Tent Camping the Sierra Nevada
|Sierra Nevada sunrise|
The High Sierra is one of America's pristine wilderness destinations, which is rather amazing given its proximity to California's endless suburban sprawl. The area is beloved for its rugged hiking, but with all the easy-to-access campgrounds maintained in the region, you don't need to climb a mountain to enjoy peerless Sierra vistas. Here GORP profiles Chute Hill and Highland Lakes, two choice tent-pitching spots that let you bring your doorstep to the heart of alpine country without breaking your back or the bank.
Chute Hill Campground is set on the hill above Malakoff Diggins and North Bloomfieldthe Diggins is an awesome hydraulic mining operation, and North Bloomfield is the town that served it. The campground is excellent. All the sites are set in under huge old ponderosa pines along a meandering access road. Those sites down below are on the rim overlooking the Diggins and the town. There are some flush toilets (which gets an A+ from my schoolteacher wife), some vaults, and peculiar fire pits made out of steel drums that were difficult to lightuse lots of tinder to get a draft going. Although Chute Hill Campground is on a kind of bench, all of the campsites seemed to run a few degrees downhill, which is just fine for tents, but I saw folks with small campers struggling to get their sleeping vehicle level enough for a good snooze.
Just down the road, or down the Slaughterhouse Trail or North Bloomfield Trail (both accessible from the campground), is North Bloomfield, which has a drugstore, one saloon, McKilligan and Mobley General Merchandise Store, post office, blacksmith shop, fire station, and so forth. You get a very peaceful, clean feeling from North Bloomfield, but this was not always the case. In its day, North Bloomfield was humming. There were seven saloons and two breweries. The infamous E. Clampus Vitus Drinking Society (wild but decent folks) had a meeting hall here.
In their heyday, under their flag depicting a hoop skirt with their motto,"This is the flag we fight under," singing "We'll Take a Drink with Thee, Dear Brother," the Clampus fraternity raised some hell. And North Bloomfield wasn't so prissy, either: "The streets are half a leg deep in filth and mud, rendering getting about awful beyond description. The city is one great cesspool of mud, offal, garbage, dead animals and that worst of nuisances consequent upon the entire absence of outhouses."
Now, get to the Diggins. There's a monstrous beauty herea century laterthe washed-away mountain like a miniature Grand Canyon, with rust-tipped white formations resembling minarets and towers all touched with green pine. Before, this was environmental hell. Miners brought water in from the High Country in flumes and ran it through a huge leather hose connected to nozzles known as monitors that washed down entire mountains, to be run through sluice boxes for the gold. It was ungodly. Everything downstream was destroyedfish gone, Native Americans annihilated. Even the cattle wouldn't drink the runoff. What an eerie monument to man's greed and ingenuity.
Not until 1884 did a farmer named Woodruff sue the North Bloomfield Gravel and Mining Company and win. The days of "hydraulicking" whole mountains were over. Mining companies had to respect their neighbors' property. Too bad, because they say there is $10 billion of gold left in the Blue Leadthe ancient river the miners were washing out.
The last time I was at Malakoff Diggins State Historical Park, Blair Lake was under some kind of repair, so I couldn't take a look at it. But the lake re-opened in June of 1997, and I remember it as a pretty little fishing and swimming hole. It had a wooden raft out in the center you could swim tothe shore is shaded by ponderosas and cedars.
Hike the Rim Trail that circles the Diggins. Then hike the Diggins Loop Trail. Come prepared for Hiller Tunnel. Bring flashlights, a hat, and shoes that won't slip on wet rock. Hiller Tunnel was part of all the ditches, tunnels, flumes, and reservoirs that supplied water to the Digginsjust one drainage tunnel was 7,800 feet long. Imagine the amount of disciplined labor it took to run Malakoff Diggins. In fact, hydraulic mining was the deathknell of the classic forty-niner who wandered all over the Sierra with a pick, pan, rifle, and mule. From then on, miners became wage slaves, building projects like Hiller Tunnel, which is fun for us to explore when the weather is dry but a beating when it rains.
Remember to buy all your provisions in Grass Valley on the way in. Nevada City has some markets, but they are hard to park by. Most of the supermarkets are in Grass Valley. There is a nice corner store on Tyler Foot Crossing Road where Oak Tree Road and Purdon Road cross. This store is a natural food store, so don't expect to find Polish sausage or any other meats for that matter. They do have wonderful local produce, however, as well as beer and ice.
The other road in, the North Bloomfield Road, is a little rough by the park. After a rain it gets hairy. And by the South Yuba River, the road negotiates the world's steepest hill. It's best to go into Malakoff Diggins State Historical Park via Tyler Foot Crossing Road and come out via the North Bloomfield Road, on the general philosophy that going down on a bad road is better than going up.
To get there from Nevada City, head north 10.4 miles on Highway 49. Turn right on Tyler Foote Crossing Road and drive 12.2 miles. Turn right on Cruzon Grade Road and follow the signs. Chute Hill Campground will be on your right before you reach North Bloomfield and Park Headquarters.
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