Monday, July 18, 2016

Downieville Downhill (CA) -- The Classic Route


Located in the northern California Sierra, Downieville is a place I've visited about a half dozen times, mainly for whitewater kayaking on Pauley and Lavezzola Creeks (trip report here). With the drought of 2015, we decided to head there for mountain biking instead, knowing that the Downieville Downhill is considered one of the classic rides in the United States. During our trip over Memorial Day weekend we encountered one of the hardest rainstorms that I've ever experienced, while we were still on the trail. Within an hour we received a couple inches of rain and there was a ~8" deep river running straight down the trail. We ended up cutting our losses and bailing from the ride at the start of First Divide. We now affectionately refer to that particular ride as the Downieville Downpour...


Chris on typical section of Butcher Ranch, during the Downieville Downpour

Soaking up the trail, literally...

Roman, is that mud or...?

Bill dropping into a typical rock pitch near the end of Butcher Ranch

Now 2016, and with a trip to Tahoe already planned for the 4th of July, Emily and I decided that it would be a great opportunity to hit it on the way. Five others in the Tahoe crew were game as well – Emily C, Arthur, Danika, Andy, and Erin. Since it was the 4th of July and we figured it would be busy, we booked our 10:30am shuttle ahead of time with Yuba Expeditions. It wasn't until about an hour before our shuttle that we met up with our fellow companions, where we did some catching up while waiting to depart. Once everyone had checked in, we loaded into the shuttle van and started the drive up to Packer Lake Saddle, where we'd be starting our ride. As I recall, the shuttle to the top took around 45 minutes, which gave us plenty of time to take in the great scenery that this part of the Sierras has to offer. Once we reached Packer Lake Saddle our shuttle driver, Billy, gave us the rundown on the trail options as well as some basic etiquette for the trails we'd be riding, which were mixed use. Once all the bikes were unloaded we thanked him and bid a farewell, stoked for the ride that lay in front of us!


Loaded up and ready to go!

Starting off on the Sunrise Trail, we traveled less than 100 yards before taking a left on the newer "flow section", which was a recommended alternative to the top end of the trail. Immediately we were deposited through a field of wildflowers before dropping into a series of banked turns and flowy traverses. Although it was a bit dusty, the trail rode well and we were all enjoying the ride. All too soon the trail reached forest road 93, where on the other side we'd be entering the famed Butcher Ranch section.


Andy and EGP startin' things off

Not a bad way to start the ride!

Arthur finds some fun stuff early on

Emily rounds one of the last corners on the Sunrise Trail

Erin finishing up the Sunrise Trail

Butcher Ranch started off much like our trails back home, alternating between forest and meadows, albeit through a much drier landscape. Although the top part of Butcher Ranch was a bit pedally and didn't present much of a technical challenge, I knew from riding it the year before that the bottom half would be a different story. That said, it was still plenty fun and provided a great way to warm up the legs for what was to come. The end of the top portion was a dry creek crossing, which had both a steep technical down and up, with the latter tripping up a majority of the crew. On the other side of the crossing was an obvious place to rest and wait for the rest of the riders to catch up.



Entering the meadow on the first part of Butcher Ranch

Danika lines up the dry creek crossing

Since I wanted to snap some photos I jumped out ahead, knowing that I'd have plenty of good technical drops to setup at. This part of Butcher Ranch was just as I had remembered, continuous sections of root and rock with a bigger drop mixed in here and there for good measure. Unlike the granite rock found in nearby Lake Tahoe, this was much sharper and more broken up, making for a more helter-skelter technical challenge, which was feast for those who like their trails a bit more rugged. Eventually we reached one of the more difficult features, a long and rocky creek crossing that proved challenging to even the most experienced riders in our crew. The last time I had ridden the trail the stream was flowing pretty good, which made it almost impossible to ride. This time it was fairly dry, which allowed me to make it through sight unseen and without dabbing – Hey, the sun shines on a dog's ass every now and again...


