Labor Day has come and gone. The air is warm in the day, crisp at night. Daylight shrinks. Kids seem to have soccer almost every day. But, you haven’t given up on travel and exploration for the season.
In the Northern Sierra exists the remnants of the California Trail, the Henness Pass Road that spans from Reno, NV to Marysville, CA across the Sierra Crest.
We ran the route backward (technically) starting in Camptonville, CA just outside of Nevada City and navigated eastward ending in Verdi, Nevada in the foothills west of Reno. During the winter and spring, sometimes well into summer, the road is impassable over the summit due to snowpack. Summertime can be quite busy on the road as it connects to many world-class 4-wheeling trails. Autumn conversely is all but guaranteed to be snow-free, dry, and relatively empty. We chose to explore the route a few weeks before Thanksgiving with perfect conditions, shortly before the Sierra storm door opened for the season.
The trail itself is easy, green, level-1, however you choose to classify difficulty. It is almost entirely dirt, gravel, or cobbles. Maybe a little more than one might attempt in a Corolla, but any bone stock SUV is amply equipped to handle the terrain.
The effort versus rewards makes Henness Pass a perfectly contained adventure. Appropriate for all levels of overlanding and off-road skills. Here are a few reasons why.
Although we entered from the western side of the trail, access from Marysville, Camptonville, or Verdi is close to state highways 99, 20, 49, or Interstate 80 respectively. Fuel up and stock supplies before departing the pavement in Marysville, Auburn, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Truckee, or Reno. Once firmly placing your wheels on dirt the roads and intersections are well marked – albeit they are marked with the National Forest Service numerical taxonomy, so conducting a quick bit of research with Google Maps or having a good printed set of forest service maps will pay you dividends. There are several websites dedicated to the route. Guidebooks are available for purchase from Emigrant Trails West. It is important to note that along the road between Webber lake and state route 89 north of Truckee the road is restricted to private use travel only. It is recommended in this area that you plan a route along Jackson Meadows road or around Independence Lake and then rejoin Henness Pass Road on the east side of Rt89.
Length and time allocation
The Henness Pass trail from Marysville to Verdi clocks in at 117 miles. We started in Camptonville. From there the route is only 72 miles. Quite short. Easy enough to accomplish in one day. Even stopping regularly to read every plaque and explore every vista. Our recommendation, for the enjoyment of all, is to make your journey an overnight trip. Perhaps even two nights. Take the opportunity to drive slowly and stop often. Before Labor Day there are many camp areas at Marysville, Camptonville (Bullards Bar), as well as north of Truckee (Jackson Meadows and surrounding area). Soon after Labor Day many of these areas will close for the season. This does not mean that camping is unavailable. It means that your options are a bit limited so your resourcefulness in the mountains may be exercised. Keep in mind to maintain respect for the patchwork of public and private lands as well as campground closures. Regardless, the entire mission is close and can easily be completed in a weekend.
Since the Henness Pass Road follows the California Trail through the Sierra Nevada mountains and gold country of Placer County there are many opportunities to connect with California’s rich history. Along the roadway, and in the some of the small towns that can be accessed on some of the spur roads connecting to paved byways, the remains of the westward migration and gold rush are close at hand. Interpretive signs and markers have been placed along the route by the E Clampus Vitus and Emigrant Trails West organizations.
Proximity to all levels of challenges
Although the Henness Pass Road proper is an easy forest service traverse across the Sierra Crest, it is in striking distance of world-class terrain that will challenge your skills. Much of Henness Pass traffic during the summer months is attributed to accessing terrain around Downieville, French Lake, Fordyce Lake for 4-wheeling. Downieville (designated as the future capital of California during the early days of the gold rush) is home to some of the finest west coast mountain biking. The network of MTB and Moto trails is maintained by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. At its highest point, the road crosses the Pacific Crest Trail that links the Mexican and Canadian US borders. East of Jackson Meadows there are seemingly endless opportunities for camping, fishing, paddling, hiking, biking, and off-road exploring, that don’t require dedicated rock-crawling rigs.
The reward at the end of the road
My kids have taken up a quest to find and document the elusive Sierra Nevada Sasquatch. They have enlisted the help of their cousins and friends in this noble pursuit. It helps to keep them stoked in learning about their natural world and keeps them outdoors away from technology. Imagination runs amok. So, I encourage and actively contribute to the saga. I weave the storyline into our family adventures. The last segment of the eastbound trail wraps around Stampede Reservoir and traverses the vista ridgeline above pristine, undeveloped, Dog Valley before twisting and descending into Verdi. The trail returns to pavement crossing the river to the eastern terminus, the Sasquatch Tavern. Sneakily knowing our destination, I promised a sighting on this expedition, piquing the stoke. The Sasquatch has been a local’s favorite for a decade. A light tavern atmosphere with a respectable beer offering pared with a consistently tasty pub menu. A perfect period to a long, dusty, day or two on the trail. Being a good explorer, my youngest celebrated the victory by poking bigfoot in the belly button.
Henness Pass Route
Distance: 72-117 Miles
Duration: 1-2 days
Trail Accessibility: July – November
Distances from Sasquatch Tavern (Interstate-80):
Reno – 10 miles
Truckee – 22 miles
Auburn – 89 miles
Sacramento – 122 miles
Additional Information: https://emigranttrailswest.org/
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