This article first appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
Standing on Main Street in Greenville, California, there is an eerie silence. Aside from some old hunks of burnt steel jutting from the ground, there is virtually nothing left of a perfectly preserved Gold Rush–era town that used to be. The streetcorner conversations of residents and business owners have been replaced by the growls of excavators and the beeping of backward-moving bulldozers. The banter of children running down the street has been replaced by the roar of chainsaws tearing into blackened logs and chugging generators powering the three remaining buildings left standing.
The hillside west of Greenville is charred and scarred with dozer lines zigzagging every direction across the mountain. The lone sound of a train horn announces its passing while log truck after log truck diesel through town on Highway 89, loaded down with salvaged timber.
It was a scorching hot July day in Greenville with no shade to be found except a small gazebo and a couple awnings, set up for customers at the makeshift food truck court in a dirt parking lot where a building used to be, providing a couple of dining options for locals. But considering almost every home had been wiped clean, most of the customers are employees of the Forest Service and the power company, working to restore some semblance of life to Greenville.
The sky grew gray and dark, and an unannounced summer rain fell on the hot asphalt, bringing an instant cooling effect and a misty haze rising off the ground. We sat at a table under the shade of the gazebo and took it all in.
As my photographer friend Randy Robbins and I gazed upon an unrecognizable landscape of his childhood home, he lamented the destruction.
“The more time I spend here, the more sad I get about it,” said Robbins. “Over there is where my brother and I would go to the butcher and get meat cuttings, then we took them over to Wolf Creek to catch crawdads.” Robbins smiled and let out a somber chuckle.
“We probably caught the same crawdad every day.”
Where the butcher’s shop was is now just an empty lot of dirt, along with a couple hundred other empty lots of dirt in the wake of last year’s Dixie Fire, the largest single wildfire in California history, burning nearly one million acres, much of it in Plumas County.
The fire bore down on Greenville not once, but twice. The first threat forced a community-wide evacuation. Greenville residents had time to grab their most important possessions before leaving, and when the threat of the fire passed, residents were allowed to return home. But not 24 hours after the evacuation was lifted, the winds shifted unpredictably and the fire was bearing down on Greenville again. This time, there was no time; residents had just finished unpacking when the urgent call came. By the next morning, there was almost nothing left of Greenville, and no possessions left of its residents.
One month before the fire, professional gravel cyclist Yuri Hauswald and I completed a 200-mile, four-day gravel loop starting in Susanville, taking Gold Run and Diamond Mountain Road to Lone Rock Valley, climbing to Taylor Lake, then down Beardsley Grade to Indian Valley, through Greenville to Lake Almanor Trail, over to Jonesville and back on the historic Humboldt/Humbug wagon roads, then back to Susanville through Chester and Westwood, finishing on the Bizz Johnson Trail, a rail trail along the Susan River with National Recreation Trail status. It was a glorious ride with stunning views, lush, green forests, high-quality dirt roads, and emerald blue mountain lakes perfect for camping. With more than 4,000 miles of graded dirt roads in Plumas National Forest alone, the region is becoming known as the “Gravel Capital of the West.”
Along for the ride were Robbins — a Susanville-based, award-winning nature photographer who has the only known high-resolution photograph of the Lassen Pack wolf — and Chris Ruedy, a Graeagle-based videographer. The goal of the trip was to document the loop with both photographs and video, and in spring 2022 we released Lost on Purpose, a short film about gravel riding in Plumas County and the benefits recreational tourism can bring to an economically struggling corner of California.
But only three weeks after returning home from our ride in June 2021, the Dixie Fire ignited, and for the next two months I was glued to fire status updates every day, watching as the fire burned in a massive 200-mile circle, scorching almost every single mile of the loop we had just finished riding.
As the Dixie Fire consumed Plumas County, we realized our trip was important in a way that we wished it never had been; we had the last known footage of a region that will never look the same again in our lifetimes. A second ride was in order, completing the same loop again to document the extent of the damage.
