Distance: 44 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3600 ft
This is a mellow, pretty ride through classic Sierra hill country. You’ll see some nice fir/pine forest, do a very sweet 3-mile descent, follow the north fork of the great Yuba River for 10 miles, see some good rock, then climb easily to the charming mountain community of Downieville at the turn-around. The scenery is quite nice but not unique or awe-inspiring, and there’s a drawback: Highway 49 is a main artery, so the traffic can be daunting. The road is a largely shoulderless but wide two-lane, wide enough to allow safe passing, but there are seven campgrounds, one resort, numerous popular trailheads, and countless swimming holes along the way, and Downieville is a nationally renowned mountain bike hub, so summer is a busy time. There’s also a fair amount of commercial traffic—eighteen-wheel gravel trucks when I was there. I did the ride on a weekday in November (the prettiest time of year in the Sierra—after the heat, before the snow), and I recommend doing this ride then, or at the crack of dawn.
So this ride has its limitations, but I include it in Bestrides because it has something that’s very rare among Sierra mountain rides: flatness. For 10 miles along the river (20 miles round-trip), there isn’t a single significant hill. For most of those 10 miles the climbing is imperceptible, and the occasional short rise is never worse than 2-3%. If you keep finding mountain rides in Bestrides that sound delicious but have off-putting elevation gains, this ride’s for you.
Park at the intersection of Hwy 49 and Marysville Rd. Parking is a little easier at the Camptonville mini-mart, 1 mile up the road, but there is some nice scenery in that first mile. Ride to Downieville on Hwy 49, then ride back.
One mile in you pass the turn-off to Camptonville, which isn’t actually on the highway. Take the short detour if you want to see what authentic Sierra mountain communities are like (which is, not terribly interesting). The first 6 miles of Hwy 49 are through nice fir/pine forest. Appreciate them, because you won’t see this microclimate again until the return trip.
At 6 miles in, you begin a very sweet 3-mile descent to the North Yuba River. It’s a smooth, lazy serpentine that’s just steep enough to make it fast without forcing you hard onto your brakes. That odd little uphill two-thirds of the way down in the Mapmyride profile doesn’t exist, by the way—it’s an uninterrupted 5% drop.
The descent ends at the North Yuba River bridge. Here begin the flat 10 miles. You’re along the river the entire way to Downieville, sometimes on the very brink and sometimes up the sidehill among the riparian treetops. The Yuba is a pretty, rocky stream with great swimming holes if you ignored my advice and are riding on a summer afternoon. Take in the river views on the ride out, because on the return ride you’re on the wrong side of the road and can see nothing much. There are lovely rock cuts on the high side of the road for much of the 10 miles.
The price you pay for the flatness is that the road doesn’t have much in the way of interesting contour. There are at least 7 campgrounds in the first few flat miles, with bathrooms in season, and one resort, Indian Valley Outpost, if you need provisions.
About 2 miles from Downieville the road contour gets much more interesting, but you have to earn it—it’s a moderate but noticeable climb the rest of the way. Just outside of town there’s an overlook with a nice view of the village, two interesting info boards, and a real cannon (it’s easy to miss—it’s on the mound on your R).
Downieville is well worth the push up the hill, a charming gold-rush town with many of its 1880’s buildings intact despite three major fires in its history. These building are now occupied by antique stores and mountain bike rental shops, but the place is still not nearly as touristy as Murphys or Sutter Creek.
The ride back is at first effortless, mostly a 1-3% descent, until the 3-mile climb, which is a consistent 5%—neither hard nor easy.
Shortening the route: This ride is a cinch to shorten—if you start riding at the bridge across the Yuba and skip the last two miles into Downieville, you can do a 20-mile out-and-back with all the beauty of Sierra riding and only climb a paltry 1000 ft. If you want to add a bit of effort, I’d add the miles to Downieville—the town is charming, and the scenery is something more than the standard conifers you get from the climb at the other end.
Adding Miles: Hwy 49 goes south from our starting point to Nevada City, and people ride it all the time, but I find it a grueling, unrewarding slog with two long, featureless climbs. Hwy 49 also continues east past Downieville to Bassetts and ultimately Sierraville, and it’s all good riding if you a) can dodge the traffic and b) you don’t mind climbing. It’s 24 miles from Downieville to Yuba Pass, all up, with 3800 ft gain. This does raise the intriguing possibility that, if you can talk someone into driving you to Yuba Pass, you can do a 36-mile uninterrupted descent from the pass westward to the North Yuba River bridge.
Rode this morning at 10am on Sunday (June 4, 2023). Gorgeous scenery the whole way. 0-3ft shoulder most of the ride. Very light traffic–maybe a car every 3-5 minutes. Drivers were very courteous. Never felt unsafe. I think it helps that Downieville is a big mountain bike center.