Forest City, CA: A Ghost Town Renaissance


While trying to sell me on the idea of buying a house in Forest City, 62 miles north of Auburn on Highway 49, my friend Ruedy paused and commented to his friends, “She’s got short hair so it’s not a problem.”  Responding to the quizzical look on my face, he explained that the particular house he was peddling was a bit, well… how you say… haunted, and that women with long hair who spent the night there routinely awoke with braided tresses.

Population 40 (high season), elevation 4,500ft, the town of Forest (the “City” was officially dropped in 1895) consists of a saloon, dance hall, butchery, bakery, market, and brothel.  However, none of these fine businesses are actually open—a fire in 1883 hastened the demise of this mining town whose gold and gravel claims were already dwindling.

But Forest is having a renaissance. A loose affiliation of mountain bikers from the Bay Area, many from Marin, have slowly set down stakes, and are building a new kind of community out of what could only be described as a ghost town a few decades ago. The entire town is a historic district. The underlying property these houses sit on is owned by the US Forest Service and leased to each home’s owner. Steadfast rules regarding historic preservation are in place and are not to be tested. Having your hair braided while you sleep might pale in comparison to the wrath of the historical society.

Reaching the Top by C Ruedy
Reaching the top. Photo by Chris Ruedy.

The US Forest Service is working cooperatively with this incoming community to build a new network of trails in and around Forest that are specifically designed for mountain bikes. These trails work with the natural topography, incorporating the abandoned logging and mining trails wherever possible. Switchbacks are designed with wheels in mind, and most of the ascents are gentle, the descents fast and flowy.  A spectrum of views are on offer from sweeping Sierra vistas to forests that encircle and hold you tight. Among the fern fronds and soft slanted light, one might catch sight of a bear or mountain lion.

While my mid-summer visit had us splashing through small creek crossings, these babbling brooks carried real water in spring and winter. Zachie Anderson from the Forest Trails Alliance has spearheaded much of the trail work here, and he and a plucky band of volunteers and the aforementioned new residents together planned and executed a truly elegant bridge that serves as an anchor, a keystone, binding this part of the system together. Their vision included a stone-faced structure blending with the landscape, and they scouted the area for a source, a motherlode of stones. And they found it. Up there, amid dense brush and steep gullies, the hills holding tight to her stash. Undaunted, the crew bundled the rocks in heavy plastic and set to waiting. Upon winter’s arrival and the requisite accumulation of snow, the crew went back and set up a system of ropes and pulleys and sledded them down the hillside to the desired location. Brilliant.

Stone Bridge by C Ruedy
The bridge, now in its eighth year, stands as a testament to pluck, ingenuity, and grace, and is part of an approximately 35-mile system of trails. Several smaller bridges, also of the stone arch variety, span smaller creeks and draws throughout the system. Photo by Chris Ruedy.

The latest effort by the good folks of Forest is a trail called The Mexican Mine. 20 miles in length, this trail will connect Forest to nearby Downieville, a long–time mecca of mountain biking in the Central Sierras. Unlike the other trails in the system that were largely constructed atop old logging roads or trails, only three or four miles of the Mexican Mine take advantage of these vestigial pathways, the balance breaking new ground past creeks, waterfalls, springs and historic mining cabins.  For various reasons including attrition, overloading of staff who remain, and the general underfunding of our Forest Service (okay, and NEPA—the National Environmental Policy Act—the feds, and the grinding gears of bureaucracy) authorization for this trail is taking a more typical pace, winding its way through the process. Where the first group of trails navigated the process like a 5% downhill with the occasional whoop for good measure, this one is more akin to a sustained climb with some hike-a-bike sections.

Trail Work at Forest by C Ruedy
Teamwork! Photo by Chris Ruedy.

The house I was invited to for the weekend had been the firehouse back in the day, so when my host wished to let others in town—those staying up the hill or down the street at the (haunted) brothel—that a communal dinner was ready, coffee was on, or ten minutes ‘til ride departure, she headed upstairs and cranked the shaft attached to the siren on the top of the house. No soul living or departed could claim they weren’t notified.

Modern day biker chick.

As a general rule, not much happens in Forest for entertainment that you didn’t bring with you.  However, my first visit was graced with a most unusual and delightful happening. As we strolled Main Street on Saturday morning, we stopped to chat with a lovely young woman wandering up the street looking as intrigued and charmed with Forest as we were. She was performing in the burlesque show in the dance hall that night. Would we be attending? The Rumson Fest was in town, honoring Ben Rumson, a notoriously inebriated miner of foothill fame. Every year they moved to a different location where multiple generations gathered to celebrate this rummy fellow. They worked on a barter system, whiskey being the main currency. Their outfits were impeccable— handlebar mustaches, can can dancers, etc.

One of these things is not like the other (historic beer selection in the Dance Hall).

After a long day of riding Truckee Ditch, Ridge Runner, Sandusky, and Highline trails, we did indeed attend the burlesque show. We swang through the saloon doors into the curiously crowded Dance Hall. The music scratching out from a cracked old boom box enchanted the very oxygen in the room. A single hanging bulb, casting a sepia tone, lit the divine creature working her ethereal feathered wings on the stage.

You probably won’t see this when you visit Forest, and for that I am deeply sorry. What you will find is a system of trails that welcome the adventurous soul, and perhaps a restored faith in our land management agencies—the U.S. Forest Service in this case. Forest Trails Alliance and Co. have more fine plans after the completion of the Mexican Mine Trail, but for now they hope to get building in 2017 with a good crew of volunteers. To this end, the Alliance recently purchased a house in town. It happens to be the one containing the hair-dressing ghost. So, while I look forward to lending a hand toward trail construction next year, I think I’ll stay at the firehouse.

Decommissioned by C Ruedy
Decommissioned. Photo by Chris Ruedy.

If You Go: From Auburn, take CA 49 north for 46.3 miles into Yuba County. Turn right on Ridge Road (do not blink!). Go 13.3 miles then left on Mountain House Road. Follow Mountain House Road approximately two miles into the town of Forest.

Lodging: None. Better friend a local.

Dining: Bring your own. There are no services of any kind in Forest (except nocturnal hair braiding for women).

Things to do: Hiking, Mountain Biking, Photography, Exploring.

What to bring: Everything.