Camping at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, gives you the opportunity to wander through a mining ghost town, hike through forests, and see first hand the damage that hydraulic mining can have on the environment.
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park is about two hours drive north-east of California’s capital, Sacramento. Or two hours north-west of North Lake Tahoe. Wherever you’re visiting from, it’s a good idea to plan a camping trip to this state historic park to really experience it properly.
It is significant because it was once the world’s largest hydraulic mining pit, during the height of the California gold rush. Miners would use high-powered water canons to erode mountains and expose gold hidden beneath the surface.
Today you can see the sedimentary cliffs that used to be mountains by hiking the Diggins Loop Trail. The resulting law suits against the North Bloomfield Mining Company, sparked by the mining damage, were the first environmental law suits brought in the US.
This post was first published in September 2016, and was updated in January 2021.
Is Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park open during COVID-19?
The campgrounds and historic buildings that make up North Bloomfield ghost town are currently closed at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. Check with the park’s website for updates.
However, the park is open from sunrise to sunset for those who want to hike the trails, and the visitor center will be open intermittently (not daily) between 10am and 4pm. Call (530) 265-2740 to check if the visitor center will be open during your visit.
Parking is limited, and social distancing of six feet is required in the park. Masks are required in buildings such as the visitor center. You should also bring your own soap and hand sanitizer, and pack out any garbage when you leave. Please follow these guidelines to keep yourself, and others, safe.
Getting to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
Our trip to Malakoff Diggins was my second proper camping trip in California and I was surprised that we returned wholly unscathed. Uneaten by bears, untouched by mosquitoes (not for lack of trying on their part), and thankfully, not disturbed by the Blair Witch. Why am I mentioning the Blair Witch? You’ll find out soon enough.
Getting to the park from San Francisco late on a Friday night proved a little challenging though. Unfortunately, my sense of direction and navigational skills are severely lacking.
If a brown bear buckled himself into the passenger seat, picked up a map upside down and began grunting out instructions – you’d arrive at your destination faster than if I was sitting there holding a GPS.
I wish there was a way of testing that. Because I’d use Smokey the Bear. He’d point out the way whilst giving handy tips on how not to start forest fires. He’s all about safety.
Anyway, Google Maps engaged, we left for Malakoff Diggins State Park after work on Friday night. Mr M drove the four hour trip while I graciously provided witty banter, fantastic tunes and moral support. I was also good enough to send us in the wrong direction.
Around 10pm, we were both tired and instead of switching to the printed map that takes you along paved roads all the way to the camp site, I stuck with the GPS and sent us into dirt road hell.
The park website says it’s just six miles of dirt, pot holed, skunk-ridden, windy, rocky road (embellishments added by me), but it felt like 15 miles at least. We made it eventually. Even though I kind of wanted to turn that ship around when we found a sign pointing out the “Blair Trail”. It was unsettlingly close to our campsite.
That whole story is the long-winded way of saying, here’s the best way to get to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park: Once you hit Nevada City, turn onto Highway 49 and head 11 miles north toward Downieville. Turn right onto Tyler Foote Crossing Road, and stay on the paved road following the yellow line into the park. The road name will change during your trip, but stay with the map and that yellow line.
Things to do in Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
Well done for arriving at the park! You’re right, it’s not actually that complicated. There are a few things that you shouldn’t miss during your stay at the 3,000-acre park.
Set up camp
You can choose to set up your tent at the Chute Hill Campground, or stay in comparative luxury at the North Bloomfield Cabin Colony.
We chose the former, and since the 30 campsites are sized for smaller RVs and motorhomes (24ft and smaller), they are huge if you’re just there with a tent. These are all back-in sites and there aren’t any hookups for RVs within the park. The closest dump station is at Nevada City. The maximum trailer length allowed in the park is 18 feet.
This is nothing like Yosemite where you can be sitting around your campfire and still be able to reach out and touch the people at the next site. We had two adjacent campsites, which we shared with Mr M’s parents, and from our site, they were the only people we could see.
The campsites all have fire rings, picnic tables and bear boxes. Be sure to store food and personal hygiene items in the bear boxes provided, because the area is known for black bear activity.
