Monday, July 16, 2012
THE HUMBUG – HUMBOLDT SUMMIT LOOP
Butte and Plumas County’s historic transition
between the Sierra and the Cascade
About forty-five years ago, my first motor vehicle was a Honda Trail 90. Living in a small northern California town, more than a few poorly graded roads provided playground for me and my little machine. Early on, a loop I discovered carried me from Butte County, into Plumas and back to Butte on countless miles of rocky dirt roads.
Last week, I revisited.
The Skyway leads from Chico, California, on the floor of the Sacramento Valley, to Butte Meadows, way up in the hinterland divide between the Sierra and the Cascade. The first 12 miles is the main route from Chico to Paradise (above the fog but below the snow.) The Skyway threads through country once occupied by northern Maidu, 49ers, lumbermen, and now, retirees.
A pleasant stop is at DeSabla, a small PG&E reservoir fed by flumes built a century ago by the timber industry. The flumes in the area make for good hiking – scenic and level.
Three or four years ago, a rangeland fire swept across the Paradise Ridge. Primary evacuation down the Skyway was cut off, as was a parallel route down Pentz Road to Oroville. Nervous residents took to their Buicks and headed northeast on the Skyway. Beyond Stirling City and Inskip, the road turns to a playground for Jeepers but a death trap for oil pans on those Buicks.
In response to the fire, the Feds funded the paving of the route from Inskip to Butte Meadows, providing a safety valve for future such occurrences.
The job is half done. It should be completed by November of 2012, although locals seem to feel that’s a bit optimistic. Where the Humbug Road spits off to the east, we are warned that the Skyway is closed.
Humbug Road, the story goes, gets its name from a shyster who gathered disconsolate miners at what’s now about 9th and Main in Chico and charged each a toll to lead them to a pristine valley where the creeks were lined in gold. “Jest put yer hands in an’ scoop it up!” More later…
Along the current route, vestiges of those early days may be seen in the random rough-hewn cabin that has stood 150 blistering summers and frigid winters. We don’t build houses this way any more.
Remnants lay strewn in the high country meadows. I expect the miner who owned one of these was livin' high on the hog.
Up the way is a lake I remember from my Trail 90 days. We’d circumnavigated this pool on a Forest Service Road who’s last alpha-numeric designation was “X.” Little did we know this meant ‘dead end.’ To hasten our return, we decided to run our little tiddlers straight across what appeared to be a dry lake bottom. Twenty yards out, the crust gave way and early day biking buddy John left a nearly new size 9 Converse All Star to fossilize in the mud; riding the forty-plus-mile distance home to Chico on a 55cc motorbike with a bare right foot.
At Humbug Summit, we pass from Butte into Plumas County.
Signs weather winters, wildlife and/or shotguns poorly, thus the demarcation is painted on the bark of the nearest Douglas fir.
In everyone’s life there is a place that one supposes heaven matches. For me, this will always be Humbug Valley. Perhaps six miles east of the summit, the rugged road has been graded and graveled, becoming a pleasant ride into the broad high Sierran pasture.
The area has been peopled since before time.
A huge white house was built late in the 1800s that, I was relieved to see, still stands. I kept thinking that the next hundred yards would afford the perfect picture, but with each spin of the wheel, the massive structure simply faded behind the stand of Ponderosa pine.
An informative plaque indicates that the origins of Humbug Valley might differ a bit from the myth promulgated by the historians back in Chico.
A soda spring bubbles from a fissure on the east side of the valley along Yellow Creek. Used to be that the locals provided cone shaped paper cups for passers-by enjoyment. None today.
The cruise into Chester involves a few more miles of nicely maintained forest route followed by six miles of high-speed activity on two state highways. Lunch would be at the Pine Shack Frosty. Decades ago, the proprietors there promised “Your meal free if Mount Lassen erupts while ordering.” Volcanic activity in the area is pretty cyclical. With this visit, said signs had been removed. Like the Mayans of yore, somebody, I’m sure, has something figured out.
Humboldt Road crosses back over the Sierra-Cascade Crest about seven Pacific-Crest-Trail miles north of Humbug. It, too, is nicely maintained on the Plumas side.
Ruffa Ranch is one of those high country enclaves that the romantic in me suggests would be a grand place to run cattle, pan gold and hang with Maureen O’Hara.
I could pluck a fresh bloom for her every day.
But, as in all John Wayne westerns, trouble would lurk not far away. Humboldt Road passes directly under “Robber’s Roost,” just before crossing into Butte County. Some say the legendary Black Bart frequented this outcrop.
Down the hill on the Butte County side, we find pavement and enjoy the run into Jonesville. The hotel here is in private hands, but the community is organizing fundraisers to refurbish the historic stage stop.
A bit further on, we wind along Butte Creek and into Butte Meadows. The Outpost is a well-known watering hole and a destination for those seeking one of the best Chili Burgers on the planet.
South from Butte Meadows on the Skyway (when open) one returns to Paradise. West, Humboldt Road joins State Route 32 that curls down the hill to Chico.
Forty-five years had passed, but nothing much had changed. The ride felt very good.
Today’s Route: From Chico at SR 99: east on the Skyway through Paradise, Magalia, Paradise Pines, DeSabla, Stirling City (named for the Stirling, Ohio, where the boilers had been manufactured that ran the area steam donkeys), Inskip and toward Butte Meadows. Right (east) on Humbug Road over the summit, into the valley and out to Lake Almanor. [Route numbers on the Lassen National Forest can change their designation based upon whether the road is graveled, graded or primitive.* On this tour, expect to experience all three.] North on SR 89; east on SR 36 to Chester. Return: West on 36; south on 89; east on USFS Rd 309 about a mile; right on USFS Rd 308 (Humboldt Road) tracing Butt Creek through Ruffa Ranch and Robber’s Roost to Humboldt Summit. Continue west to Jonesville, Butte Meadows and either Paradise (south) or Chico (south west).
*Resource: Carry this map – Lassen National Forest © 2008, US Forest Service. Ten bucks very well spent.
Church of the Open Road Press