Sunday, May 13, 2012


at Relief Hill
There are plenty of reminders from our state’s gold mining heritage out there just waiting to be stumbled across.  It had been a while since I’d engaged the BMW GSA in a backcountry tour involving a non-surfaced road and I needed a refreshing break from pounding on the keyboard.  The Great American Novel could wait.

East of Nevada City on State Route 20 a lovely strip of pavement coils into the depths of the South Yuba River at Washington.  The trip to the bottom is a dangerous combination of nicely banked tarmac and views.  Conveniently, there is a place to stop for views up and down the canyon.   

Washington (Nevada Co.)
Once to the bottom, with the exception of the pavement through town, a fluorescent Budweiser sign in the general store window and scattered vehicles not drafted by horseflesh, the town looks as it might have a century and a half ago when it was founded.

We are warned that there will be kids and dogs in the roadway and that they get dibs on the lane you may be in.

A kind gentleman runs the little store, a Giants fan.  He’ll be a happier individual once the boys in orange and black turn up the offense, he reports.  Won’t we all?

Washington (Nevada Co.)
Across the way, someone has arrested the deterioration of and early example of the mechanized age.  There’s a little museum in town and a place called a hotel, but I stopped for neither. 

South Yuba River at Washington
Just as I like to practice riding in the rain in the winter, it was time to reacquaint myself with gravel and a bit of dirt for the riding season.  A well-engineered bridge crosses the Yuba, but shortly beyond that I strike my own Mother Lode.

Gaston Road
The Forest Service applies gravel on Route 21 – the road up the hill to Graniteville and Bowman Lake.  An inviting sign tells me it’ll be about twelve miles.  Although early in the season, the road is nicely maintained and a thirty mile-per-hour clip doesn’t seem too risky once I get my sea legs back under me.

But this is crazy, I think.  I am passing too many things that deserve my attention and much too quickly.  Parched and 92 at home, spring has just arrived to the 3500-foot elevation.  A dogwood tells me this.

The black oaks are just shaking off winter as well.

Gaston Road - Graniteville Road

Two miles shy of Graniteville, Route 21 tees into Graniteville Road.  To the right is Bowman Lake.  That section of road would lead me past a high country reservoir, thence to Henness pass, the olde tyme route of frustrated gold miners to the silver fields of Nevada.  (I wonder, again, what this innocent sign did to deserve being shot to hell.  I see this too many times in the woods.  If you are a gun owner, please don’t do this.  It makes you look boorish, and I – along with everybody else – end up having to pay for the damned sign.  Thank you.)

Graniteville, CA
Left takes me to old “Eureka South.”  Eureka north being up in Plumas County; a “Eureka” the mine is down in South Placer.  Eureka the city is up on the Humboldt.  The road in this neck of the woods lacks gravel.  It is rutted and the last vestiges of snow melt run across the path.  My pace slows greatly as I realize the Metzeler Tourances cake with this slippery goo pretty readily.  As far as I can tell, it is their only deficit.

Graniteville, CA
In town, ancient pavement keeps the dust down.  Several years ago, I met a gent who has a board and bat cabin he’d built by hand in the community.  He’d invited me in for a look-see and a beer (which I declined).  An old claw-footed bathtub stood in at the edge of the forest, fed by a pipe from the nearby stream and heated with a wood fire.  From inside the rustic structure, through cracks in the wall, you could see the outside.  He hoisted a Miller Lite and said, “Oh, we really weren’t looking for a place in the woods.  But is so beautiful, the idea came to me and I just couldn’t shake it.” 

Graniteville Cottage
Original hundred-plus-year-old homes line the road.  Many are trim and restored summer residences, but it is said that there are four year-round residents.  Wear woolens.

Formerly a Graniteville Cottage
Some of the old homes fare the winter better than others.  I wonder how many places were here at one time; how many have been crushed by the elements.  And what other bits of history are no longer history because there’s nothing left to remind us.

The run from Graniteville down to North Bloomfield is a sixteen mile unpaved boulevard running through pines and clearings and panoramic views from the Sierran crest to the Sacramento Valley.  It is wide and flat requiring only the occasional stand on the pegs to absorb potentially bum-bruising bumps.

