon Campground (with hookups) just down the hill from the visitors center, RVers can enjoy another trail. At either campground, the state park rangers conduct evening campfire programs from June through September on Wednesdays and weekends. Loafer Creek is closed during the winter months but Bidwell Canyon is open year-round. The Bidwell Canyon Marina, (801 Bidwell Canyon Rd, Oroville, CA 95966) offers many services to boaters as well as the seven-lane boat launching ramp. Call 530-589-9175 for information.

If you’re a boater you might camp at one of the area’s 109 primitive boat-in sites on the lake. On your way out to any of the boat campsites, try your luck snagging rainbow and German brown trout, bass or silver and Kokanee salmon or tow a rooster-tailing water skier for a few laps. Reservations for the campground and boat in sites are accepted from April 27 to September 3. For information contact Lake Oroville State Recreation Area, 917 Kelly Ridge Road, Oroville, California 95966 (530) 538-2219, also Northern Buttes District HQ, 400 Glen Dr., Oroville, CA 95966 (530)538-2200.

You might also want to visit a couple of other attractions in the southwestern part of Plumas National Forest. To get to the Feather Falls National Scenic area from the Oroville Visitor Center, take Kelly Ridge Road back to State Highway 162 heading east, then turn right on Forbestown Road, then left on Lumpkin Road toward the village of Feather Falls. Just before reaching the village, you’ll see a dirt road heading left to the trailhead.

The 15,000-acre Feather Falls National Scenic area includes portions of the Wild and Scenic Middle Fork of the Feather River and three of its tributaries, including the Fall River. The area features massive granite domes and deeply cut canyons, but Feather Falls, the sixth highest waterfall in the continental United States is the main attraction. It plunges 640 feet over a sheer granite cliff. A National Recreation Trail, which is free of snow most of the year leads 3-1/2 miles to a sturdily built observation deck that provides the best vantage point from which to view the thundering waters. Actually, from the observation point, you can continue on the trail to the falls itself. About 1/4 mile past the falls, several backpack campsites are located along the Fall River.

Also from the Oroville Visitor Center, by Highway 162 and the Forbestown Road, you can head to Forbestown, then continue onto a highway “T”. Turn left toward the town of Challenge, where you’ll find a U.S. Forest Service ranger station, and continue on to La Porte and the Little Grass Valley Recreation Area, about 50 miles from Oroville.

This area has been well developed for recreation, and it’s 290 campsites can accommodate motorhomes up to 22 feet long. Other activities include picnicking, fishing for German brown and rainbow trout and catfish, water-skiing, swimming at two beaches, boating, hiking, and winter sports such as snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. In 1867 the first competitive ski races in the United States were held by the Alturas Ski Club at nearby La Porte. The summer season facilities are usually open from June 1 to October 31. During May, June and July, watch for the brilliant red snow plant that grows between the 4,000 and 8,000 foot elevation. Although it’s a flowering plant, the red snow plant lacks chlorophyll and grows off decaying organic matter, similar to mushrooms.

To reach the rest of the Plumas country, return to State Highway 70 and head north. Eventually this highway curves eastward climbs foothills, then follows the scenic canyon of the North Fork of the Feather River. The river alternates between free-flowing stretches and small reservoirs behind hydroelectric dams that are part of the “staircase of power” operated by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).

Near the head of the canyon, State Highways 70 and 89 intersect. North and east of these two roads, you can visit three reservoirs collectively called the upper Feather River lakes, that are the start of the State Water Project. They all offer fishing, mostly for trout, bass, and catfish (both in the lakes and in the downstream creeks), boating, camping, picnicking and other recreation.

From this intersection, drive to the first of these lakes by taking State Highway 89 north to Arlington, then County Road A22 East to Taylorsville. From there, follow the signs to the Antelope Lake Recreation Area. Drive east on Highway 70 to Portola, and then north on Lake Davis Road to the largest of the three lakes, Lake Davis, or go farther east on Highway 70 to Chilcoot, then take State Highway 284 north through the scenic, volcanic-looking walls of Little Last Chance Canyon to Frenchmen Lake.

