Lost Sierra Road Trip

The stretch of the Sierra from north of Truckee to Lassen, or the “Lost Sierra” is one of my favorite parts of the whole state of California. Even better, it’s highly underrated and much more lightly travelled than the coast or other parts of the Sierra. Here’s my recommendation for a five day trip through this incredible area.

Lost Sierra Road Trip // tahoefabulous.com

Truckee to Downieville (60 miles, 1.5 hours)
Head north from Truckee along the scenic Highway 89 corridor – be sure to watch for migrating deer on the road because this is a very active wildlife corridor. If you want to start your day out with a hike before you get on the road, there are a couple of options very close to Truckee. There’s Emigrant Trail, which is a popular mixed use trail, so you’ll likely see hikers, mountain bikers and horses. It’s an out and back, so just walk until you feel ready to turn around. For a scenic loop of 5.3 miles, try the Sagehen Creek Loop Trail, an easy meander along Sagehen Creek that’s a good spot for wildflowers in the spring. Both these trails are right off Highway 89, so they’re very convenient for this route.

After about a half hour of driving, you’ll be in Sierraville, a gorgeous open valley that’s home to cattle grazing and hot springs. There aren’t any free hot springs open to the public here, but you can drop in at Sierra Hot Springs Resort if you’re interested. At Sierraville, you turn left to get on Highway 49 and head to Downieville.

Downieville is a historic gold rush and timber town that was slowly dying, but has been bouncing back with a growing tourism economy – especially mountain bike tourism through the efforts of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. While Downieville is a mecca for mountain bikers due to the world famous Downieville Downhill trail and a fast growing network of new trails, there are plenty of other things to do. There’s fishing, gold panning, swimming, and even a little museum downtown if you’re into history. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses nearby around Sierra City, so there is plenty of hiking as well. I think that Downieville is worth staying for a couple of days at least to take in a few of the many activities available.

Downieville Downhill // tahoefabulous.com

If you’re at all interested in mountain biking, that’s something that you have to do while you’re here, if only to say that you did it! While I wouldn’t recommend the full Downieville Downhill route unless you are a strong intermediate+ rider, there are plenty of other options in the area. See my trail report of the Downieville Downhill here. Visit Yuba Expeditions bike shop in downtown Downieville to help you plan a route, book a shuttle, or rent a bike.

When I’ve stayed in Downieville, I’ve camped. I like the Union Flat campground. While it’s a few miles out of town, it’s right on the North Yuba River, which is  great for a post ride or hike soak. If you’re looking for something unique, you can stay the night in an old fire lookout! I haven’t got to do that yet, but some friends did and said it’s awesome. The Calpine Lookout isn’t far from Downieville and would be a great basecamp for a few days. There are also lots of little resorts, cabins, and vacation rentals in the area if camping isn’t your thing. For food, I’d recommend bringing groceries and camp kitchen set up to supplement eating out. There are a couple of restaurants in Downieville (literally a couple), and they’re okay, but a little pricey. Definitely support the local businesses, but eating there every meal would get expensive.

Downieville to Quincy (60 miles, 1.5 hours)
Head back east on Highway 49 from Downieville toward your next destination of Quincy. You’ll head north on 89/70 and pass through the small town of Graeagle, which is a fun place to stop. If you’re a mountain biker, there’s the awesome Mills Peak Trail, which is worth a ride, even if you’re exhausted from Downieville. See my trail report linked above with tips for shuttling or riding from the bottom. If you’re not into biking, you can drive up to the Mills Peak Fire Lookout (which is a working lookout and offer tours during the summer) and take in the gorgeous views of the Sierra Buttes and the Lakes Basin. A few miles of the road are unpaved, rough, and narrow, so I’d recommend high clearance and all wheel drive.

Gold Lakes Basin Lost Sierra // tahoefabulous.com

Graeagle has a bunch of little shops and restaurants, so wandering around the town is a good option. For food, I’d recommend picking up a to go order from the Graeagle Mountain Frostee and heading a few miles up the road to The Brewing Lair in Blairsden. This is one of my all time favorite breweries. They sometimes have a food truck and live music, so check their facebook for updates.

Mills Peak Fire Lookout // tahoefabulous.com

Quincy is one of the bigger towns in the Lost Sierra, and it’s located on the gorgeous Feather River. Similar to other spots in the area, there is lots of hiking, fishing, swimming, and rafting. It’s home to the High Sierra Music Festival, which is a must do for festival fans who want a more mellow experience. For mountain bikers, it’s also home to the Mount Hough trail, which I haven’t ridden yet (on my bucket list!), but I hear is awesome. There’s lots of campgrounds around Quincy, and plenty of resorts, RV parks, and vacation rentals for lodging.

