Its no secret that one of my favorite things to do in the summer is to spend my time outside hiking and camping. Living in Northern California there is no shortage of adventures, and I’m always looking for more. I’ve spent the majority of my life here, heck, I grew up in Sacramento, so I’ve figured I know NorCal pretty well. When asking some good camp buddies for advice on where to go, I was surprised I’d never heard of their favorite area: the Sierra Buttes.
In fact, when I googled it, I could hardly find any information on the area, besides the listings of California campgrounds in the Sierra Buttes. When I mentioned it to my family, no one had heard of it. When I mentioned it to my colleagues, no one had heard of it. How could a place so close by fly so far under the radar? There are tons of off-the-beaten-path destinations around Tahoe worth exploring as well, like Reno and Carson City, if you want to explore more after your trip to the Sierra Buttes.
Where are the Sierra Buttes
First off, I think it is worthwhile to address the name. This area goes by many names: Sierra Buttes, Lakes Basin, the Lost Sierra. The most popular name for the area seems to be the Sierra Buttes, named after the looming buttes that seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere. These granite spires tower above the region below at 8951′.
The Sierra Buttes mountains themselves are located in the Tahoe National Forest, but the area you’ll want to visit spans both the Tahoe National Forest and the Plumas National Forest. Located only about an hour north of Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Buttes area is the perfect Tahoe camping getaway for those who are looking for the nature, but not the crowds of Lake Tahoe. The area is filled with gorgeous lake after gorgeous lake, providing ample opportunity for anyone who loves to kayak, SUP, swim, fish, or even just admire the beauty of the lakes from the shore.
The PCT, Pacific Crest Trail runs though this area, so at least you’ll know Cheryl Strayed has passed through here at one point 😉
There are several ways to reach the Sierra Buttes if you’re coming from the Sacramento area:
- Take Highway 80 east to Auburn, where you’ll switch to Highway 49 North. Follow Highway 49 along the Yuba River until you reach Gold Lake Road, where you’ll turn left. As you round the corner after Bassett Station, the enormous Sierra Buttes will appear in a breathtaking sight. This route will pass through Downieville, CA and Sierra City, CA. Beware that Highway 49 along the Yuba River is pretty windy.
- Take Highway 99 to Highway 70 to Yuba City. Once you reach Yuba City, take Highway 20 to Marysville Road, then take Highway 49 north and follow the directions above
- Take Highway 80 east to Truckee, then take Highway 89 north to Highway 49 south until you reach the Gold Lake Highway
Check out my must have camping gear list
Hiking in the Sierra Buttes
Frazier Falls, 1.1m
Frazier falls is the perfect walk (let’s not call it a hike) for families with small kids, older folks, or just anyone who wants an easy walk to a gorgeous waterfall. The walk to Frazier Falls is completely paved, meaning you don’t even need to wear real shoes for this one! The path is both dog and stroller friendly, and is well worth the busy parking lot.
There are two roads leading to Frazier Falls from the Gold Lake Highway – one paved, and one is unpaved. The unpaved path is much shorter, but probably takes as long to drive as the paved path since you’ll have to go pretty slowly.
Long Lake Loop Trail, 4.7m
The Long Lake Loop trail is a beautiful trail located in the Sierra Buttes that will require you to wear normal shoes, (although my husband walked the whole thing in flip flops). This trail is friendly to pretty much all levels of fitness, and takes you to both Long Lake and Bear Lake, two beautiful lakes you can stop at to take a swim in, or if you’re really up for it, hike with your kayak to the lake and bring it out on the water with you.
The parking lot is just down the road from the Long Lake Campground (located off of the Gold Lake Highway), and from the parking lot you can choose to head toward Long Lake first, or Bear Lake, since both of them are along this route at opposite ends. The Long Lake Loop trail is dog friendly (they have to be on leashes).
Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail, 5m
The Sierra Buttes Lookout trail is probably the best known hike in the Sierra Buttes, which leads to an old fire lookout that was used in the early 1900s. Along the hike on the way to the lookout you’ll get views of the lakes below and you’ll eventually reach the 180 stairs to climb to the top of the lookout with views over the Sacramento Valley. On clear days you can even get views of Mt. Lassen from the top.
To reach the hike, turn down Packer Lake Road/Sardine Lake Road off of the Gold Lake Highway, then follow the dirt road next to Lower Packer Lake for about 1/2 a mile until you reach a small parking area.
I wasn’t able to do the hike myself on this trip, but I recommend checking out the blog post dedicated to the Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail for more information.
Other great hikes in the area include:
Lakes in the Sierra Buttes
Lakes in Northern California don’t get much better than what you’ll find in the Sierra Buttes (Lakes Basin) area. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Lake Tahoe, and it is one of the most beautiful destinations in NorCal, but there is something special about the lakes in the Sierra Buttes – there are tons of lakes, and many of them have the same blue color as Lake Tahoe but without the crowds.
Salmon Lake is where we spent the majority of our time in the Sierra Buttes, and we don’t even own a kayak or a SUP board! This gorgeous little lake is tucked back off of the Gold Lake Highway on Salmon Lake Road, and is a popular destination for people looking to kayak, SUP, swim and fish. One of the things I liked most about Salmon Lake are the small islands in the lake. Visitors kayak, swim or SUP over to the islands where they bring a picnic and chill out for the day. There are spots on the islands where you can do some rock jumping into the refreshing lake water below.