Basically, looking out of our tent all we could see was trees and sky. Exactly how you want it to be.
You can also stay at one of three “miner’s cabins” in the North Bloomfield Cabin Colony, which feature a sink, cold water, bunk bed sleeping platforms, and a table and bench seats.
The best part about the campground and cabins (in my mind) is that they all have access to flush toilets.
Visit the historic mining town of North Bloomfield
About a mile from the Chute Hill Campground, you’ll find the historic mining town of North Bloomfield. Called the Slaughterhouse Trail, it is a fairly steep climb to the campground, so be prepared for that.
You can see remnants of the equipment that North Bloomfield Mining Company employees used to find gold, here in the historic town. Mining began in the area back in 1852 when a gold deposit was found in Humbug Creek near the South Yuba River.
The town was originally called Humbug, and drew miners keen to try their luck, including Chinese immigrants., but they decided on a name change to North Bloomfield in 1858. When the findings proved slim, many miners abandoned their claims for more lucrative gold fields.
In 1866 the abandoned claims were consolidated into 1,535 acres, the North Bloomfield Mining Company was formed and hydraulic mining began in earnest, making the town important.
Many of the buildings that formed the town are still standing or have been rebuilt and if you visit during the summer months, you can take one of the daily guided town tours. Tours are available on weekends at other times (except during COVID-19).
The tour is a great way to learn about the mining history of the town, as well as what life was like for the inhabitants of the town back in the 1800s. It grew to around 2,000 residents in the first half of the 1880s and the town grew with it. In it’s heyday it had hotels, grocery stories, a few saloons, breweries, a barber, drugstore, and of course housing.
Today you can enter a reconstructed saloon, a drugstore complete with tiny apothecary bottles lining the shelves, and at least one of the family homes in the town. Visit the mining museum attached to the visitor’s center to see more mining equipment and memorabilia.
We visited during the Labor Day weekend, when the park holds its annual ice cream social.
See the results of hydraulic mining
Malakoff Diggins was California’s largest hydraulic mine, which meant miners built dams and ditches to feed water into pipes, building pressure with the help of gravity. Hoses would wash away tons of gravel to uncover gold wedged beneath.
Over 100 miles of canals and ditches were built to carry water to the claim sites to blast away the hillsides. Miners also used mercury to separate gold from the surrounding sediment, which was washed down the Yuba River along with entire hillsides. It caused ecological havoc on the land downstream, which included farms.
The destruction lead to multiple lawsuits against the mining company, which led to its eventual closure.
The colorful walls of the “Diggins” and piles of rubble are the remains of the hydraulic mining operations that you can still see today. Hike the Diggins Loop Trail that takes you on a tour of the mine pit floor to look up at the human-made “cliffs” above, or try the Rim Trail to view them from above.
Take a hike in the state historic park
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park is home to more than 20 miles of hiking trails that range from easy to difficult.
We hiked the easy Diggins Loop Trail that is just 2.6 miles long and takes you along the floor of the mining pit. The trail isn’t always easy to find and follow, but it’s almost impossible to get lost. Just keep your eyes peeled for bears. We came across some scat that suggested they frequent the trail. Bring a change of shoes because it can get muddy on this trail.
Other notable trails include:
- Rim Trail & Slaughterhouse Trail Loop: 5.5 miles, moderate, takes you around the mining pit.
- Blair Trail: 2.4 miles, moderate, out to a human-made lake and back.
- Humbug Trail: 4.9 miles, moderate, meets the South Yuba River and is also a horse trail.
Join an evening program
The parks staff hold learning program events on top of the daily tours of the North Bloomfield town. We joined one on a Saturday evening where we got to feel the pelts of a bear, skunk, grey wolf, rabbit, and raccoon, among many others.
There was also a group campfire and smores. The staff know their stuff, are really friendly and will go out of their way to answer your questions.
Check at the visitors center for the program of events scheduled during your stay.
Combine hiking and fishing by heading out to Blair Lake for a bit of angling. You’ll find black bass, bluegill and rainbow trout in the lake.
Or try your luck in the South Yuba River, which are home to both rainbow and brown trout. Remember that anyone over the age of 16 will need a California fishing license.
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