Bear River Awakening

Scenic Tour

Middle Bear River

People and roads dominate the middle reach of the Bear River. A triangle of highways, Routes 49 and 174 and Interstate 80, provide commuter access for the many people who live in this stretch of the Bear watershed. Residents enjoy the character of the river and its canyons, and love to live here.

Photograph by Julie Carville

Rollins Lake above Colfax, Lake Combie near Meadow Vista, Lake of the Pines, and Camp Far West near Lincoln are the major reservoirs. All provide boating and swimming recreation, though two are privately owned and access is for members. Flows in the Bear River itself are carefully managed for water supply. Between Rollins and Combie, flows during the summer vary but are generally very favorable for recreation — the water temperature is ideal on hot summer days. Inner tubes, rafts, and inflatable kayaks float between the Bear River Campground near Colfax and the Dog Bar Bridge. Some use this Class II stretch to learn and practice hardshell kayaking in winter when flows are high (600+ cfs). Fishing is good, and gold panning is common.

The river between Lake Combie and Camp Far West is splendid in winter and spring when the mighty Bear flows unimpeded, with some of the least known and beautiful falls and gorges. Summer flows below Combie Dam are minimal (6 cfs), and the river becomes stagnant with warm, algae-choked water; this river segment is a prime candidate for restoration for resolving conflicts between the beneficial uses: water diversion, fisheries, recreation, and open space.

Photograph by Julie Carville
Inset: Ramm's Maddia

The legacy of hydraulic mining is omnipresent: gravels fill the riverbed, gravel bars are abundant, and sand-and-gravel mining operations work the river for the spoils of the prior era. (Read more about Mining on the Bear River … )

Trout fishing is good above Combie, with a native brown trout fishery, and rainbow trout stocked often. The warm water fisheries for bass and bluegill are good in all the reservoirs. Mercury in fish tissue, a legacy of hydraulic mining, is a problem in some areas, so sport fishing (catch and release) and being cautious not to eat Bear River fish regularly are recommended.

Photograph by Julie Carville
Insets: Spicebush and Manzanita

At the lower elevations of the Middle Bear River, there is a gradual change in the vegetation from the snow adapted, wetter, conifer-dominated forest of the Upper Bear to a dryer zone of Gray Pines, magnificent Blue Oaks and Valley Oaks in open savannas and grasslands. In riparian zones, the Bear River flows by oak-spotted hillsides and impenetrable thickets of Buckeyes, Spicebush, Willows, and other shrubs and is fed by tributaries of small waterfalls, meandering streams and lush canyon gardens. In the hot, dry, lower elevations madrones, manzanitas, and other tough, leathery-leaved shrubs share the rocky hills and grassy meadows in March through May with Blue Lupines, Yellow Madias, Golden Poppies and many other wild flowers that form tapestries of color.

Middle Bear at the Crossroads

Photograph by Andy Laursen

Growth and development will increase for this commuter-friendly reach of the river. Will densities become so high that traffic problems predominate? Will road widening and building change the nature of the area? Will erosion from roads and houses determine a silty fate for the river?

Agriculture has defined the open space character of this area in the past. Will agriculture be supported? Will local market demand, tax breaks, or even subsidies keep the land open and productive? Or will it all be converted to ranchettes?

Will areas used for sand-and-gravel operations transition to more public uses, like at the top of Rollins Lake, or at Ben Taylor Road near Colfax, or at Lake Combie? Or will private uses increase, further limiting access to the river?

Will river frontage development transform the last of the Bear's secret treasures? Or will land management practices strike a balance to retain the features that draw people here in the first place?

Will river access increase to please the many new residents? Or will access be limited to the privileged few who have direct ownership?

Continue your tour with the Lower Bear River

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