Story and photos by Dorothy O’Donnell
I’m good at getting lost. Even with Siri or printed directions to guide me. So I was nervous when, after a three-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, I exited I-80 near Truckee, California. I’d taken this exit many times. But usually, I headed south for Lake Tahoe. On this crisp October afternoon, I turned north instead, bound for a place I’d never visited before: the Lost Sierra. I just hoped I could find it.
The Lost Sierra’s promise of a less crowded, untamed version of alpine bliss had tantalized me since I’d first heard of it a few years ago. Situated among the rugged 8,500-foot peaks of the Sierra Buttes in Plumas County, it’s no slouch in the lake department either. Home to the Lakes Basin Recreational Area, it boasts some 50 pristine, glacier-carved gems.
And though the Lost Sierra feels remote, it’s less than an hour drive from Truckee or Reno. Yet within minutes of getting off 1-80, I managed to miss the roundabout exit for CA-89, the two-lane highway that would take me there. With Siri’s help, I made a U-turn and tackled the pesky roundabout again. This time, I succeeded in merging onto CA-89 and began climbing through conifer forest sprinkled with the occasional stand of gold-leafed aspens that glinted in the fading autumn light.
A quick glance in my rearview mirror showed no other vehicles behind me – just trees and the yellow ribbon of paint that divided the winding highway. Civilization already felt far away though I’d barely left I-80 and its steady stream of semi-trucks and cars.
Soon, forest gave way to a valley of tawny meadows and ranchland as I descended to Sierraville, a speck of a hamlet where you’ll find a couple of restaurants and Sierra Hot Springs, a rustic resort.
Half an hour later, I arrived at my basecamp for the weekend, the Nakoma Resort. “It’s shoulder season, you know,” said the woman who checked me in. “Some places are closed.”
It’s true that most folks head to the Lost Sierra in summer to hike, mountain bike, golf, fish and play in the lakes. Summer’s also when popular annual events like the Downieville Classic mountain bike race and the High Sierra Music Festival happen. Winter lures skiers and fans of other cold weather activities. While I missed out on some restaurants and tourist attractions – most campgrounds were also closed – I got to catch the last of the Lost Sierra’s fall colors. And had even less traffic and people to contend with than usual. Not a bad tradeoff.
My attractive room in the resort’s contemporary 42-room inn overlooked part of its Dragon Golf Course. Pink and orange clouds blazed in the evening sky as I walked to Restaurant Fifty44 in Nakoma’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed clubhouse for dinner. Reflecting Wright’s admiration of Native American culture, the striking structure emulates a series of linked teepees. The legendary architect designed the building in 1923 for a country club in Madison, Wisconsin. But it was never built. Dariel and Peggy Garner, Nakoma Resort’s developers, purchased the plans from Wright’s Taliesin architects and brought his vision to life in 2001.
With its soaring spire, massive four-sided fireplace and unique octagonal shape, the restaurant – originally dubbed the Wigwam Room – is the star of this masterpiece. I appreciated the roaring fire and live acoustic music while enjoying a flavorful steak.
The next morning, I made the short drive to Graegle. Founded in 1916, the former lumber town features a cluster of quaint red cottages that now house shops and eateries. My first stop was the Graegle Outpost, a tiny coffeehouse with a deck overlooking tranquil Graegle Pond. I ordered a latte, then strolled around the pond before hitting Graegle Restaurant for breakfast. This old school coffee shop isn’t fancy. But my bacon and avocado scramble with hashbrowns and a homemade biscuit hit the spot. And the friendly staff made me feel as welcome as the parade of regulars who were greeted by name when they walked through the door.
Fueled for the day, I motored up scenic Gold Lake Highway in search of the Bear Lakes Loop trailhead. Once again, I missed my exit. But this proved lucky. When I pulled into a large parking lot to regroup, I realized I’d stumbled on Gold Lake. The largest lake in the area, it’s a popular spot for all sorts of water fun in the summer. On this chilly fall morning, besides a ranger cleaning restrooms, I had the glassy beauty all to myself.
I told the ranger I was looking for the Bear Lakes trail. He went to his truck to get a flyer with information about it and numerous other hiking options while I waited by the lake.
“You should see it on a foggy morning when the mist rises off the water,” he said, handing me the sheet of paper.
I wished I could. I watched a small motorboat cruise by and admired the perfect upside-down view of the trees and rocky ridges on the opposite shore reflected in its mirror-smooth surface. Then I thanked the ranger and, armed with my flyer, drove back to the Lake Basins Campground. Here, a bumpy dirt road led me to the Bear Lakes trailhead parking lot. After finishing the lovely 2-mile loop around the lakes, I headed to Plumas-Eureka State Park. The visitor center was closed, so I wandered among old mining machinery and interpretive signs describing the park’s gold mine days. As one of the Lost Sierra mining camps that introduced the sport of skiing to the western hemisphere in the 1860s, the site is also a registered historic California landmark. In winter, skiers flock to the park to honor that legacy during the annual Historic Longboard Revival Race series.
Back at the resort, I freshened up before returning to Graegle for dinner. I feasted on decadent butternut squash ravioli in cream sauce at Cuccias, a cozy Italian restaurant. The next morning, I explored a few of the short hiking trails that meander through the resort’s grounds, including one that accesses the Feather River, a good spot for flyfishing.
On the drive home, I stopped in Sierraville for lunch at The Farmhouse. Smart move. The homey diner serves one of the best patty melts I’ve ever had the pleasure of inhaling.
My time in the the Lost Sierra went by too fast. I didn’t get to soak in the soothing waters at Sierra Hot Springs – reservations are required and go fast. I didn’t make it to Sardine Lake, which some say is the prettiest in the area. And I didn’t have time for the 5-mile hike to the Sierra Buttes Lookout.
But that’s okay. Now that I know how to get to the Lost Sierra, I plan on finding my way back there soon.