Shady Rest area offers rich history of Feather River Canyon

This waterfall on Bear Ranch Creek is a hidden treasure off scenic Highway 70 near the Plumas/Butte county line. Recent rains created a strong flow and dramatic scenery March 31. Photos by Laura Beaton
Laura Beaton

  Driving down the Feather River Canyon doesn’t have to be a beeline to Chico, Sacramento or beyond. There are plenty of interesting things to do along the route.

  The Canyon is rich in mining, railroad, hydroelectric, engineering and cultural history. There are hiking trails, restaurants, stores and interpretive exhibits available to the attentive traveler.

  Before the California Gold Rush began in 1849, the Mountain Maidu were the main inhabitants of what is now known as Plumas County. The Maidu were primarily hunter-gatherers who lived near water and oak trees, from which their main dietary staple, acorns, were harvested.

  Gold miners entered the area in the mid-1800s, and mining communities sprang up throughout the county.

  Surveyor Arthur Keddie was hired to map a wagon road through the Canyon in 1867. He mapped his route along the North Fork Feather River because of the gentle grade and lower elevation, which made winter travel easier.

  Western Pacific Railroad construction began in 1905 and the final spike was driven at Keddie in 1909. The railroad was a major engineering feat, as workers blasted through granite, shale and serpentine and constructed multiple bridges and tunnels.

  The Feather River became popular for its trout fishing, prompting Western Pacific to run “fisherman’s specials” from the Bay Area and Central Valley to the Canyon for 20 years.

  Resorts sprang up along the river, including Storrie, Tobin, Belden, Twain and Paxton. Some of these are still active today.

  When the highway was completed in 1937, the fisherman’s specials became a thing of the past: one more addition to the Canyon’s history.

  In most places, the highway and railroad are on opposite sides of the river. Three main automotive tunnels were bored through rock and 14 bridges span the river. Many are double-decker bridges, allowing both trains and automobiles across. Others crisscross at different elevations at the same location.


Hike near Shady Rest day use area

  There are several rest areas along the winding scenic byway of Highway 70. Coming up the Canyon from Oroville, Shady Rest day use area is the first to be encountered, just before the Butte/Plumas county line.

  In addition to restrooms and picnic tables, the rest area offers a wide open view of the rushing river.

  A gazebo with interpretive panels mounted inside outlines the history and geology of the area. A plaque honoring the Maidu stands outside the gazebo.

  But the real gem at this spot along the Canyon lies across the highway from the rest area and up a gated dirt road.


Bear Ranch Creek waterfall

  About a half mile up the road, which climbs a gentle grade and affords the hiker a great view of the river in both directions, a waterfall cascades off the mountainside.

  The curtain of water rains perhaps 40 feet down a sheer cliff before dropping tumultuously into Bear Ranch Creek. The creek winds several hundred yards before it flows through a culvert underneath the highway and into the Feather River, downstream of the rest area. (Note — the Feather River in this locale is unsafe for swimming.)

  The road leading up to the waterfall has many interesting features along the way.

  It skirts the base of steep, rocky slopes, covered in moss and lichens and studded with wildflowers.

  At the top of the grade, the area flattens out to a small meadow. The road turns away from the river and hugs the sheer rock face.

  Several caves lie at the base of the rock face and show evidence of mining and human activity. Not far beyond the caves, a faint trail leads toward the creek and the base of the waterfall.

  A subspecies of the California newt may be found here: the Sierra newt, Taricha torosa sierrae. These bright red to brownish newts range from about 2-1/2 to 4-1/2 inches long with a tail up to 4 or 5 additional inches in length.

  The newts are terrestrial except in their breeding phase, when they morph and become aquatic in nature.

  Their skin secretes a highly toxic substance called tetrodotoxin, which repels most predators. It can be deadly to animals, including humans, if ingested or absorbed in great enough quantity.

  Next time you’re traveling in the Canyon and have some extra time, check out the Shady Rest area or one of the other roadside attractions.

  You might get a glimpse into Plumas County history. In addition, you’ll view some beautiful scenery and get some exercise while you’re at it.

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