Exploring Northern California’s Plumas National Forest back country.

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For the past 15 years, my family has taken an annual quad riding trip together. Originally this passion was shared by my husband’s mother and step-father, but as an early adopter I love it as much as they do.  We have traveled many places over the years, up to Cedar Pass, near the California-Oregon border, east to Nevada exploring abandoned mine shafts and ghost towns like Berlin NV, and our most recent adventure have taken us to Northern CA, Plumas National Forest.

I have enjoyed every one of these trips and I treasure the time spent with our family. We ride far, sometimes covering over 100 miles in a single day. Sometimes other family members join in, like our Uncle, Sister, Brother or friends. None of our adventures have been the same.  Sometimes the weather is 100’ and greater and sometimes we are so cold, we are bundled up and covered head to toe in snow gear,  that it made sense to buy me heated handled grips as a welcomed Christmas gift.

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Most recently, we have been traveling together to Plumas National Forest, near La Porte, CA.  Plumas National Forest is one of the most under discovered or under visited treasures of Northern CA. There are so many pine trees, animals, lakes and peaks, the only thing missing is visitors. And that is ok by me. I have heard that in centuries past the area was quite popular.  But now days, most of the small towns leading to national forest are depressed or boarded up.  There is little offered in the few remaining towns of La Porte, Brownsville, Challenge, or Strawberry Valley.  There was one new restaurant opened up called One Eyed Jacks, and I wanted to stop and patronize the new establishment but it was closed when we passed.  My father in law frequented this area as a young man and he has lots of stories to tell about his adventures hunting and four wheeling through this area.

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There are several lakes in the area, one of them named Grass Valley Reservoir. It’s a beautiful lake and it is surrounded by several small campgrounds.  We usually dry camp off of one of the forest service roads.  We always explore for campsites on off road vehicles before we drive to them in an RV, and we ensure that we know where we are headed when we drive onto a forest service road in our RV. You want to ensure that there is ample space to camp for your group, a wide enough spot to turn around, a flat enough surface to level out, and a suitable road for driving so that you do not get your RV stuck in a bad situation. For RVers, dry camping is camping without the need to hook up to electricity, water or sewage. With the camper we had enough water to dry camp 3 full days, with 6 showers. With the motor home, it looks we have approximately 11 fewer gallons of water, so we have two full days of dry camping then then need more water for additional showers, if we want to stay longer.  Quad riding is a dirty sport.  This isn’t too big of a problem, as Grass Valley Reservoir campground also has free water and a free RV dump station. Camping is $23 per night. They also have RV camping next to the lake which is just a large parking lot, with very few RV’s.

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On the most recent trip we took, our plan was to ride to Cleghorn Bar 4×4 trail.  Our father in law has been telling us about this difficult but awesome trail for 35 years.  He had driven the trail three times in his truck as a young man and remembers the challenge well.  He wanted to experience it again and share it with us riding our quads. The trail is 12 miles long, the most challenging portion of it is 4X4 only. This is the last few miles to the bottom. The last ¼ mile being the most difficult.  The beginning of the trail is so scenic, with fields of skunk cabbage and trails lined with choke cherries.  The trails lined with choke cherries were littered with bear scat, big piles of it.  When you are on a quad, because the engines are quite noisy, you rarely get an opportunity to see many wild animals, except for birds, chipmunks and squirrels. The large mountain lions, bobcats, deer, and bear run off long before they can see us.  I guess that’s a good thing.  There were some great views of several ranges of the western side of the forest, and when we arrived safely at the bottom there was a small campground with four camp sights right on the middle fork of the Feather River.  The river boasts a small beach and several swimming holes.  I spent 30 minutes enamored with a small eco-stem living near a large rock in the river. There was a small snake in the water, about a foot in length and as thick as piece of licorice rope. I later learned he was possibly a rattle snake, I didn’t know they liked water. My mother in law told me, Folsom Lake was having a problem with rattlers trying to board boats, which supported her theory that the snake we were watching was indeed a rattler.  He looked like a rattle snake with the diamond back design on his body, but we didn’t see a rattle on his tail. There were two schools of small fish, and butterflies galore. It was absolutely tranquil and beautiful, I wish I had worn my swim suit. We did stay long enough to explore and have lunch at the campsite next to the river. It was hard to leave this place. The ride back to camp is always faster than the ride out, it seems like you can cover twice as many miles in the few hours of the late afternoon, before dusk sets in, and dinner time is near.

Evenings were spent around the campfire.  Fires are not permitted this time of year, due to the season, however, our camp fire is a propane fire ring which qualifies as a camp stove.  A camp stove permit is required.  Permits are available free-of-charge at offices of the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.  Mom had plenty of s’more supplies and homemade ice cream sandwiches for dessert.

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We spent two more days riding. We rode to Buzzard’s Roost Ridge at 6800’, which had a spectacular lone pine tree atop a pile of flat rocks on a peak that looked over the Plumas National Forest range in all four directions. Someone had taken the time to groom the pine tree which created a mystical look for this magical place. I imagined this peak had seen a wedding or two, or at the very least a marriage proposal.  When the engines on our electric steeds are stopped, there is a grand Silence that is only interrupted by the occasional tweet of a bird or the sound of an animal rustling.  Plumas National Forest is so far away from any major cities, highways or manufacturing businesses that you are surrounded by solitude.

