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Hometown travels: Chilcoot, Calif. offers rugged rural charm

Don’t blink or you just might miss it! This is the heartfelt piece of advice offered by locals to the many motorists passing through Chilcoot, Calif., most likely on their way to one of the many well-known surrounding cities or to nearby Frenchman’s Lake in the hopes of catching a bite of rainbow trout or catfish.

View from Steel Bridge on Marble Hot Springs Road located near Chilcoot, Calif., in the heart of the Sierra Valley. Locals say it's a great spot for birdwatching in spring.
View from Steel Bridge on Marble Hot Springs Road located near Chilcoot, Calif., in the heart of the Sierra Valley. Locals say it's a great spot for birdwatching in spring.

This vast land, home to families who have raised children for generations within the same property lines, consists of scattered mobile homes dressed up to blend in with pastures among fields of alfalfa and hay. But look through the weeds blowing in the dusty wind and one can see much more. Dirt roads dip into valleys which open to caves ready for exploring and open land to dig into for antique bottles. Steep mountain sides offer dirt bike riders perfect mountain climbs to challenge them, while the natural rough of the crystal peaks and hot springs are for any to admire.

Located just 30 minutes from Reno, Nev. and not far from Lake Tahoe, in this small town the cows, sheep and horses outnumber its 200 residents. Host to one hybrid gas station and grocery store that is often out of gas and a post office which holds the mail for both Chilcoot and Vinton, the next town over, the area lacks tourist attractions. Instead, the outdoors is where paradise is found.

Doug Miles, a resident of Chilcoot for 39 years, said, “I love being able to wake up, walk out my front door and jump on my bike. I can go anywhere, any time I want. Freedom. Pure freedom.”

State Highway 70 divides Chilcoot into two parts, and opens up into Vinton two miles down the road. An outsider would say the two towns were one, but locals know the city line. An alternative to driving from one to the other is to ride or walk along the highway on the worn dirt road.

Starting from Vinton, walking towards Chilcoot, one will see on one side of the road open fields of alfalfa and cows. On the opposite side, the Goss Suffolk Lamb Ranch engulfs the local cemetery, which covers an area no larger than a city block. A few houses and a storage unit are scattered among the sage brush between the two towns. Upon coming to the town line, a llama farm resides on the same side of the street as Wade’s Sierra Auto Parts & Service.

Across the street from the auto shop, the old country store Wiggin’s Trading Post stands adorned with wooden fishing signs hung from strings of wire. It is the only store between the two towns of Chilcoot and Vinton, and has been open for over 50 years. The nearest major store that sells more than the absolute necessities is in Reno. “My husband and I have lived here a long time. We take pride in our business and try to supply a little bit of everything. Our most popular items are the worms, fishing tackle, fresh meat from the deli, and ice in the summer,” said Shirley Wiggin, owner of the store.

Layered in frost and snow during the winter, tasks as simple as taking out the trash can become a dangerous feat in Chilcoot, requiring residents to skate across the black ice to get access to their garbage cans. Although dangerous, snowmobile enthusiasts don’t mind the inches of snow that accumulate from any given snowfall. Scraping the frost from the windshield in the cold mornings is a daily routine before leaving for work, and the cold is a bitter bone chill due to a low humidity level. Snow chains are in people’s cars almost year round because the weather is so unpredictable. After all, it has snowed up until June before.

Making up for the chaos that the cold brings, summer offers beautiful sunsets that outline the Sierra Nevada. Sweet breezes flicker up to cool a hot face and bare legs. The landscape, newly decorated with spring flowers and green trees, is perfect for taking family pictures. But the local favorite is the tree and flower pollen, which creates a permanent aroma that never fails to give a breath of fresh air.

No matter where one stands in Chilcoot, a variety of dirt roads stretch out for miles, inviting passerby to embark on off-road adventures. At the end of any of these paths those willing to brave the bears, snakes and mosquitoes will undoubtedly find a beautiful scenic layout and a place to pitch a tent. Some areas are considered private property, but as long as campers keep their peace, peace will be kept for all. There are also various campgrounds that can be spotted near the roads for those who want an exciting place to further explore.

The night sky, free of city lights, offers the blue collar workers a chance to rest their weary feet and gaze at the brilliant array of stars many in the city might have never known existed in such a large magnitude without towns like Chilcoot. Picture a pitch black sky with a slight wind chill nipping the end of your nose. The brightest stars you can see shine with confidence and boldness. The scene is breathtaking to those who witness it for the first time, and refreshing to those who return to it.

“My favorite place in the area is definitely Frenchmen’s,” said local James Ball, an army veteran who fought in Afghanistan. “During certain times of the year there aren’t any people. It’s peaceful and a very pretty area all year round. You can jump off rocks or go water skiing, and the campgrounds support the lake.”

Frenchman’s Lake, a reservoir, offers campground after campground around the mid-size lake, equipped with outhouse restrooms and welcoming fire pits, as visitors curve down it’s narrow gravel road. $20 camping sites have plenty of room for one to three tents each, and most are private. Pine trees seclude the area from the rest of civilization, and hosts a variety of animals that not only coo and sing, but also hoot, howl, bark and growl.

During the day, dirt bike and ATV enthusiasts of all kinds can find a place to rip across the landscape. Helmeted dare devils riding motorized mobiles is not an uncommon thing for the local “Chilcoot’ns.” But, knowing that Chilcoot is at least a half an hour away from any town big enough for an actual shopping mall or hospital, don’t break your gear — or your body!