At nearly 6,500 feet elevation, the top of Fir Cap offers sweeping views of the Sierra Buttes.

At nearly 6,500 feet in elevation, the top of Fir Cap offers sweeping views of the Sierra Buttes (click to enlarge).​

Last weekend, I overheard a rider proclaim, "Yeah, Downieville is cool, but after a while Pauley Creek, Butcher Ranch, Third Divide and First Divide get old." My interest was piqued, so I walked over and asked the guy what else he's ridden in the area. He looked at me quizzically and then said, "That's it. I mean, what else is there?"

One of the biggest misconceptions in Downieville is that the trail networks used in the cross-country and downhill events of the Downieville Classic are the only good trails in the entire region. Truth is, the trails used in the Classic barely scratch the surface of all the mind-blowing terrain that surrounds this isolated mountain town, population 300'ish.

During the Gold Rush of the 1850s, Downieville had upwards of 5,000 people and the entire region was crisscrossed with wagon routes, prospecting trails, and dozens of hardscrabble runs up countless streams and tributaries. Although nature has reclaimed many of them, there are still dozens of trails that rarely get ridden and stay perfectly buff months after Butcher, Pauley, Third and First get dusty and blown out. It'd take all summer to ride every trail the area has to offer.

If you've been to Downieville and have never ridden Big Boulder, shame on you. Accessed by climbing up a rocky fire road right after crossing Pauley Creek, Big Boulder is a seemingly endless, rip-roaring singletrack descent that starts at 7,000 feet with spectacular views of the Sierra Buttes and the Downieville basin more than 4,000 feet below.

One of my favorite ways to ride Big Boulder is to get dropped off at Packer Saddle, descend Butcher Ranch, climb upper Pauley Creek and up again to Big Boulder, descend Big Boulder, then jump over to Second Divide and finish with First Divide. This is a hardy 3-plus-hour ride that few experience.

The Sierra Buttes shines in the sunset from Deer Lake Trail.

The Sierra Buttes shines in the sunset from Deer Lake Trail (click to enlarge).​

It also amazes me how many people drive up to Packer Saddle yet never go up to the Sierra Buttes Lookout. Towering above the world at 8,500 feet, the fire lookout building sits on a giant rock spire that literally drops off a thousand-foot cliff. The lookout can be accessed by climbing a four-mile fire road to the top, then returning to the saddle on a fun, steep and rocky singletrack descent. If you want more downhill, continue on Tamarack Lakes Trail all the way to Sardine Lake, 2,500 feet straight below the Buttes.

For an even bigger adventure off Packer Saddle, ride Deer Lake OHV to Oakland Pond or the rowdy Snake Lake OHV descent, then over to the historic Spencer Lake Trail, a barely cut-in singletrack that is overgrown in spots and too rocky and steep in spots to ride down, but utterly beautiful and primitive. Assuming you survive Spencer Lake, the reward is nearly 10 miles of absolutely ripping singletrack down Lavezzola Creek Trail which delivers you back to town.

Spencer Lake Trail is hard to follow, overgrown in spots and very rocky, but the breathtaking terrain is worth the tribulation.

Spencer Lake Trail is hard to follow, overgrown in spots and very rocky, but the breathtaking terrain is worth the tribulation (click to enlarge).​

Want to go bigger? Last weekend my buddy Cameron Faulkner went on a six-hour mind bender off Packer Saddle, conquering the absolutely rowdy and rewarding Mt. Elwell, over to the stair-step riddled lower Jamison Creek Trail, up the fire road from Jamison Campground to the "A Tree", then a screaming 4,300-foot descent back to town on Lavezzola Creek Trail.

An otherworldly landscape awaits those who accept the challenge of riding Chimney Rock.

An otherworldly landscape awaits those who accept the challenge of riding Chimney Rock (click to enlarge).​

For those who want to forego the shuttle all together and truly earn their downhills, there's plenty of pain and pleasure to be had right from Downieville. Climbing nearly 4,000 feet in 12 miles on Saddleback Mountain Road, Chimney Rock Trail is an otherworldly experience, snaking along the crest of a moonlike landscape with mixed boulders, decomposed granite and wind-scarred trees. The views of the Sierra Buttes and the dozens of deep canyons surrounding Downieville from Chimney Rock are spectacular, and give you a real appreciation of just how unforgiving the area's terrain is.

