Adventure Land

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 29, 2004

When my wife and I asked the mountain bike shop owner in Downieville, Calif., to recommend a long, moderately challenging ride, he traced his finger along a map. "You'll like this one," he said. "Bring a camera and some food. Take your time. Enjoy the scenery."

"Right," I thought. "Food and camera. Take our time." I figured he had us pegged as noodle-legged city dwellers and had steered us to what his state's governor might call a "girlie ride." Four hours later, I almost wished that had been true.

Somewhere up there, maybe around the next bend (but probably not), was the apex of the trail. Sweat rolled off my chin as my bike's knobby tires crawled over a hunk of granite. On a bright 75-degree day, Cathleen and I were ascending through the pines and cedars of Tahoe National Forest just outside Downieville, a 154-year-old Gold Rush town nestled in these brawny hills.

Our three days in this area -- about 75 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe -- were part of a nine-day sampler of outdoor frolicking and funky towns in the northern third of California, a chunk of U.S. territory harboring huge, awe-inspiring tracts of public land. We had started in Mendocino after flying into San Francisco, renting a car and pointing it north through rolling wine country. We wanted to immerse ourselves in California's sunny, green outdoors and still have access to indoor plumbing, cold beer and warm food.

Between the Mendocino coast and Downieville, our itinerary would take us to the Mount Shasta area, and would at least partially restore my hope that not everyone in this country is hellbent on the obsolescence of open space. Our route -- mostly on two-lane roads, from San Francisco to Mendocino, on to McCloud and down the spine of the Sierra Nevada to Downieville -- took us through big, muscular country, with huge tracts of forest, broad views of wild space, fields of flowers, sweeping coastline, snowy volcanoes and monstrous stands of redwoods.

Biking the Gold Trail

The Downieville bike ride started out innocently enough. We rode past a steakhouse, an antiques store and a museum fronted by Old West boardwalks, then through a neighborhood of small homes sporting U.S. flags. The road turned to dirt and we ducked into a rolling single-track trail through thick forest. Around one bend, at Paulie Creek, the earth dropped 70 feet to a series of pounding rapids. The trail was barely wider than our handlebars, prompting the same apprehension you might feel walking along a sidewalk seven stories off the ground.

"Wow," I said to Cathleen. "Hand me that camera."

The path jumped between trees and river bluff for a few miles before crossing a road and widening beneath towering cedars. At a curve in the creek, we climbed down the slope and kicked back on a big, flat rock to eat apples and dip our feet in the emerald water.

After the break, I was pushing ahead and thinking how fit I'd be if I did this ride every weekend when I heard a yelp. "Briley!" (My wife calls me that.) I raced back and found Cathleen sprawled on a slab of rock, facing downhill and tangled in her bike. "Wow," I said. "Hand me that camera." This remark was poorly received.

The trail led us past signs reading "Active Claim: No Prospecting" and through a gold mining camp with a cabin and what appeared to be mining gear scattered about. They don't find much gold here these days, but in 1850, Downieville was the epicenter of the Gold Rush. Prospectors pulled so much gold from the area -- including a 25-pound nugget -- that the town came just 10 votes shy of becoming California's capital.

Finally we crested the trail. The descent was worth every calorie of climbing: The grippy dirt held our tires through leaning turns, planes of sunlight diving through the trees. On the fast sections, the surrounding forest was a blur. The last slice of trail brought us around an exposed rocky shoulder with dry dirt more characteristic of a desert than a lush mountain, before funneling back into the canopy. When the trail finally spat us out at the top of town, we rolled, spent and dusty, to the Riverview Pizzeria for lunch under a blue sky.

Afterward, we followed the Yuba River a mile upstream to our cabin at the Lure Resort. Our A-frame sat upriver from all the others, affording an unobstructed view from our deck of the water and the steep hills beyond. Later, as dusk settled in, we cracked a couple of pale ales and listened to the concert of river, crickets and cicadas. I could have dozed right there on the deck, but then I remembered I'd seen a saloon adjacent to the bike shop. Ducking into the St. Charles Place, we found all the trappings you'd expect in a western bar: cold beer, stuffed mammal heads, twangy music and cantankerous locals.

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