The Downieville–Donner Pass Loop — Riding the Old Sierra

One of my favorite motorcycle rides in the Sierras is a loop from South Lake Tahoe to Downieville to Donner Lake. The 260-mile loop not only includes scenic beauty but some of California’s most historic areas. You’ll pass the east and west shores of Lake Tahoe, the beautiful Sierra Valley, the old mining Town of Downieville, Nevada City, Old Highway 40, and Donner Lake. Read on for a description of this route, photos, and video clips of sights along the way.

The best way to start your exploration of the Downieville-Donner Pass Loop is from South Shore. Take Highway 50 east until you get to Nevada State Highway 28. Turn north toward Incline Village, Nevada. On the way you might want to stop at Sand Harbor State Park for some quick photos. Sand Harbor is classic Tahoe with its blue waters, white sand, and grey rocks. It’s also the home of the Shakespeare Festival during the summer months. Continue on Highway 28, following the North Shore to cross into California.

Turn right on Highway 261 to climb out of the Lake Tahoe Basin to the Historic Town of Truckee, named after a Paiute Chief. Truckee means “everything is all right,” and though it didn’t turn out that way for the Native Americans, the traders did all right. The town was a convenient route given its location next to the Truckee River, and as far back as 1860 became a railroad stop for trains chugging over the Sierras.

Along the way you will pass Northstar California, one of Lake Tahoe’s favorite ski resorts. Then you’ll ride through the lovely Martis Creek Recreation Area with its sweeping views in each direction.

Once you arrive in Truckee, look for Highway 89 and turn north toward Sierraville. This highway winds through the Sierras from South Lake Tahoe all the way north until it connects with Highway 70 near the town of Graeagle.

Classic two lane road found through out the Sierra's.
Classic two lane road found through out the Sierra’s.

Once on Highway 89 you will cross over from Nevada County to Sierra County and to ride along a two-lane road heading toward Sierraville, where you’ll wind through the Tahoe National Forest as your bike cruises on this smooth ribbon of road.

Sierraville is located at the Southern end of the Sierra Valley and it has many historic ranches that are still active. Many of the original Italian American decedents are still ranching the land today. If you’re really interested, stop in LosDos Hermanos restaurant and check out the different local cattle brands inside the dining room.

Sierraville offers a sweeping pastureland and is the location of Sierra Hot Springs. Take your clothes off and jump in! Heck, you might want to book a night at the lodge or camp a few days to take the waters among nature lovers, new-agers, health seekers, and all the colorful characters you can imagine. The old lodge has a front sitting porch, a community kitchen, and some great acoustic music happens in the parlor, too. They offer meals on weekends, otherwise, shop in town less than a mile away and make your own.

When you’re done soaking, head west on Highway 49. Yes it’s the same Highway 49 that most associate with the California Gold Country, but few know it starts over in Vinton on the eastern side of the Sierra Valley and runs all the way down to Oakhurst near the southern entrance to Yosemite. (This is a great ride for another time.)

Once you head east on Highway 49 you will make your way past little communities that dot the Sierra like Sattley, Bassets, and Sierra City. These small communities formed years ago when logging was a much bigger part of the local economy and have remained a part of the rural Sierras ever since.

Watching the Downie River flow by on a warm afternoon.
Watching the Downie River flow by on a warm afternoon.

Just outside Sierra City, still heading east you will pick up the North Yuba River, which is a tributary of the Feather River. It’s a delightful stretch that takes you along the river until you cross over it on a small bridge that brings you right into Downieville.

Downieville is one of the many Sierra towns that owes its start to the California Gold Rush, and like the Gold Rush, which started in 1849, the town too was founded in 1849. It was originally known as the “Forks” because it sits at the confluence of the North Yuba River and the Downie River. Today, Downieville is probably best known for its mountain biking. In fact, some call it the Moab of the west, as it offers mountain bikers a variety of terrain and trails to enjoy. The town annually hosts the Downieville Classic Mountain Bike Race.

If you’re hungry for lunch you might try the Grubstake Saloon or the Two Rivers Café. If you’re looking for Mexican food try the La Concina de Oro, a little taqueria overlooking the two rivers.

If you have some extra time check out the Downieville Museum located in a building originally built by Chinese immigrants in the mid 1800’s. As you will find out as you spend more time in the Gold Rush towns of California, many of them were built with Chinese labor. Today, the museum contains artifacts that depict life from the Gold Rush era to the present. For more information on the role of Chinese labor in building California there are several websites that provide more detailed information.

Downtown-Downieville-300x225Back on the road, continue on Highway 49 about 40 miles to Nevada City. Nevada City is also one of those famous Gold Rush town in California. It’s much bigger with more visitor amenities than Downieville, including a lively downtown area with lots of restaurants and shops. The area is also a budding wine destination with a number of wineries and tasting rooms nearby. Leaving Nevada City you will ride beautiful Highway 20 which takes you through another one of those incredible two lane winding roads you will find throughout the Sierras.

Reminder: As with any road through the Sierras, watch carefully for deer, especially at dusk.

You will be taking Highway 20 back east where you will hook up with Interstate 80 (sorry about that) which you will take about 15 miles. Don’t worry, the interstate is not very crowded except for the Friday afternoon crowd heading up to Lake Tahoe from the Bay Area.

Just as you get to Norden you will want to turn off onto old Highway 40. This one’s a classic. You will ride at a slower pace as this old highway takes you back to the past passing through some of the Sierra’s oldest ski resorts, including Donner Ski Ranch and Sugar Bowl, gas stations, and motels built long ago.

As you cross Donner Summit you might be reminded of the wagon trains that brought thousands of emigrants to California. There are parts of the Highway 40 that was once part of the Lincoln Highway and then the Victory Highway. If you look hard enough you can still see a number of roads that run along the first Transcontinental Railway (also built with Chinese labor).

Rockwork put in place by Chinese labor to build the railroad.
Rockwork put in place by Chinese labor to build the railroad.

From old Highway 40 at the top of Donner Pass,Donner Lake comes into view. The lake is located between interstate 80 to the north and what’s called the Schallenberger Ridge to the south. While you’re in the neighborhood, check out the Donner Memorial State Park where you will find the Emigrant Trail Museum and the Pioneer Monument. Here you’ll learn about the infamous Donner Party who attepted to cross the Sierras and was caught in a huge winter storm, reducing the survivors to cannibalism. It’s all true.

From Donner Lake you can then follow the road back to the east side of Truckee and back down Highway 89 to Tahoe City. (Yes it’s that same Highway 89.) From Tahoe City continue South on your way to South Lake Tahoe. To cap off an incredible day of riding you might want to catch a sunset photo op at Emerald Bay, one of the most photographed areas in the world. Just outside of South Shore at Camp Richardson, pull into the Beacon Bar and Grill (located right on the lake) and enjoy a cold one. You will have earned it.

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