The popular Hardrock Trail area is the historic heart of Empire Mine State Historic Park. Its trails, combined with the adjoining Union Hill Trails Area on the north and the Osborne Hill Trails on the south, gives visitors access to the entire 856 acre park.
Place: Grass Valley, CA
Season: Year around
Land: Empire Mine State Historic Park
Trail signs: Good direction signs throughout most of the trail network
Length: Hardrock Trail 1.6 mi. – Empire Street Trail 0.7 mi. – Orleans Trail 0.5 mi.
Altitude change: Depends on trail taken. Maximum net elevation change is less than 200 feet
Trail surface: Native soil or gravel
Environment: Historic mine headquarters and mine yards in an area of former widespread mining activity with altered terrain, old mining structures and equipment, tailing piles and mining roads still evident. One modern passive mine water treatment system (Magenta Drain) with ponds along East Empire Street. The area is now extensively wooded with a variety of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. Trees include ponderosa and sugar pine, Douglas fir, incense cedar, oak and maple.
Facilities: Restrooms and picnic tables at park headquarters along East Empire Street
Rules: Park trails are open from dawn to dusk; stay on marked trails; no motor vehicles; no camping; dogs must be on leash; all natural and historic features of the park are protected. Stay out of closed areas. Caution: poison oak, ticks, and rattlesnakes.
Penn Gate Trailhead: From Highway 49 in Grass Valley go east on Empire Street 1/2 mile and enter the trailhead parking area on your right. There is a large supplemental parking area for horse trailers behind the car parking lot. The popular Hardrock Trail leaves from the Penn Gate (N39.20940 W121.05717.)
Visitor Center Trailhead: From Penn Gate continue another 3/4 mile east on East Empire Street to the main visitor parking lot at Empire Mine State Historic Park. This is where you will find the historic mine yard, the Visitor Center, and the elegant Bourn estate buildings and grounds. At the far southeast end of the main parking lot (to your left as you face the mine yard) you will find a metal gate and wayside exhibit that form the eastern trailhead for the Hardrock Trail (N39.20663 W121.04493) which in turn leads to other park trails.
A bit of history: The Empire Mine area as you see it today was actually a complex of several mines. Under consolidated ownership it became the “richest hardrock gold mine in California.” There is a rich and fascinating history here too, well told in the park’s visitor center where displays, publications and guided tours are available for those who would like to explore the impressive history of “The Empire.” (See also http://www.empiremine.org/)
A special caution: The large central core of the Hardrock Trail Area is presently closed for remediation of toxic substances left over from historic mining and milling activities. This is a long-term project with no certain date of completion. Trails in the area now skirt the closed section. For good health and safety reasons, it is important to stay out of this section and any other place in the park that is fenced or designated as off limits.
Trail tips: The Hardrock Trail is the main trail of this area. It is popular with many types of trail users – hikers, walkers, joggers, equestrians and bicyclists. By combining the Hardrock Trail and the Empire Street Trail you can make a complete 2.4 mile loop of the Hardrock Trail Area and also connect to all other trails in the park. Those connections and sights along the Hardrock Trail are described below.
Loop from Penn Gate:
Quick Description: This loop starts with a long level stretch going south, crosses Little Wolf Creek, then turns east and begins a long and gentle counterclockwise climb to its highest point alongside the mine yard near the Visitor Center. Return to Penn Gate via the Empire Street trail starting at the Visitor Center. It’s level or easy downhill all the way.
Detailed Description: Starting south from the Penn Gate you will soon see a trail exhibit on your right with a good map of the Hardrock Trail and the entire park — with one exception. It does not show the informal but well used trail that comes from the Visitor Center back to Penn Gate along Empire Street. This is the Empire Street Trail, not technically on park land. It closely follows Empire Street from the Visitor Center to the far northeast corner of the Penn Gate parking lot near the street. (There is also a shortcut on your left as you near Penn Gate that comes down into the horse trailer parking area.)
Remnants of the Pennsylvania Mine will be on your left as you enter a sunny section of the Hardrock Trail just south of the trail exhibit. A side trail going left from the old cement buildings on your left will take you up to the remnants of a mule corral with a fence made of thick steel cables. Mules were used extensively in pulling ore carts, and many mules lived for years in the mine tunnels.
About 1/4 mile south of Penn Gate you will see trails going off to your right and left. The trail on your right goes about 1/3 mile to Stacey Lane, a Grass Valley neighborhood. The short trail on your left goes to the big rock pile area you can see from the Hardrock Trail. These are tailings of the W.Y.O.D. Mine (Work Your Own Diggin’s). The tailings are crisscrossed by an informal network of trails with no signs. If you head generally north through the tailings you will come out on the W.Y.O.D. Crosscut Trail which goes about 250 yards north to the Empire Street Trail. There are also connections back to the Hardrock Trail from the W.Y.O.D. Crosscut Trail. They come out in the vicinity of the Pennsylvania Mine.
