THE LOST SIERRA
WHAT TO DO IN THE NORTHERN SIERRA
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Drive the picturesque Feather River Route through Plumas National Forest, marveling over the tunnels and bridges that make it possible for trains and autos to pass over and through rugged Sierra terrain.
Look for the outline of Worldmaker atop the Keddie Ridge – and hope he doesn’t sit up.
Walk the narrow streets and many bridges in Downieville. Think of poor, feisty Juanita in her noose when you find Jersey Bridge.
Take Highway 49 out of Downieville to Yuba Pass for a pretty drive along the Yuba River and an expansive vista of Sierra Valley.
Go to Westwood to take your picture with Paul Bunyan and Babe and then head to the museum to see an undertaker’s chair, giant chainsaws that required two loggers to operate and a skeleton that goes by different names and genders.
Stop at the Sierra Country Store in Sierra City to see serious hikers come off the Pacific Crest Trail after days in the wilderness to pick up packages and restock their backpacks.
Look for Soda Rock along Highway 89 by Indian Creek to see a Saint Bernard composed of Sierra rock.
Beyond the Beaten Paths
The Northern Sierra is the most remote part of the range, which earned it the nickname “Lost Sierra.” It includes the Tahoe and Plumas National Forests, former gold fields, the Yuba and Feather Rivers, historic railroads, the Keddie Ridge and Sierra Buttes, and the Sierra Valley — the largest alpine valley in the country.
Sierra City is a favorite place for Pacific Crest Trail hikers to restock on supplies, replace worn-out boots and take a break from backpacking food. To that end, the Sierra Country Store offers burgers, pizza and a laundromat. The Buttes Resort also plays up its burgers, likely well aware what sounds good after hiking 1,198 miles if you started at the trail’s beginning. (The PCT’s half-way point is just a bit further north in Chester.)
Two passes cross the Northern Sierra. Fredonyer is the northernmost, situated between the end of the Sierra and beginning of the Cascades and passing through several timberlands.
The Beckwourth crosses near the Sierra Valley. Before it climbs over the mountains, that route goes through Oroville (where “the last wild Indian” Ishi entered civilization in 1911) and the Feather River Canyon, where the Western Pacific Railroad runs across and alongside via several bridges and tunnels. (Portola has an extensive museum devoted to the railway.)
James Beckwourth blazed the route and came to this part of the Sierra in 1850 while searching for a mythical Gold Lake that was said to be lined with nuggets. (There is an actual Gold Lake in the Northern Sierra, in the Lakes Basin between Graegle and Sierra City, but sadly it is treasure-free.) Beckwourth became the first settler in the Sierra Valley. Before he came to the Sierra, the fur trapper, explorer and former slave was captured by the Crow Indians. He would report that they made him a chief, but was also notorious for exaggeration and tall tales.
Where Ski Racing Was Born
Competitive skiers today test their skill in places like Tahoe, Mammoth and Bear Valley, but the first racers perhaps anywhere may have been Northern Sierra miners. Norway often gets credit for turning skiing into a sport, but Johnsville in Plumas County earned a California Historical Landmark for being the first sport ski area in the western hemisphere.
Miners throughout the area first used homemade wooden skis as transportation but later put them on in their off time to race each other downhill, well before the first organized ski competition in what is now Oslo. The skis themselves were long, up to 16 feet, and they rocketed their riders downhill at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour. Today, those “longboard” races are recreated by the Plumas Ski Club at the Plumas Eureka State Park near Graegle.
Sierra Valley: For Ranchers, Bird-Watchers & Bikers
Though it’s just north of Tahoe and similarly ringed with mountains, the Sierra Valley is much more serene than Tahoe can be. In fact, one of the core tourist demographics for this patch of meadow that spans more than 150 square miles is a group hardly known for rowdiness. Because it lies along the migratory path for hundreds of species, this is a very popular destination for bird-watchers. The Sierra Valley has been recognized by the Audubon Society as one of its Important Bird Areas, places it has identified as essential bird habitats. Several of its chapters have made birding field trips here to speak in their expert birding language and observe hawks, eagles, falcons and other rare species.
But ranching is one of the predominant influences in the Sierra Valley’s character. There’s such a rich ranching history here that a popular bike race through the area is called the Tour de Manure. Organized by Sierraville firefighters, its offers riders three options to test their endurance: 30, 40 or 62 miles along rural highways and historic valley towns like Loyalton and Sattley.
Several farms have been passed down among generations of families, many with the same roots. Varied cultures left lasting impressions in the Sierra. Surprising traces of the Chinese miners and railroad workers are found throughout much of the range, the Cornish made their mark on Gold Country cuisine and language, and the Spanish sheepherders left behind Basque restaurants and hotels in places like the Carson Valley that were near their grazing lands. In the Sierra Valley, much of the cultural influence is Swiss-Italian. Many of the early settlers came from Italian-speaking Tocino in Switzerland. Some came in search of gold, but many soon became ranchers, securing vast grazing lands for their farms.
One of those Italian-Swiss descendants also rose to prominence as a conservationist. Attilio Genasci was born in the Sierra Valley and worked at his ranch well into his nineties. In 2004, he became one of the first ranchers in the area to sign a conservation agreement with the California Rangeland Trust so that his 500 acres would be preserved as farmland and never be developed. (A similar movement has preserved ranchland in the Bridgeport Valley on the Sierra’s East Side.)
