A Guide to the Lost Sierra

A Guide to the Lost Sierra

By California.com
October 02, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

“Buried amid the sublime passes of the Sierra Nevada are old men, who, when children, strayed away from our crowded settlements, and, gradually moving farther and farther from civilization, have in time become domiciliated among the wild beasts…”

—T.D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, 1885 

Find yourself in the Lost Sierra. Venture off to NorCal’s most untamed alpine wonderland tucked between the Sierra Buttes and Mount Lassen, and roam the woods to your heart’s desire. With 80 percent of the region lying within public lands and an average population density of six people per square mile (that’s 0.1 percent of Sacramento’s average population density), you’re sure to find privacy in the forests. 

Legend has it that the Lost Sierra got its nickname back in the 19th century when mail was still delivered by the Pony Express mail carriers. What’s for sure is that the nickname got its revival in honor of William Berry, a ski historian and author of Lost Sierra: Gold, Ghosts & Skis. Pack the essentials (including Berry’s and T.D. Bonner’s books), and hit the road up for some me-time and adventures at the Sierra Nevada’s northern end. The hundreds of alpine lakes and thousands of miles of trails are calling your name. 

Getting to the Lost Sierra

Feel worlds away in the Lost Sierra, a serene and largely undiscovered destination offering a combination of tranquility and adventure.

Just over an hour north of the charming town of Truckee and a morning’s drive away from San Francisco (four hours to be exact), the remote communities of Plumas and Sierra Counties allow you to unplug and connect with your inner wild beast. 

From the Bay Area, make your way to Browns Valley and merge onto Highway 49, following it all the way to Bassetts. Or, go for the scenic route along Highway 89, which offers stunning vistas as you pass through the most underrated small towns near Lake Tahoe’s shoreline. From here, take Gold Lake Highway and wind your way through the fir- and pine-lined Plumas National Forest to the heart of the Lost Sierra.

Stop at the Lost Sierra Visitor Center in Blairsden for a guide to the Lost Sierra. Then, head to the Mill Works Junction Express across the street for a slow-smoked pork sandwich and a matcha smoothie before leaving civilization behind.

Things to do in the Lost Sierra

While a getaway to Tahoe National Forest or a weekend escape to Yosemite National Park grabs the attention of the masses, the dozens of lakes in the Lost Sierra stay under the radar, giving us all the more reason to follow in the footsteps of great explorers and make these woods our second home for a while. 

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Lost Sierra Hiking Trails

Hike the strenuous trail to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout and be rewarded with sweeping views of the Lost Sierra.

Start off your morning with a hike up to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout—perched atop an 8,500-foot-tall cliff—and be rewarded with 360-degree views of the Lakes Basin. Hike the roughly five-mile, out-and-back Sierra Buttes Trail, and push yourself to the limit while climbing the 180 stairs that lead to the top of the mountain. Spot Mount Lassen and the Sacramento Valley on a good day as you stand on top of the world, having conquered the Sierra Buttes trail’s elevation gain of over 1,500 feet, and breathe in the crisp air. Imagine staying here for weeks and months as the spotters did in the 50s, and take time to meditate in the clouds. 

After the strenuous hike, stop by the Confluence Coffee House on Main Street in Sierra City to refuel on coffee, recharge your devices, and restore your strengths with bagels and muffins. Next up, it’s time for waterfall hikes. Trek to Love Falls just outside of Sierra City for an easy yet breathtaking 2.1-mile journey. Follow the 2.9-mile Haypress Creek loop trail for a refreshing swim near Upper, Middle, and Lower Haypress Creek Falls. Visit all four waterfalls in about two hours by starting and finishing your hike at Wild Plum Campground. Lost Sierra hiking can also take you to the 410-foot Feather Falls, Upper Little Hot Springs Valley, or one of the many turquoise alpine lakes in between.

Lost Sierra Watersports

Take to the sparkling alpine waters to enjoy everything from kayaking and jet-skiing to fishing and boating.

No matter what kind of water sport you're into—fishing, waterskiing, jet-skiing, sailing, boating, kayaking, or just plain floating downstream in an inner tube—you'll find the perfect lake in Plumas County to spend your day. There are nearly 50 small glacial lakes and streams throughout the Lost Sierra such as Gold Lake, Salmon Lake, Long Lake, and Sardine Lake; these are considered some of the best lakes in the area. Other top spots for water sports include the Middle Fork Feather River and Lake Davis. Both are known for their trout fishing and spectacular scenery.

For endless adventures, head to Lakes Basin Recreation Area. Located nine miles southwest of Graeagle, this spectacular expanse boasts 20 shimmering lakes, unique geological features, and pristine nature. While there’s plenty to do on land—including horseback riding, hunting, and backpacking—take to the water and enjoy boating, swimming, swimming, and windsurfing. You can even try your hand at catching rainbow trout and crayfish. 

(In the winter months, Lost Sierra visitors can snowmobile, cross-country ski, and snowshoe in the Lakes Basin Recreation Area and beyond; ski down the same slopes Cornish Bob—the world's first champion speed skier—did in 1867.) 

Biking in the Lost Sierra

Hop on your bike and explore the Lost Sierra's rugged terrain on two wheels. Photo courtesy of Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship.

The Lakes Basin Recreation Area also offers scenic bike trails that any cyclist is bound to love. Rent your bike from Yuba Expeditions, and venture off to the picturesque Lakes Basin and Mount Hough for the most adrenaline-filled rides in the Lost Sierra. After returning your bike, take a stroll along Downieville’s Main Street lined with Old Western buildings. 

Daredevils will want to bike the Downieville Downhill (the nation’s longest and most demanding downhill mountain bike race) to experience the thrill of dropping 5,000 vertical feet in 15 miles from Packer Saddle to Downieville. It’s bound to get your adrenaline pumping

Must-Visit Museums in the Lost Sierra

Learn about the state's rich railroad history at Western Pacific Railroad Museum. Photo courtesy of Western Pacific Railroad Museum.

Similar to other regions bordering the Sierra Nevada range, the Gold Rush has left its imprint on this alpine wonderland—with abandoned, deteriorating barns and farmhouses reminding us of the Lost Sierra’s rich history. 

Visit the little town of Portola, home to The Western Pacific Railroad Museum and Williams House Museum. Learn all about the Maidu and Washoe Indians who called these territories their home long before the European settlers, and see how the area grew after its establishment in 1905 and the ensuing construction of the railroad. 

From there, drive two miles east along Feather River Highway to the Jim Beckwourth Cabin Museum and hear legends of the mountain man, tribe chief, and African American adventurer. 

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