Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains
Tahoe National Forest
North Gold Country @ Historic Highway 49
Historic ‘gold rush’ mining camps and towns line this popular recreation river in the Northern Sierra. Numerous State Parks, museums, and campgrounds can be found along this route, in which Tahoe National Forest land encompasses the whole region.
North fork of the Yuba River lines Historic Highway 49, on the way to Downieville and Sierra City, CA. Plenty of camping in these parts. Lakes Basin Recreation Area is located up behind the impressive granite spires called Sierra Buttes and this area is the headwaters for this portion of the river.
Middle fork of the Yuba River cuts through the residential mountain community on Moonshine Road, and ends up in Lake Bullards Bar; The rest of the middle fork flows through remote forest lands and is only crossed by one dirt road #191 in Tahoe NF.
South fork of the Yuba River flows from the far heights of Donner Pass and I-80; near Lake Spaulding. Passing Washington Ridge; northeast of Nevada City; and North Bloomfield @ Malakoff Diggins continuing down to Bridgeport @ South YUBA – where the longest wooden, covered bridge is located. Numerous old, one-lane bridges cross this southern fork of the river, and the region can take years to explore. Lots of residential and private properties.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a campground way back here, the CHEAPEST CAMP around; Look for signs, along the dusty North Bloomfield Rd (graded dirt road) about a mile UP hill from rickety Edwards Crossing (pictured below).
South Yuba State Park, located along the Golden Chain Hwy 49, is a short drive up Hwy 4 from Nevada City and a very popular spot for sightseeing, day hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and riverside picnics. The parking lot at the large curved bridge fills up fast, daily. Pedestrians and hikers are always seen here, so slow down driving along this portion of the highway.
The big river forks all join west of Grass Valley, heading down the mountains, paralleling Hwy 20 to Marysville, CA
The historic river town of Sierra City is defined by the North Yuba River that cuts through the granite, forested canyon. Granite towers above and snow is around more than half the year.
The river is free-running up here; Sierra City is only about 10 miles below the headwaters of the Yuba, at Lakes Basin Gold Lake California. In spring, runoff is pure Class 5 whitewater. Wild Plum Campground is walking distance to town.
Free primitive camping on dirt roads, can be found way up near the Bassetts intersection. Opposite from Gold Lake Hwy – turn RIGHT (south) on to logging roads: Forest Rd #54 (long ridge route, all dirt) and club into the forest. Drive a several miles up to any large dirt pulls out. Passenger car accessible road; No low riders. Carry a good forest map. Many primitive camp spots have wide openings with views of the Sierra Buttes and crystal clear night skies. Wind can get bad on this mountain ridge, so pick your camp spot with that in mind.
Epic view camp – or expensive river camp? (you choose). Campfire permit are required for camping outside of developed campgrounds. Bring your own water and shovel!
(Not to be confused w/ Panamint Springs, CA which is NW, along the main Highway 190 on the west side of DVNP
Panamint Valley, Death Valley NP
Inyo County, NE of Ridgecrest
East of Hwy 395, south of Hwy 190
Hard to reach ghost town / abandoned mining camp on the mountainous edge of Death Valley National Park. Access via dirt road and steep trail, off the paved Trona Wildrose Road. Panamint Valley, west of Death Valley
best time to visit:November – April
Triple digit heat is common in the warmer months, so spring, autumn and winter time is best for this region, but beware of winter storms.
Snow is common on the peaks, and at higher elevations (like this place) during winter (DEC-APRIL). If you see trees on the terrain – joshua trees or pinyon pines, that indicates that snow falls here often enough. Snow is possible around Death Valley, down to 3000′ elev. during coldest of winter storms.
Surprise Canyon Wilderness BLM– Desert mountains, steep rocky terrain w/ peaks and very few trees. Surprise Canyon can become a waterfall, during heavy desert rains. The canyon is the only access up to reach this hidden town
NO MORE 4×4 Hike or backpack up Surprise Canyon No 4WD access!
Gotta hike it, on foot now.
This desert destination used to be a very popular off-road trail, where Jeeps would wench and crawl up the narrow, rocky passage; but all that changed with a wilderness designation (1994) and no longer are machines allowed in this specific canyon area. No vehicles (engines) and no mountain bikes. No wheeled anything.
Off-roading and free-wheelin is still allowed and abundant in neighboring canyons of Nadeau Road & Panamint Valley – Pleasant Canyon, South Park Canyon, Jailhouse Canyon, Goler Wash, Isham Canyon
Ballarat ghost town has a camper bathroom w/ showers and a fee to go along with that. Panamint Springs has a small motel and a big restaurant, plus a large campground (across the highway) which can accommodate tents, camper trailers and RVs.
Death Valley National Park boundary means developed campgrounds are a few miles away up Wildrose Canyon.
Boon-docking, dispersed, FREE, open camping is allowed almost anywhere in Panamint Valley and the neighboring desert canyons. Campfire permits are required and are available at BLM office in Ridgecrest. There is no firewood collecting around these parts, so bring your own.
Nadeau Road has abundant flat spots for RVs; Well stocked 4x4s can find secluded camping further up the canyons, but must be a self-sufficient camper and bring water, plenty of ice, extra gasoline, food and firewood.
Locating a ‘real bed’ near this remote desert region will require some driving. The closest option in Panamaint Springs, which only has a few rooms. The next closest, would be Stovepipe Wells inside the National Park.
Central Sierra Nevada Mountains
Sonora Pass CA 108 / Ebbetts Pass CA 4
Stanislaus National Forest
The Sierra Nevada mountain route that usually closes first and opens last, due to snow and rock slides . Sonora Pass snow is epic, but often unaccessible most of the year. Snow melt can be slow and this route may not open by until mid-summer. (Quite typical on this highway). Check Cal Trans Hwy Reports. Summer and early Autumn is the time to visit this region, so plan accordingly.
