The Gold Lakes area near Sierra City, CA showcases the spectacular Sierra Buttes. These imposing volcanic monoliths tower thousands of feet above the river valleys below. Dozens of glacially-sculpted lakes surround the peaks, and streams crisscross through emerald green meadows. Autumn is a great time to be here.
Visitors to the area delight in the many different forest service campgrounds and mountain lodges here. Destinations include the Gold Lake Lodge, Salmon Lake Lodge, Sardine Lake Resort, and our favorite: Packer Lake Lodge. At Packer Lake you can choose from single-room log cabins to larger accommodations with kitchens and private baths. Each cabin comes with its own personal rowboat, so you can glide out to the center of the lake to fish or swim.
Trails in the area lead out to Deer Lake, Tamarack Lakes, Upper Sardine Lake and other destinations. Or, you can drive all the way up the mountain to the Sierra Buttes Lookout trailhead for sweeping panoramic views.
For swimming, a great place to cool off is Sand Pond. Situated at the edge of the Sardine Lakes campground, this pond was formed in the late 1800s when the Young America mining company deposited tailings in the area. Clean and sparkling today, this lovely pool reflects the majesty of the Sierra Buttes above.
Wondering how to get here? Consider taking a loop route. Begin your journey by heading east on Interstate 80 to the junction with HWY 89 at Truckee. Head north a couple of miles and stop off at the Donner Camp picnic site for a welcome stretch break. Walk along the level trail and learn about the infamous Donner party who trundled west in their covered wagons in 1846. Delays in their journey left them snowbound here for months, resulting in desperate starvation. The trail meanders through a scenic meadow with interpretive panels detailing the story of the Donner Party. Picnic tables offer a place to sit and reflect amidst the stunning Eastern Sierra landscape.
Continue north along Highway 89 until you join with Highway 49 at Sierraville. Head South on Highway 49 for 17.5 miles until you see a sign for Bassetts.
Turn right here and take a break at this iconic roadside stop featuring a motel, cafe and grocery shop. Bassetts has furnished weary travelers with food, rest and supplies since the 1860s. The cafe menu offers delicious wholesome fare in generous portions. Friendly staff welcome you and provide you with helpful information about the sights in the area.
Continue up the mountain a short distance to a turnoff for Sardine Lakes and Packer Lake. Cross the bridge to arrive at Sardine Lake Campground, Sand Pond, and the Sardine Lakes Lodge. The gigantic Sierra Buttes loom above. To get to Packer Lake, turn onto Packer Lake Road and continue 3.5 miles. You’ll see a clearly-marked drive for Packer Lake Lodge. You can stop to picnic, swim or fish, or continue 1/4 mile to the lodge.
Take Hwy 49 south and stop along the way at the picturesque mining towns of Sierra City and Downieville. At Downieville, you can wander down cool shady streets to unique shops and cafes, or stroll across an historic trestle bridge. Tree leaves rustle overhead as you gaze into the clear waters of the river below.
Continuing south on Highway 49, you’ll follow the scenic corridor of the Yuba River. Go past North San Juan, and stop for a break at the historic Highway 49 Bridge. This rainbow-shaped span traverses the South Yuba River. White granite boulders in emerald green waters make this a popular swimming spot.
Junction with I-80 at Grass Valley and continue west to Auburn, completing your round trip journey. You can make this loop in a single day, but the area is filled with such rich natural scenery and intriguing places to stop, you’ll want more time to explore. Whether you camp, glamp, or stay in a lodge, your journey promises to be a memorable one.
Rosanne S. McHenry is the author of the popular book Trip Tales: From Family Camping to Life as a Ranger. Learn more about her at www.triptalesbook.com