Lost Sierra Adventure Guide: Outdoorsy Fun in California’s Secret Mountains
The Lost Sierra’s evocative name is only the beginning of its charms. This outdoor playground at the northern end of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains is the quintessential summer mountain getaway, especially for those looking to escape the crowds of more common destinations like Tahoe and Yosemite.
The area lies about four hours’ drive northeast of San Francisco, or 1.5 hours northwest of Lake Tahoe. Two charming small towns – Sierra City and Downieville – lie along Highway 49, while Gold Lake Highway cuts north toward Graegle through the alpine granite of Lakes Basin Recreational Area. Around and between these towns and highways lie opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, camping, boating, fishing, rock climbing, swimming hole dunking and beer drinking. What’s not to love?
A California Mountain Vacation for Everyone
My husband and I visited the Lost Sierra for our anniversary last summer. We crafted the perfect romantic mix of outdoor adventure (anyone else think mountain biking is romantic?) and drinking beer in scenic places. We pitched our absurdly big car camping tent (though we were almost tempted by all the nice rustic cabins and lodges) and cooked luxurious dinners over our campfire. We swam in rivers and scarfed melting ice cream cones in cute mountain towns. Our conclusion: The Lost Sierra region is a great summer vacation for couples, families, and outdoor badasses alike.
This is an outdoorsy person’s guide to the Lost Sierra region: what Sierra City and Downieville are like; where to camp, hike and bike; and other things to do while getting lost in the Lost Sierra.
Sierra City is one of those tiny, relaxed, outdoorsy mountain towns perfect for a summer getaway. It boasts a handful of restaurants, one small grocery store, some charming places to stay and opportunities for cooling off in the North Yuba River running adjacent to town.
The town of Sierra City is also a popular resupply stop for Pacific Crest Trail hikers; the trail crosses the highway just outside town. We were there at the height of PCT season (late June / early July) and really enjoyed the vibe as these hikers chowed down on massive sandwiches and pints of ice cream on the front porch of the town general store.
The small grocery / general store / restaurant on main street is the only one around (unless you go all the way to Downieville), but it’s a little pricey and the selection, especially for fresh produce, is limited. However, it has what you need if you’re looking to stock up on food to cook over your campfire. They also sell huge PCT-hiker-size sandwiches.
Camping near Sierra City
In town there are some rustic cabins and other nice places to stay, but for many this area is all about the camping. Here are two options close enough to town to enjoy some restaurant meals or stock up for a hearty campfire dinner at the little grocery store, while still spending a peaceful night in a tent:
Wild Plum Campground, slightly off the highway down by the river, is one of the nicest and has RV hookups ($48) as well as tent sites ($24 per night per tent).
Loganville is tent-only and just a couple miles west of town. My husband and I stayed here for an anniversary trip last summer and loved it. The sites further back (away from the highway) are a bit quieter but all are nice.
Both Wild Plum and Loganville require reservations for all but a couple walk-up sites, and can get busy in high season.
If these two are full, you can also try Union Flat (closer to Downieville – see below) or the many options in the Lakes Basin area (also more below).
Hiking Near Sierra City: Sierra Buttes Lookout Tower
There’s plenty of hiking in the region, but the standout near Sierra City is definitely the Sierra Buttes lookout tower. The main attraction is the vertigo-inducing 180-step metal staircase traversing the final rock spire to the tower, and the 360 degree views that come with it.
The lookout tower sits 1.5 miles up a steep climb from the PCT. Depending on whether you approach on the PCT from the north or the south, there are two different ways to do this hike.
Hiking to Sierra Buttes Lookout Tower from Packer Saddle (5 miles)
This is the most popular option at around 5 miles round trip. The trailhead is on Butcher Ranch Road near Packer Saddle. To get there: From Gold Lake Highway, turn onto Packer Lake Rd. After 0.3 miles turn right to stay on Packer Lake Road. After 3.5 miles turn left onto Butcher Ranch Road. After 0.6 miles the trailhead is on the left.
