The soft light of autumn. Vibrant color. The sun overhead but the days crisp. The time of year when nature begins to slow down, to begin preparations for the cold and darkness of winter. A perfect time to spend a weekend soaking up the light and beauty around the Sierra Buttes.
There is something magical about the angle of light in autumn, as it reveals colors not seen the rest of the year. All of nature glows in richness—the russet and gold of leaves; drying grasses in deep tan and sepia brown; even the rocks glow, their red, charcoal, gray and white sediments standing out in contrast against the deep blue of the sky.
Located in the western portion of Sierra County, in a canyon carved out of the Sierra Nevadas by the power of the North Yuba River, discover the charming mountain villages of Downieville and Sierra City. Both ideal gateways to the next discovery, the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, straddling the crest of the Sierra Nevadas. You’ll find so much to do and enjoy in this majestic hideaway, that a two-day visit will merely whet your appetite for more.
The picturesque town of Downieville is packed with history, unpretentious charm and friendly people. Many buildings are remnants of Gold Rush days, when the fever hit and Downieville’s population of 5,000 made it the third largest community in California. A stroll through town, along plank sidewalks, will take you past old brick and stone buildings, many with iron doors and shutters. Large, mature trees shade narrow Main Street, filtering the light and casting interesting shadows in the windows of antique shops, cafes and bars. You can browse, eat or stop in at the Downieville Museum for a glimpse into the past. Pick up a copy of The Mountain Messenger, the oldest continuously operating newspaper in California, whose ledger of past reporters includes Mark Twain.
Downieville’s biggest attraction may well be its setting—sheltered by canyon walls, thickly forested, and at the confluence of the Yuba and Downie Rivers. Cast your line, hop on a bike or merely stroll, enjoying the fresh mountain air. In late afternoon head for the green bridge to watch the setting sun cast long shadows on the river, the trees, and the homey town of Downieville.
Twelve miles up Hwy 49, you’ll find another historic town. Sierra City, with its easy access to the North Yuba River, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Lakes Basin, is just the right base for further exploration. The majestic Sierra Buttes, towering 5,000 feet, shelter the town, acting as buffers against cold winter winds and intense summer heat. Enjoy the gentle climate as you visit the Art Cultural Center and eclectic antique shops; tour the Kentucky Mine Park and Museum, or stop for a bite to eat at any one of the interesting eateries lining the road.
If you enjoy nature at all times of the day and night, Wild Plum Campground has a campsite with your name on it. Even if camping is not your game, visit this peaceful hideaway for a picnic by the creek or a hike to view the incredible scenery.
Here, the sounds of cars are left behind; only the cascade of water over rock, the wind through the trees and the calls of the birds interrupt your thoughts. Under pines and firs, a cool breeze off the creek, the pink hues of the Sierra Buttes overhead, you feel much farther removed from civilization than the short, two-mile drive from Sierra City.
An easy 2.5-mile hike, the Wild Plum Loop Trail, takes you through a mixed conifer forest and across two creeks, while opening up new views of those imposing Buttes. Many consider the Pacific Coast Trail North to Love Falls the most rewarding in the canyon. Multiple falls cascade through a small gorge carved out by the waters of the North Yuba River. The moderate walk to the falls is two miles, part of it on the Pacific Crest Trail.
One day spent in the Lakes Basin Recreation Area is a teaser, and will leave you hungering for more. Formed by ice-age glaciations, this area covers 11,000 acres, with over 30 mile high, granite-set lakes and 700 miles of stream, much accessible by trail only. Sparkling crystal-blue waters enveloped by mountains thickly forested and those amazing craggy granite peaks. Lush campsites, rustic, unpretentious resorts, few people—you’ll feel you’ve gone back to a time when life didn’t seem so complicated.
Here you can hike over miles of signed trails to large rock bowls that fill with melted snow and are kept fresh by natural springs. Fish for Brook, German, and Rainbow trout from the shore or from a rowboat. Absorb the beauty around you and relish the thought that here trees and rocks outnumber people.
Gold Lakes Forest Highway transects the Lakes Basin and provides access to the lakes, resorts and trails. On the road to Sardine Lakes, you’ll come to Sand Pond. Shallow, sun-warmed, this is the local swimming hole and can be quite crowded on summer days. Kids love it. There’s also an .8-mile Sand Pond Interpretive Trail with signs that lead you through this forest-marsh transition zone, explaining relationships and displaying resident wildlife.
This same road also leads to Packer Lake, a microcosm of the entire Lakes Basin: campground, Packer Lake Resort and Restaurant, boats for hire, fish to catch and winding trails to hike. So quiet you only hear the sounds of nature; enjoy a picnic, a snooze by the lake or hit the trails. From here it’s an easy hike to both Tamarack Lakes and Little Grassy Lake.
Further up the Highway, at Upper Salmon Lake, surrounded by granite, the Buttes looming in the distance, a boat is necessary to get you to the lodge across the water. This lake is popular with boaters and kayakers, who enjoy fishing at secluded coves and at the wooded island or merely floating across the waters. For the water-wary, Upper Salmon Lakes Trail skirts the east side of the lake, passes the Lodge, and continues across Horse Lake Creek to Horse Lake and farther up to Deer Lake. The views from Deer Lake make the hike worthwhile—a panoramic view of Horse Lake and Upper Salmon Lake with the massive glacial moraine in the background
The Gold Rush may be long past, but gold surely remains around the Sierra Buttes: the gold of autumn light and a golden opportunity to discover a special place.
From the snows of winter to the warmth of summer, step back, slow down and relish the fact that not all things must progress.
From Interstate 80 turn north at Auburn on Hwy 49. Downieville is 60 miles from Nevada City. The drive from Berkeley is 4.5 hours. To reach the Lakes Basin Recreation Area continue past Sierra City on Hwy 49 to Bassets where it meets Gold Lake Forest Highway. Packer Lake Road (to Sand Pond and Packer Lake) is one mile up Gold Lake Forest Highway from Bassetts. Salmon Lakes Road is two miles further.
Where to Stay and Eat:
Kokanee Kabins, Sierra City, (530) 862-1287, www.kokaneekabins.com
Yuba River Inn, Sierra City, (530) 862-1122, www.yubariverinn.com
Packer Lake Lodge, Sierra City (530) 862-1221
Wild Plum Campground: Follow Hwy 49, 0.5 mile past Sierra City. Turn right onto Wild Plum Road, travel 1 mile to campground.
Red Moose Café, Sierra City, (530) 862-1502
Buckhorn Restaurant & Bar, Sierra City, (530) 862-1171
Downieville, Sierra City and the Lakes Basin are within the Tahoe National Forest. Contact North Yuba Ranger Station, on Hwy 49 at Camptonville, (530) 288-3231, for more information. Open Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Printed trail guides available at the ranger station or by mail.