The craggy, multi-pinnacled Sierra Buttes provide a majestic backdrop to the Northern Sierra’s Lakes Basin Recreation Area. Sprinkled with dozens of alpine lakes big and small, Lakes Basin is a gorgeous undervalued natural area with amazing, year-round recreation opportunities including fishing, hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and 4-wheel driving.
Numerous Sierra Buttes camping areas provide easy access to the water and there are over 30 interconnected miles of trails to explore. The Lakes Basin Recreation Area is home to a large variety of wildlife including bears, mountain lions, coyotes, eagles and more. During the California Gold Rush, the area bustled with prospectors hoping to strike it rich. To this day, old mines and abandoned mining structures dot the landscape.
The heart of the Sierra Buttes is located 50 miles northwest of Truckee and 120 miles northeast of Sacramento. Much of Sierra Buttes is contained in the Tahoe National Forest or Plumas National Forest and a handful of old mining towns and historic lodges are scattered throughout the region.
Sierra Buttes Camping Destinations
The Gold Lake Campground is located in the Lakes Basin Recreation Area just 10 miles southwest of Graeagle. All 37 campsites are first-come, first-served and no hook-ups or potable water is available. The campground is right on Gold Lake, the largest of the Lakes Basin lakes and the home of a nice population of lake trout.
Hiking trails connect Gold Lake to several nearby alpine lakes and a rugged 4×4 trail hugs the shoreline for five miles and leads to the more primitive Gold Lake 4×4 Campground. The campground is open year-round, but services are limited mid-October through June.
Boating, water skiing, jet skiing, windsurfing, and fishing are all popular activities on Gold Lake. A paved boat ramp is located on the southeastern shore of the lake and a second gravel launch area is located at the day use area near the dam. Lake trout, kokanee salmon, and crayfish are abundant in Gold Lake.
Located north of Sierra City and just south of Gold Lake, Sardine Lake Campground is the ideal Sierra Buttes camping spot. The campground is situated at the northern end of Lower Sardine Lake, which is nestled below the rocky spires of the Sierra Buttes. Trails to Lower and Upper Sardine Lakes leave right from the campground and connect to longer trails in the Sierra Buttes including the Sierra Buttes First Lookout Trail.
The campground offers 29 campsites and only 15 of the sites accommodate trailers or small RVs. Drinking water is available, but no hook-ups or flush toilets. The nearby Sardine Lakes Resort offers boat rentals, cabin rentals, and a restaurant and lakeside bar. The Sardine Lake Campground is not open in winter.
The Lakes Basin Campground is located just 2 miles from Gold Lake and offers 22 sites with easy access to hiking trails and trout streams. The campground is situated among the ruins of an old mining site and much of the old stonework can still be seen. The campsites are small and best suited for tent campers. No hook-ups are available and the campground is only open from late-May through early-September
Goose Lake CA is a small Forest Service campground located halfway between Gold Lake and the Sardine lakes. The 13 campsites are only available first-come, first-served and half of the sites are only accessible via a rough unpaved road. The campground is almost completely surrounded by the arms of Goose Lake and hiking trails connect Goose Lake to other area lakes.
Best Sierra Buttes Hikes
The Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout Hike
For the best views of Sierra Buttes and the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, hike the 5-mile out and back trail to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout. The Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout is one of the most exposed lookout towers in the west, requiring a daunting climb up 180 stairs to the tower platform perched on the highest point of the buttes. From the tower, you can look straight down nearly 3,000 feet to the Sardine Lakes below and out to Mt. Lassen on a clear day, over a hundred miles away.
Mt. Elwell Trail
The Mt. Elwell Trail is a 12-mile out and back hike to the Pacific Crest Trail. The hike begins from the Smith Lake Trailhead near the Gray Eagle Lodge just off Gold Lake Highway. From the trail, you’ll enjoy views of Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen to the north and the Sierra Buttes to the south. An alternate 8-mile loop option returns via the Long Lake Trail.
Frazier Falls Trail
This paved 1-mile round trip wheelchair accessible trail leads to a scenic viewpoint of Frazier Falls. It is one of only a handful of waterfalls in the Lakes Basin Recreation Area and cascades down an impressive 250 feet. The trailhead is located on Frazier Creek Road, just a short drive from Gold Lake.
Bear Lakes Loop
The Bear Lakes Loop is one of the most popular hikes in the Lakes Basin region. This relatively easy 2.5-mile loop trail passes by Big Bear, Little Bear, and Cub lakes. The hike can be extended to also visit Long and Silver lakes. The trail begins from the Lakes Basin Trailhead just off the Gold Lake Highway.