Where to Lose Yourself
A wonderland of outdoor surprises await in the Lost Sierra.
Less than an hour into your walk up from the dirt parking area at Packer Saddle, you take a short detour to the left from the Pacific Crest Trail, step out from the pine forest to an overlook, and gasp at the sight: a chain of three lakes, the brilliantly turquoise Young America and the royal blue Upper and Lower Sardine.
Above you to the right towers your goal: the Sierra Buttes, their tallest pinnacle topping out at nearly 8,600 feet above sea level.
You still have another 45 minutes of switchbacks ahead, plus 178 stair-steps in three courses of steep ladders, before you reach the lookout station with its 360-degree view that takes in Mount Rose, Mount Shasta, Mount Lassen, the Sutter Buttes, and, on the clearest days, Mount Diablo. But you already understand why this is considered one of the best hikes in Northern California.
You’re in the heart of the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, surrounded by scores of lakes and campgrounds, near such small northern Sierra towns as Downieville, Sierra City, Sierraville, Loyalton, Portola, and Quincy. It’s only an hour’s drive north of Truckee via highways 89 and 49, but the region is known as the Lost Sierra.
That moniker is both accurate and misleading. Thousands upon thousands of people who are thoroughly familiar with the natural wonders and vacation pleasures of Yosemite and Lake Tahoe have yet to discover and overrun this wonderland of hiking, camping, fishing, kayaking, boating, and mountain biking. Its rusticity is manifest in the tiny communities of Graeagle, Clio, and Blairsden, and in the log-cabin resorts built in the 1920s and ’30s at Packer, Sardine, Salmon, Gold, and Elwell lakes.
But don’t try to tell the families that have been coming to this area for generations, staying in the same campsites or reserving the same cabins season after season, that their beloved section of the Sierra is “lost” or “undiscovered.”
Photo by VanceFox.com
Moreover, jam-band fans are drawn to the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy every Fourth of July weekend, bicycle enthusiasts head to the Downieville Classic Cross Country and Downhill races and bike festival the first weekend in August, and diehard golfers take advantage of several high-altitude courses in the area.
Exploring the Lost Sierra can be a trip back in time—to Packer Lake Lodge, which has barely changed in nearly a century, or to the drugstore soda fountain that serves grilled cheese sandwiches and thick milkshakes in the Portola Village Pharmacy. On the other hand, the Nakoma Resort in Clio offers ultra-modern accommodations, luxurious spa amenities, and high-end dining in the Wigwam Room, the stunning centerpiece of its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed clubhouse. And Rich and Susannah DeLano’s 5-year-old Brewing Lair of the Lost Sierra, in Blairsden, is as in-the-moment as any East Bay urban beer garden, serving craft brews in a foresty setting with broad patios and decks, Adirondack-style chairs, picnic tables, cornhole games, and disc golf.
In-the-know families flock to the area from the Memorial Day through the Labor Day weekends, and the main highways stay open during the winter for those hardy souls seeking uncluttered space for cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing. But temperate weather and almost empty campgrounds and resorts make the shoulder seasons of late spring and early fall the ideal time to experience the hidden secrets of the Lost Sierra.
When You Go
Packer Lake Lodge: 3901 Packer Lake Road, Sierra City, 530-862-1221, PackerLakeLodge.com
Nakoma Resort: 348 Bear Run, Clio, 530-897-2300, NakomaResort.com
Grizzly Grill: 250 Bonta St., Blairsden, 530-836-1300, GrizzlyGrill.com
The Brewing Lair of the Lost Sierra: 67007 State Route 70, Blairsden, 530-394-0940, TheBrewingLair.com
Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship: SierraTrails.org
Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail Hike: AllTrails.com/trail/us/california/sierra-buttes-lookout-trail