Mountain bikes and hiking boots have replaced picks and pans in this California Gold Country town

Lisa Taggart

The story of Downieville, off State 49 in the foothillsabove Nevada City, is the quintessential tale of the Gold Country.When Major William Downie and his crew discovered gold here in 1849at the Forks ― where the Downie River joins the north branchof the Yuba ― thousands of hopeful fortune-seekers moved intothe soon-to-be-renamed town.

In less than a year, the area's population topped 5,000, 15hotels lined the streets, and miners were taking up to $1,500 dailyin placer gold out of the earth. The town was the nexus of GoldCountry activity; some even thought Downieville had a strong chanceat becoming the state capital.

But overeager fluming caused severe flooding in the winter of1851. And Downieville never had the hard-rock wealth of othermining regions. So in a matter of years, Downieville's richesessentially blew away.

Although its population has dropped to 325, Downieville's brickbuildings and beautiful location remain. The place has evenexperienced a modern-day boom ― on a smaller-than-Gold Rushscale ― as mountain bikers have discovered the area'schallenging trails off Lavezzola Road. Next month, thousands swarmthe town for the annual Downieville Classic, a 30-milecross-country bicycle race and a 14-mile downhill race.

It's the seam of Old California and New California: Bikerswaiting for van shuttles line up on wood sidewalks, and a gem shopthat rents panning equipment sits on the same street as a lattestand.

But you don't need to be a mountain biker to exploreDownieville'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 historytour, walking by Major Downie's cabin and the town's 19th-centurygallows (used once). To the east along the North Yuba River abovetiny Sierra City, you can tour the Kentucky Mine Museum's 10-stampquartz mill, which operated into the 1950s.

Take the Lookout Trail up the Sierra Buttes to the8,700-foot-high fire-watch station. From there you'll getincredible views of the granite peaks. The steady climb andparticularly the final stairway to the fire lookout might giveshaky legs to those with vertigo. But it's worth a few shakes forthe top-of-the-world feeling.

You can take a meditative stroll to Pauley Creek Falls, neardowntown Downieville, and out to the cemetery. Graves date back tothe 1850s, when Old California's dreamers could never have imaginedthe 21st-century riches ― more scenic than mineral ―that Downieville would offer visitors today.

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