header for National Recreation Trails
Section 508 Navigation
Skip Navigation
HomeAbout usTrailsWhat's hotCalendarTrainingResources & libraryPartnersJoin usStore

Featured National Recreation Trail

Hosted by AmericanTrails.org

Pioneer Trail, Nevada City area, California

Following the immigrant trails in California's gold country.

Photos by USDA Forest Service

northern California map

The Pioneer Trail is a twenty-five mile long non-motorized trail that parallels the route of State Highway 20 from the western edge of the Tahoe National Forest to near the center of the Forest. At the eastern terminus the trail links to the Spaulding Lake Trail providing access to the Grouse Lakes Area and a 41-mile non-motorized trail system.

photo of river far below
The swimming hole on the Pioneer Trail.


Volunteers constructed all but two miles of the 25-mile long Pioneer Trail. Work began in 1982 when the Gold Country Trails Council was formed to undertake this project and obtained an encroachment permit to construct a non-motorized trail within the State Highway right-of-way. In 1984 the Tahoe National Forest approved a proposal to extend the trail on National Forest System lands with the goal of eventually connecting the Pioneer Trail with the Pacific Crest Trail.

By 1988, eleven miles of trail were completed by volunteers and negotiations with Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) were initiated to obtain a right-of-way across PG&E lands in Bear Valley. The trail was extended another six miles by 1990, however at that time progress halted as negotiations for the right-of-way came to a stand still. In 1997 negotiations resumed and a capital investment project proposal was submitted for funding in fiscal year 2000. Right-of-way negotiations delayed completion of the trail until 2002. The final two miles of trail through very difficult terrain were completed in the August 2002.

bicyclists on trail
Mountain bicycling is a popular trail activity.

Trail Description

The Pioneer Trail follows one of several emigrant trails that were used to travel to California following the discovery of gold. From Bear Valley several routes were used including one that traveled down Washington Ridge to Nevada City. The Pioneer Trail utilizes segments of the emigrant's wagon road as well as using several historic ditches and other old roadbeds. Historic uses of the land are evident throughout the length of the trail including features constructed for mining, logging railroads, wagon roads, ditches for mining, agriculture, and hydroelectric uses and telephone lines.

Although the forests were all heavily cut over in the 1800's, large trees, many 40-inches in diameter and more, are common along the route. The trail closely follows the route of Highway 20 from the Five Mile House, 5-miles east of Nevada City, to Bear Valley where the trail follows the old Tahoe-Ukiah Highway route to Bowman Lake Road. From this point the trail leaves the highway, dropping into the South Yuba Canyon and then climbing up to the Spaulding Lake Trail, the eastern terminus of the trail.

Several trailheads serve the trail along the 25 miles including one on private land at the market across from Five Mile House, at Lone Grave on State land, and on National Forest lands at White Cloud Picnic Area, the Washington Overlook Trailhead, Skillman Campground, the Upper Burlington Trailhead, the Chalk Bluff Trailhead, and Lang Crossing.

Most of the trail is heavily forested, however there are a number of openings in the forest along the way providing views of the surroundings. This changes dramatically in Bear Valley, where the trail crosses open meadowlands, then descends into the steep, rocky canyon of the South Yuba River. Views from meadow openings, rocky bluffs, and ridges provide outstanding views of the landscape. Hydroelectric facilities are evident along the last six miles of the trail where the trail parallels and crosses canals, flumes, penstocks, and power lines that are an important part of the PG&E hydropower system.

Public support for the trail has been outstanding with as many as 104 volunteers turning out to construct a 1-1/2 mile segment of the trail in one day on June 16, 2001. Other trail workdays attract dozens of mountain biking, equestrian, and hiking enthusiasts to accomplish trail maintenance as well as construction.

Management Direction

The Pioneer Trail is included in the Tahoe National Forest developed trail system. The trail is managed by the Forest Service to provide a non-motorized trail experience for equestrians, mountain bike riders, and pedestrians. The management prescription is to manage the trail as a Trail Class 3, that is, an improved trail with obvious and continuous tread, unhindered one-lane travel and infrequent obstacles. Volunteer trail maintenance is an important component of the management of the Pioneer Trail.

The Gold Country Trails Council (GCTC) currently has an "adopt-a-trail" agreement that outlines their responsibility to maintain the trail. GCTC enlists the assistance of local mountain bike clubs, Boy Scouts, and other trail users to accomplish annual maintenance work. Signs are provided by the Forest Service and maintained by the volunteers. In areas where there are motorized trails in the vicinity of, or crossing the Pioneer Trail, the Nevada County Woods Riders, a local dirt bike club, maintains signing of the motorized routes and assists GCTC in signing the Pioneer Trail to insure that motorcycles do not stray on to the trail. The primary management tool is to insure that user cooperation and user maintenance of the Pioneer Trail and connector trails continues. Self policing of use and taking responsibility for the care and maintenance of the trail system by the users is an integral component of the management of this trail.

Assessment of Impacts as a Result of Designation

The Pioneer Trail is already a very popular trail with local residents and has even gained regional attention by equestrian and mountain bike users. Several organized events occur annually using segments of the trail and these events serve to acquaint new users to the opportunities offered by the trail. Designation as a National Recreation Trail will result in more regional recognition and use. However, the level of use could increase significantly without having an adverse effect on the experience of the user or the condition of the trail.

Future Use

The Pioneer Trail is a component of the Tahoe National Forest developed trail system and it will remain open to non-motorized public use for the foreseeable future. No change in the management or use of the trail is anticipated. There is an opportunity to increase user awareness of the historic land uses on and along the route and their significance in the early development of California.

The National Recreation Trails Program
American Trails, P.O. Box 491797, Redding, CA 96049-1797 (530) 547-2060 Fax: (530) 547-2035 nrt@americantrails.org www.AmericanTrails.org

More resources:


Contact us!

NTTP logo

page end graphic

American Trails home | Contact us | Mission | Board of directors | Members | Site map | Copyright | NRT | NTTP