Quincy to Lassen Volcanic National Park (71 miles, 1.5 hours)
Compared to more popular parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic National Park is practically deserted. While lacking iconic landmarks like Old Faithful or Half Dome, Lassen is worth spending a couple of days exploring the park. The National Park’s website gives a great overview of places to stay and things to do while you’re there.

There are literally dozens of day hikes you can do in the park, and in the summer, you can climb Mount Lassen with a reasonable level of fitness and some hiking experience. It’s also a popular backcountry ski destination, since there’s some level of snow all year. Like Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic National park is home to thermal areas. The most well known area, Bumpass Hell is currently closed for a rehabilitation project, but there are many others you can visit.

Lassen Volcanic National Park // tahoefabulous.com

One of the coolest things about Lassen is how little light pollution there is. It has incredibly dark skies, making it a great area for stargazing. The Park even hosts a Dark Skies Festival in August, which would be an awesome reason to plan a visit.

Just a 45 minute drive from Lassen is the McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. This park is home to the incredible Burney Falls, which is another one for my California bucket list. If you’ve got a couple of days in Lassen, a visit to Burney Falls is worth the drive.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is a little off the beaten path – which is why it’s so quiet, and the park doesn’t have huge infrastructure of the larger parks. While there are a few places to eat in the park, you’d be better off stocking up on groceries in Quincy or Almanor. While you’re staying in the park, be sure to be bear aware and store your food and garbage in the proper way.

The entire trip is about 190 miles and 4.25 hours of driving, not accounting for any scenic detours or side trips. While you could drive straight from Truckee to Lassen, I think that taking multiple days to explore the Lost Sierra is worth it – especially if you bring your mountain bike or fishing pole.

Mountain Biking Mills Peak Trail, Graeagle, California

I’ve ridden a lot of awesome trails all over the west – from Santa Barbara to Whistler and everywhere in between. I say that because after all sorts of amazing road trips to incredible riding destinations, Mills Peak Trail, which is less than an hour north of Truckee, is still one of my all time favorites.

Mountain Biking Mills Peak // tahoefabulous.com

Mills Peak Trail is the work of the awesome Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, a nonprofit trail organization that is also behind the world famous Downieville Downhill. The trail is awesome – a great mix of flowy, bermed corners and chunky, challenging rock gardens weaving through old trees with occasional wide views. You can ride it a couple of different ways – climb from the bottom or shuttle from the top.

Mills Peak from the Top
Via Strava
Mills Peak from the Top
Map via Strava

The shuttle route takes you to the very top of Mills Peak. You’ll have great views, and there’s even an old fire lookout at the top.

Mills Peak 2

From there, you’ll have a nine mile descent with 2,800+ feet of elevation loss. The trail is segmented into three sections of about three miles each. The top third is the rockiest and most technical, but I think it’s entirely doable by a strong intermediate rider, as long as you’re paying attention. The short and punchy rocky micro-climbs are more challenging than any of the downhills on this section. There are a couple spots with amazing views of the Gold Lakes Basin and you might even be able to spot a waterfall.

Top of Mills Peak // tahoefabulous.com

The second section is practically brand new. This part was all fire road until January of 2018 when SBTS finished punching through a new singletrack trail that paralleled the old fire road. Greyson and I went up for a trail work day in May to help smooth out and finish up the trail. Since it’s still so new, it’s a little rough and bumpy but I figure that it will be in great shape soon, especially after a winter’s worth of snow and rain fall on it. This section seemed like the steepest to me, and my hands and forearms were beat up after riding it in all its new trail glory. We had to take a couple of breaks to shake out our hands. See bumpy texture below.

Mills Peak Trail Day

The last third is the part of the trail I’m most familiar with, as it’s the part we’ve ridden the most times. The last third is split in half with a road crossing. When your headed downhill, the section before the road crossing is flowy with lots of bermed corners, but has enough rocky sections to keep things interesting. Watch out for the massive sugar pine cones that like to collect in the trail! They’re a worse obstacle than loose rocks. The final ~1.5 miles of the trail has lots of rock gardens and small rock drops – nothing that’s not rollable, but great for practicing techniques. This section isn’t very steep, so while the trail is pretty rocky it remains very rideable.

Mills Peak from the Bottom
Via Strava
Mills Peak Map
Map via Strava

If you’re not lucky enough to have a shuttle (though Yuba Expeditions is supposed to start running paid shuttles in July 2018), you can ride Mills Peak from the bottom. Greyson and I have ridden up the bottom third of Mills Peak Trail quite a few times now, which is just a climb of ~1,100 feet in just over three miles, for a round trip of 6 miles. Climbing the whole thing is doable (for people in better shape than me), and you’d end up climbing around 3,000 feet in 9 miles. Maybe next year I’ll be in good enough shape for that epic day!

Trail Stats:
Location: Graeagle, California
Difficulty: Intermediate
Distance: 9 miles from the top with shuttle
Elevation: ~2,900 feet of descent