Road Trip: A stroll in the Sierra’s butte-ful bounty
My husband has a penchant for reading topographical maps. He scouts out the elevations in a seven-mile radius, memorizes the names of trails and creeks, where all the thin squiggly lines cross and where they don’t. He writes things down and adds up numbers. He stares off into space and moves his lips soundlessly – until I nudge him back to earth. Then he tells me about this really neat area that has some really neat places where we can take some really neat photographs, and I, eager to get away for a weekend, usually agree – “Yes, that sounds, well, really neat. Let’s go.”
Such was the case at the Sierra Buttes in Plumas National Forest Lakes Basin Recreation Area. It’s located between Sierra City and Graeagle, less than two hours from Truckee.
The drive is a pleasant one, past Sierraville’s green pastures and through the dark forests of Highway 49, where it breaks into a clearing, close to Bassets Station. Suddenly, the Buttes appear, craggy blue-gray and foreboding, jutting into the sky as if trying to poke through it. My first sight was heart-breaking and heart-wrenching. As soon as we spied them, I knew what course my husband had plotted. There was not going to be any easy meandering through meadows, following streams or picnicking at a lake’s edge. We were going to climb and we were going to climb to the top.
The Salmon Creek campground where we stayed is just past Salmon Creek on Gold Lake Road. There are 31 sites with very easy access. Our site wasn’t near the creek (there are some with access to the creek), but we had a view of the Buttes that was spectacular. We watched the sun recede behind the ragged tops, our next day’s conquest.
There is an abundance of campgrounds in the Plumas National Forest Lakes Basin Recreation Area, as there is an abundance of lakes: Sardine, Upper and Lower Salmon, Packer and Gold lakes, to name a few. On the shores of any lake you will also find campsites or private lodges. We have never had a problem finding a campsite, even on a Friday night or Saturday morning. But lodging – forget about it. Packer Lake Lodge and Sardine Lake Cabins have waiting lists three years long. You mighthave better luck with Gray Eagle Lodge if you call ahead and make reservations. I wouldn’t advise just showing up and hoping for a vacancy. If you want to visit the area and stay in a motel room, I suggest driving into Graeagle, Blairsden or Portola. Because this area receives more snow than Tahoe (can you believe it?), the best times to visit are from June to October. Gold Lake Road is usually closed for most of the winter due to snow.
The next morning we drove back to Salmon Creek, took the bridge across it and found a trailhead in a matter of seconds. We parked and started hiking. It was early June and there was still a lot of snow and my husband, who really doesn’t like to be confined to trails, discounted the map and we went willy-nilly off into the woods, coming upon one lake and then another, trudging up snow-covered inclines and glissading down them. It was after lunch, I think, when we spied the lookout tower on top of the buttes.
“That’s it,” my husband cried. “That’s where we are going.”
And so we did, but, not by the trail. We pretty much followed our eyesight, and luckily the snow made the 2,369-foot climb easier for some reason. The actual trail follows the mountain rim to the lookout, which we eventually linked up with. The lookout itself is atop the tallest crag; you get there by climbing 176 metal steps drilled into the rock.
Our dog refused to climb them and my husband ended up carrying him up. I wouldn’t suggest this because dogs don’t really care that you can see for a hundred miles in all directions at the top, even to Mt. Lassen on a clear day.
That was the first time we climbed the Sierra Buttes. The second time we got smart and drove up.
Yes, you can drive to a gravel parking lot and cut your roundtrip hiking time by about 10 miles. In fact, if you have a reliable four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can pass the gravel parking lot and off-road it to a dirt parking lot that’s even closer to the lookout. This is a popular spot in July and August, however, when we went, a time when the snow was just starting to melt, we didn’t see anyone until we were near the top. Early fall is a good time to visit as well, but it can get freezing cold at night.
I remember coming down from the lookout, that first time, and seeing a man carrying a baby and a woman holding a girl’s hand and thinking they were crazy bringing their children all the way up the mountain. But as we trudged on following the trail this time, we noticed an SUV parked in a clearing – we realized that trails are really marvelous things.
Other things to do are boating and fishing in the summer time, as well as people on road bikes. In the winter, cross country skiing dominates.
What: Sierra Buttes
Where: Plumas National Forest Lakes Basin Recreation Area Drive: From Truckee, approximately 1.5 hours. Take Highway 89 north to Sierraville. Then take Highway 49 to Bassetts Station. From there it will be 1.4 miles to Salmon Creek. Turn left at the bridge over Salmon and in .3 miles take a right onto Packer Lake Road for 2.5 miles. You can park at the Tamarack trailhead and hike 3.5 miles up or drive to the gravel parking lot and hike up from there. Or keep going and off-road it to the dirt parking lot, which is less than a mile to the top.
Fees: None. Campsites abound throughout the Lakes Basin area and run from $10 to $14 per night.
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