Editor’s note, April 25 at 10:30 a.m.: The photo below showing a dirt path from Hirschdale bridge down to the Truckee River incorrectly represents access to the river as from the west side of the bridge. In fact, appropriate access is via the east side.
Additionally, view an updated map with parking options in the Hirschdale area here.
For the past 20 years, Ed Heneveld has spent considerable time along a 3-mile stretch of the Truckee River northeast of Truckee — fishing and rafting and teaching his children and grandchildren to do the same. He’d often drive east along Hirschdale Road, navigating toward the northern bank of the Truckee River, drop his trailer off, then head back west to float the river from the Glenshire neighborhood to Hirschdale.
“We were in heaven having that last 3 miles of Class I, Class II rapids,” 76-year-old Heneveld told Moonshine Ink. “Respecting it [and] appreciating it.”
Heneveld is just one of many locals and visitors who have accessed the Truckee River from the Hirschdale community for years.
Jennifer Freeman, meanwhile, is a Hirschdale resident on the receiving end of such recreators. She sees it as a blessing, living in the community, but one with challenges. She’s experienced drivers speeding at 55 miles per hour along the 25-mph road, fishing guides bringing in vans and buses full of clients and setting up shop in her yard for hours, several days in a row, and people parking in her yard as if it were a parking lot.
The Hirschdale land is a patchwork quilt of public and private ownership. For decades, public access was assumed, with many recreators trudging across private property to enjoy the Truckee River. Then-property owners were rarely present in the area, and trespass law wasn’t often enforced. In late 2018, the parcels people were used to accessing were purchased from NV Energy by Randy Mezger, a longtime Truckee resident who wasn’t keen on trespassers.
He, too, saw firsthand some unfortunate events happening on his private land: campfires during fire bans, people cutting down trees to make room for campsites, dumping of furniture and trash, his own children playing adjacent to recreational shooters.
“Private property should hold value to people,” Mezger wrote in an email to the Ink. “Just because there are no structures on the land doesn’t mean it’s accessible for trespassing. This is my family retreat. My family’s getaway. My kids’ memories. My dogs’ nirvana. I don’t camp in your driveway, don’t encroach on ours.”
When Covid-19 exacerbated people’s need to spend time outside, increasingly tense altercations began taking place between property owners and recreators seeking to access the river. One Truckee resident was confronted by a property manager who fired a shotgun into the air. In recent months, Mezger installed a security-alarmed gate on his property blocking access to Hirschdale Road.
“I respect private property rights,” Heneveld said. “I just think there’s two sides to that story. Whatever benefits the public best should be a priority. This is not only a public benefit, it’s a public loss … It may be legal, but it’s not right.”
Last September, in light of the situation, Nevada County’s District 5 Supervisor Hardy Bullock convened a community listening session to discuss property access. From there, the Hirschdale Recreational Planning Stakeholder Group was formed to create solutions for the circumstances. The group met three times over the past seven months, and was made up of 10 members: three area property owners and residents; three rafting, boating, and water recreation advocates; one fly-fishing advocate; two Tahoe-Pyramid Trail advocates; and one community member.
Tony Lashbrook, who mediated the working group, made public his final report on March 21. The report was reviewed and commented on in advance of its release by the working group. Lashbrook, asked to lead the group because of his familiarity with the area and experience as former town manager for Truckee, summarized the group’s consensus on short-term options such as formalizing parking options and pedestrian access to the Truckee River on public lands in Hirschdale and establishing a permanent easement across private property for users of the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail.
Longer-term solutions such as vehicle access for fishing and a boating takeout and a trailhead (including a parking lot) were not agreed upon by those involved in the working group. Lashbrook told Moonshine the group worked together fairly well, managing to have effective conversations despite not ending up with a be-all, end-all solution.
“By no means did the stakeholder group make any decisions or anything like that. It’s advisory and it will feed into our upcoming recreation and resiliency master plan that we should be kicking off here later this year,” said Trisha Tillotson, community development agency director for Nevada County, and county representative for the group.