During our preparations of a re-ride in late July 2022, we were introduced to Kest Porter, a longtime Greenville resident and lifelong cyclist who knows the dirt roads of Plumas County far better than any of us. Porter lost his home of 35 years in the Dixie Fire, and the only items remaining were two metal sculptures crafted by the hands and imagination of Porter himself: two coyotes riding a tandem and an owl with wings fully spread and talons extended forth.
The goal of the second ride was to document what the Dixie claimed and what it spared, and we were honored to be joined by Porter. At 69 years of age, sporting a brilliant white beard, Porter is a specimen of fitness, evidenced by his rail-thin frame and his matter-of-fact nature about the massive rides he does. Only two weeks before he joined us on our ride, Porter completed a 10-day, 900-mile ride from his new home in Indian Valley up to Crater Lake, Oregon, and back with a crew of friends.
As further evidence of Porter’s fitness, after knocking out a 50-mile day riding with us, climbing 4,500 feet in record heat approaching 105°F, Porter returned home, grabbed a quick shower, ate a couple slices of pizza washed down with a tall glass of milk, and drove into Greenville to run the weekly meeting of the Pop Up Business District as if he hadn’t just finished a grueling six-hour day on the bike.
The day’s 50-mile ride with Porter was one of the region’s highlights, rolling through the North Arm Indian Valley on paved roads with more bovine traffic than vehicles, and past the mighty Engels Mine, a long-abandoned copper mine built into the side of a cliff towering above. We transitioned into Diamond Mountain Road, a well-maintained dirt road in the shade of black oaks and Jeffrey pines along Light’s Creek, climbing toward Lone Rock Valley. After a couple of miles, we turned east out of the shade and into a recent burn zone on Fruit Growers Boulevard, not as much a boulevard as another well-maintained dirt road with scenic 360-degree views — one of many in Plumas County — continuing our ascent on Forest Service road 27N09, with sweeping vistas of the Lone Rock Valley below us.
After a steep uphill grunt into cooler temperatures, stands of aspen trees, and fields of brilliant green and yellow mule’s ear flowers, we wrapped around the northwest side of Eisenheimer Peak on Forest Service road 27N57. After three hours of continuous ascent, we finally gained the ridgeline at 7,100 feet of elevation, 3,500 vertical feet above Indian Valley, visible off in the distance. A brief but steep, loose, and rocky descent through a devastated burn zone delivered us to Taylor Lake, one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in all of Plumas County.
It was disheartening to see the fire impacts around Taylor Lake, but a small area of trees along the northeast side of the lake had been spared, a prime camping spot. Beyond Taylor Lake dam, the terrain was almost unrecognizable, as was the Antelope Taylor Lake Trail, a completely scorched singletrack connecting the two lakes.
Despite the devastation of trees turned to charred matchsticks, there was still beauty to be found. Wildflowers were already sprouting up from the ashes, while green patches of grass provided signs of life everywhere. There was one other benefit of the burn — you could actually see through the forest, revealing terrain previously unviewable. The heavily burned patches of forest actually made for a more visually interesting ride. I found myself slowing down and looking around more the second time through compared to our first ride when walls of green limited sight.
After lunch at Taylor Lake, the rest of the ride was almost all downhill back to Indian Valley. Starting out rather rocky from Taylor Lake, requiring slower speeds to prevent pinch flatting, once on Beardsley Grade Road, it became an excellent dirt road offering both sweeping views of Indian Valley and perfectly arced corners with long sight lines, encouraging us to let off the brakes. As a bonus, we only saw one vehicle on the entire hourlong descent back to Indian Valley, where the temperature was already hitting triple digits.
Throughout the day’s ride in his backyard, Porter was smiling while keeping pace with Yuri and me; we never had to wait more than a couple minutes for him. Porter apologized for his pace more than once, but no apologies were needed. I only hope my fitness is like Porter’s when I reach 69 years of age.
Over the last three years, Porter has faced unimaginable loss. In 2019, his wife Susen passed after suffering with ALS, and last summer, the destruction of the home they’d built together raising two daughters. I asked if he would rebuild, but he shook his head.