North Bloomfield
North Bloomfield (Old Humbug Town) is a place I frequent as often as possible.  The pictures here are from a previous trip.  I’ve been known to putter up to the state park there, simply to put an entry fee in an envelope and then putter out again.  Least I can do: it’s on the closure list.

GSA vs Monitor
Old mining tools are displayed along the side of the road the monitor here seen facing off with the BMW.

Malakoff Diggins
The monitors focused water on the soft hillsides, washing them away to expose veins of ore for relatively easy pickin’s.  The environmental damage was horrific and the practice was suspended when the town of Marysville, some forty miles downstream, was shut down knee deep in slimy slurry from the operations.

Relief Hill Road
There are several enticing options from this point.  After depositing my ten bucks, I chose the route south back into the Yuba River rather than the route west toward Nevada City or northeast to North San Juan.  (One gets the impression that the old timers had a hard time coming up with place names so they simply tacked north or some other direction on the name of some place they’d been before.  The early Post Office had a say in this type of intervention, I am told.)  The road out of town is, perhaps, the worst maintained of the loop, but it is a delight to carve along the canyon wall, in and out of forests, watching the landscape evolve.

Relief Hill
It’ll be twelve miles back to Washington.  Half way down, the derelict site of Relief Hill is to be found.  There’s a connection here to the rescue of the Donner Party, but there’s no one around to ask.  Plenty of “No Trespassing” signs are tacked here and there. 

Relief Hill
As a result of a deal between the Federal Government and the Central Pacific Railroad, the company obtained alternating square mile sections of land that could be harvested for ties and, perhaps ballast.  The “Big Four” were less than completely honest about where the railroad was to go and as a result, the Tahoe National Forest is a checkerboard of public and private square miles.  Relief Hill is private.

Diversion Dam
Closer to Washington, the elevation is lower, the bottom of the canyon distant, but the road a bit better maintained.  Gravel aligns itself at the edges and in the middle.  One of those edges drops precipitously toward the Yuba.  Losing it in the berm on the canyonside would be a bad idea.  My bones would likely not be found for months.  I tiptoe the big Beemer down, glancing, occasionally as the full running streams that, a month from now will be gone.  At one point, a small dam diverts water to I don’t know where and for I don’t know how long.

South Yuba River at Washington
Fifty-plus miles of dirt and gravel are wearing.  I think of those guys that drove from Scotland to the tip of Africa on bikes similar to mine and think better them than me.  Still, the little four-hour tour was a welcome respite and it was with mixed emotions that I found myself on the bridge crossing the South Yuba, revisiting old Washington, then heading up the hill toward home.


Downwind from the old schoolhouse in Graniteville
Today’s Route:  I-80 to Auburn; North on SR 49 to Grass Valley/Nevada City where 49 joins SR 20.  Continue east on SR 20; left on Washington Road just past the scenic overlook.  Stop there first for an overview.  Through town, cross the Yuba, veer right onto Gaston Road (USFS Rd 21).  Ten miles.  Left on Graniteville Road.  West toward North Bloomfield.  Follow signs to Malakoff Diggins State Park.  Drop a ten-spot.  Just past the museum, left on Relief Hill Road.  Return to Washington.


This route is accessible in a carefully driven two-wheel drive car with appropriate ground clearance; but probably not a good idea on a cruiser or a sport bike.

Bring a snack, water, a camera and notebook, and a signaling mirror.  Your cell phone likely won’t work.

© 2012
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. "Papa Ken" a Pashnit (motorcycle forum) reader has responded to this piece. He adds some personal history regarding the country I explored on this little day trip. I have taken the liberty of sharing his thoughts in as a regular post entitled "A Reader Responds." Please check it out and enjoy.

  2. Ken's post is located here: It may be accessed by clicking on Church of the Open Road in the banner at the top of the blog. It will then be the top post you see. (Until I post something new.)

  3. Great description of your trip. I don't have a motorcycle, but I definitely want to try this in my Subaru Forrester.