Continuing south on the Hardrock Trail, you will be on a raised roadbed where railcars or trucks once carried and dumped tailings from the Pennsylvania Mine. The tailings created a “Sand Dam” which held back the waters of Little Wolf Creek. As you reach the southern end of this stretch you will see and cross the spillway of the creek.
Near this spillway there will be a split in the trail that can be confusing. Don’t worry. Either way will get you back on the main Hardrock Trail after about 100 yards. The left fork here is a narrow path (horses not allowed) that runs along a fence on high ground. The right fork drops down through the former creek bed and curves back up to continue as the main trail. (Off this right fork are paths that lead west a couple of hundred yards through the woods to a small trailhead at McKnight Way in Grass Valley, east of the freeway.)
After crossing Little Wolf Creek, the Hardrock Trail starts uphill into a very nice wooded hillside stretch. This section of the trail opens up with oak, maple, blackberry, fern and pines. In winter you may catch a glimpse of a distant ridgeline. The park provides a corridor for wildlife such as bear, coyote, rabbit, deer and a number of bird species. This is a good place to listen for birdsong and keep an eye out for wildlife.
On your right, less than 200 yards after crossing Little Wolf Creek, you will see the Osborne Hill Crosscut trail leading off to your right. This is a lovely trail that leads into the excellent network of trails comprising the Osborne Hill Trail Area.
Another 1/2 mile east along the Hardrock you will come to an important trail junction. The large trail on your right is the Osborne Hill Loop Trail, the primary route to all trails in the Osborne Hill Trail Area. The small trail on your left leads to a pretty foot bridge over Little Wolf Creek and then right back in about 150 yards to the main Hardrock trail. It’s a nice shortcut.
Immediately after the junction just mentioned, the main Hardrock Trail curves left, fords Little Wolf Creek, and then starts uphill and northward toward the park headquarters. Less than 200 yards up the hill there is another important junction. On your right you will first see a gated road into a park maintenance yard, and then the Orleans Trail marked by a sign that says “Union Hill 0.5 Mile.” This refers to the Union Hill Trails Area of the park north of Highway 174 where there are many trails to explore in a quiet hillside setting. On your left at this intersection are the impressive foundations of the Orleans Mine stamp mill and, beyond it to the west, another closed area of the park.
About 100 yards up the Hardrock Trail from the stamp mill you will find impressive remnants of the Orleans Mine itself on the hillside to your right. There are cement foundations and some discarded and rusting mining equipment here, much of it overgrown with vegetation. (Note that there is a narrow but well used shortcut trail on the hillside above the cement foundations that runs from the Hardrock Trail to the Orleans Trail a bit south and east of the mine ruins.)
About 0.2 mile north of the Orleans Mine you will reach a metal gate marking the east end, or Visitor Center trailhead, of the Hardrock Trail. Approaching it you’ll see the metal buildings of the mine yard, the foundation of an emergency generator for the mine, and an “A” frame structure used for lifting heavy machinery.
Pass the gate and walk left through the Visitor Center parking lot. This is your chance to use the restroom and to stop in at the Visitor Center to learn more about gold mining history or tour the historic buildings and grounds. Note that there are picnic tables in variously placed around the main parking lot, and also around the overflow parking area located across East Empire Street.
To return to Penn Gate, take the Empire Street Trail west from the Visitor Center. Look for a green gate near the street by the Visitor Center and go through the marked trail entrance on the left side of the gate. Although the trail follows a noisy street, the first 0.2 mile is lined with lovely shade trees and it follows a rock wall behind which you will glimpse beautifully maintained gardens and buildings of the Bourn estate.
About 1/3 mile beyond the Visitor Center you will encounter the Magenta Drain, a recently-built passive mine water treatment system with three settling ponds. Here the trail crosses a service road, runs along the edge of two ponds, then comes back alongside Empire Street. At this point there is one last important trail junction. On your left, adjacent to the upper settling pond fence, the W.Y.O.D. Crosscut Trail runs south to the old W.Y.O.D. mine area with its large waste rock tailing piles. Off that trail running west are two short trails that link the W.Y.O.D. Crosscut Trail back to the Hardrock Trail not far from the Penn Gate.
The shortest way to Penn Gate from the intersection by the settling pond is to stay on the Empire Street Trail next to the road. Or you can go left on the W.Y.O.D. Crosscut Trail, take the first fork to your right, pass the mule corral and rejoin the Hardrock Trail in front of the abandoned cement buildings of the Pennsylvania Mine. From there it is less than 150 yards north to the Penn Gate.