Bikepacking and Previewing the Sierra Valley’s Connected Communities Project

Photos: Tom Boss

When Chris Ruedy asked me what I was up to the third weekend in June, I knew something good was brewing. Chris had just released “Lost on Purpose,” a short film featuring the amazing dirt road biking in the Lost Sierra region of Northern California. The film highlights the Connected Communities initiative under development by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, which will link 15 former logging and mining towns together in a 600-mile network of multi-use trails. However, you can start exploring the area now on some of the best gravel roads this side of the Rockies. Chris, the Graeagle-based videographer, was arranging a multi-day bikepacking adventure featuring the picturesque roads and trails in the film, along with overnights at some special places. “I’m in!” I told him.

Our two-wheeled adventure would circumnavigate the Sierra Valley, the largest alpine valley in the Western United States and a major stop for migratory birds. It is surrounded by rugged Sierra mountain ranges, which support some of the most diverse and challenging mountain bike singletrack in the country. There are the awesome trails at the Lakes Basin, including Mount Elwell and Mills Peak, sweet flowy singletrack on Mount Hough above the mill town of Quincy, and the famous Downieville trails are just over the ridge.

Day 1 Mohawk Gap

I arrived in town the night before our adventure began and had a nice dinner with hosts Chris Ruedy and Sarah Starbird at their Graeagle, California lair. The next morning the corps of discovery coalesced shortly before our scheduled noon departure time. Dave Griffis and Joss Hanna drove up from Mill Valley, and Greg Raddue, drove over from the Palisades (formerly Squaw Valley) where he had just completed another multi-day bikepacking journey along the Henness Pass Road to celebrate his birthday. I was a bit surprised that everyone arrived with gravel bikes, as this was a mountain bike crew. I guess these bikes are pulling as many mountain bikers to drop bars as they are bringing roadies to the dirt. After some introductions, tire pressure check, and chain lube application, we were ready to roll. 

We headed out of Graeagle, got on to Mohawk-Chapman Road, and rolled by the terminus of the popular Mills Peak Trail, our journey was underway. We started ascending toward Mohawk Gap and stopped at a viewpoint with panoramic views of the Mohawk Valley and our compass rose of our journey, Beckwourth Peak. We got our bearings and saw locations we’d visit in the coming days. Following lunch we popped over Mohawk Gap and found our way onto Haskell Peak Road (aka Road 09).

There we found our support crew at a bluff next to the road. Bjorn and Hiedi greeted us with snacks and home brewed banana wheat beer. Our camping gear was laid out for us, we all cleaned up and got ready for dinner. Humongous servings of chicken schnitzel covered in hollandaise sauce were consumed as the sun began to set. Our outdoor dining room had views of the Sierra Buttes and Packers Saddle, which is the startpoint of the Downieville Downhill race. The wind grew strong and we bundled up as we started evaluating where to lay out our sleeping bags. A minivan rolled by, stopped and backed up into our camp. A half dozen kids and two counselors got out, grabbed their gear, and set up camp right where we planned to sleep.

The wind picked up considerably creating a windchill factor that had me regretting my choice of a lightweight down jacket. We scouted out an area just below the impromptu campers, made sure we were out of range of dead snags, and prepared for a long, windy night. Ominous clouds on the horizon added a bit of dread, but while the wind carried on through the night, we had no rain thank goodness.

Day 2 Haskell Peak to Loyalton

The next morning we quickly broke down camp and got on the trail. We had a 10:30am rendezvous at Yuba Pass with mechanic Wayne Smith aka “Big Tall Wayne.” He was preparing for his wedding, so he could only join the adventure for one day. He too arrived on a gravel bike, his first we would learn. Guess it’s contagious! Given Wayne’s upcoming wedding, the day’s ride doubled as his rolling bachelor party. With Wayne in tow (or doing the towing…) it was onto Webber Lake along some flowy scenic gravel roads.