From the trailhead, you’ll hike about a mile on the PCT, then continue straight (the PCT turns right). The final climb is on a steep and washed out dirt road. To get back after enjoying the tower, retrace your steps downhill.
This hike is accurately mapped in the Hiking Project app, if you want a GPS track to follow.
Note that it’s technically possible to drive a 4×4 all the way up Butcher Ranch Road and up an OHV road to the point where the PCT intersects the OHV road to the summit, making for a short 3 mile round-trip hike. This is only accessible to off-road vehicles with skilled drivers, and we met a few folks who had to park further down the road than expected because their truck couldn’t make it to the end.
Hiking to Sierra Buttes Lookout Tower from Highway 49 (15 miles)
This is the longer option at around 15 miles, but I highly recommend it for people who have time and want a longer day hike.
Start where the PCT crosses Highway 49 on the eastern edge of Sierra City. There’s a small dirt turnout there where you can park, or in a pinch you could park in town and walk.
From highway 49 hike north on the PCT for 6 miles, enjoying views of the valley as you climb higher and higher above Sierra City. The climb is steady but manageable, with about 2600 feet of elevation gain.
After 6 miles, turn right to climb the final 1.4 miles to the lookout tower, another 1300+ feet of elevation gain.
To get back, retrace your steps downhill to highway 49, then go enjoy a well-deserved beer in town.
Bouldering Near Sierra City at Free For All Valley
If you’re a rock climber, you should definitely check out the cool and rarely visited bouldering area called Free For All Valley. You won’t find much information about it online, but the Mountain Project app provides just barely enough information to get you there; check it out for directions.
The 45+ minute hike from the highway is unmarked and very steep, and intriguing; the trail is clearly semi-maintained but not visible on any map I’ve seen. It roughly parallels the nearby PCT ascent up the same hill, but with way less switchbacking, making us wonder if it was an old alignment of the PCT.
We hauled a single crash pad up there and had a lot of fun messing around on some easy problems and enjoying the nice view from this secret valley. Spot each other well; it would be a tricky hike out with a broken ankle or other injury.
It’s obvious the minute Highway 49 meanders into Downieville: it’s a mountain biking town. Even the little kids are riding sweet full-suspension trail bikes down the sidewalks. On a hot summer day Downieville, with the North Fork of the Yuba River running straight through the middle of town, feels like the ultimate summer adventure town for families and downhill shredders alike.
Downieville is a tourist town in the summer, despite the region’s relative lack of crowds, but it’s a charming one. Considerably bigger than Sierra City, it also has a better stocked grocery store and more restaurants – something to keep in mind if choosing which town to stock up in or stay nearby.
Mountain biking near Downieville
Most people who come to Downieville with bikes are there to catch a shuttle up to Packer Saddle and ride the famous Downieville Downhill route back into town. This 14+ mile route (with a few variation options) is a hybrid cross-country / downhill route, which is an MTB way of saying there is a lot of downhill but you also need to pedal hard from time to time.
My husband and I are extremely mediocre mountain bikers. We brought our bikes intending to do a nice nontechnical grind of a fire road ride. But then we arrived in Downieville. It only took about 30 minutes for the town’s downhill fever to work its magic. We accidentally ventured awkwardly into Downieville Outfitters and accidentally booked a shuttle for an hour later. Oops!
How to book a shuttle: Shuttles cost $20 – $25 per person (less for multiple rides) and run every couple of hours. You’ll want to reserve in advance to get your pick of times on busy days. There are two operators, right across the street from each other in the center of town: Downieville Outfitters and Yuba Expeditions. For advanced riders looking to fully explore the area’s mountain bike potential, these guys can also hook you up with info about some less famous but equally interesting routes.
MTB trail navigation: I would highly recommend downloading the route in the MTB Project app. There are some unsigned junctions and variations so the GPS track is very handy. The most famous route, the Downieville downhill, starts from Packer Saddle and follows Sunrise Trail to Butcher Trail to either Second Divide or Third Divide. Second is more challenging and has some scary exposure on steep sections above the river; less confident riders should take Third. Both divide trails rejoin at First Divide which rolls directly into town.
