Saturday, April 27, 2013


California’s State Route 20 to Nevada City

Sometimes traveling east or west between San Francisco/Sacramento and Reno/Truckee, we just have to get there now.  So we mount up and rocket over the Sierra on Interstate 80.  A freeway, I-80 is designed for people in a hurry – and big trucks.

A pleasant alternative, and a “must do” for folks who may pass this way but once involves California’s state route 20.  This little gem departs I-80 about 20 minutes west of Truckee and by hooking in with CA 49 at Nevada City, thence to Auburn, adds only about an ninety minutes to the trip.  That is, if you don’t stop and if you’re not enticed to explore.

A late April day in the Sacramento area felt more like summer than spring.  A trip to elevation seemed in order.  I mounted Aria, the Moto Guzzi Breva – what a fun bike that is! – and headed east to enjoy this favored route.  After stopping at Brunswick, between Grass Valley and Nevada City for breakfast I zipped all the twenty-seven sweeping miles Highway 20 offered before it conflues with I-80.  There, I U-turned, retracing the route, pausing for pictures and sojourns along the way.

West of the interchange, CA 20 slips downward into the drainage of the Bear and Yuba Rivers. 

Bowman Lake Road offers a nice dalliance into the basaltic northern high Sierra.  A nicely engineered Sierra Discovery Trail begs one to stop and investigate the upper reaches of the Bear. 

Although here, it is more of a brook than a river.

Further up this side trip, we cross the more robust South Yuba.  I turn back at this point knowing what the road will become aware that the dual-sport is resting in the garage.

The area is bisected with flumes dating back to the gold rush.  Miners spared no effort in diverting the natural flow of the area’s rivers into these gradual ditches in order to serve their industry.   

The flumes – modernized and upgraded, still carry water for domestic use down the hill.  They also provide easy paths for a nice stroll.  This is one reason why the CA 20-49 scenic route’ll take more than those 90 minutes.

Back on CA 20, the road descends and then crosses a high country valley that seems lush and green any time of the year that it is not blanketed in snow.

A few miles on, a sign advises of a Scenic Overlook.  (Nice restrooms.)  A paved trail loops less than a half-mile to a view to the north.

A substantial viewing platform reaches over the canyon edge.

Affixed to the railing is a panoramic photograph labeling promontories as near as a stone’s throw and as distant as the Coast Range. 

Roads to places like Relief Hill, Graniteville and Bloomfield are clearly visible through the forest.  In less than a moment, about six adventures are added to the bucket list.

Four or five miles further, we find the little-more-than-a-turnout vista point.  The view is similar to what we’ve just seen, so I end up taking a portrait of the bike…

…but a turn-off to the old town of Washington is marked.  The lusciously paved and well-maintained road sweeps and twists down the canyon to this historic site. 

Cell-phone service?  I doubt it.  Good.

Not far beyond town, the roads improve from pavement to gravel and I think about “the Horse” stabled at home.

One stop I’d not made before was to visit a “Point of Historic Interest.”  A small rectangle of white picket fence encloses the marker of a little boy who was carried across the trail west but only made it this far.

Passers-by leave mementos on the fence.  I suspect someone comes through every now and again and cleans ‘em up.  (Be careful exiting due to accumulations of winter road sand.)

A few miles further on and we find ourselves in the “standard metropolitan statistical area” of Grass Valley and Nevada City.  There’s a bit more traffic these last few miles and folks are a bit less leisurely in their approach to the road.

Nevada City and Grass Valley ooze history.  Both have inviting main streets with a nice selection of restaurants, galleries, antique stores and mercantiles.  Both are quite walkable.  Both will contribute to that ninety-minute detour becoming a full day.

Old heliport windsock frame
Today’s Route:  Exit I-80 at CA 20.  27 miles to Nevada City.  To rejoin I-80, head south on CA 49 to Auburn (a pleasant but busy stretch.)  Diversion 1: Right on Bowman Road – the paved portion extends several miles through nicely forested lands, past historic power generating dams and flumes, and by several pleasant reservoirs.  The road turns to gravel and head toward historic Graniteville (west) or over Henness Pass (east.)  Diversion 2: Right on Washington Road; five miles into town.  Great views on the sweeping descent.  Two miles beyond town, the road turns to gravel with the right fork heading up to Graniteville and the left fork (poorly signed) heading through Relief Hill to North Bloomfield and the delightful state historic park.

Note:  CA 20 heads west from Nevada City / Grass Valley through the rolling Sierra Foothills, into Marysville, across the Feather, into Yuba City, below the Sutter Buttes, into Colusa, across the Coast Range, past Clear Lake, joining US 101 to Willets, then on through the redwoods to the coast at Fort Bragg.  One could take weeks exploring all of it.  And probably should.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

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