Continue to page 2 for more from Downieville and a photo gallery »

From Chimney Rock there are several options down, all of them quite treacherous, especially Rattlesnake Creek and Herkimer Mine. These two trails start out absolutely mental, featuring some of the steepest, loosest and most dangerous off-camber doubletrack I've ever seen. Ironically, walking your bike down these trails can be more hazardous than riding. After about a mile, matters mellow out a bit, with both trails emptying into Downie River Trail, a technical singletrack that gets buffer and faster the more you descend. The beautiful rock formations and countless swimming holes along the Downie River will tempt you to stop several times.

North Yuba

If you're willing to explore a little you'll end up at places like this (click to enlarge).

Craycroft Ridge and Empire Creek are two other ways off the top of Chimney Rock on incredibly fast and buff singletrack that make you wonder why more people don't ride these trails. There's a good reason - whether by 4x4 or mountain bike, they're a ***** to get to. But not everything in life worthwhile is easy. And by the time you get back to Downieville five to six hours later, you have a genuine appreciation for just how hard and resilient those old prospectors were.

For a mellower ride right from town - but definitely not mellow - a new six-mile segment of North Yuba Trail is purpose-built multi-use singletrack constructed in 2011 by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship that starts behind the county courthouse and heads west towards Goodyears Bar. Once to Goodyears, you can either turn around for a solid 12-mile singletrack ride or go bigger and continue west for another seven miles on the historic portion of North Yuba to Rocky Rest Campground. From Rocky Rest, you can either hit Highway 49 back to town for 10 miles, or go even bigger still by hitting Halls Ranch and Fiddle Creek Trails.

Looking for some of the rockiest, most technical riding you'll ever do in your life? Then head up to the Lakes Basin off Gold Lake Highway and try your hand at trails like Long Lake, Round Lake, Mud Lake, Silver Lake, Grassy Lake and Bear Lake. Out here we measure the riding in dog miles - for every mile ridden it feels like seven. Although the terrain is extremely challenging, the vistas and resulting downhills are worth the frequent hike-a-bikes. Bonus points if you can ride this stuff on a hardtail.

The riding in Lakes Basin is hard on the body, but the landscapes are easy on the eyes.

The riding in Lakes Basin is hard on the body, but the landscapes are easy on the eyes (click to enlarge).​

Going big in Lakes Basin is easy, with multiple 3,000-plus-foot descent options from the basin to the town of Graeagle on trails like Smith Creek, Gray Eagle Creek, Jamison Creek and the incredibly popular Mills Peak Trail - another purpose-built singletrack by the SBTS that took five years to construct. Unlike most trails in the region, thanks to its reasonable gradient, the entire nine miles of Mills Peak Trail can be ridden uphill for a sweeping view of the valley below before the rip-roaring 45-minute downhill payoff.

Mills Peak is an absolute must-ride when in the Downieville region.

Mills Peak is an absolute must-ride when in the Downieville region (click to enlarge).​

After three months of riding nearly every weekend in and around Downieville, I've only hit maybe half of what's out there. Maybe. Admittedly, some of these trails are Level Two Fun (not fun when you're doing it, but fun in hindsight), and only need to be ridden once a year, but some are definite repeats - especially Lavezzola Creek, Downie River and Empire Creek.

If you've ever ridden Second Divide, then you know this cabin well.

If you've ever ridden Second Divide, then you know this cabin well (click to enlarge).​

Whatever big route you choose, make sure you're prepared. Last weekend, I almost got caught out in the dark with no food, no water and no light. After climbing to the top of Fir Cap and descending Red Ant Trail, I was looking for the historic Heliport singletrack. I got lost a few times and was quickly running out of daylight. There are a lot of dead-end routes above Downieville, and had I made a wrong turn, I would have been in complete darkness, descending into a deep canyon with as much natural light as a cave and no way out. Thankfully I found Heliport, a fun, short singletrack prospecting route that dumped me out on Sailor Ravine just as the streetlights were coming on.

That crepuscular finish was a reminder that the mountains enveloping Downieville are never to be taken lightly. People die out here. Respect the terrain and you'll be rewarded with some of the most unforgettable adventures of your life. Oh, and don't dare go on one of these rides without a good map. When you're in town, stop by Yuba Expeditions. We sell the best map with every trail in the area, and its waterproof.

Editor's Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributing editor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You can submit questions or comments to Kurt at [email protected]. And make sure to check out Kurt's previous columns.