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Feather River Scenic Byway

Highway 70 Plaque, Frank Brehm
Photo by Frank Brehm.
Featuring miles of roadway that crisscross the North Fork of the Feather River and several tributary streams, much of it carved out of or tunneled through solid granite cliffs, State Route 70 is the only major roadway through Feather River Canyon. Passing through gorgeous forests and high mountain deserts it has become one of the most popular scenic driving routes in the state and showcases some incredible engineering marvels as well as natural wonders that will amaze visitors. Also called Highway 70 it is the lowest elevation east-west passageway through the Sierra Nevada Range. Construction of the highway began in 1928 and was completed in 1935 at a cost of 8 million dollars.

The USDA Forest Service scenic byway program which began more than a decade ago to recognize special routes for their outstanding scenic, historic and recreational appeal dedicated this portion of State Route 70 as the Feather River National Forest Scenic Byway in October 1998. The 130-mile byway travels across Butte, Plumas and Lassen counties with an estimated driving time of about 3 1/2 hours, excluding stops, and features numerous bridges, railroad features and the "stairway of power", a series of hydroelectric power plants that have harnessed the energy of the Feather River's swift waters to generate electricity. At various points along the way you can see the enormous penstocks that are used to channel water into the powerhouses.

Aerial view of Lake Oroville.
Aerial view of Lake Oroville.
At the western terminus of the route is Lake Oroville in Butte County, the beginning of the massive California Water Project. Here waters from the North Fork Feather River, the West Branch Feather River, the Middle Fork Feather River, and the South Fork Feather River converge to create a recreational paradise offering fishing, waterskiing, house boating, jet skiing and many other water-related activities. Here you can give in to temptation and dip a fishing line in the water for a little fishing action that could provide a nice meal. The water stored at Lake Oroville generates electricity and serves the water needs of northern, central and southern California. Featuring displays about the area's history and natural surroundings is the visitor’s center at Lake Oroville State Recreation Area. The fish hatchery located below the dam is an especially good area for watching wildlife.

From Oroville, the route follows Highway 70 up the Feather River Canyon with new discoveries at every twist and turn of the road. The canyon is an awesome gorge carved by the river through solid granite and surrounded by conifer forest and high mountain meadows. As you will discover the human additions of highway, railroad and powerhouses are beautiful feats of engineering in their own right.

At Pulga the highway crosses the railroad as shown in the September 1971 view by Eric Seimens.
At Pulga the highway crosses the railroad as shown in the September 1971, Eric Seimens.
At Pulga, visitors encounter the first of many historic bridges along the route. The steel arch bridge located about 30 miles north of Oroville is one of the wonders of construction on this breathtaking scenic drive. The 680 foot long structure is 200 feet above the river and 170 feet above the ex-Western Pacific Railroad bridge below with each end perched on rocky outcroppings bearing testimony to man's determination and ingenuity. Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe still use the railroad tracks to ship freight to and from California. The roadway bridge is unique in that it not only curves as it crosses the river, but is also banked creating a span that both curves and twists at about a five-degree angle. After three and a half years of labor, construction was completed in 1932. Workers dangled from ropes hung on sheer cliffs to build the abutments to join the canyon's two sides, quite a feat for 1932. The best place to view the twist is to turn onto Pulga Road.

Arch Rock Tunnel.
Arch Rock Tunnel, Frank Brehm.
The byway continues through three impressive tunnels blasted through solid granite: Arch Rock, Elephant Butte and Grizzly Dome which is the longest of the three at 1,187 feet and has viewing windows on the north side. In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had established the Works Progress Administration (the name was changed to Work Projects Administration in September of 1939), as part of his New Deal program to put millions of unemployed Americans back to work. The tunnels were a WPA project, with some of the rock removed from inside the tunnels used in the stone guardrails seen throughout the drive.

Storrie Retreat
Storrie Retreat, Frank Brehm.
As a natural flat near the river, the location of present day Storrie was once the site of the Native American Maidu Indians. Found in many nearby boulders are concavities used by the Indians to grind acorns, an important staple in their diet. Not long after gold was discovered on the American River in 1848, hordes of prospectors soon discovered the Feather River region. The miner’s camp at Storrie was originally called Jack Ass Flats. Indeed, the creek serving Storrie with its wonderful fresh mountain water is still called Jack Ass Creek. At the beginning of the twentieth century a new railroad company, the Western Pacific, was formed to compete with the Southern Pacific. Still considered a marvel of railroad engineering, Arthur W. Keddie took a raft down the Feather and laid out a route with a maximum of a one percent grade. In 1909 the Western Pacific opened for business and artifacts of its early buildings abound in the area.

Twin bridges at Tobin, Frank Brehm.
Twin bridges at Tobin, Frank Brehm.
At Tobin, two steel bridges, one for the railroad and one for the highway, cross the river at the same spot offering an excellent photo opportunity at the nearby roadside pullout.

Some 40 miles east at Belden Town is a rest area where visitors can check out a reconstructed stamp mill and displays explaining how huge iron stamps were used to crush gold-bearing quartz from mines near Seneca from 1898 to 1937. Trailheads to the Pacific Crest Trail, a well-known hiking trail that runs from Canada to Mexico, are located on both sides of Highway 70 near here.