Our Downieville Downhill ride: When it came time to load the bikes on the roof of the shuttle, I was bashful about our cheap hardtail bikes (everyone else had nice full-suspension rigs). I was the only woman in the shuttle and we were clearly the least experienced of the group, but the guys were friendly and the vibe was fun. At the top we let them all take off ahead of us knowing they’d be faster; a reasonable amateur time might be around two hours. We arrived in town four hours later, dirty and just a little bloody and me without a functioning rear brake, grinning from ear to ear and so happy we’d done it (but not in any hurry to do it again).
Less technical MTB alternatives:
If the shuttled downhill runs are a little too much for you, there’s an extensive network of dirt roads in the area. You’ll probably still want a hardtail mountain bike and you’ll need to climb some steep hills, but your technical skills don’t need to be as on-point.
Heading north of Highway 49, check out Downie River Trail. For a longer and harder route, head up Saddleback Road into the hills toward Saddelback Mountain and the ghost town at Poker Flat.
On the south side of Highway 49 you can follow your curiosity through a network of forest service roads in varying stages of (dis)repair. Note that from the highway it’s a few miles of incredibly steep uphill no matter which way you go. Mountain House Road from Goodyears Bar is the better option for both riding and driving; the deceptively named “Galloway Street” is a crazy steep and narrow dirt road only accessible to intrepid 4wd drivers. Once up the hill you can ride around near “Forest City” (a tiny town) and even find some intermediate singletrack trail.
Race Festivals: If you want to watch some truly amazing biking, time your visit with the annual Downieville Classic mountain bike race for a full-on celebration of dirt and bikes. Or check out the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship website for other epic races and festivals, and to get involved with supporting the area’s impressive trail network.
Relaxing by the river in Downieville
Savor the moment: you’re riding triumphantly into town after hours of gnarly singletrack or grinding fire roads. Maybe you even have a little blood somewhere to show for it. Congratulations, you’re getting the quintessential Downieville experience.
Here’s what you need to do next: pop into the grocery store on main street, buy yourself a beer or three (or a lemonade if you prefer), and take them across the street to the beach by the Nevada Street bridge. For some magical reason, open container laws don’t apply here. Down at the river you’ll find splashing kids and families alongside grinning mountain bikers, wading into the river to wash off the dust and sip their can of local craft brew in the summer sun. Pure paradise.
Camping Near Downieville
The closest campground to town is Union Flat, 6 miles east of Downieville on Highway 49. Most sites are reservable ($24 for a tent), with a few held for walkups.
Other options along highway 49 are Wild Plum and Loganville, closer to Sierra City, and of course the many options in the Lakes Basin area to the north (see below).
For mountain bikers hungry to ride the Downieville downhill, check out Packsaddle, Berger and Diablo campgrounds up Packer Lake Road. They’re about a 30 minute drive from Downieville, but very close to the shuttle dropoff at Packer Saddle. This means you can start the ride from your campground, then take the shuttle back up when you’re ready to leave town (be sure to reserve a spot in advance and note that the shuttles don’t always run in late afternoon).
Check out this helpful post for even more details about camping near Downieville, including some of the farther-flung campgrounds not covered here.
It’s also possible – though not necessarily easy in this area – to find peaceful dispersed camping opportunities on national forest land. If you have a high clearance 4×4 vehicle and don’t mind exploring back roads you can likely find a free place to park for the night, but you’ll need to bring all your own supplies and pack out all your garbage. Finding the perfect place to pitch a tent is probably harder.
Lakes Basin Recreational Area
Five miles northeast of Sierra City, Gold Lake Highway branches off from Highway 49 and heads north into the Lakes Basin region. Aptly named, this region sparkles with dozens of glacially carved alpine lakes. The surrounding area offers some excellent hiking, as well as opportunities for boating (especially at Gold Lake) and fishing (at many of the smaller lakes).
