A new park hugs the South Yuba River

By Janet Fullwood
Bee Travel Editor
Published April 26, 1998

Lupine brightens a hiking trail along the riverbank in South Yuba River State Park.

Janet Fullwood photograph

PENN VALLEY -- The hillside above the South Yuba River at the place called Buttermilk Bend is brilliant with poppies and lupine. Wild iris and fat succulents with red, cactus-like blooms push up from cracks in the rocks. Below, the turquoise-colored river foams busily over boulders, then quiets itself in the pools that form between sandy banks.

The scene begs to be captured on film, and on a recent spring day -- albeit a rainy one -- the handful of hikers on the 11/2-mile Buttermilk Bend trail all had cameras in hand.

South Yuba River State Park doesn't lack for scenery -- or for historic connections to the Gold Rush. This stretch of river was the site of some of the richest placer deposits mined in the 1850s. The area is crisscrossed with remnants of flumes and ditches used to divert the stream, and observant hikers can also pick out many features of the Virginia Turnpike, which once formed a portion of the heavily traveled route between Marysville and Virginia City, Nev., back when fortunes were being pulled from the Comstock Lode.

covered bridge
A single-span, wooden arch bridge spans the South Yuba River in Nevada County.

Janet Fullwood photograph

If you've never heard of this state park in Nevada County, it's only because it's new, having been created just last November from what formerly was known as the South Yuba River Project.

A patchwork of public lands hugging the better part of a 20-mile corridor of the South Yuba River north of Grass Valley, the park offers access at four river crossings. It includes 16 hiking trails ranging from one-tenth of a mile to 14 miles long. One of them, the 2.1-mile Independence Trail, is wheelchair-accessible its entire length.

"This park is actually one of the best-kept secrets in the system," says supervising ranger Larry Clark. "It's so neat, so tucked away and yet so close . . . "

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: To reach park headquarters from Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to Auburn and go north on Highway 49 to Grass Valley. Exit Highway 20 (Empire Road) and drive 9 miles to Pleasant Valley Road. Turn right and proceed 7.5 miles to park headquarters and the covered bridge. Park access is free; hiking and history information is available at the visitor center.

Scheduled activities include wildflower walks at 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May; bird walks at 9 a.m. on the last Sunday of every month; bridge and local history tours Sundays at noon June-September; gold panning demonstrations at 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays June-September; and history tours at 1 p.m. Sundays October-November.

Picnic facilities are available at several sites in the park. Camping is not permitted. Additional access to the Yuba and various park trails is at Jones Bar on Highway 49, Purdon Crossing on Purdon Road, and Edwards Crossing on North Bloomfield Road.

For more information, call (530)432-2546.

As much as scenery figures into the picture, the centerpiece of the park is a structure: the Bridgeport Covered Bridge; at 251 feet, it's the longest single-span covered bridge known to exist.

Its story, said Clark, dates to the 1850s with the building of a Yuba River crossing for the aforementioned Virginia Turnpike (now a dirt road that can still be driven to Virginia City.)

"At the time they put the first bridge, this was was quickest route from San Francisco to the Comstock Lode. Barges laden with goods would come up the Sacramento River to Marysville. In high water, small boats could make it up the Yuba to within a mile of this bridge," said Clark.

Cargo would be switched from boats to wagons for the 14-mile turnpike trip, for which tolls ranging from 25 cents for a pedestrian to $3.50 for a loaded wagon were charged.

The first two bridges to span the river at what was known as Wood's Crossing were washed out. The present one was built in 1862 -- and was almost lost during the floods of January 1997.

"Water came up to the very bottom of the bridge, which was battered by debris," said Clark, flipping through an album of flood photos in the visitor center. Some $550,000 in federal emergency aid was required to make repairs.

The structure now is in tip-top condition, its sugar-pine shake roofing and sides still gleaming and fragrant. The bridge features a Warren truss with an auxiliary Burr arch visible from both outside and inside.

"Most bridges would have been built one way or the other, but this was built with both. Plus, it has iron reinforcements. It's probably stronger now than it's been in 100 years," notes Clark.

Covered bridges, the ranger explains, were built primarily to protect their wooden floors from dampness. "Another theory was that animals would go in easier because it looked like a barn," Clark said, "but the teamsters weren't in agreement about that."

Sometime within the next couple of years, the park hopes to renovate about a half-mile of the old turnpike leading up to the bridge, obtain a freight wagon and horses and offer rides for visitors. In the meantime, guided wildflower walks and a variety of docent-led activities are available to spring and summertime explorers. A new visitor center will open soon in a historic residence next to the bridge, replacing temporary quarters in a trailer. A historic barn once used in connection with the turnpike may also be renovated.

Summer is the busiest season along this stretch of the Yuba, and for good reason: "There's great swimming holes all up and down the river," Clark points out. "And last year's floods laid down quite a few sandy beaches."

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