Trails in Northern California

Trails in Northern California

Leave No Trace!

Visit for more information about Desolation Wilderness. Visit or call 1- 877-444-6777 to make park reservations. Visit Campfire Permits to get a permit online. More about Leave No Trace principles.

May 27, 2010

South Yuba Trail, CA

 Our intentions for this hike were to find a trail where we could test ourselves and our equipment, and encounter as little poison oak as possible. We looked for a place not too far away from the Sacramento Valley, and preferably find a loop trail rather than an out and back hike. As we discovered on our Quarry/Western States Trail hike, we like an immediate reward, and something tangible as a destination; for that we are more motivated!
Distance: This trail is estimated to be up to 25 miles each way, and described as strenuous.   I wanted to make it to the Humbug Creek where there are supposed to be several waterfalls upstream. It seemed a reasonable distance, and there would be a primitive campground, so to speak, near there.
My hiking companion had said, "Surprise me!" so I previewed the drive and the beginning of the trail the week before we went.
Difficulty: Strenuous according to internet sources.
Directions: Drive through Nevada City, up Highway 20, turn left on Washington, then drive down the canyon.  Funny but obey the speed limit of 15 miles per hour through the town of Washington. It is barely a wide spot in the road with a few businesses and motel. Beyond town, there is a Y in the road, take the left fork, following the sign to the South Yuba Trail Head. It becomes a rutted, deeply potholed dirt road and again, there is a Y in the road.  Follow the steeper branch downward to the left. At the end is the parking and a bathroom (no plumbing!).

The trail began alongside the river and we, set out going south, full of energy, enthusiasm, and anticipation. We could see up the river canyon and look down on the water. The trail was sometimes only wide enough to plant one foot due to erosion. It climbed to 100-200 feet above the water, and the canyon walls then rose steeply on the right and fell as steeply on the left. I was disappointed that it was too steep to bushwhack downward for cooling rests by the river, and worse yet, if we needed a "potty" break, we were out of luck unless we were prepared to rappel down and climb up using the rope. It was too steep to go off trail safely for any reason.

The river was tantalizingly clear, blue and cool! Once we got to the trees, the noise of the rapids was humming along, but our views were obscured by the trees and brush. I couldn't post enough photos to give the true feel for the place, but there were wildflowers, little runoff mini-waterfalls, and mossy rocks. There was also a thick carpet of quite dry leaves, and with their depth, footing was as bad as a slip 'n slide at at times!

The day was warm and sunny as we passed several small groups of people heading back to the trail head. The trail wound inland some, and the trees and foliage grew thicker, shading the trail, and we were plagued by a fog of little black flying insects. If we breathed with our mouths opened, they could fly in, and one did, in fact, find a nostril to fly into! Gross.

To our disappointment, the trail seemed to continue farther inland away from the river. The rush of the rapids faded as we followed the switchbacks up and down the canyon.

The pleasant surprises were the cool run off creeks and waterfalls with thick foliage that weren't mentioned in the trail descriptions I had read. The temperature felt like it dropped significantly in these areas, not to mention how much we enjoyed the rest stops and photo opportunities!

We caught glimpses of the river, usually through the trees, but every so often we were treated to a long, wide open canyon view.

Most of the way, our breaks were taken at switchbacks. We had to believe we were putting on miles in terms of elevation changes as the trail led up and down, and up and down, and we swore more up than down the canyon walls. We understood where the trail got its designation as "strenuous".

A most definite and joyful discovery was that many creeks crossed the path, and had sturdy bridges for easy crossing at heights we could use to rest our backpacks on.

This was a blooming section of trail, fairly overgrown, but lush and without stickers, nor was poison oak evident.

There weren't many, but wild irises bloomed out of the rock and debris!

After climbing and descending too many switchbacks to have counted, we made our way back to the trail which again ran parallel to the river, but still with steep canyon walls on either side of the trail. We got to a primitive campsite at around 9 miles in. It was getting later in the day, and we decided it was too risky to try to reach Humbug Creek. It seemed necessary to stop, get some food, set up camp, and rest our weary feet, not to mention make time for a soulful, peaceful evening watching the sun go down behind the ridge. We backtracked a mile or so to a sand bank we had seen, and found a place we thought could be access down to the water. Hahha. We ended up sliding on our seats, unintentionally, but made it safely down.  On this tiny beach too close to the water, we set up camp.
My partner woke up during the still of night and found the sand covered with bugs!  No climbing out of the safety of our tent for a midnight stroll!  Eww.

This was our upstream view, and created some nice background sounds!

Below is in the direction of the hillside. Rocky and had dense, bushy poison oak.

As we retraced our steps back toward the car, we didn't encounter another person! The trail was all our own, and more pleasant than the day before. The sounds were all of birds celebrating a Sunday, the constant roaring of the rapids, and of backpackers' footfalls and sometimes heavy breathing!!!

Along the way, these giant ferns overtook the trail fed by a tiny runoff stream; a river of them flowed downward, following the stream. Nowhere else along the trail were there any signs of these giants.

Suddenly, we re-emerged into the sun where things dried up and heated up considerably! We came back to the places where the trail has eroded and was only wide enough for one foot to be planted. Some narrow loose, rocky areas could be hazards also. Watching our steps was a must, because if we fell, it was a long way down, and we were bound to get hurt!
Overall, it was a hike I would do again, more enjoyable than expected, and I would continue on for the Humbug Falls area at least. The poison oak was a deterrent for some, and my hiking partner did get a few patches of it, we guessed from the slide!

I hope you enjoyed our photos and please enjoy your hike!

Peachy Hiker's Table of Contents

Happy Trails!