Hiking in Lakes Basin
Climb Mount Elwell (6+ miles)
The most iconic and challenging hike in Lakes Basin tags the top of Mount Elwell, the second highest peak in the region at 7818 feet. Several routes are possible, I recommend combining the summit with a loop around Long Lake (about 6.5 miles total) starting from Elwell Lodge Road. After a brief stretch on Bear Lakes Loop trail, the route circumnavigates Long Lake with a short out-and-back to Mt. Elwell’s summit and panoramic views.
Bear Lakes Loop (2.2 miles)
Bear Lakes loop is a popular easier hike in the Lakes Basin Recreational Area. Starting from the same trailhead as the Mt. Elwell route described above, it passes four lakes in only 2.2 miles before arriving back at the trailhead parking on Elwell Lodge Road.
Though short, the trail is quite rough in places and requires careful footwork amidst rocks and roots, so don’t expect to just zoom through this one (or any other hikes in this region).
Other Lakes Basin Hiking
It’s also possible to link together other trails meandering between nearby lakes, such as Round Lake Trail and Smith Lake Trail. You can even continue a few miles past Mt. Elwell and join up with the PCT.
Check out this map to give you an idea of what’s available, or the picture of a trailhead sign I took, below. For on the trail navigation I recommend the free Hiking Project app, which shows all these trails and more along with your GPS location for easy navigating.
Camping in Lakes Basin
Lakes Basin is full of lovely lakeside campgrounds. Most are well marked on Google Maps and link to helpful forest service websites, so I suggest exploring on the map and choosing a site that’s located in the area you’re most interested in. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
For boating: Gold Lake is the biggest lake in the region, and Gold Lake Campground is a favorite with boaters because of the nearby boat launch ramp. It costs $10 during spring through fall (free in winter) and walkup only (no reservations).
For OHV-ers: those with high clearance 4×4 vehicles who want to get away from it all, the Gold Lake OHV Campground is free, beautiful, and walkup only (no reservations) further along the southern shore of Gold Lake.
Closest to the main hiking trails: Lakes Basin Campground ($22).
Free and generally uncrowded: Snag Lake Campground is lightly used, free, and walkup only (no reservations).
Reservable and a bit cheaper: Goose Lake Campground ($10)
It seems impossible with all these great options, but if you strike out on finding an available campsite off Gold Lake Highway you can check out Sierra and Chapman campgrounds on highway 49, just a couple miles past the Gold Lake Highway turnoff.
There are also plenty of lodges and resorts – Elwell Lakes Lodge for example – in the area for those who prefer a roof over their heads.
Where to Stay in the Lost Sierra Region
With all these great options, how are you supposed to choose where to stay? The first thing to know is that you can’t go wrong: between Downieville and the trailhead to Mount Elwell in the northern area of Lakes Basin, it’s only about a 45 minute drive. You could potentially stay anywhere listed in this article and still hit all the places you want to visit with just a bit of driving.
Still, to help you narrow it down, here’s what I would recommend:
Mountain biking enthusiasts: stay in Downieville proper, camp nearby at Union Flat, or up near Packer Saddle.
Hiking enthusiasts: camp or stay at a lakeside lodge in Lakes Basin
Fishing and boating enthusiasts: Lakes Basin all the way
All-around outdoor adventurers who want a bit of everything: Stay in Sierra City or camp nearby at Wild Plum or Loganville. This area is centrally located between Downieville and Lakes Basin, plus it has its own stellar hiking nearby, making it an ideal base from which to explore the whole region.
More Resources for Lost Sierra Outdoor Activities
While at the campground and trailheads I snapped a few photos of useful flyers that I hadn’t seen online.
If you’re wondering about the details of a particular trail (difficulty level, are bikes or horses allowed, etc) this list may help:
And for an overview of campgrounds and the facilities available at each, check out this table:
The whole area is also covered by the Plumas National Forest Visitor Map, available for purchase here.
Here’s a link to a PDF of the Lost Sierra Recreation Guide, courtesy of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship.
Hopefully this guide gives you a flavor of the many fun outdoorsy things to do in the Lost Sierra. There’s so much, in fact, that my husband and I will be returning this summer to watch the Downieville Classic and play in the mountains some more. Maybe we’ll see you there!
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