The story of Downieville, off State 49 in the foothills above Nevada City, is the quintessential tale of the Gold Country. When Major William Downie and his crew discovered gold here in 1849 at the Forks ― where the Downie River joins the north branch of the Yuba ― thousands of hopeful fortune-seekers moved into the soon-to-be-renamed town.
In less than a year, the area's population topped 5,000, 15 hotels lined the streets, and miners were taking up to $1,500 daily in placer gold out of the earth. The town was the nexus of Gold Country activity; some even thought Downieville had a strong chance at becoming the state capital.
But overeager fluming caused severe flooding in the winter of 1851. And Downieville never had the hard-rock wealth of other mining regions. So in a matter of years, Downieville's riches essentially blew away.
Although its population has dropped to 325, Downieville's brick buildings and beautiful location remain. The place has even experienced a modern-day boom ― on a smaller-than-Gold Rush scale ― as mountain bikers have discovered the area's challenging trails off Lavezzola Road. Next month, thousands swarm the town for the annual Downieville Classic, a 30-mile cross-country bicycle race and a 14-mile downhill race.
It's the seam of Old California and New California: Bikers waiting for van shuttles line up on wood sidewalks, and a gem shop that rents panning equipment sits on the same street as a latte stand.
But you don't need to be a mountain biker to explore Downieville's charming blend of eras. In fact, better if you aren't ― you can avoid the most crowded trails.
Come for the hiking and fishing. Take a self-guided history tour, walking by Major Downie's cabin and the town's 19th-century gallows (used once). To the east along the North Yuba River above tiny Sierra City, you can tour the Kentucky Mine Museum's 10-stamp quartz mill, which operated into the 1950s.
Take the Lookout Trail up the Sierra Buttes to the 8,700-foot-high fire-watch station. From there you'll get incredible views of the granite peaks. The steady climb and particularly the final stairway to the fire lookout might give shaky legs to those with vertigo. But it's worth a few shakes for the top-of-the-world feeling.
You can take a meditative stroll to Pauley Creek Falls, near downtown Downieville, and out to the cemetery. Graves date back to the 1850s, when Old California's dreamers could never have imagined the 21st-century riches ― more scenic than mineral ― that Downieville would offer visitors today.