This Big Sierra River is so far reaching that it covers areas from two different Wilderness Areas and two Sierra highway systems: Sonora Pass 108 & Ebbetts Pass Hwy 4.
The North Fork of Stanislaus River starts up at Highland Creek (below Highland Lakes) and parallels the Ebbetts Pass pavement westward down the mountain. Numerous lakes and parks along this steep northern fork, all lined with impressive granite rock. Spicer Reservoir, Elephant Rock, Summit Lake, Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Stanislaus National Forest.
Middle Fork of Stanislaus River, overview
Clark Fork flowing from the Dardanelles in Carson Peak Wilderness, become the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. Numerous Campgrounds, RV camps, horse camps along Clark Fork Road. California Highway 108 may still have a real old fashioned pay phone at this intersection. Go look.
Kennedy Creek comes in from the south side of the highway and creates Kennedy Meadows, a horse packing ranch; Not to be confused with the Kern Kennedy Meadows, way down south.
Eagle Creek and Kennedy, plus the Clark Fork are the main headwaters to Stanislaus River making up the Middle fork of this river. Traveling southwest thru the forest, with numerous Reservoirs and plenty of campgrounds.
Middle Fork comes together near the Fence Creek Campground @ Hwy 108. Flowing downhill to join Donnell Lake, then 10 miles of ‘really rugged wild river’ down to Beardsley Lake, then to Sand Bar Flat Campground further below, and on towards the county line @ Calaveras.
South Fork Stanislaus, the shortest of the forks, flows down from Pinecrest Lake, Dodge Ridge Ski Resort and the Emigrant Wilderness Area. Then hits Lyons Reservoir (4228′ elev) near the community of Long Barn, CA Italian Bar brings it right down to Historical Gold Camp, Columbia.
Eventually the massive Stanislaus River ends up in the San Joaquin (Central) Valley, like most of the Western Sierra rivers do, growing the food crops for all. California is a huge agriculture state.
Backpacking Big Wilderness
With Wilderness making up the majority of the landscape around these river canyons , there is ample opportunity for day hiking, creek fishing and backpacking adventures. May as well plan for a full week off of work, if you wanna explore in some depth. Many trailheads have small parking lots located on dirt roads, which are usually passenger car accessible.
PCT = The Pacific Crest hiking trail cuts right across the tallest Sierra Nevada mountain pass – Sonora Pass 108 @ 9625′ elev.
Black Bears are common in this region and several areas have bear boxes for proper food storage. If not available, you’ll need a bear canister or learn to properly hang your food in a tree.
Winter closures due to deep snow is common more than half the year up here. Check Cal Trans for highway conditions and w/ local rangers to find out what back roads are open, and which ones are too muddy. 4WD may be needed to reach certain destinations, if snow & mud are still present. Winter SNOW CAN LAST UP HERE: on the peaks all summer long; And snow can start falling as early as October, so know the forecast before you set out on a major backcountry trip.
Wilderness permits are required for overnight stays in the backcountry. Stop by a ranger station to get the latest details before your big trek into the woods. USFS web sites are not always so up-to-date. A phone call or personal visit may be needed to get accurate info.
The Wilderness boundaries on each side of the pavement (CA 108) along with giant granite walls, steep cliffs, boulders, wild raging rivers and dense forests make dirt road accessibility somewhat limited along the Sonora Pass Highway. Ebbetts (CA 4) has more dirt road accessibility, especially beyond Beardsley Lake.
County Line Road #6N06 will take you past a developed NFS Camp called Fence Creek Campground. The dirt road climbs into the forest meadows, with 2 trailheads to be found within a few miles. Horse Corral at Wheats Meadow. Numerous primitive campsites for backpackers, car campers, horse campers. Lush meadows, hidden forests, boulder outcroppings, dead end roads.
Back behind Pinecrest Lake & Dodge Ridge Ski are several dirt road loops w/ primitive camping at Bell Meadow Crabtree
Campfire permits are Required for camping outside of developed NFS campgrounds. Obtain a free campfire permit before you build a fire. Have a bucket and shovel at camp, always; attend the fire at all times.
Levitt Lake @ 9556′ elev, on the eastern slope of Sonora Pass has rocky road to wonderful scenery. Mid summer snow melt, so bring the good jacket – even in summer. High elevation camping, hiking, kayaking; rock scrambling at tree line. This alpine lake best reached with high clearance vehicle.
Union, Utica, and Spicer Reservoirs have a few dirt roads to explore off Spicer Rd #7N01, with abundant trails for hiking and mountain biking. Tons of firewood, free for the cutting. Bring your saw!
Kayaking and canoeing are popular at both Union and Utica. Dirt road access. No motors on lake. FREE LAKE CAMP: Shoreline camping is possible, but summer crowds – can get downright insane. Nothing like a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. Big families camping out all week long w/ all their toys, tents, multiple vehicles. Try to visit in the off-season for the best experience at these 2 lovely lakes. Spicer has developed campgrounds w/ fees, but has real boat ramps and can also accommodate RV campers.
OHV Trails Stanislaus
4×4 camps and dirt bike trails can be found at Niagra Creek, on the south side of Highway 108, before Clarks Fork.
Union Reservoir has a popular 4WD trail that connects up to Lake Alpine @ Ebbetts Pass.
BACK ROADS TIP
Regular dirt roads can become “4WD needed” with any decent amount of snow or heavy rains, especially on the steeper sections. Remember: No guard rails on the dirt roads. If you plan to camp ‘way back in there, in the boonies’ – make sure you know the weather forecast and have a vehicle that can get out; no matter how sloppy the road gets. Thunderstorms are possible. Snow is 75% of the year.