Mountain biking the Downieville Downhill is definitely an experience! This iconic route takes riders on a 15+ mile journey down some of California’s most beautiful and challenging terrain. From flowy singletrack to rough and rugged steeps to challenging rock gardens, this route covers it all.
Before you head off to ride it, though, there are a few things you should know about biking the Downieville Downhill (spoiler: expect some climbing!). In this post, I share some tips and advive to help make your experience as enjoyable as possible.
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Learn everything you need to know about riding the classic Downieville Downhill descent including shuttle options, trail alternatives, what to expect, and more
What is the Downieville Downhill?
If you’re not familiar with the Downieville Downhill, also called the Downieville Classic (which also happens to be the name of the annual bike race that takes place in town every year), it’s a 15-mile shuttled ride that starts above the California town of Downieville at 7,000 ft and descends almost 5,000 ft back down to town.
Along this 15-mile plunge, the route covers a wide variety of terrain including open and rocky alpine landscapes, dense forest with loamy dirt, rough and raw DH, narrow sidehill that plunges down to a rushing river, and lots of other great features and surprises.
It’s definitely a must-ride for any mountain biker who enjoys all types of riding!
What to know before you go
Trails are multi-use
All of the trails in Downieville and surrounding areas are multi-use meaning that you may encounter hikers, equestrians, and motorbikes. I’ve never encountered any of these on the Downieville Downhill, which is definitely primarily used by mountain bikers, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see other trail users!
Check your speed and stay in control.
E-bikes are allowed
One of the main missions of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship – the organization that builds and maintains the trails around Downieville – is to make these trails accessible to everyone. That means e-bikers too, which I think is amazing!
The Downieville Downhill is only one variation
There are lots of mountain bike trails around Downieville in addition to the classic descent. For more ride ideas and routes, head over to my post on 3-Day Downieville Mountain Biking Itinerary and Mountain Biking the Mt. Hough Trail & Other Riding Around Quincy, CA.
This is not a beginner trail
The Downieville Downhill is not suited for beginner riders. It’s best tackled by strong intermediates and more advanced mountain bikers. If you want a beginner-friendly trail consider heading to Mount Hough in Quincy.
Bring your bathing suit!
There is nothing better than jumping into the Downie River after a full and sweaty day on the trails. There is a great access point and swimming hole in the Yuba Expeditions parking lot.
Downieville Downhill Trail Guide
- Distance: 15.6 miles
- Start: Top of Packer Saddle
- End: Downieville, CA
- Elevation gain: 816 ft
- Elevation loss: 4,915 ft
Leaving the parking area at the top of Packer Saddle (see shuttle options below), the first trail you’ll hit is Sunrise Trail. This is a pretty flowy section of trail with machine-built berms (albeit often skidded out) and some tabletops and whoops for extra fun.
There is an alternative trail that you’ll see to the left – called Pack Saddle Loop – which connects back into Sunrise Trail. Both are fun options and pretty similar to each other.
The left line may be slightly less popular than the classic Sunrise Trail, which also means that it may be in better shape.
Butcher Ranch throws a lot at you. It’s the most technically difficult part of the Downieville Downhill with lots of rugged rock gardens that will leave your teeth rattling and wrists sore.
Upper Butcher Ranch is the mellow part and starts with some switchbacks through the forest and open scrubland. It’s very scenic and beautiful, so take your time and enjoy it!
Lower Butcher Ranch steps things up a notch or two with sections of tricky rock gardens including The Waterfall (below), one of the most challenging features on the whole trail.
Toward the end of Butcher Ranch, the rock gardens transition into loamy dirt and fun switchbacks through beautiful forest. From the bottom of the switchbacks, there’s a bit of technical climbing and narrow sidehill with exposure. But after that, it’s smooth sailing with a little climb up to Third Divide.
Third Divide is where things get fast and flowy. SO fast! But be careful, because the dappled light through the forest can make it really hard to see features and rocks on the trail. I have definitely had a few ‘oh shit’ moments on Third Divide from rocks and roots I didn’t see.
For most people, though, this is the highlight of the Downieville Downhill. It’s a ton of fun! Third Divide does end with a steep and loose descent down to the river where you’ll cross a bridge. Keep your speed in check because it’s really easy to get out of control here.
After exiting Third Divide, you’ll cruise down a dirt road for a little less than a mile and then hang a right onto First Divide. If you find yourself pedaling up a big hill on the road, you’ve gone too far.
First Divide is a mix between Butcher Ranch, Third Divide, and some cross-country pedaling. There are definitely a few rocky features that are tricky, but there’s also plenty of flow and speed. Much of the trail parallels the rushing Lavezzola Creek to the right and in some places, there is pretty massive exposure so keep your eyes on the trail!
First Divide wraps up the Downieville Downhill with a few short (albeit steep) climbs and then you’re back in town for another lap!
How Long Does It Take To Ride The Downieville Downhill?
One of the biggest questions about riding the Downieville Downhill is how long does it take? The answer varies a ton depending on various factors like skill level, trail conditions, trail traffic, whether you stop to session features or take photos, etc…
That being said, a realistic ride time for a moderately fast and fit rider is easily under two hours. However, some riders make one run a full-day affair!
If you plan on doing two or more shuttles in a day, be sure to book them far enough apart so that you have plenty of time to make it down safely. Also, remember that it takes an hour to shuttle to the top.
So if you are planning on doing multiple runs, I recommend booking shuttles at least four hours apart at a minimum (one hour shuttle time plus three hours for getting ready, riding down, grabbing something to eat, and buffer time).
Downieville Shuttle Options
Unless you’re from Colorado and wear lycra (nothing wrong with that!), most people shuttle the Downieville Downhill. It takes about an hour to shuttle from town up to the top of Packer Saddle and you have a few options:
2022 Update: Yuba Expeditions is not running shuttles in Downieville.
- Shuttle yourself: If you have two cars, it’s easy to shuttle yourself to the top of Packer Saddle (directions here). The road up to Packer Saddle is quite steep and narrow, but it is paved all the way to the top. Keep in mind, though, if you shuttle yourself you’ll need to drive the second car back up after your ride and you’ll only be able to ride the Downieville Downhill once in a day (unless you have more than two cars…).
- Downieville Outfitters: Downieville Outfitters is currently the only shuttle operator in town. They are also a full-service bike shop and they have bike rentals and demos. Book online or give them a call.
Best time of year to ride the Downieville Downhill
The Downieville Downhill is only open in the late spring, summer, and fall. The trails are snow-covered in the winter months. I personally like visiting Downieville in the spring and fall when the temps are cooler and the crowds fewer, but summer riding in the Lost Sierra is certainly a blast.
The Downieville Classic Race takes place in late July or August, so unless you are planning on participating in this hugely popular event, it’s best not to plan a trip during that weekend.
What to bring on your ride
Here are a few items specific to mountain biking the Downieville Downhill.
MTB Gear Essentials
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Downieville Downhill is a cruise in the park. It’s a tough 15 miles and there is some climbing. Take snacks (Bobo’s Bars are my favorites) and plenty of water.
A Full-Face Helmet
Consider wearing a full-face helmet. There are some techy sections and there are some high-speed stretches. I always feel more comfortable when wearing my full-face on this descent.
Have you ridden the Downieville Downhill? What was your experience like? Would you recommend it to friends? Leave a comment below!