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Downieville, Calif.: Sierra Autumn

A former mining town in the Sierra revels in its golden years—past and present.

Man panning for gold, Downieville, Calif., image
Photo caption
Downieville still lures miners in search of gold.

When 90-year-old Al Pratti tells you that on many Fridays during his childhood in Downieville, Calif., he was nearly run down on Main Street, you wonder if he's pulling your leg. After all, on the tree-lined stretch of Highway 49 that runs through this remote Mother Lode village of 325 souls, it seems—especially on a fall day when the leaves are bursting with color—that a car rarely passes by.

But Pratti isn't talking about dodging automobiles. "On Fridays," he recalls, "horses and asses streamed out of the hills and down the street with the miners coming into town for the weekend. There were five saloons here then, and some of those men turned ornery when they got liquored up. I saw plenty of fights."

It doesn't take a visitor long to realize that folks in Downieville love stories. That's one reason why, amid the town's 19th-century clapboard and brick buildings, narrow lanes, and creaky wooden sidewalks, the past feels a lot closer than it does almost anywhere else in California. Eating apple pie at the Grubstake restaurant, you catch some talk of a gold nugget found in a pot used to cook a river trout. Or you might be nursing a cold one under the watchful gaze of a stuffed bear head at the St. Charles Place saloon when you overhear two locals debating whether Juanita deserved to get lynched. It may take you a while to figure out that in both cases the events in question took place more than 150 years ago, not last week.

DOWN UNDER

Guided tours of the Sixteen to One Mine in nearby Alleghany take the curious a half mile underground for a rare look at a working mine laced with veins of gold and quartz. This isn't for the claustrophobic. (530) 287-3330,www.undergroundgold.com.

For those who would visit, the bad news is that Downieville isn't on the way to anywhere. But that's the good news, too. Hidden away in the conifer-thick mountains of the Tahoe National Forest, a two-hour drive northeast of Sacramento, the town sits where the Downie River tumbles into the north fork of the Yuba. The sound of rushing water is everywhere, relaxing you after a day of hiking, biking, fishing, finding your favorite blaze of autumn color, or in-town pursuits like winetasting and curling up with a book on a riverside balcony.

Downieville serves as the seat of Sierra County, which has zero fast-food outlets, a single blinking red traffic light, and a countywide population of 3,500. After gold was discovered in 1848–49, some 16,000 hopeful prospectors showed up. These days, many people come for the gold—and orange and red—of fall foliage. Others have a different kind of fever: the mountain-biking bug. From May until the snows arrive, usually in early November, Downieville draws flocks of fat-tire cyclists. The longtime veterans come to conquer the legendary Downieville Downhill, the course for a high-profile race in July. Dropping 4,700 vertical feet over 17 miles, it's a thrilling ride but one strictly for experienced cyclists and adrenaline junkies.

STRIKE IT RICH!

Load up on gold pans, rock picks, vials, and a few tips at Sierra Hardware, 305 Main St., (530) 289-3582.

For a less-demanding ride or hike, there are plenty of options closer to town. Wandering alongside the Downie River, you may spot ospreys or bald eagles. A half-mile walk takes you from the center of town to the 30-foot-high Pauley Creek Falls. On your way back, make a detour to the hillside cemetery where pioneer tombstones date to the 1850s. If it's a warm day, take a dip in the Yuba at nearby Willoughby's swimming hole.

In town at the Downieville Museum, you can ponder curiosities like snowshoes for horses and a "charm string" of 999 buttons collected by an unmarried woman in the 19th century (the 1,000th button would come from the man she would marry). Armed with the museum's walking-tour brochure, check out the stone building that houses the Mountain Messenger—a newspaper Mark Twain wrote for. Stop into 49 Wines to taste the bold zins and syrahs from the Sierra foothills. Next to the county courthouse, in a grove of trees, you'll come across a restored 1885 gallows. It hasn't been used since the year it was built, and then only once. And, well, that's another story.

Photography by Sean Arbabi

This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.