September is a funny time. It always seems to signal the end of summer and all it's glorious good times, and yet the sun continues to shine so there's the impetuous feeling that you could get one last warm weekend in before autumn truly starts, one last dive off a hot granite rock into a cool blue river, one last sleep under a cloudless sky. So sometimes you push it and make one final dash just to make sure that it's really the end. Or catch that last summer day if it's not.
This particular weekend, we left the city in a deluge of rain and climbed up Highway 49 past Nevada City hoping the Lakes Basin might carry some sunshine. But as the road stretched on, the fog got denser and the rain wouldn't abate. With a coin-flip chance of spending the night in a soggy tent, we turned back around near Sierra City and took our chances on one of the cabins at Malakoff Diggins State Park. Rolled up just after dark and snagged the only empty cabin, then awoke the next morning to glorious sunshine.
A table, a sink, two bunks and a woodstove, pretty much all you need.
Harvested apples and experimented with eggs in the Toast-Tite, making for a damn fine breakfast. Thus fortified with snacks, we left North Bloomfield (née Humbug) and set out to explore the diggins.
A short history lesson: In the early 1850s miners weren't finding as much gold in the mountain streams and decided to go straight to the source (ie. the hills). Since carrying large loads of earth to existing water sources in order to sift through them wasn't optimal, they devised a way to bring the water to the possible ore-source instead: dam up the rivers, build miles of wooden canals (called flumes) to carry the water down to the diggins, and channel all the power of it's journey through canvas hoses and cannon-like nozzles called "monitors" to blast away the hillsides. By the 1860s nearby towns were buried under dozens of feet of mud, and thousands of acres of farmland had been destroyed by tailings carried down through the Sacramento Delta. Malakoff Diggins remained California's largest hydraulic mine, with 7 giant monitors firing water around the clock and it's estimated that by 1883 San Francisco Bay was filling with silt at a rate of one foot per year. Whoah. Pretty heavy to think about. The extensive damage wasn't going unnoticed, however, and in January of 1884 the case of Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company ruled hydraulic mining illegal. As far as I can tell, it still is.
The Hiller Tunnel was used as drainage for mining debris, but even at a length of 557 ft it proved not quite big enough and a much larger tunnel was burrowed underneath it. Currently it's utilized as an excellent way to creep out your lady friend and/or ditch her in total darkness.
With daylight still pouring down, we headed to Mineral Bar campground in the Auburn State Recreation Area. I'd been wanting to go ever since I developed a theory that our hike from Iowa Hill down to the river back in June had landed us not far from the campground. While I think the campground is a little further downstream than I'd calculated, I was more surprised to recognize that we'd actually been there 5 or 6 years before. Here's to being fortuitously forgetful.
The campground sits quite literally on the banks of the North Fork of the American River, with sites so close you can practically roll out of your tent and splash your face as a wake up call (or at least avoid talking to anyone in between). You can't reserve them so it's usually packed during the summer (which is probably why it had been so many years since we'd returned) but it would be well worth taking a mid-week trip just to snag one.
Woke once again to sunshine and a blast of clear, sunny heat. It being a Monday we had the place to ourselves, with a sandy bar to lay on and icy water to cool down in and I couldn't have asked for a better way to end a summer. Wish granted.
Last ups? Both Mineral Bar campground and the cabins at Malakoff Diggins can be reached by hopping on I-80 east for a few hours so you've no excuse not to go. Unless you've been a million times already, in which case you can save it for the rest of us, totally fine. Either way, Mineral Bar is near the town of Colfax, while Malakoff requires veering north on Hwy 49 and following directions to the "town" of North Bloomfield within Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. Reservations can be made for the cabins but they're currently only open May-September, a bit of a shame as the area is really beautiful later in the fall (who can forget the Pioneer Thanksgiving?) so my hope is that someday the State Parks system will be given boundless resources to maintain the things we love. I'm holding my breath til then. If you do make the trip during the warm season, the magical Yuba's right close by, but do yourself a favor and head to Mineral Bar at some point---even if it's just for a day swim, it's a spot well worth checking out.