Frank Lloyd Wright in the Sierra
The bulk of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural work is in the Midwest, notably Illinois and Wisconsin, but he designed houses and other buildings all over the country. One of his designs can be found in the Northern Sierra, though it was planned for Madison, Wisconsin. What was supposed to be a clubhouse for a Dairy State golf course instead became a reality in the Northern Sierra decades after the blueprints were drawn.
Wright completed the design in 1924 but when it was presented, the cost (and perhaps extended scandal surrounding Wright) led to a change of heart for the Wisconsin golf club. More than a decade earlier, Wright left his wife and children for another woman, only to lose her a few years later when she and six others were killed by an axe-wielding servant who set fire to the Wisconsin home he called Taliesin. And though he split from his wife in 1909, their divorce wouldn’t be finalized until 1923.
And so the plans for the teepee-inspired structure sat unrealized for years until a California couple resurrected them to use in Clio, CA. Their Nakoma Golf Resort made its debut in 2001 and was given the same name as the Wisconsin club that turned down the design.
The Last Granite: The Sierra Buttes
Traveling north in the Sierra Nevada, the last chance to see granite crags is the Sierra Buttes. They are the northernmost Sierra peaks, rising 5,000 feet above Sierra City. A fire lookout at the top offers spectacular views of the Lakes Basin, Yuba River Canyon and far beyond to the encroaching Cascades for anyone willing to hike the trail leading up to it and then ascend the steep metal stairs to the hut perched atop the rock. (It’s also a good place to imagine what Jack Kerouac experienced when working as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Cascades.)
They don’t really look it, but the Buttes are also part of California’s Gold Country. (California’s Highway 49 — called The Gold Road and Golden Chain Highway — extends all the way from Oakhurst to the Sierra Valley where it ends in Vinton.) There were 11 mines near the Sierra Buttes. One of them, the Monumental, yielded a nugget that weighed more than 100 pounds.
Downieville: Wild History and Rivers
The heart of the Northern Sierra’s Gold Rush action was in the Alleghany mining district, and Downieville was a thriving boomtown — the fifth-largest community in California for a time. It had numerous hotels and places to gamble and multiple butcher shops and bakeries. Things were so lively that a new county was created in 1852, with Downieville as the county seat. (Sierra County was carved from what was once the much larger Yuba County.) And two years later, Downieville lost out on becoming the state capital by just a few votes.
Situated at the confluence of the Downie and North Yuba Rivers, the rushing water flowing through Downieville can roar in early spring once the mountain snow melts or after heavy rains. But at times it has rushed far too aggressively in terrible floods. One of the worst was in 1937 when a rare December rainstorm caused the rivers to swell so much that three of its five bridges were destroyed, and downtown homes and buildings were carried away by the torrent of water. And bridges are vital in Downieville. It grew from three separate areas where there was flat ground and easy access to the river. The downtown was known as The Forks, Jersey Flat was on the Downie River’s east side and Durgan Flat was on the south side of the Yuba. Today, three bridges are still used to carry Downieville’s auto traffic: the Jersey and Durgan, both rebuilt after the 1937 flood, and the Hansen Bridge built in 1838. All three are on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the pedestrian-only Hospital Bridge, which survived the flood.
One of Downieville’s bridges is also the place where the only woman to be hung in California met her end. On July 5, 1851, a woman named Juanita who came to California from Mexico was fitted with a noose. Her crime was murder, stabbing a miner who had drunkenly broke down her door. An argument ensued the following day, and after some crude words were exchanged, the miner was dead by Juanita’s knife. She then faced an angry mob of Sierra residents who at the time could be discriminatory against Mexicans. They called for her to die (even though one doctor stated that she was pregnant, perhaps falsely in an attempt to save her). And she was soon lynched from the pre-flood Jersey Bridge.
The Sierra Wolverine: A Reclusive, Fearsome Creature
Wolverines are akin to Bigfoot in the Sierra: for years there have been rumored sightings, but no conclusive proof that any live around the range. Though there have been isolated and unsubstantiated reports of California wolverines at high Sierra elevations, the last time there was a verified glimpse of one was in the 1920s.
That’s why when photos triggered by a motion-sensor camera in the Tahoe National Forest were confirmed as being a wolverine, there was a great deal of excitement. But alas, it’s still a question as to whether any native wolverines prowl the Sierra. The animal in question was one of the huge weasels, but further research of its scat and hair samples concluded that it was of the Rocky Mountain line.
But it seems to have made the Sierra its permanent home. Since then, biologists have worked to track the wolverine’s DNA and keep tabs on it with camera stations — and also named him Buddy. When Buddy first made news headlines, several stories described the solo male as lovelorn. Far from his roots in Idaho, he remains a bachelor. He also steers clear of humans. When a High Sierra hiker spied Buddy in 2012, the camera on his phone was the only non-scientific one to capture his image.
It’s not that unusual that Buddy ended up so far from home. The animals favor remote areas with lots of room to roam and have been known to travel long distances. They can wander 15 miles a day looking for food and have large territories. One fitted with a tracking collar in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park traveled more than 500 miles into Colorado.
One who would have been glad for Buddy to keep to himself was mountaineer Norman Clyde. The man who climbed throughout the Sierra and other mountains considered wolverines to be the one animal to be feared in the wild. Despite Buddy’s cutesy name, wolverines are vicious. They’re nearly as big as small bears. They’re also strong and known to be savage when killing prey or fighting off other animals that might come too close to their meals or their territories. They have sharp claws, big teeth and powerful jaws, and can and do take down far larger animals.
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