Concerns about Hirschdale as well as other areas in the county resulted in the board of supervisors developing a recreation objective for 2022 and recognizing the need for a master plan. Currently under discussion, the Nevada County Recreation and Resiliency Master Plan is meant to identify, enhance, and determine priorities for the county’s open space and recreational opportunities.
A part of the public access puzzle is the upcoming reconstruction of the Hirschdale bridges. The county project aims to renovate two nearly 100-year-old bridges, one over the Truckee River and the other spanning Union Pacific Railroad tracks. Per county staff, construction costs based on 65% plans are $1 million for the bridge over the railroad and $4.5 million for the one spanning the river. These costs don’t include permitting, right-of-way, or construction management.
With this reconstruction will come parking options along the side of the road and the addition of stairs from the river bridge down to the bank. When the project happens is contingent upon federal highway bridge program funding, which has experienced a nationwide shortage during the past couple of years. Tillotson said she does expect that funding to be replenished shortly.
Some have questioned the public money being spent on reconstruction of these bridges, dubbing them bridges to nowhere now that access to the river through Mezger’s property is curtailed. Tillotson pointed out the broader needs: “While Hirschdale Road and these two bridges do feed to not just one private property owner’s properties, but multiple private property owners to their land, it also feeds the county’s closed landfill of which we have to do regular monitoring of, and then also railroad property, U.S. Forest Service, and state lands.” In case of a wildfire, she added, the path to and up Hinton Road would serve as an escape route.
The Tahoe-Pyramid Trail uses the bridges to continue access along Hirschdale Road until the road ends on U.S. Forest Service property and becomes a trail. For the hikers and bikers utilizing the TPT through his property, Mezger has granted permission, saying most trail users are respectful of no trespassing signs. The easement recommended by the working group would formalize this permission. Those accessing their property beyond the gate can pass through in vehicles without alarm as well.
Adding to the confusion over access is that exact property lines are fuzzy. Immediately east of the Hirschdale bridges lie Mezger’s properties. At this time, there is no property map that shares the most up-to-date information for ownership in the area. Assessor parcel maps are not used because they “do not necessarily show legal lot boundaries, or conform to surveyed parcel map boundaries,” per Nevada County. Professional surveys, meanwhile, are legally binding documents that show where a property begins and ends, but the USFS and Nevada County are currently surveying the exact boundaries of their lands in Hirschdale and have not yet completed the task.
The below map shows the Hirschdale area and where private gates, marked with red lines, are located at this time.
“[Mezger] believes he owns a section of the road that the county abandoned back in the ’70s,” Tillotson said. “And then past that point, the forest service has a section of road that they own. The property owner, not knowing that the unmaintained section of county road was county road, did put signs out there and boulders. We’ve since issued an encroachment permit to work with him.”
Mezger says he is familiar with navigating public versus private areas in the region. A third generation Truckee-ite, he learned from his grandfather how to fish and hunt on public property in the Truckee River Canyon.
“In high school we experienced what private property meant and we were quickly escorted off this property [the land he now owns] by the wrecking yard operators,” he shared via email. “In college I earned gas money relocating classic cars from the Hirschdale wrecking yard. While working there, I learned the landowner at the time had no interest in leasing or selling the property.”
As Truckee’s population and number of visitors has increased, Mezger said his family sought a larger property that could be used “to escape some of the issues associated with overly populated public lands.”
Fellow Hirschdale property owner Freeman recounted her experiences with public trespassing: “Some of the things I have experienced in the eight years I have lived in Hirschdale include people pulling their kayaks and tubes out on my property and using my trail that goes directly up to my home where I live with my three kids full time. I have watched people burn their green waste on the private property across the river from me, fishermen allowing their dogs to run throughout my yard including up to my deck, using my yard as their bathroom, walking through my yard because it is easier than the public access near the bridge, and even setting up camp on my wood platform right after I bought my house. In addition, my neighbors and I have witnessed a number of drug deals and drug use taking place on Hirschdale Road.”
