There’s a magical synergy to the Lost Sierra where a spectacular wonderland of mountain peaks, glaciated lake basins and historic California Gold-Rush towns combine to transport your spirit to a special place, perfect for both quiet contemplation and high adventure.
Easy | 1.8 mile loop
Sierra Buttes Lookout
Intermediate | 5 miles roundtrip
The Lost Sierra is the local nickname for the region of eastern Sierra and Plumas counties sandwiched between State Routes 49 and 70. Geologically, this is the northernmost portion of the Sierra Nevada before the range peters out and transitions to the volcanic orogeny of the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest, including the volcanoes Lassen and Shasta in northern California. In the Lost Sierra, mountain-building processes produced an abundance of gold. The discovery of the precious metal in this area in 1849 brought prospectors and businessmen by the thousands. Some got rich, but the invasion decimated the indigenous peoples that had lived, hunted and camped in these mountains for thousands of years.
One of the most majestic sights in the Lost Sierra is the Sierra Buttes, an eroded volcanic lava dome that towers above the Sardine lakes, scraping the sky at nearly 9,000 feet. This eye-catching array of rock spires commands the view from both Lower and Upper Sardine lakes. Sardine Lakes Resort is located at the lower basin with the trailhead to the upper lake and fire lookout at the top of the Buttes across the parking lot.
The dog-friendly trail is a serious 4-wheel drive road that only vehicles with high clearance can successfully negotiate. I took my mountain bike, but pushed it most of the way. It was beyond my ability and bike, but cyclists with high skill levels can probably manage this portion of the trail. It’s less than 1 mile to views of Upper Sardine, though the trail continues on another 4 miles to the Sierra Buttes lookout, a worthwhile goal if you have the time and stamina.
Lower Sardine Lake is off limits to swimming due to its designation as a premier fishing lake with water so clear it may rival Lake Tahoe’s clarity. Below the dam, 100 yards to the west is Sand Pond, a small body of water created more than a century ago when a nearby gold mine dumped its waste rock (tailings) here. In the early 1900s, a mill was built to crush the tailings for a gold-removal process using cyanide, a common practice in the late 19th Century. The extraction of tailings left a depression that filled with water. During the summer, Sand Pond is a warm shallow lake that’s popular with families that enjoy its stunning views and mild water temperature. A mile-long interpretive trail loops around Sand Pond and the surrounding area. There are 10 stops that highlight climate change, the historic gold-mining era and impacts by current beaver activity.
The easiest way to reach Sardine lakes from the east side of the Sierra is to drive north on State Route 89 to the junction with State Route 49, about an hour north of Truckee. Follow SR 89 west about 5 miles to Bassetts Station, a resort that opened in 1871. Since then it’s been a stage stop, hotel, logging camp and a haven for cattlemen, sheep herders and miners working in the mountains. Make a right at Bassetts where the sign says Gold Lake. If you forgot to pack lunch, you can buy provisions at Bassetts or enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner at the cafe.
About 1½ miles up Gold Lake Road turn left where a small bridge crosses Howard Creek. Follow the road a few 100 yards to Sardine Lake Resort, which is open from Memorial Day weekend until mid-October.