We stopped at the lake to take in the views and grab some water. I leaned my bike against an old red cabin with the lake as a backdrop and right as I snapped a photo, the wind blew my bike over onto a concrete slab. I started to hyperventilate as I saw my derailleur jammed in the spokes of my rear wheel. I walked over to Wayne with my tail between my legs to see if there was anything he could do. At first he was optimistic, then upon inspection he noted that I had really done a number. He used a multi-tool to slowly bend it into alignment, noting that we were getting into the critical zone, where a snap of the hanger was a high probability. Wayne’s Midas touch did the trick and I was back in action.

Upon leaving Webber Lake, Greg encouraged us to take a parallel route along Henness Pass Road, which he had just ridden in the opposite direction. The road is a major dirt artery through the Tahoe National Forest. This segment meandered through beautiful meadows with views of Mt. Lola. I learned that an out-and-back up Mt. Lola is a local’s favorite mountain bike ride and added it to my list of future rides.

We stopped for lunch above the Little Truckee River, continued East on Henness Pass Road, crossed Highway 89, and made our way to Bear Valley Road (where we saw a bear). Beautiful flowing dirt roads culminated with a descent into Loyalton, with amazing views of the bluffs above town and Mount Ina Coolbrith in the distance.

We arrived at the Gilded Drifter Inn for our one evening sleeping indoors. The century-old mansion has been restored as an inn and turned into a fantastic living museum, with a shared kitchen, a library, and a summerhouse out back. We chose our rooms, cleaned up and headed to The Drifter’s Table, where chef/owner Jeanne Whited greeted us.

We started with beer, wine and roasted cabbage caesar salads. Steak, chicken, pork and lamb were the entree choices and all were delicious. Any visit to the Sierra Valley should include reservations at this little diamond in the rough, and they have a great wine selection for those accustomed to the finer things in life. Dave and Chris went straight to bed after dinner, and Wayne departed for Truckee. Greg, Joss, and myself headed down the street for a nightcap at the local watering hole. Upon walking into the Golden West Saloon, the woman behind the bar playfully inquired about our matching puffy jackets. We were in the right place for a round of bourbon shots before bed.

Day 3 Loyalton to Beckwourth by way of Lake Davis

I was excited for Day 3, as it included Lake Davis and the Red Clover Valley, segments on the Lost and Found race that happened just a few weeks earlier. Following a righteous breakfast prepared by Bjorn and Heidi we zigzagged our way across the Sierra Valley on smooth gravel roads flanked by cattle and migratory birds. Storm clouds hovered above and in every direction we saw visible signs of rain.

We stopped for water in the small town of Beckwourth and climbed north to a pass called Dotta Neck, eventually dropping into Dotta Canyon, occasionally getting peppered with a burst of hail or light rain. Dotta Canyon opened up into the Clover Valley. Here we got a glimpse of the destruction of the Dixie Fire, which came through this area the previous fall. We stopped for lunch at the Clover Ranch and had a serendipitous rendezvous with Chris’s wife, Sarah and Dave’s wife, Erin. They were riding a loop in the opposite direction. Following some picture taking, we were off to Lake Davis, via Bagley Pass, where we enjoyed a few miles of singletrack before descending to Diamond S Ranch. The ranch is home to the Lost Sierra Convergence festival organized by Ride SFO, among other events. Proprietor Ken Smith greeted us and literally rolled up the barn doors, with tri tip and barn slumber awaiting us.

Day 4 Beckwourth to Graeagle

I woke early for our final day of riding and brewed some cowboy coffee for the crew. Sarah and Erin arrived with breakfast and picked up our camping gear. We took Ken’s advice and followed a route that led out the back of his ranch to Ross Meadows, another singletrack riding area. From there we rode the tracks, crossed a train trestle, and rode asphalt to Portola. We followed A-15 out of town and took a right turn onto dirt. That led us to singletrack, which took us down a steep descent and back onto the rails.

We got lost in a moto trail network and made our way to a bluff across the canyon from Nakoma Resort. A short mixed-surface ride got us back to Graeagle for pleasantries, charcuterie board, beer, and bon voyage.

The Lost Sierra economy has been hit hard, first from the pandemic, and then followed by the Dixie Fire, which burned 963,309 acres last summer. Now more than ever, the communities of the Lost Sierra need and welcome our patronage.

To ride some or all of the route we took, check out these Strava tracks: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4.

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