Gettin' into the goods on Butcher Ranch

Andy in hot pursuit

Emily on a typical stretch of Butcher Ranch

Arthur lines up the crux drop on Butcher Ranch

Finishing up nicely

Soon after the crossing we found ourselves high above and riding along Pauley Creek, one of my favorite class IV whitewater kayaking runs anywhere! In between the technical drops I'd catch a quick glimpse of it, remembering the great times I'd had running it with my buddies back in the day. Since I was taking lots of photos along the way, I was working hard to leap-frog the others in the crew, which gave true meaning to anaerobic exercise. As soon as I reached the foot bridge over Pauley Creek I remembered that the biggest climb of the ride started just on the other side. Danika and Andy were stopped in the middle of the bridge to take photos and as I passed by I let them know to gear down and raise their seats, while I mentally prepared for it myself.


Although the technical features were mostly rock, there were some fun roots thrown in as well

Lots of drops like this while paralleling Pauley Creek

Loose but still fun!

Danika and Andy chillaxin' over Pauley Creek before the climb

The climb was actually not bad at all and only gained about 300 vertical feet. At the top we reached the start of the Third Divide Trail, which would be the next section of our ride. This was also the location where the Big Boulder Trail exits from above, which is another trail option from which to start the ride, and one that I hope to do at some point. If the backboard and neckbrace that is stationed at the end is any indication, it should be a great one indeed! Once we had regrouped we dropped into Third Divide, which would be the fastest and most flowy leg of the entire descent. It was in stark contrast to the technical riding found on Butcher Ranch, and it took me a minute or so to get comfortable with the speed of the trail -- with the long sight lines you could really rip! I actually scared up a couple of deer along the way, who led me down a few hundred yards of trail before leaping back into the forest and out of sight. Toward the end of Third Divide were a few more technical rock features, which can take you by surprise if you're coming in hot from the smooth section above. After crossing the bridge over Lavezzola Creek the trail climbed up a short steep pitch to country road 514, ending the short but sweet Third Divide Trail.


Lots of flow on Third Divide

Next, we headed down the 514 road to where it crossed over a bridge. On the other side we jumped onto the First Divide Trail, which would ride high above and parallel Lavezzola Creek. Aside from some exposure in a few spots, this section of First Divide was pretty uneventful and relatively flat. We soon rode past the place where I had a very close call while kayaking Lavezzola Creek some years back -- thanks to my buddies for helping to get me out of that situation (see my report here).  The trail then crossed over a road, and after traveling along a doubletrack for a short bit, the trail climbed up to the right and continued in similar fashion to the top part, only this time along Pauley Creek. All too soon, the singletrack transitioned into more doubletrack, and not long after that deposited us down and into the town of Downieville, marking the end of our ride. Back at the cars we loaded up our bikes and headed toward our next destination -- Lake Tahoe!


Arthur, near the start of First Divide

Standard affair on First Divide

Coonabomber, enjoyin' the secrecy on First Divide!

Conclusion:
This time around, the Downieville Downhill was in fantastic shape and certainly provided a much better ride experience than we had the year before when we got dumped on with a few inches of rain. This is a fantastic shuttle ride with many variations to choose from. We happened to do the most popular route, going down both Butcher Ranch and Third Divide, but I've heard good things about the other options, and really look forward to jumping on those as well (i.e. Big Boulder, Pauley Creek, and Second Divide). Most of the trail sections we did were more of an aggressive XC downhill affair as opposed to a true DH run, with Butcher Ranch certainly being the most challenging, from a technical standpoint. That said, a long travel bike is not a requirement for this ride but it will certainly smooth things out a bit. I probably wouldn't want to bring a novice rider on this trail, but for anyone that has a good base set of MTB skills this trail is a real gem and deserves its reputation as one of the classic descents in the US!

The tracks from our ride:

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