We rode through some spectacular meadows filled with native wild flowers in every color.  We crossed Poorman’s Creek and Hopkins Creek.  We crossed the path of the Pacific Crest Trail, which does not allow any OHV vehicles of any kind.  We rode down a dead end trail that was blocked with fallen trees, we rode over the first few smaller trees and pulled a few of them out of our path, but gave up after a few miles when the brush was blocking the majority of the path and the trees were so thick we couldn’t move them without the help of our tow hitches.  There had to be an easier path that we were meant to be on and there was.

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We climbed up to the summit of Pilot Peak at 7200’ where there was still a patch of winter snow in August. The patch was firm and approx. 60’x40’, my husband crossed it on his quad, however the rest of the group opted to walk up to the top of the mountain the last 100’-200’ feet.  At the top of Pilot’s peak is a forest lookout structure, which was manned starting back in 1921 when an original steel structure was built.  These lookouts were typically manned between June 1st and the first rain for fire prevention.  Currently there is a round wooden two story lookout with panoramic windows.  The windows have been busted out of the first floor and some of the second floor. The ladder has also been disassembled to discourage visitors from climbing on the structure.  That didn’t stop my husband who quickly scaled to the top and encouraged us to follow.  The risk outweighed the reward for all of us, who quickly realized after attempting the first step that the wrong move would send you falling into a pile of unforgiving rocks or worse down the mountainside that was covered in unforgiving rocks. Neither option was appealing.  It was a long ride back to camp, and an even longer way to seek any professional medical help.  We were content with the panoramic views the summit provided from the top of the mountain.

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On our way back, on the second day, we passed two men on a quad having lunch by a bridge over a small creek. I waved as I passed, my father in law stopped to say hello and talk to them.  They told him they were the Miner’s that owned the claim on the two mines in this area.  As we approached this area on our way out the second day, we decided to explore these areas and stay for lunch.

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According to Wikipedia, a patented mining claim is the claim of the right to extract minerals from a tract of public land. In the United States, the practice began with the California gold rush of 1849.  The area of land is usually marked with an official sign, stating that that there is a federal mining claim, claim number, and name of claimant.  Let me be clear, while we do explore, we never touch, harm or remove any items that we come across. A mining claim, gives the miners rights to the minerals on the land, but federal land is still public land and is not private property. Most areas you pass in Northern CA are marked with a mining claim.  Miners must make annual improvements to a claim site and send in pictures of their improvements to the Bureau of Land Management or pay a fine, you can choose.  If you don’t pay the fine, the claim is open to other miners.  This note below was left by one of the miner’s at a claimed and active mine site.

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According to the men, there were two mines in this area, Bunker Hill one and two. They had told my father in law that one of the mines was actually a burial site since 8 or more miners had died in the mine, as the mine kept collapsing.  There bodies had not been removed. We spent about 30 minutes on both sides of the road looking for an entrance to either mine.  The mining areas were divided by the bridge and the road that crossed over the bridge. Bunker Hill Mine one was located up the mountain, which we never found, and Bunker Hill  two was downstream. There is was a nice sized camping area downstream, with remnants of a dilapidated building, and old rusted mining materials or junk strewn about.  This is typical for a mining site.  My mother in law and husband were searching upstream, while I decided to search downstream.  Mining entrances are usually easy to find, they are usually right next to the road.  This was my strategy for finding the entrance, keep it simple I told myself, as I looked for a worn train. The most obvious trail led down to the river, I followed it. The trail was overgrown so I had to move around limbs and overgrown bushes but I came to a spot that was a familiar site to me.  It was a square that was outlined in what looked like old wooden railroad trusses, they were not railroad trusses but 100 years ago they used these large pieces of wood to fortify the walls around mine shafts. The square wasn’t a perfect square as the wood had collapsed, and was filled in with dirt.  There were a pair of very old, rubber work books, that were still obviously boots but where is a state of decomposition.  In my mind, I imagined this was the burial site. It made sense to me, it was right next to the creek bed, so the ground around it must be soft, and giving.  If it was still active, it would have been open, but it wasn’t.  To me, the boots were symbolic as well. Were they a tribute to the lost lives, or did they come off of some poor soul they were unsuccessful at pulling out of the mine? I called my family over to share what I had found.

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We gave up on finding the second mine, and headed out on our quads for more exploration, we headed to the point of the trail that we had turned off of the day before to head back to camp. This was a federal service road, which for the most part was maintained.  We followed it for a few miles and came upon a warming hut.  A warming hut is a small shelter that normally does not have a bathroom but has a small stove and is usually stocked with dry wood for providing heat in the winter.  These trails are also frequented by snow mobile riders in the winter and the huts provide shelter and respite from the cold and could also save you during an unexpected snowstorm.  We stopped here to look at our map, and see which direction we wanted to head, since there were trailheads in all four directions.  We decided to go and check out Gibsonville, which was once an old mining town.

Gibsonville, was alive for 55 years, a post office opened in 1855 and closed in 1910.  There isn’t anything left, except a sign.  The sign indicates the cemetery is still intact, but we did not find it. I’ll admit, we didn’t look that hard. There are a few short roads that loop around and red tape that indicates where the building once stood. In the early gold rush era, you would have miners working on these mines around the clock and these mountainsides were filled with small active gold rush towns that housed hundreds of people.  This ghost town was not very interesting, and we quickly decided to head back to camp.  Gibsonville was next the LaPorte Quincy Road so it gave us a landmark as to identify to see how far we had come.

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These were the most interesting details of our most recent travel and exploration of Plumas National Forest, we visited this area 5 times now and there is still much unexplored territory. We will be back again.

I hope you enjoy our stories, as much as I enjoy sharing them with you. Please feel free to comment or ask questions.

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