Finding hiking gold in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada in what was once the largest and richest hydraulic gold mine in the world.
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park is located 26-miles northeast of Nevada City, in California’s Mother Lode country.
The approximately 3,200 acre park was created in 1965 by concerned citizens to preserve the exciting and controversial story of our country’s largest hydraulic gold mining operation that devastated the area from the mid-1800s.
In 1850 there was little gold left in streams. Miners began to discover gold in old riverbeds and on mountainsides high above the streams. In 1851 three miners headed northeast of what is now Nevada City for a less crowded area to prospect. One miner went back to town with a pocket full of gold nuggets for supplies and was followed back by many prospectors. These followers, however, did not find any gold and declared the area “Humbug”, thus the stream was so named “Humbug Creek.” Around 1852, settlers began to arrive in the area and the town of “Humbug” sprang up. These miners could not decide how to move the dirt to a place where there was water. By 1853 miners invented a new method of mining called hydraulic mining. Dams were built high in the mountains. The water traveled from the reservoirs through a wooden canal called a flume that was up to 45 miles long. The water ran swiftly to the canvas hoses and nozzles called monitors waiting in the old riverbeds. The miners would aim the monitors at the hillsides to wash the gravel into huge sluices. Over time the monitors became bigger and more powerful. Their force was so great they could toss a fifty-pound rock like a cannonball or even kill a person. Over 300 Chinese worked on the project and two Chinese settlements existed in North Bloomfield. – Source
By 1857 the town had grown to 500 residents. Locals felt the name “Humbug” was too undignified and renamed the town “Bloomfield”, but California already had a town by this name so they renamed the town “North Bloomfield.” In the late 1860s the towns of Marysville and Yuba City were buried under 25 feet of mud and rock, and Sacramento flooded repeatedly. The farmers in the valleys complained about the tailings that flooded their land and ruined their crops. Thousands of acres of rich farmland and property were destroyed as a result of hydraulic mining. By 1876 the mine was in full operation with 7 giant water cannons working around the clock. The town had grown to a population of around 2000 with various business and daily stage service. In 1880 electric lights were installed in the mine and the world’s first long-distance telephone line was developed to service the mine, passing through North Bloomfield as it made its way from French Corral to Bowman Lake. By 1883 San Francisco Bay was estimated to be filling with silt at a rate of one foot per year. Debris, silt, and millions of gallons of water used daily by the mine caused extensive flooding, prompting Sacramento valley farmers to file the lawsuit Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company. On January 7, 1884 Judge Lorenzo Sawyer declared hydraulic mining illegal. –Source
Before you begin to explore the park, make sure to check in, pay for your parking and pick up a park trail map at the museum building in North Bloomfield.
I visited Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park this past November just as the devastating Camp Fire was starting to burn down the entire town of Paradise, CA. Even though the fires were more than 90 miles away from the park, the winds blew the heavy smoke up against the Sierra foothills creating the worst air quality in the world during my visit. My first hike in the park was along the Humbug trail which was only 1.5 miles away from the museum where I purchased my admission ticket to the park. The trail connects with the South Yuba National Trail after 2.7 miles, where you can either continue your hike along the Yuba River or turn around and head back to where you began for a 5.4 mile RT hike. I chose the latter.
In 1872, the miners dug a 7,847-foot drainage tunnel through the bedrock from the Diggins pit to Humbug Creek. Eight vent shafts were sunk at 1,000-foot intervals along the tunnel angled towards the creek, which drained into the South Yuba River. Two crews would enter each shaft and dig in opposite directions along the tunnel line. This method of tunneling shaved a year from usual tunnel methods and enabled miners to drain spent tailings into the river. Fifteen crews dug simultaneously. On November 15, 1874, the tunnel was completed at a cost of $275,574.
The trail passes by some of the eight abandoned shafts that were sunk into the ground during the construction of the 7,847-foot long drainage tunnel. The orange water that now fills the shafts is the result of high iron content in the bedrock.
Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine, black oak, incense cedar and broadleaf maple offer up plenty of shade along the hike.
The colors of fall were everywhere.
There are plenty of opportunities to get closer to Humbug Creek during the hike but watch out for poison out and ticks if you decide to venture off trail.
The trail descends 1,000 feet during its 2.7-mile jaunt from the trailhead to the confluence with the South Yuba river.
The last mile is a bit steep, so watch your step and take it slow.
You’ll eventually get a chance to view beautiful Humbug Creek falls which has a nice pool at the bottom of it. There’s plenty of other swimming holes as you continue to make your way down to the river.
Since it was winter, there was no need for me to jump in and take a swim, so I turned around and made the 1,000 foot climb back out of the canyon, jumped in my Jeep and drove less than half a mile down the road to my next stop, “the pit” aka the Diggins.
In 1866, French immigrant Julius Poquillion bought and consolidated many of the surrounding abandoned claims until he had amassed 1,535 acres. Poquillon then convinced a group of San Francisco financiers to invest in large-scale hydraulic gold mining, forming the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company.
The group purchased the Bowman Ranch and Rudyard Reservoir, constructed dams, and built a huge flume and ditch system to carry water to wash ore at the claim. At capacity, the resulting water power could work 100,000 tons of gravel per day at the “Diggins,” making a pit. The North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company continued to expand and invest in more water supplies and hydraulic mining facilities; they built over 100 miles of canals and ditches that carried water to claim sites for hydroblasting the rock and soil.
In 1876, the company began using seven full-scale Craig monitors — powerful water cannons — to wash the ore free from the mountainsides and uncover the gold-laden quartz beneath. This effective method brought new prosperity and workers to North Bloomfield — even as mounds of spent tailings piled up in Malakoff pit or washed into the river and flowed downstream.
The North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company spent a total of $3 million for all of their capital improvements…
…but collected only $3 million in gold before laws were enacted to end their hydraulic mining operation.
Landslides and erosion have changed the profile of the pit from the days of hydraulic mining.
Diggins Loop Trail circles Diggins Pond which had more life in it than what I was expecting.
The Malakoff mine pit is more than a mile long, a half mile wide and nearly 600 feet deep. More than 100 feet of soil deposits have accumulated on the pit floor, transforming its raw, u-shaped surface into a flat plane. Cattails crowd the shoreline, while just above the lakeshore slopes grow alder and willows.
Native vegetation has grown up through the once-exposed areas.
About 3,200 forested acres in the park surround the pit, at 2,500 to 4,000 feet elevation.
The second-growth ponderosa pine forest also has incense cedar, black oak, white fir and sugar pine growing on its upper slopes.
Whiteleaf manzanita is the park’s most profuse woody shrub. Hillsides are covered with ceanothus, including buckbrush and deerbrush.
It’s easy to lose the trail but there are plenty of colorful markers along the way to help keep you on track.
Spring is supposed to be amazing at the park so I plan to make a return trip someday to see the wildflowers and check out all the other incredible sites I didn’t have time to check out on this trip.
Scientists are investigating the enduring effects of introduced mercury on the ecosystem — evaluating soils, native fauna, and water quality to understand the extent of biological uptake in areas affected by historical gold mining.
LOCATION AND DIRECTIONS
Do not use your GPS unless you wish to travel on a dirt road for 7 miles. North Bloomfield Road is not recommended. For an all paved route to the park travel from Nevada City, travel 11-miles north on highway 49 toward Downieville. Turn right on Tyler Foote Road from Highway 49 and follow the main paved road to the park. The main road changes names a few times from Tyler Foote Road to Cruzon Grade Road to Back Bone Road. Turn right on Derbec Road then right on North Bloomfield Road. You will stay on paved roads all the way to the park. These are not high-speed roads. The park is 26-miles (50 min drive time) from Nevada City.