Feather River Canyon: Remote with Road and Railroad Legends

Highway signs
Signs mark the Feather River Highway.

I’ve heard about the Feather River Canyon my entire life.

My folks took the legendary California Zephyr train from Denver to San Francisco in the 1950s. That train was one of the earliest with dome cars and was timed to go through scenic areas during the day; one was California’s Feather River Canyon.

Located north of Lake Tahoe and Interstate 80 in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the canyon runs about 70 miles from near Quincy to where the Feather River is bottled up in Lake Oroville. And it is spectacular.

In 2010, I finally was able to drive this spectacular route, state Route 70, designated the Feather River Scenic Byway. The original California Zephyr has been gone since 1970, but more on that later.

Getting There: I decided to trust the GPS on my trip up from San Diego. The computer decided that heading up Interstate 5 through Sacramento, then east on I-80, winding through the national forest land and farms. It was a nice drive, but didn’t make up for having to go through Los Angeles and Sacramento. Funny thing; on the way back, the GPS sent me the route I thought I should have taken, east over the Beckwourth Pass to Reno, then a straight shot south to San Diego. The moral of the story… don’t get rid of your maps quite yet.

The Roads: I took this trip to do some fun driving and it didn’t disappoint. From the time I exited I-80 until I headed home five days later, it was a two-lane heaven. When the road wasn’t twisting through mountain passes, we were cruising nicely through beautiful forested valleys or farmland. Traffic was minimal and the vistas were dramatic.

Feather River
Along the Feather River.

Centerpiece of the trip was state Highway 70, the Feather River Highway, a designated national scenic byway. It didn’t disappoint and I can see why the California Zephyr in the old days was called “America’s most talked about train.” While I had to make sure I didn’t drive off the road, folks in their Vista Dome cars could be sipping on a cocktail and relaxing while the rapids, waterfalls and  other scenic delights passed by the train’s windows. Sadly, passenger trains quit running regularly through here in 1970, but freights still use it. There’s more on the road at byways.org. Plumas County has a great map, the Seven Wonders of the Western Pacific World (PDF), that, even if you’re not a railfan, will give you a grand tour of the area.

The canyon carries the Feather River from its headwaters near Beckwourth Pass, at 5,221 feet, about 120 miles southwest to Lake Oroville. There, the stream bed, if my math is correct, is about 200 feet above sea level. For the most part, the highway is on one side of the river, the railroad the other. Several spectacular bridges span the gorge, both for drivers and the railroad. Most spectacular is the Keddie Wye, about 40 miles downstream from Portola. Another can’t miss are the Pulga bridges, where the highway crosses high and the railroad crosses low.

Among the most photographed spots along the route, the Keddie Y gets its name from the “y” shaped tracks that merge here and surveyor Arthur Keddie, who mapped out the railroad and worked for years to get it built. From the south, the tracks split with one route going up the canyon and on to Reno, the other into a tunnel and north to Oregon.

It’s spectacular to see with a train on it, and I  caught a northbound freight headed into the tunnel. Actually, I outran the train, because as I was nearing the end of the canyon, near Lake Oroville, headed north on the other side of the canyon was a long BNSF freight. It was four or five more miles headed south before I could make a u-turn, then high tailing it back up the canyon. I got there just in time to catch it heading across the bridges. Lots of rumbling from the big diesel engines in the locomotives; lots of squeaking as the freight cars too the turn on the steel bridge. Lots of fun.

Back on the road, I took a couple of turns off of SR-70 to get a closer look at the river and surrounding territory. There aren’t a lot of side roads and many appear to be private, but the river is a beautiful thing to see. The Belden Rest Stop, about 30 miles west of Quincy, has a plaque marking the road’s 1937 completion. It’s also the site of one of the many small power generating stations and adjacent lakes. A beautiful spot to take in the river.

North on Highway 89 is Lake Almanor, another beautiful resort area in the middle of the Plumas National Forest. The road has some great twists and curves and is a bit narrower than Highway 70. The small town of Chester sits at the north end of the lake. Watch for vistas of Mt. Lassen as you curve around the lake; it’s due north and towers above everything.

On the day before Independence Day, folks already had chairs out on the main street, ready for the next day’s parade. It’s another delightful town among the pine trees, amazingly uncrowded.

Sleepy Pines Motel
Iconic neon sign welcomes travelers.

Sleeping: For an area so close to the San Francisco-Sacramento megalopolis, it’s still off the beaten path. It’s accessed through twisty little roads and the accommodations are small-time motels or bed-breakfast homey spots. There are a few rest. In the planning stage, I opted for vintage, the Sleepy Pines Motel, by the side of Route 70 west of Portola.

Rustic with a capital “R,” it was complete with kitchenette sporting an ancient combination stove-refrigerator. I remember we had one of those in our cabin in Lake Arrowhead when we went there when I was a kid. That’s still another story. The place is fairly worn out but fit with the general character of the area. The Sleepy Pines would have failed the dust-bunny test (and a few others) that the guy on Hotel Impossible gives the places he hopes to fix up. Given the looks of the other places in the area, Sleepy Pines is probably typical. If you want a five-star hotel, head south to Lake Tahoe. Plumas County is a rustic, old-fashioned vacation area, where the neon sign out front of the Sleepy Pines fit in just fine.

The towns: Remember the fictional town of Sicily, Alaska, from the old Northern Exposure TV series? The show actually filmed in Rosslyn, Wash. (which I visited). Portola reminds me a lot of that town. Nestled between two mountain peaks, the town long ago saw its best days and today is a hamlet of about 2,000.

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