“That was Susen’s house,” said Porter. “She is gone now, and I feel that chapter of my life has closed. It was a good chapter, but with Cheri I am in a new chapter of my life, and it is also good.”
The universe seemed to bring Porter and his partner Cheri Prior together. Just before the passing of Porter’s wife, Prior lost her Paradise, California, home in the Camp Fire. Prior was looking for a new home and found the quaint character of Greenville to be perfectly suited to her new life. Porter and Prior met on Halloween 2019, but in a way didn’t realize they had actually met.
“We were both in costumes and didn’t even know what each other looked like,” laughed Prior.
Prior started volunteering at the Greenville Museum, a place that Porter spent the last couple years using his woodworking and metal fabrication skills to restore and upgrade all museum exhibits, while acquiring historic artifacts to expand the museum’s relevance. Porter and Prior got to know each other well through volunteering at the museum, which reopened to the public on July 3, 2021. The Dixie Fire burned it all on August 4, 2021, including Prior’s new home.
Considering they were both homeless, Porter and Prior bought a place together, a beautiful single-story ranch on four and a half acres in the shadow of Keddie Ridge, looking out across Indian Valley. I asked Prior how she dealt with losing two homes in less than three years.
“I practice Buddhism, and one of its tenets is impermanence and the non-attachment to material things,” said Prior.
Prior referenced the Sand Mandala as an example: a giant, ornate, and visually stunning sand painting that takes weeks, if not months, to create. After finishing, all of the sand is swept back into the middle, back to the earth as if it never physically existed.
Unlike the Sand Mandala, it’s impossible to simply sweep up the destruction the Dixie Fire left. Millions of trees burned, creating a cleanup requiring years, if not decades, to complete. As we set out on our re-ride in late July 2022, I was concerned about the extent of the destruction and what we’d find. Thankfully, what we found wasn’t nearly as bad as we had feared.
Yes, the Dixie Fire burned a lot of terrain along the 200-mile route, particularly along the Humbug Road east of Jonesville in Butte County and around the Diamond Mountain, Antelope Lake, Eisenheimer Peak, and Beardsley Grade area to the northeast of Taylorsville. But we were delighted to find that a majority of the 200-mile loop was either spared or only lightly burned.
Another ride highlight was the 50-mile loop from the west shore of Lake Almanor out over the Sierra Nevada crest to the outpost of Jonesville and back. We followed the gently rolling dirt of the historic Humboldt Road through Ruffa Ranch, its beautiful grassy meadows and aspen groves set beneath towering cliffs, transitioning into a gradual climb that got steeper as we reached Humboldt Summit, our first crossing of the Pacific Crest Trail, the dividing line between Plumas and Butte County.
After a couple of gentle switchbacks off the top, the Humboldt Road west of the summit opens up into a long, straight high-speed descent on a generally good road, although occasional embedded rocks required extra attention to avoid a high-speed flat. As we streaked down the mountain, I noticed a stark line where the fire was held; one side of the road completely burnt, the other side still green.
Before reaching Jonesville on the descent, we turned left at the Humbug Road intersection, another historic wagon road, climbing back out of Butte Creek toward Humbug Summit. As we reached the summit, the burn zone got progressively worse until Cold Spring where we crossed the Pacific Crest Trail a second time. Cold Spring lives up to its name as one of the coldest and most refreshing springs I’ve ever dipped a bottle into.
Once over Humbug Summit and back into Plumas County, the burn was intense, and nothing in the area survived. The long, high-speed descent on the 27N65 road along Yellow Creek back to the junction with the Humboldt Road showed mixed stands of burnt and unburnt forest, and in the burn zones, improved views through the forest of the rugged terrain. The improved views actually made for a better descent, permitting less braking and more 30 MPH big-ring pedaling, an excellent bit of dirt road descending.
As we stood beside our bikes at the top of the Humbug Road looking east toward Lake Almanor, Porter lamented the swaths of burnt and unburnt forest.
