Historic Ukiah-Tahoe Highway Association
Historic Ukiah-Tahoe Highway Association
The Historic Ukiah-Tahoe Highway
The current route of the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway is approximately 222 miles long on mostly 2 lane back road. The highway crosses Mendocino, Lake, Colusa, Sutter, Yuba, Nevada and Placer Counties. Starting at Ukiah at the western end in the Coastal Range, driving through the Sacramento Valley and ending high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Tahoe City. This drive is a great way to see one of the very historic and scenic back roads of California and small town America. So get in your car, RV, motorcycle or collector car and take a ride. The best time of year for this ride is from April until late September. After the snow starts in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, some of the Alternate Routes may not be passable.
The Ukiah-Tahoe Highway crosses 4 major highways, US 101, Interstate 5, US 99 and Interstate 80. So if you don’t want to take the entire trip at one time, it can easily be divided into smaller sections.
History of the Highway:
Prior to November 1920, there was a mostly passable dirt and gravel road connecting Ukiah and Nevada City that went around the south side of Clear Lake, this section of road was not always passable in wet weather. Some sections of this early road were privately owned toll roads.
In November of 1920, a new road was proposed from Ukiah to Tahoe City. This new road would be called the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway. By the mid 1920’s, most of the road was completed except the portion on the north side of Clear Lake. This section was completed in 1932 and shortened the trip by several miles. In the early days, highways had names such as the Lincoln Highway, Yellowstone Trail and the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway. In 1934, this highway became part of the state and federal highway system and was assigned the following numbers starting at the west end. US 101, CA 20, US 40 and CA 89. In the 1960’s, the CA 40 portion of the highway was realigned to the new Interstate 80. One of the Alternate Routes in Nevada and Placer Counties, is the old US 40 Highway, this route was also part of the Lincoln Highway that went from New York City, NY to San Francisco, CA.
Over the years, the route has been realigned in many places. In many places the original road was at the same location as the current highway. At other locations, the original route still exists. Some of the original route no longer exists such as the part that is now under Lake Mendocino.
The Green Line shows the Current Route of the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway
The Green Line shows the Current Route of the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway
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Below is a short history of each county, the drive through the county and some “Points of Interest” that are nearby.
Mendocino County History:
Mendocino County was one of the original counties of California created in 1850 at the time of statehood. In the early days Mendocino County was known for logging and lumber mills, much of which was transported by railroad.
Today Mendocino County is known for many miles of beautiful coastline, redwood groves, wine production and Lake Mendocino. A large part of its economy is now based on cultivation of cannabis. Ukiah is the county seat.
Mendocino County - The Drive:
Starting at Perkins St in Ukiah, we suggest driving through downtown Ukiah on N. State St. and follow that all the way past The Forks, on to Capella then to CA 20. This is a much more interesting ride than following US 101 to Highway CA 20. CA 20 will take you past Lake Mendocino, through rolling hills past a Buffalo Ranch and into Lake County. US 101 north of San Francisco was called the Redwood Highway before 1934. Before the Freeway was built to the east of downtown Ukiah, US 101 was State St. The Ukiah-Tahoe Highway followed N. State St to the area known as The Forks then turned to the north-east and under what is now Lake Mendocino.
Mendocino County – Things To Do & Places to Stay:
• Motels & Hotels in Ukiah
• Restaurants & Bars in Ukiah
• Grace Hudson Museum & Sun House, 431 South Main St, Ukiah, CA. South Main St is just off of E. Perkins St.
• Vichy Springs Resort, 2605 Vichy Springs Road, Ukiah, CA. Take US 101 EXIT #549 and go east on Perkins St to Vichy Springs Rd.
• Camping, boating, fishing and day use at Lake Mendocino
• City of 10,000 Buddhas – Take the Tamage Exit east from US 101 a few miles south of the start of the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway.
• Skunk Train in Willits – 16 miles north of the US 101 – CA 20 intersection.