This, she added, all happened prior to Covid-19. When the pandemic hit, everything exploded in use: 100-plus cars on weekends driving past at high speed, parking all over the place, using private property as a restroom, and parties of 40 to 50 people camping on land clearly labeled as private property.
Present at the working group meetings was Erik Johnson, representing the Truckee River Alliance, an ad hoc group formed in response to the increasingly tense Hirschdale situation. The group consists of fishermen, boaters, and “folks who’ve been accessing this river for a long time and were upset not to be able to access it anymore,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who attended all three of the working group meetings, agreed that the problems Freeman mentioned are real and have been happening for a long time, and not just in Hirschdale. However, he believes there’s a better solution than landowners closing off access.
“One of the positive things that has come out of this is [Truckee River Alliance] has come out to be advocates for this section of river,” he said, adding that push for increased patrols, the installation of trash cans and restrooms, and more would benefit the people of Hirschdale as well as recreators.
“The long-term goal of the Truckee River Alliance is to see a restoration of access to this remarkable stretch of the Truckee River,” Johnson continued. “It is special in its unique rafting access, blue ribbon trout waters, amazing beaches, rich wildlife habitat, outstanding scenery, and unique history … There is a real opportunity that should not be missed to preserve this stretch of river now if we capitalize on the momentum and try to work collaboratively with landowners in the area toward a solution that will be of benefit for generations of Truckee residents for many years to come.”
Johnson expressed hope that the Truckee Donner Land Trust or another organizer can eventually purchase the Mezger land and make it publicly accessible. Mezger said he has not been approached to sell the property.
“This property was on the market for quite a long time,” said Greg Gatto, Mezger’s lawyer, of the Hirschdale land. “I represented a lot of people interested in buying it and they backed out because it has a landfill attached to it.” He added that the property was listed on Multiple Listing Services, providing “ample opportunity” for someone else to buy it.
The land trust, meanwhile, is always interested in opportunities to protect natural resources along the Truckee River, Executive Director John Svahn told Moonshine. “We have worked to protect nearly 5,000 acres in the Truckee River Canyon over the last two decades, including multiple parcels along the river.”
The TDLT has a number of river-related projects underway: with the Town of Truckee on public access, a pedestrian bridge and additions to the Legacy Trail on the Truckee Springs property, and a raft take-out, revegetation, and bank stabilization project lower in the canyon.
Still, the potential loss of Hirschdale river access is painful for those who’ve loved the area for decades.
“I can understand the frustration if you’ve accessed the river in a certain fashion for quite a long time [and] you may not have known that it was private land,” Tillotson said. “As private landowners change, people have different concerns or the impacts change, which seems to have been the case recently.”
An alternative public access option is on California Department of Fish and Wildlife property, south across the Truckee River, at 11038 Iceland Rd. Tillotson said while this location is available, there are only two parking spaces. Additionally, access to the spaces takes place on a narrow road, which can be difficult for some vehicles to pass through.
Future progress in getting property owners and recreating groups on the same page will happen in part through the Nevada County Recreation and Resiliency Master Plan. Any major improvements to the Hirschdale area, Tillotson said, will go through a formal planning process, including public outreach.
“The master plan will be for the entire Nevada County though,” she added. “So how much detail we can get into each area will depend on several different factors, including funding available for the master plan, but also community involvement.”
Hirschdale property owner Freeman shared that the reason she spent time participating in the working group meetings was to find a solution everyone can get behind. She sees future conversation being successful, though only with the right people.
“We need to strike a balance and it is difficult to work with people and come to an agreement when some of the leaders of these groups have acted like they are completely entitled to our land and neighborhood for their recreation with very little limits,” she wrote. “Other organizations have been more respectful and those are the folks I would like to continue to work with.”