“A lot of my friends who don’t live here think the entire county is charred, but it’s just not true,” said Porter. “Visitation to Plumas County is down, and we need to get the word out to folks that there’s still a lot of beauty to be found here.”
Despite the fire maps showing nearly 75 percent of Plumas County burned in the last three years, the maps are misleading, as they don’t tell the whole story. An area can look completely impacted by fire on a map, but in reality, there are only pockets of burned trees, leaving most of the forest around those pockets untouched by fire. For example, nearly 70 percent of the route we rode shows being impacted by fire on a map, but in reality, only about 25 percent of the route had serious fire impacts that could be considered total devastation.
This misconception about what burned and what didn’t only adds to the challenges of community leaders like Porter. As a county liaison for the Dixie Fire Collaborative, Porter’s primary focus is helping rebuild the town he’s lived in for more than 35 years. Because of Porter’s career as a school administrator, he understands the nuances of governmental processes that can sometimes be very frustrating, especially in a place like Plumas County with a dwindling population.
“Currently Plumas County has at least 50 vacant, unfilled jobs, which is a huge number for such a small county,” said Porter. “Even though all the folks we’re working with in county government have been extremely helpful, there’s simply not enough county employees to rebuild peoples’ lives in a reasonable timeframe.”
Porter leads weekly meetings of the Pop Up Business District, helping coordinate between business owners and supporting agencies. Porter was able to secure funding to create the business district and its food trucks, a critical first step in bringing Greenville back. The meetings are sobering, as the topics cover the most basic of human needs, including how to secure clean water, electricity, sanitation, and where to dispose of fryer grease. Nearly half of the hourlong meeting was dedicated to discussion about having enough porta-potties for the food truck court.
Because the main power lines from Quincy and Lake Almanor both burned in the fire, Greenville and the entire Indian Valley are still being powered by giant diesel generators. The food truck vendors are operating on their own small generators that overheated in the record high temperatures, forcing vendors to research off-grid, solar-powered cooking techniques.
“There’s no how-to book on rebuilding a small town from scratch,” said Porter. “We are all doing this for the first time, and we are learning as we go. We aren’t asking for someone else to rebuild our town for us, but we need help and more resources than we have.”
While some may see nothing but despair for the future of Greenville, Porter sees otherwise.
“Greenville was a dying town before the fire, and it burned down,” said Porter. “This is our chance to rebuild and create a place that will thrive.”
Despite some residents who say that Greenville will never be the same, a recent community poll of nearly 300 households showed that nearly three-quarters of respondents want to return or rebuild. While those numbers are encouraging, Porter stressed the importance of rebuilding in the right way by creating an economic development office with an economic plan before building any homes.
The Indian Valley Innovation Hub is an economic development tool Porter hopes will help rebuild Greenville, fostering business ideas and products that can be exported from the region. Additionally, Sierra Institute and J&C Enterprises set up a micro mill in nearby Crescent Mills, processing burnt timber to help the region rebuild. Cross-laminated timber (CLT), a prefabricated engineered panel made from multiple layers of dimensional wood, is another innovation Porter is hoping the area can capitalize on. CLT is incredibly fire-resistant and an ideal building material for fire-prone areas, and considering Indian Valley is a multi-generational timber processing region, there’s ample know-how already in the area.
“The only problem with CLT is that in order to make it, you need a lot of timber, which is exactly what we have right now,” said Porter.
Another aspect of Greenville’s rebirth is focused on recreation. The Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS), a local nonprofit trail-building organization, is in the midst of an ambitious legacy project called Connected Communities, linking 15 mountain towns across four California counties with 600 miles of multiuse trail. The goal of Connected Communities is using trails as a tool to bring recreation into the main streets of each town, where hikers, bikers, equestrians, and moto riders will be able to camp or stay in a hotel while refueling and relaxing.
Porter sees Connected Communities as an opportunity for Greenville to create a trailhead and park with campground in the center of town, with trails heading out of town in each direction. Porter has already identified an ideal location for the trailhead facility: several acres of available land for sale along Wolf Creek on the west side of town, the same creek where Robbins and his brother used to feed the lone crawdad.
