Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Experience all of the wonder of the central Sierra with the Tahoe Backcountry Discovery Trail. Granite peaks, alpine meadows, crystal clear lakes and streams-- yes, the High Sierra has it all!
Adventure Rating: Epic
Trip Length: 199 Miles (3 - 5 days)
Season: June - November (check with Tahoe NF for snow levels)
Technical Rating: Green
Typical Terrain: Majority forest service and jeep trails, with some minimal pavement. While there is nothing technical along the route, rocks are prevalent in certain sections (like Meadow Lake), substantially slowing one's the rate of travel.
Recommended Vehicle: Truck or SUV with 4x4 and all terrain tires.
Adventure Vans: Yes! Sprint 4x4s should be able to manage the entire route
Alternative Routes: Yes! coming soon.
The Tahoe National Forest encompasses the heart of the central Sierra, and people from all over the world flock to Lake Tahoe and the surrounding granite peaks of the High Sierra to take advantage of its natural beauty and seemingly endless outdoor recreational opportunities. The forest supports an abundance of recreation activities like boating, fishing, skiing, mountain biking, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, and over course, off-roading. The communities along the 49 corridor like Downieville, Camptonville, and Nevada City have a rich mining and pioneer history, which can be traced back to original gold rush of 1849. Some of the most richest gold mines in the United States can be found within the forest's boundaries. For whatever reason, the US Forest Service did not create a California Backcountry Discovery Trail through Tahoe National Forest. Overland Trail Guides has seized the opportunity to extend the California Backcountry Trail south, thereby extending the routes from Modoc, Lassen, and Plumas National forest, to the southern boundary where the Tahoe National Forest meets the El Dorado National Forest. While the Tahoe Backcountry Discovery Trail doesn't feature any overly technical terrain, a true off road vehicle such as a truck or SUV is better suited for the many bumps and rocks along certain portions of the route (like Meadow Lake and Upper Henness Pass).
The route begins in the old mining town of Camptonville at about 3,000 feet. Camptonville was founded in 1850, but unlike most of the other mining boomtowns that came and went, it still has a small resident population. This also happens to be the start of Henness Pass Road, and old emigrant trail from Virginia city, which supported numerous settlements, homesteads, and even hotels in the hey day of mining activity in the 19th century. Henness Pass starts out as a wide dirt road surrounded cloaked by dense pine on each side. As you make your way up the ridge, the route deviates south over two canyons to the old mining district of Alleghany. Among the richest mines in the region is the Sixteen to One Mine, which contained extremely high concentrations of gold deposits within its quarts vein, and has produced over 1 million ounces of gold since its inception. Leaving the cool shaded canyons of Alleghany, the route continues its ascent to higher elevation making its way back to Henness Pass Road. This section of Henness Pass is much rougher and dustier than the lower section. Pay attention for Keystone Gap, which provides a break in the trees along with an exquisite view of the Sierra Buttes to the north. From Keystone Gap the route descends to Jackson Meadows Reservoir, which is also surrounded by the granite peaks for which the High Sierra is so well known for. From the reservoir, the route circuments Webber Mountain. Webber Falls and Lacey Meadows (short hike) are both incredibly scenic discovery points that are well worth the small deviation from the main route, especially if you love alpine photography. The road to Meadow Lake is bump and slow going, and you may encounter a reasonable amount of vehicle traffic, as Meadow Lake is a popular OHV staging location for the infamous Fordyce Jeep Trail. Bowman Lake is another extremely popular camping spot within the forest, as it has a number of lakeside campsites (you'll need to arrive during the week to snag one of those). In an effort to avoid the vehicle traffic surrounding Bowman Lake, this version of the route takes the lesser travelled Pinoli Ridge. The route meets back up with Bowman Lake Road right below the dam. Much of this section of the route is paved, but there are a few deviations onto parallel dirt roads. Burn the pavement back until you reach Highway 20, which then takes you for a short jaunt on Interstate 80. Take I-80 West and exist Emigrant gap, then get back on I-80 East and head about .5 mile and take the first exit.
Sailor Point Road is a lesser travelled dirt backroad, and the encroaching brush creates a narrow trail in some sections (be prepared for some minor pin striping if you're in a Sprinter or full size truck). The middle section of the route features another short jaunt on pavement and a rather precarious climb, before descending and returning back to dirt again. By far and away the best feature along this portion of the route is Big Valley Bluff Overlook, which provices expansive views of the High Sierra to the east and a massive canyon where the North Fork American River far below. You can even get out on foot and explore the rock formations below the view point. Those with sleeping setups inside their vehicles may want to take advantage of the campsite at Big Valley Bluff (the location is susceptible to heavy winds and not advisable for those with tents). From Big Valley Bluff, the route descends dow the mountain to Lake Valley Reservoir and then back to I-80. Most of the land around Lake Valley Reservoir is private property, so if you're looking to make camp for the night, it's best to find something in the vicinity of Big Valley Bluff. Burn the pavement along I-80 east once again until you reach Soda Springs. Soda Springs Road is a scenic trail that passes through the southern section of the forest. If you travel the route in early summer, the mountain streams here typically have enough snow run off to create a number of fun water crossings. If you're itching to get out of the vehicle and take advantage of 360 degree views of the sierra, consider the 3.5 mile hike to the Duncan Peak fire lookout (DP19). The route concludes at the final discovery point, and rather picturesque French Meadows Reservoir (DP20).
An alternative route (229 miles) does cover much of the original route, but cuts through Malakoff Diggins State Park and the historic and mining settlement of Washington. Those that wish to seek and learn about the mining heritage in the region may want to consider this version of the Tahoe Backcountry Discovery Trail. The short hike to Scotch Creek Falls is well worth the effort. Camping, OHV riding, and partying are all very popular within the campgrounds in Washington. If you're seeking peace and solitude, consider pitching camp elsewhere.
White Rock Lake
Meadow Lake (can get crowded on weekends)
Bowman Lake (can get crowded on weekends)
Big Valley Bluff (significant wind exposure)
DP1 - Oregon Creek Covered Bridge
DP2 - Camptonville
DP3 - Sleighville House
DP4- Old Mountain House
DP5 - Forest City
DP6 - Alleghany
DP7 - Sixteen to One Mine
DP8 - Malakoff Diggings
DP9 - Washington
DP10 - Scotchman Creek Falls
DP11 - Henness Pass
DP12 - Webber Falls
DP13 - Lacey Meadow
DP14 - White Rock Lake
DP15 - Faucherie Falls
DP16 - Bowman Lake
DP17 - Big Valley Bluff Overlook
DP18 - N. Fork American River
DP19 - French Meadows Reservoir
DP20 - Duncan Peak Fire Lookout
Maps + Navigation
>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.
Gaia GPS (Neotreks Land Use layer, Gaia base layer)
Download GPX & KMZ files
TIP: To expose alternative routes and points of interest in Google Maps, open the sidebar and select the desired layer.