The route continues by Rich Bar, known as the richest gold producing area in the Feather River watershed in the 1850s. Today, there is little left of Rich Bar except an historic marker and a graveyard but visitors can still try their hand at panning for gold here at a recreational mining operation and there are several campgrounds in the area.

Keddie Wye, Frank Brehm
Keddie Wye, Frank Brehm.
Just before Quincy is another engineering marvel and a real treat for railroad buffs, the “Keddie Wye”, a one-of-a-kind train trestle built in a distinctive Y-shape. Passenger trains stopped using these rails in 1970; however the tracks are still used for freight. Another must see for railroad aficionados is the world-renowned Western Pacific Railroad Museum located in Portola and loaded with railroad history, artifacts and Western Pacific railroad relics. Caboose rides around a one-mile balloon track are offered during the summer months.

Halfway between Reno and Oroville, the Plumas County seat of Quincy offers a walking tour of historic buildings including the mammoth four-story county courthouse. The Plumas County Museum in Quincy houses a fine collection of Maidu Indian baskets and offers insight into the rich history and culture of the Mountain Maidu people who inhabited the area between Quincy and Susanville.

East of Cromberg, the route continues past the chalet-style Feather River Inn. Built in 1914, the inn once served as a popular tourist destination for the San Francisco Bay Area's rich and famous. It still boasts a nine-hole golf course among the pines. Today, the University of the Pacific operates the facility as a camp and conference center.

The first wagon train came creaking over the mountains in 1851, guided by mountain man James Beckwourth who discovered one of the lowest passes over the Sierra Nevada Range. The byway parallels this historic trail along several stretches. One of only a small number of explorers of African-American descent, Beckwourth's cabin, built in 1852, makes an interesting stop.

Sierra Valley, Frank Brehm
Sierra Valley, Frank Brehm.
On the eastern end of the byway, the route winds through the gorgeous Sierra Valley, a magnificent stretch of high desert ranchland located at the western edge of the Great Basin and one of the largest valleys in North America. The valley is a favorite area for viewing birds and wildlife including Canada geese, hawks, tundra swans, bald eagles, hawks, osprey, coyote, mule deer and skunk, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks.

Known as an all-weather route because of its relatively low elevation, the Feather River Scenic Byway can be enjoyed throughout the year. Each season provides a unique view of the route. In the spring you will find nearly 100 waterfalls, brilliant wildflowers, and brightly colored boats of daring kayakers riding the whitewater. In the summer, the sun sparkles off the river as swimmers, fishing enthusiasts, and gold miners enjoy the cool water. The beautiful fall colors along the steep mountain slopes make autumn spectacular. In the winter, the river rushes and the snow-capped mountains contrast sharply with the granite and slate at river level. Skiers and snowboarders will fall in love with the area for its remote, powder-covered hills.

Hallelujah Junction, Frank Brehm
Hallelujah Junction, Frank Brehm.
Hallelujah Junction marks the terminus of this byway. From here visitors can continue south to Reno, or north into more of the beautiful Northern California countryside.

Lodging is available in the Feather River Canyon:

Belden Town Resort & Lodge
(530) 283-9662
Off Highway 70 across the red bridge, Belden,
8 housekeeping cabins, camping, restaurant,
Open all year, Pets OK

Historic Tobin Resort
(530) 283-2225
Highway 70, Storrie, At the twin bridges,
7 housekeeping cabins, restaurant, Open all year,
Pets OK

Pine Aire Resort Motel
(530) 283-1730
Highway 70, Twain,
7 housekeeping cabins, each 3 to 4 bedrooms,
Open all year, Pets OK

Storrie Retreat Vacation Home Rentals
(530) 283-1941
Highway 70, Storrie,
3 units, Open all year

Storrie Retreat Airstreams
(530) 283-1941
Highway 70, Storrie,
4 Airstream trailers, Open all year

As is RV/Camping sites:

Belden Town Resort & Lodge
(530) 283-9662
Highway 70 at the red bridge,
28 sites, RV, Tent, Full Hookups, Showers, Open all year

Caribou Crossroads Campground
(530) 283-1384
16242 Highway 70, 2 miles east of Belden,
20 RV, 5 tent sites, Full Hookups, Showers, Store, Open all year

Twain General Store & RV
(530) 283-2130
130 Twain Store Rd, Twain,
9 sites, RV, Showers, Open all year

The Feather River Byway begins at the junction of Route 70 and Route 99. Follow Highway 70 northeast to Highway 89. Follow 89 to Blairsden, at the junction of Highway 89 and Route 70. Follow Route 70 east past Portola, Beckwourth, Vinton, and Chilcoot to the junction with US 395, where the byway terminates. (The portion on 89 is not part of the Feather River Scenic Byway.)

For more information about the Feather River Scenic Byway contact the Plumas National Forest (530-283-2050). A self-guided driving tour brochure and map of the Feather River National Scenic Byway is available by calling the Plumas County Visitors Bureau, (800) 326-2247. The tour highlights 17 natural, historic and manmade features along the route. A more detailed regional map of the Feather River Scenic Byway is also available for sale at the Visitors Bureau.