Despite all the heartbreak, Porter’s discipline and determination are inspiring. The same fortitude he has on the bicycle he puts forth every day in the quest to help rebuild a community. Equal to his determination is his humility, stressing that he is just a small part of the rebuilding effort. In the Dixie Fire Collaborative meeting, Porter was surrounded by more than a dozen women who are business owners, executive directors, and community leaders driving the efforts around rebuilding Greenville.
“Greenville will never be what it once was,” said Porter. “But with the right planning, Greenville can be better than it ever was.”
Along those same lines, in the epilogue of our second ride, Plumas County will never look the same as it did before the Dixie Fire, but no fire could ever strip the beauty from this region where the Sierra Nevada meets the Cascade Range. Plumas County is still beautiful, and in this author’s opinion, it’s still the Gravel Capital of the West.
Despite feeling far from anywhere, Plumas County is a mere hour drive north of Reno, 2.5 hours from Sacramento, and five hours from the Bay Area, all three of which feature international airports. June is a terrific month for riding, with snowcapped peaks, lush, green meadows, and wildflowers exploding with color. Late September and early October are also glorious, with cooler temperatures, fall colors, and some early season rain to wet down the dusty roads.
Plumas County can be ridden “credit card” style, going from town to town, or as a bikepacking adventure. Camping in Plumas County is top notch. Here are some favorites along the route.
Taylorsville Park Campground: A town park located on Taylorsville Creek and walking distance to town. A cyclist-favorite campground that’s well cared for with restrooms and showers.
Cherry Hill Campground: A well-maintained Forest Service campground on the green banks of Butte Creek in Jonesville.
North Shore Campground: A privately owned campground/resort on the north shore of beautiful Lake Almanor, featuring both rental cabins and campsites, as well as a general store, showers, laundry, and boat rentals. northshorecampground.com
Diamond Mountain Casino & Hotel: Located in Susanville and a supporter of the local cycling community, offering well-appointed rooms and reasonable rates. A great place to start and finish your multiday bike adventure. dmcah.com
Buffalo Chip’s Pizza: In downtown Westwood, the home of Paul Bunyan and his ox, Blue. A local’s favorite with super friendly folks and delicious pizza perfect after a long day on the bike. buffalochipspizza.com
Young’s Market: As the visual centerpiece of historic Taylorsville, this market features a terrific deli, healthy foods, and locally sourced options. It also has the oldest operating cash register in America, built in 1914, spending its entire life in Young’s Market.
Pine Shack Frosty: In operation since 1952 on the main drag in Chester, featuring delicious milkshakes perfect on a hot summer day as well as burgers, ribs, fried chicken, and sandwiches. pineshackfrosty.com
Lassen Ale Works Boardroom: Located in the completely renovated former Tum-A-Lum lumber facility, this local brewery offers a range of beer, pizza, and salad options. Brewmaster Erik Jefferts is a huge cycling advocate and supporter of mountain bike trails in Susanville. lassenaleworks.com
Bodfish Bicycles: Located on the main drag in Chester, Bodfish Bicycles is owned and operated by the legend himself, Chuck “Bodfish” Elliot, a pioneer in adventure cycling and author of numerous cycling route books. Got questions about routes? Bodfish is the man to ask! bodfishbicycles.com
Yuba Expeditions: Located on Highway 70 just west of downtown Quincy, Yuba Expeditions offers expert bike service, shuttle service, mountain bike rentals, and local route knowledge. All proceeds from Yuba go to benefit the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, a local nonprofit trail-building organization. yubaexpeditions.com
Can this route be done on a touring bike(panniers, tent, etc.) rather than a gravel bike.
Great article and great idea for a bike tour theme. I hope to do a Sierra Nevada Wildfires tour in September, also starting and finishing in Susanville. In addition to the Dixie fire, my route would also take me through Paradise to see the aftermath of the Camp fire. After reading Adventure Cyclist and Bike Report for 35 years, this might be my first time to do a tour inspired by an article.
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Can this route be done on a touring bike (panniers, tent) rather than a gravel bike?