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"Take a picture of me on this rock!" We spent our 4th of July weekend exploring the Sierra Buttes in the Lost Sierra and this untouristed area of California is spectacular! Thanks to our camp loving friends for this recommendation 😍 . . . . . #california #westcoastexposures #lonelyplanet #optoutside #visitcalifornia #plumas #lostsierra #sierrabuttes #salmonlake #timeoutsociety #norcalroam #nature_lovers #mytinyatlas #letsgo #globe_trotter #earthpix #westcoast
If you’re looking for a long stay, consider booking out one of the cabins at Salmon Lake Lodge, located across the lake. The only way to reach the lodge is by boat, and cabins are available for a week at a time. The lodge also offers row boats for rent, which I recommend if you don’t have your own kayak. If you do want to rent a rowboat from Salmon Lake Lodge, look for the telephone located on the tree to the left of the dock to call the lodge and request a ride over to the lodge to pick up a rowboat. Note that you’ll need to have $40 cash for the boat, this place is old school and doesn’t take credit card.
Sardine Lake is the gem of the Sierra Buttes, and probably the most picturesque lake there, as its situated directly under the looming buttes and has blue water that competes with Tahoe in clarity.
Lower Sardine Lake is best for fishing. Swimming isn’t allowed here as not to disturb the fishermen. Boats are available for rent at Lower Sardine Lake at Sardine Lake Lodge – both rowboats and motorized boats are available for rent. Be sure to book a day in advance if you’re visiting on the weekend since this lake is quite popular and the boats can get booked out by fishermen.
Upper Sardine Lake can be reached either by hiking or driving up a single lane dirt road.
Gold Lake is the biggest lake in the Sierra Buttes, and is a popular spot to launch boats. I personally thought Salmon Lake and Sardine Lakes were prettier than Gold Lake, but if you have a motorized boat, Gold Lake is the place for you.
Camping in the Sierra Buttes
Thankfully there is no shortage of campgrounds in the Sierra Buttes/Lakes Basin area. Keep in mind that the campgrounds will be pretty basic: vault toilets and some water spigots scattered around the campgrounds – that means no showers and no sinks for anyone who might not be familiar, so keep that in mind if you plan to camp.
Despite its proximity to Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Buttes is much less frequently visited than Lake Tahoe, which means that campsites here are much easier to find than Lake Tahoe camping. We only booked our campsites over the 4th of July weekend a few weeks in advance and had no problem finding space – I’d bet that the Sierra Buttes is your best bet for finding available California campsites.
Camping at Salmon Creek
While we were up at the Sierra Buttes we camped at two locations, both next to running water, which made them ideal. The first campground we stayed at was Salmon Creek Campground. As the name implies, this campground is along Salmon Creek, which flows down from Salmon Lake. If you get the right spot at this campground, you can see the Sierra Buttes mountains in the background from your campsite – now, that is something you could never get from a hotel!
The Salmon Creek campground is located off of the Gold Lake Highway, and is slightly more than a five minute drive to Sardine Lake, Sand Pond, and Packer Lake, so you’re very well situated. The toilets here are fairly spread out, so I recommend finding campsite within a few minutes walk – we ended up driving to the toilets because our site was about a ten minute walk away.
Camping at Wild Plum Campground
Although camping at Salmon Creek was great, camping at Wild Plum Campground was even better. The Wild Plum Campground is set next to Haypress Creek which connects to the Yuba River, and is a short drive from Sierra City. If you book this campground, try to get a spot above the creek, so you can step out of your tent in the morning to see the rushing creek – it is the perfect camp spot, and Yuba River camping doesn’t get much better than that!
Just like the other campgrounds in the area, this one also has vault toilets and water spigots scattered throughout the campground.
There are tons of other great campsites in the area including:
Practical tips for camping in the Sierra Buttes
Keep in mind that the closest grocery store is in Truckee, about 45 minutes from the Sierra Buttes. There are some small shops in Downieville, Sierra City and at Bassett Station, but you’ll want to bring all of your food with you (or at least most of it), if you’re planning to camp. We stayed for four days with the food we brought and had plenty of room in the bear box to store all of it.
Looking for more fun in the Sierra Buttes?
If all the camping, kayaking, and hiking isn’t enough for you, take the short drive to Graeagle (reached via the Gold Lake Highway and Highway 89 north). Graeagle is a small, quaint town at a lower elevation than the Sierra Buttes, and there are some restaurants, a coffee shop and some shopping.
The best tip I can give you is to head to the Brewing Lair nearby Graeagle (it’s technically in Blairsden). The Brewing Lair has only outdoor seating, and has both beer and kombucha on tap, with a big meadow in the front for your dogs and kids to run around. If you’re there on the weekend, chances are high that they’ll have a band playing in the meadow, and you might just see some people dancing.
I also recommend stopping by Bassett Station for ice cream every afternoon you’re in the Sierra Buttes. There’s nothing better than ice cream after a day at the lake!
Not into camping? Although I highly recommend camping, there is some lodging nearby:
More adventures in Northern California:
- Exploring around Mt Shasta at Castle Crags State Park
- 10 Things to do in Mammoth Lakes, California
- The best free and cheap things to do in San Francisco
- How to spend a weekend in San Francisco
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Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.