Lake County History:
In 1861, Lake County was created by combining portions of Mendocino, Colusa and Napa counties. In 1874, steamers began ferrying locals and tourists between towns around the lake. Hotels and resorts were soon built throughout the county, prospering even though the Clear Lake Railroad was never built as planned. By the 1880s, the hills were dotted with luxurious resorts built around mineral springs. Wealthy visitors from San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the world frequented the resorts, traveling to “take the waters” and indulge in lavish parties at establishments such as Hoberg’s Resort and Bartlett Springs. It is believed that the 1906 earthquake caused many of the hot springs to stop, slow down, or go underground because many of the springs changed around that time and in the years that followed.
The county is centered around Clear Lake that is estimated to be 2.5 million years old and is believed to be the oldest lake in North America. Clear Lake is also the largest natural freshwater lake that is entirely within the state of California at 63 square miles of surface area and over 100 miles of shoreline. Clear Lake is known as the “Bass Capital of the West” and holds the largest Catfish Darby west of the Mississippi River each May.
Today, Lake County is known for fishing, wine production and geothermal power at the Geysers, which is the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world. Lakeport is the county seat
Mount Konocti Information:
Mount Konocti is 4305 feet high and located on the south shore of Clear Lake. It last erupted about 11,000 years ago. Mount Konocti has an explosive, eruptive history with devastating lava flows ending about 13,000 years ago that formed the mountains from Clearlake Oaks to Ukiah, all of which now are covered by trees so the ancient flows are difficult to find in most areas.
Archaeologists have found evidence that native people, principally Pomo people and Wappo, have inhabited the area around Konocti for as much as 11,000 years.
Local people have long known that Konocti is riddled with natural caves. Although some of the natural caves collapsed or were filled in for safety in the early 20th century, persistent local belief holds that Konocti's central magma chamber is a vast, empty vertical cavern, partly filled with water and connecting with the Clear Lake via an underground creek entering Clear Lake at Horseshoe Bend. This cavern might be the largest on Earth, though its existence is difficult to prove due to the unstable and eroding structure of the volcano's cone. Heavy vegetation also conceals cave entrances. No accurate map or survey of the caves has been created due to the heavy underbrush and unstable hillsides. The majority of Konocti is owned by private parties or the County of Lake. Mt. Konocti County Park opened to the public in 2011.
Pomo legend has it that around the year 1818, after a long drought, the level of Clear Lake dropped so low that a previously unknown cave on the north-western flank of Konocti was exposed in Horseshoe Bend. A group of Pomo men entered the cave, and discovered a vast underground lake, containing "blind fish". Repeated attempts by divers to locate this cave have been unsuccessful.
In the 1990’s, a group of volunteers formed The Konocti Project in an attempt to find and map the caves and underground chambers. There is a series of 10 short videos on YouTube that show their progress and what they believe is underground. On YouTube, search “The Konocti Project” and you will find them.
Lake County - The Drive:
When entering Lake County, you will be on Highway CA 20. You will pass beautiful Blue Lakes, on to Historic Upper Lake, past Bloody Island and on to Nice. Soon the road will be alongside Clear Lake for the next several miles. You will drive through Lucerne, Glenhaven and Clearlake Oaks. The road between Lucerne and Clearlake Oaks was the last piece of the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway to be completed in 1932. Before leaving Clearlake Oaks, be sure to check your gas gage, as the next available gas is about 40 miles away. A few miles past the intersection of CA 53, start looking for the Tule Elk Herd that is sometimes in the area. Continue on to Colusa County.
Lake County – Things To Do & Places to Stay:
• Lodging, camping, swimming, fishing and relaxing at Blue Lakes
• Shopping on Main Street in Historic Upper Lake
• Boating, water skiing, swimming and fishing on Clear Lake
• Hotels & Motels along the route
• Visit local wineries
• View the Tule Elk Herds along the route in the eastern part of the county
• Visit Lakeport
• Historic Courthouse Museum, 255 N. Main Street Lakeport
• Hiking on Mt. Konocti
Colusa County History:
Colusa County originally spelled Colusi, was one of the original counties of California created in 1850 at the time of statehood. Parts of the county were given to Tehama County and Glenn County at a later date. Colusa County was known for cattle and sheep ranching and the railroad.
Today Colusa County is known for agriculture. The City of Colusa is the county seat.
