Downieville, CA: From Mining to Mountain Biking

It’s a phenomenon that has occurred all over the western United States – the mountain town whose identity and economic base has transitioned from mining to recreation. I’ve been watching (and participating in) this shift for decades, and I have to say, I’m pleased by the way locals, tourists, and the environment are the beneficiaries of the boom.

Downieville, a tiny town along Highway 49 in the foothills of California’s Sierra Mountains, is just one of these villages to strike weekend warrior gold long after the hard metal gold has been extracted from its soil.

The settlement now called Downieville was originally named “The Forks” when it was founded in 1849 at the junction of the North Fork of the Yuba River and what is now known as Downie Creek. The name of the town was changed in the following year to honor William Downie, a miner who led a team of nine men upriver from Sacramento and quickly found gold in the area. Word of his discovery spread quickly, and by 1850 Downieville supported a population of 5000 people, making it the fifth largest community in California at the time. According to every source I encountered, Downieville boasted “fifteen hotels, four bakeries, four butcher shops, and numerous brothels” in 1850, but by 1865 the town was all but abandoned. Although it’s certainly not a ghost town today, modern Downieville is not that hub it was in 1850. It has a population of 325 people, and the adorable downtown has one small grocery store, a couple of restaurants and small motels, and three or four shops lining its narrow streets. Neither Verizon nor AT&T phone service is reliable there, and I couldn’t find anywhere open to sit and have a muffin and cup of chai on a weekday morning at 9am.

But that’s because it was a weekday morning. Visit Downieville during a late spring, summer, or fall weekend and you’ll see a different scene. Mountain bikers with “day jobs” descend on this place on Saturdays and Sundays to take advantage of the incredible trail system located just above and outside of town on Tahoe National Forest lands. The crown jewel of this trail system is the “Downieville Downhill” – a 17-mile downhill run that drops close to 5000 feet in elevation. Most folks “shuttle” this run – meaning, they leave a car in Downieville for the end of the ride and drive a different one (which they need to “shuttle” back up to reclaim later) up to the start. Alternately, bikers can pay $20 to one of the two services in town that drive riders up to the beginning of the trail in a van equipped with bike racks. During my recent Thursday run, our 10am shuttle van was full, and the company was operating another shuttle at 2pm. On weekends they run six shuttles per day, and they take reservations weeks in advance.

This downhill trail has become so well-known that a weekend-long event has been created around it. The Downieville Classic Mountain Bike Festival, which takes place every summer, brings somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 people to this otherwise sleepy hamlet. While the festival has a lot of socializing, beer-drinking, gear-hawking and bike shenanigans associated with it, the focal point is the two-day race. Saturday’s race is a 29-mile cross-country (meaning a lot of elevation gain and mileage in addition to elevation loss) event, while Sunday’s race covers the classic downhill route. IMG_2097Riders can choose to do just one of these races, but coveted completion of the “All-Mountain” race requires participation in both – and racers must use the same bicycle on both days (normally, a “serious” mountain biker would use two different vehicles for the very different styles of riding required by these trails). Entry is limited to 200, and registration sells out in about thirty seconds. That means the other roughly 2000 people at the event are watching, cheering, partying, and yes, spending money in Downieville.

Mountain bikers and their friends and families stay in motels, eat out two or three times a day, buy gifts, and purchase gasoline during this race weekend and all other weekends when the trails are snow-free and dry enough to ride. These spending habits equate to an entire economy in a town that is over an hour from the nearest large grocery store and two hours from the closest urban area (Sacramento).

People in Downieville seem to be very aware of this reality, and they’ve accommodated their recent recreational influx with amenities such as free wifi from some park benches in town, nice public bathrooms with water spigots, and a friendly attitude towards “folks who aren’t from here.” With mining having crashed a mere decade or two after it started, and the timber industry on the wane over the last handful of years, residents of Downieville clearly know that these trails and the people that use them are crucial to their survival.

And…the trails are great. The downhill run lives up to all of its hype as it descends through multiple ecosystems and winds in and out of heavily treed forest next to a steep creekbed. There are tight corners, thrilling straight sections, and fun little “whoop-de-doos” (yes, that’s a technical term). You do have to pedal your bike – but not too hard, and not for too long. There are challenging technical (rocky) sections, but nothing too stressful. Most importantly, you can go FAST – like, well over 20mph kind of fast. And if you tire of this variety of fun, there are a number of other trails in the area to explore, each offering a different flavor of alpine exploration, and a different combination of sweaty uphill grinds and blissful flowy descents.

A local non-profit organization, The Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, advocates for and maintains this resource which sits at the foundation of the area’s new economy, and it seems like local businesses support the group generously. These folks are creating new trail, but they are also assuring that trail is built and maintained using sustainable practices. While some might argue that even ecologically responsible trail-building practices damage the environment, I believe otherwise. Not only are the immediate physical impacts relatively contained, the increased awareness of the ecosystem that is fostered in bikers as a result of their recreational use of public land is invaluable. I maintain that people who play in an area appreciate it more and work harder to protect it than those who do not – plain and simple.

For me, Downieville’s mining to mountain biking transition is a triple win – for bikers, for residents, and for the surrounding forest.

More towns would do well to keep this in mind.

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