Bear River Awakening

Scenic Tour

Upper Bear River

Photograph by Andy Laursen

The Bear River upper watershed is unique in the Sierra. Because of the stream capture of its high Sierra headwaters by the Yuba River, the watershed begins in mid-elevation around 5500 feet. The Bear Valley, just below the headwaters bounded by Interstate 80 and Route 20, offers one of the best known panoramic views in the Sierra.

These mid-elevation watershed lands differ from other Sierran rivers because they are 97 percent privately owned; US Forest Service owns only about 2000 acres in the Bear River Watershed and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings are scant. Land management and planning are in private hands overseen by county land use policies.

The three upper watershed drainages have very different profiles:

  • Bear Valley meadows provides easy public access. Fishing is popular as restoration of its upper meadows returns healthy native Brown Trout populations. Campgrounds, a wheel-chair accessible nature walk, bicycling, winter cross country skiing and snowshoeing, hiking, and picnicking are popular. Divestment of the huge land holdings by PG&E is the imminent change for this area.

  • Steep Hollow Creek in the center of the upper watershed is remote and inaccessible, has few residents, and is managed for timber. It has the reputation of being wild and woolly country with independent-minded residents.

  • Greenhorn Creek is managed for timber in its southern side, with some cabins. The northern side becomes progressively more developed as it reaches the outskirts of Grass Valley.

Photograph by Julie Carville

Some elements are common to this watershed between 3000 and 5000 feet. All forks were heavily mined hydraulically and the river channels are choked with gravels as deep as 100 feet over the original riverbed. Sand and gravel companies operate on all forks. Its upper slopes are logged. Parcels are being split and the trend is toward more cabin residential development.

Photograph by Julie Carville
Inset: Mountain Ash

The Bear River begins its life as a small, spring-fed pond. As its waters seep from the pond and through the ground, they form a meandering stream that flows beneath towering conifers and through leafy under-stories of deciduous trees and shrubs. In spring, the forest awakens with red columbines, white trilliums, and other flowers that bloom among fern-covered gardens.

Sky Lupine
Crimson
Columbine

The Upper Bear also travels through open, rugged country with panoramic mountain views, steep craggy cliffs and rocky outcrops that shelter summer cascades of wildflowers. As it winds its way down the mountain, the River flows over huge boulders and into tiny side pools, until it arrives in grassy, sun-filled Bear Valley to nurture summer blooms of yellow buttercups, purple lupines and other colorful wildflowers. In fall the mountains turn a vibrant red and yellow from deciduous trees and shrubs, and in winter deep snows cover the upper forests and meadows in silent, white splendor.

Photograph by Julie Carville

The Discovery Trail Bridge (picture, right) guides visitors over the Upper Bear River to a level trail, that meanders through a sunlit forest and past stream-side settings.

Upper Bear at the Crossroads

Seventeen thousand acres of Bear and Yuba River watersheds are being divested by PG&E. Will these lands have public access, allowing the recreation and tourism of Bear Valley that is now in its infancy to flourish? Or will Bear Valley become subdivided and out of public reach?

Photograph by Andy Laursen

Low density residential homes and mountain cabins dominate Greenhorn Creek and the balance of the Bear's upper watershed. Sediment and erosion from development and road construction are now the primary threat to water quality. Will land management practices change to keep the Bear's water clear and clean? Or will unskillful management and development create a very different legacy and further degrade water quality in the Bear?

Continue your tour with the Middle Bear River

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