Colusa County - The Drive:
Starting at the west end on Highway CA 20 in the Coastal Mountain Range, you will soon enter the Sacramento Valley and the City of Williams. Just as you enter Williams on CA 20 will be the intersection of Old Highway 99W and just down the road from that is the intersection of Interstate 5. Next comes the county seat of Colusa with nice tree lined streets and beautiful homes on the west end of town. Follow CA 20 through town and all the way to the Sacramento River where you will cross into Sutter County and the town of Meridian.
Colusa County – Things To Do & Places to Stay:
• Motels in Williams or Colusa
• Fruit and vegetable stands along the road
• Granzella’s Inn & Restaurant, 391 6th St, Williams, CA. Much of the original building was destroyed by fire on
Oct. 11, 2007 and has been rebuilt.
• Sacramento Valley Museum, 1491 E St., Williams, CA
• Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, 752 County Road 99W, Williams, CA
• Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, 2180 CA 20 (between Williams & Colusa)
• Old Highway 99W was the original US 99W that ran North/South along the west side of the Sacramento
Valley. It was replaced by Interstate 5 and is no longer a US highway.
Sutter County History:
Sutter County was one of the original counties of California created in 1850 at the time of statehood. Parts of the county were given to Placer County in 1852. Sutter County was named after John Sutter who started farming at Hoch Farm in 1841. Sutter County has a long history of flooding from the Sacramento & Feather Rivers and this has provided Sutter County fertile soil and the county has always been known for its vast farmlands. Sutter Buttes can be seen for many miles around and has always been a point of reference in the Sacramento Valley. With only about 17 miles of the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway within the county, Sutter County has one of the shortest sections of any of the 7 counties that it passes through, however, it has about 75% of the original route remaining today.
Today Sutter County is still known for agriculture. The Yuba City is the county seat.
Sutter County - The Drive:
Starting at the west end on Highway CA 20 at the Sacramento River and the town of Meridian follow CA 20 about 17 miles to the Feather River at Yuba City. You will see Sutter Buttes to the north and pass remains of Long Bridge also on the north side of the road. Alternate Routes to the north of the Current Route will take you through much of the county on the original Ukiah-Tahoe Highway.
Sutter County – Things To Do & Places to Stay:
• Motels in Sutter or Yuba City
• Restaurants in Sutter or Yuba City
• Fruit and vegetable stands along the road
• Community Memorial Museum of Sutter County, 1333 Butte House Rd. Yuba City.
Yuba County History:
Yuba County was one of the original counties of California created in 1850 at the time of statehood. The county was named after the Yuba River that flows through the county. In 1851 parts of the original county were given to Placer County and Nevada County. Some additional area was given to Sierra County in 1852. Yuba County is California’s gateway to the historic Mother Lode Country.
Today Yuba County is known for agriculture business in parts of the county, especially fruit orchards, rice fields, and cattle grazing. Marysville is the county seat.
Yuba County - The Drive:
Yuba County has just less than 22 miles of the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway, starting at the Feather River at Marysville. At the beginning, you will still be in the Sacramento Valley. A few miles past east, the drive will start a gentle climb into the Sierra Nevada foothills, over the Yuba River, past the turnoff to Timbuctoo and on to Nevada County.
Yuba County – Things To Do & Places to Stay:
• Motels & Hotels in Marysville
• Restaurants & Bars in Marysville
• The Historic Area of Marysville
• Ellis Lake in Marysville
• At the Yuba River Bridge, read Plague about the original crossing
• Go to Timbuctoo, just so you can say you’ve been there
• Visit Smartville
Nevada & Placer Counties:
Throughout this Travel Guide we have traveled one county at a time. When we get to Nevada and Placer Counties, both the Current Route and one of the Alternate Routes cross between counties several times, so we have combines these two counties in the provided maps for easy use.
Nevada County History:
Nevada County was created in 1851 from portions of Yuba County. This area came to life with the Gold Rush of 1849. Nevada County had the first long distance telephone line in the world built in 1877. In 1850, the Community of Rough and Ready seceded from the Union and became the great republic of Rough and Ready for a short time. In the mountain peaks near Truckee is where the ill-fated Donner Party wintered in 1846-47. Between 1863 and 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was built, some of the most difficult parts were in Nevada county.