While you’re in Portola be sure to visit the Portola Railroad Museum. The museum is operated by the Feather River Rail Society, which preserves not only local railroad history but also Western Pacific Railroad history with its collection of 20 diesel locomotives. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day and on weekends during winter months. On the last weekend of each month from June through September, and on holidays, a couple of diesel engines give rides to visitors.

Heading back west along Highway 70, you’ll find Quincy, the Plumas County seat, which also is the headquarters of the Plumas National Forest. Heading west out of Quincy on the Bucks Lake Road, you can visit the PG&E reservoir, Bucks Lake, and it’s resorts and campgrounds. This is one of several reservoirs that feed into PG&E’s “staircase of power.” The lake adjoins the 20,000 acre Buck’s Lake Wilderness Area, the only official wilderness in the national forest.

Near the junction of Highway 70-89, the old lumber town of Graegle has been developed into an idyllic vacation and retirement community, replete with an 18-hole championship golf course, condominiums, several rustic resorts, RV campgrounds, unique shops and restaurants. It can also serve as a base for exploring the southern end of the Plumas.

Southwest of Graegle, along the Gold Lake Highway, the Lakes Basin Recreation Area encompasses more than 30 lakes and several waterfalls. Most of these lakes can be reached only by a good network of trails, so the Lakes Basin is a popular area for hiking. One trail leads to the summit of Mount Elwell (elevation 7812 feet), which affords the best overall views of the basin.

Five miles west of Graegle, on County Road A-14, the 5000-acre Plumas-Eureka State Park sits high on the eastern slopes of the Sierra. The park surrounds the historic mining town of Johnsville and protects the ruins of at least two hard rock gold mines. The partially restored Plumas-Eureka stamp mill, near the visitor’s center, once was the busiest mine in the area. In 1872, an English company called the Sierra Buttes Mining Company Limited bought most of the mines tapping the extensive ore body below 7447-foot Eureka Peak. The company ran a highly efficient and highly profitable hard-rock mining operation for about 20 years. Three tramways were built to bring ore down to the central mill near Johnsville, named for the local superintendent, William Johns. After 1890, when the mines tapered off in productivity, the company eventually sold out. When the mining finally ceased altogether in 1943, some 70 miles of shafts and tunnels had been dug. Plumas-Eureka Mill alone had processed 8 million dollars worth of gold, and more than 80 million dollars worth of gold have been extracted from the area. Johnsville is still a living town, and many of the buildings in the Plumas-Eureka and Jamison Mines can still be found in the state park.

Now, the most popular summertime activities are camping, hiking, fishing, and sightseeing. The Upper Jamison Campground, in the south end of the park, is not only a place to camp, but also has a number of trailheads, including one to the Jamison Mines and on into the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, where backpacking is allowed at Wade, Jamison, Rock, Grass and Smith lakes. A trail you should hike is Madora Lake Loop Trail near the entrance to the park. An enchanted stretch along this trail is where a narrow old mining ditch is lined with leopard lilies, cow parsnips, crimson columbine and other wildflowers.

During the winter, the park’s high elevation, 4,000 to 8,000 feet, means a lot of snow, which closes the campground by October 1 but the park’s headquarters remain open throughout the year. Winter is a significant season for this park. The old tramway was the world’s first ski lift, where the early day miners help competitive ski races, using what were then called Norwegian-type “snow shoes” which were 12 to 14 feet long. Nowadays the nonprofit Plumas County Ski Club operates a ski lift in the Eureka Bowl area on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays during the ski season.

For more information on the park, contact Plumas-Eureka State Park, 310 Johnsville Road, Blairsden, California 96103 (530)836-2380. For more about the forest, contact Plumas National Forest, Box 1500, Quincy, California 95971 (530)283-2050.

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