Historic Gold Rush town Michigan Bluff off beaten path
Situated at about the halfway point of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, Michigan Bluff is a California Gold Rush town so tiny nobody even bothers to count how many people live there. Could be about 20. Give or take. An old mining hamlet that once teemed with thousands of gold-seeking pioneers, this is what they call in true Old West cowboy slang a “one-horse town.” Which means a town so utterly minuscule that nothing happens there and one horse is all it needs for all of its transportation needs. A town so tiny that dogs snooze sprawled in the middle of the road, there is no post office or store, and neighbors pretty much just walk into each other’s houses unannounced.
There is one day a year in late June, when this historic Sierra Nevada Gold Rush town settlement welcomes thousands of people decked out in colorful high-tech running gear. Friends, family, spectators and volunteers spend much of the day waiting for runners tackling what is considered the world’s first 100-mile trail run.
On this day, the itty-bitty Gold Rush hamlet that is also a Historical Landmark is the destination of thousands. This is where runners hit mile 55.7 of 100 when they make a right turn off “Turkey Hill Road” into “town.” They’ve just swept past the rather funky, hand-lettered “Michigan Bluff “sign draped with athletic shoes. And they are praying to make it to the finish line – another 44.5 miles away in another gold-mining town of Auburn. In front of the runners lie lower elevations, but even more heat and powdery dust on trails once trodden by donkeys and gold miners seeking riches in the 1850s.
Gold Rush town history once had 10,000 residents
On race day, I’m not sure anybody actually looks at the historical markers and signs for both the Western States run and the town itself. They should.
Michigan Bluff was originally called Michigan City when it was founded in 1849. But the entire place was originally farther down the hill, but it started to slide into the river. Not such good planning, really. So town fathers moved the town up the hill and renamed it Michigan Bluff — for the bluff it is now on. Oh, there were turf battles between the “north” town and the “south” town, but it still became one of the richest and most prosperous gold-mining towns in the area in the 1860s and ‘70s, reaching a population of at least 10,000 or more, some say.
These days, the few thousand that come and go on the day of the Western States run is big news in town. In fact, the run follows trails that hold a lot of California history about Gold Rush towns and the era, as summarized on the Western States website. This, my friends, is a big deal in Michigan Bluff.
Worth a trek to this Gold Rush town
No, there’s not much there, but that’s what makes it charming and worth a stop for a hike or a walk when in the Sierra Nevada Gold Country. You can use the Western States Run’s maps to find out where you can go from this Gold Rush town. Long story short, once you get to Michigan Bluff (elev. 3,510 feet), look for the sign for Turkey Hill Road where the historical markers are. Then just head up the dirt road. You’ll pass the shoe-draped sign just up on your left. Not much farther than about a quarter mile from the intersection, you’ll see a sign noting the trails and distances. That’s where it drops into the canyons. It’s only about 2.8 miles down to El Dorado Creek, but keep in mind you’ll need to walk back up again too.
To get there from Interstate 80 on the way to Lake Tahoe: Take Foresthill Road to Michigan Bluff Road (about 24 miles). You will go about 4 miles past the town of Foresthill before you turn right and go down the hill on Michigan Bluff Road for about another three miles.
Discover more California gold mining history
There is so much history to experience in Northern California, especially around the gold rush. We’d recommend starting with visiting some of the many small history museums in Placer County for starters. Read Visit Northern California history museums for free in Placer County. If gold panning is your thing, did you know there are gold panning championships held every year? Learn more by reading The gold panning world championships — not just about panning for gold.