Today Nevada County is known for the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains, historic towns and Donner Lake. Nevada City is the county seat.
Placer County History:
Placer County was created in 1851 from portions of Sutter and Yuba counties. Many people cane to the area for the Gold Rush of 1849. Gold mining remained a major industry through the 1880’s.
Today Placer County is known for the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains, skiing, historic towns and Lake Tahoe.
Auburn is the county seat.
Rough and Ready Information:
The town of Rough and Ready was founded in 1849 by the Rough and Ready Mining Company. It was described as a hidden hamlet among green meadows with riches that could not be hidden from fortune seeking miners.
In 1850, Colonel E. F. Brundage came up with the idea of a separate republic and issued a manifesto to organize the State of Rough and Ready. In April of 1850, Rough and Ready became the only mining town to officially secede from the USA. The Republic of Rough and Ready did not last long, as soon the residence realized that they could no longer celebrate the 4th of July as they we no longer part of the USA. Residence soon voted to rejoin the USA.
Lincoln Highway (US Highway 40) Information:
The Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest transcontinental highways for automobiles across the United States of America. Conceived in 1912 by Indiana entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher, and formally dedicated October 31, 1913. Most of the construction was finished in the late 1920’s and the Lincoln Highway ran coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York City west to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, originally through 13 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.
In 1915, the "Colorado Loop" was removed, and in 1928, realignment relocated the Lincoln Highway through the northern tip of West Virginia. The first officially recorded length of the entire Lincoln Highway in 1913 was 3,389 miles. Over the years, the road was improved and numerous realignments were made and by 1924 the highway had been shortened to 3,142 miles.
The Lincoln Highway was gradually replaced with numbered designations after the establishment of the U.S. Numbered Highway System in 1926, with most of the route becoming part of U.S. Route 30 from Pennsylvania to Wyoming, and US Routes 40 and 50 in the west. After the Interstate Highway System was formed in the 1950s, the former alignments of the Lincoln Highway were largely superseded by Interstate 80 as the primary coast-to-coast route from the New York City area to San Francisco.
West of Fallon NV, the Lincoln Highway split into 2 different routes to San Francisco. The southern route roughly followed what is now US Route 50 through Carson City, NV, Sacramento, CA and on to San Francisco.
The northern route from Fallon, mostly followed what is now Interest 80 and US Route 40 through Reno, NV, Sacramento, CA, Oakland, CA and San Francisco. Alternate Route #2 of the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway follows about 20 miles of the northern route.
Donner Party Information:
On April 14, 1846, the Donner Party started by wagon train from Independence, Missouri, heading to California. By early November, they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Truckee and became trapped by an early and heavy snowfall at the east end on what is now Donner Lake.
Food supplies were running low by mid December, and some of the group went looking for help. It wasn’t until mid February 1847 that help arrived and only 47 of the original 87 members were still alive, many of them having eaten the dead for survival.
Today, Donner Memorial State Park marks the site of the camp.
Nevada/Placer Counties - The Drive:
You will enter Nevada County just past Smartville on CA 20. Soon you will get to Penn Valley where Alternate Route #1 starts and the beginning of Side Trip #1. From there you can that Alternate Route through Rough & ready or follow the Current Route to Grass Valley and Nevada City. Alternate Route #1 ends in Nevada City. Continue on CA 20 until you come to Interstate 80 and follow it east. For the remainder of the trip, you will cross between Nevada and Placer Counties several times. At Cisco Grove (Exit 165), Alternate Route #2 starts. This will take you on a piece of the original Lincoln Highway (US 40) and over the original Donner Summit that was used before Interstate 80 was built in the 1960’s. Whichever route you take, follow it to Truckee, then south on CA 89 to Tahoe City and the end of the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway.
Nevada/Placer Counties – Things To Do & Places to Stay:
• Visit Rough and Ready
• Visit historic Grass Valley
• Visit Historic Nevada City
• Donner Summit/Rainbow Bridge
• Lodging, camping, swimming, fishing and relaxing at Donner Lake
• Donner Memorial State Park
• Visit the Historic Area of Truckee
• Lodging, camping, swimming, fishing and relaxing at Lake Tahoe