Trip Report: Lakes Basin

Silver Lake reflection

Have you ever heard of the Sierra Buttes? I ran across a travel section article about them a few years ago, and thought “we should go there some day”. This is the summer of going there some day. The Sierra Buttes are a group of pinnacles and crags, the highest point in the area and quite dramatic. The Lakes Basin is adjacent to the Buttes, and so we have quite a bit to interest the avid outdoorsperson.

We camped at Wild Plum Campground, near Sierra City, a tiny mining-era town. This campground was selected because it was the only U.S. Forest Service campground that allowed online reservations, and I didn’t want to drive all the way up here and get shut out of the otherwise first-come first served USFS camps. It was also recommended for people who like birds, which we’ll get into a bit later. After squaring things away at the household, and explaining (once again) to the kitty that we’d be back the day after tomorrow, we got on the road at about 11:30 am.

I haven’t been on I-80 between the Bay Area and Sacramento in quite a while, and was really impressed with how the CalTrans oleanders have grown in the past few decades. It’s like being in an oleander tunnel, if that’s your sort of thing. Me, I like to see where the hell I am. I mentioned to the Resident Expert how we used to stop at the Nut Tree when traveling between the South Bay and Tahoe in my younger days with the family. Have you seen what they’ve done to the Nut Tree? It’s still called the Nut Tree, but it’s basically a continuation of the non-stop big box retail megamall plume that accompanies I-80. I remember it as a place where we stopped for some reason because the adults were interested in doing so, but it was really hot in the Country Squire and why are we here anyway? But in the old days it truly was a legendary roadside attraction. But like everything else that was once good, it has been totally ruined. The Master Plan indicates it will have 393,000 square feet of retail space. Why? Has not the preceding and ensuing 40 miles of I-80 saturated the retail capacity? My only explanation for this is that people moved out here, eventually realized they were in a desolate no-man’s land, and thought that if they bought something, they would be happy. Hence the excess retail square footage. We move on.

We selected one of the hotter summer weekends for our adventure, and it doesn’t get a whole lot hotter than it does in the Gold Country in the early afternoon on Saturday. So we stopped in Auburn for lunch, where we served sandwiches that were somewhat larger than the appropriate sandwich size. But we recognized that Auburn has a lot going for it, if they could just turn down the heat a little bit, and made a mental note to stop here again on our way back home. Here’s my traveling companion, outside the place with the giant sandwiches. Imagine that it’s 98 degrees when you look at this.

hot lunch

At Auburn you leave I-80 and get on CA State Route 49 for the rest of the trip, and I headed out on CA SR 49-S. Wait. S? Aren’t we supposed to be going N? The car’s compass says we’re going N. They must have got the sign wrong! How often does that happen! I proceeded S. The river folk were out in force, with cars lining the highways near every dirt path leading down to the American River. Quite a scene. Eventually, but a bit longer than you might have expected (or wanted, if you were my passenger), I realized the error of my ways and turned around to proceed on CA 49-N. Hello again, river folk.

Long after I expected to, we arrived in Sierra City, and found the road to our campground. Our site turned out to be just fine, very private and roomy. The camp set up went quickly, and it wasn’t long before we had the dogs on the grill and leisure time initiated. As stated in prior trip reports, we tweak the camping skills each time. Given the high ambient temperature and secluded setting for our tent, we dispensed with the rain fly, which we’ve always used up until now. Based on this experience, it will actually need to be raining for me to use the rain fly. Without it, it’s like sleeping under the stars (except we were in the forest so you couldn’t see any) but you’re protected from the bugs (didn’t actually see any bugs) and wild animals (which were not available).

Last year when we camped at Lodgepole in SEKI, I noticed our next door neighbors had a relatively minimal camp and were gone for most of the day. This seemed like a good way to go; find a car camping site near good hiking venues, spend the whole day out on the trail, and then have the base camp waiting for you upon return. It’s a reasonable approximation of backpacking, but don’t have to carry everything with you and so can walk farther. I know. It’s not like backpacking; carrying everything with you is why they call it backpacking. Still, it’s nice to have a camp set up for you at the end of the day’s hike. On this trip, I was most interested in exploring the Lakes Basin, with a secondary interest in hiking Sierra Buttes and climbing up to the fire lookout on the peak. With the forecast high being close to the century mark, I thought we’d try the Lakes Basin first, then, maybe, the Sierra Buttes peak hike.

Did they just run out of ideas when they named this area the “Lakes Basin”? Not only is it sort of redundant, it’s just not a name that provokes interest. “Let’s go to the Lakes Basin!”, no one ever said. But the failure of nomenclature is our gain, because it’s a somewhat secret spot in the otherwise thoroughly trampled California. Don’t tell anyone about it. Having complained about the name, I have to now say that it basically is a basin of lakes. Lots of lakes. Beautiful, pristine lakes in glacier-carved bowls. I had read about the Round Lake Loop Trail somewhere, which was supposed to traverse the area and hit several of the lakes along the way. The description I read probably made mention of the location of the trailhead, but I did not make a note of it. So we cruised the area until we found a trailhead, and ventured out. Not the correct trailhead, but close enough, and we set out lake hunting. First, up Big Bear Lake.

Bear Lake

This is close to the Gold Lake Lodge and campground, yet we saw no other people here. They must have heard that it was in the Lakes Basin and decided against visiting it. The area is good for the bird enthusiast, and we stated noting some unfamiliar feathered friends along the way. A bit of a climb gets you to a view of Long Lake.

Long Lake

The landscape around here is quite stony. I haven’t read up on the geology yet, and so cannot go on at length about something I just learned about five minutes ago. I can only report that there are many rocks and they are cool looking. Check out the lichen in the shade under this conifer. Seems to only want to exist in the shade. (I agree – it’s hot!)  Just one of the many curiosities that await you in the magical Lakes Basin.

Lichen

On we went, arriving shortly at Silver Lake.

Silver Lake

We can report the swimming is excellent. The lake has no inlet stream, all the water is from snowmelt and a spring. Very refreshing. We saw some unfamiliar birds here, which I’ve logged in over at EBird. The gold bugs were all over the place in the old days, as you would imagine, and the Lakes Basin was no exception. They somehow figured out that there was a gold deposit in a seam under Round Lake, and went to great lengths to mine down to it and extract it, because it was shiny. But the mine burned (didn’t know that was possible) and they abandoned their scheme. Left all their mining stuff here though.

Round Lake mine

After the hike we stopped at Bassetts Station on CA 49 for lunch, and to reconsider our afternoon hiking plans. There has been a roadhouse here for over 140 years, and it remains popular. The original buildings are gone, but the current proprietors continue to offer a cafe, grocery and other supplies to wayfarers and locals alike. Inside you’ll find lots of old photos and letters from old-timers recalling the heyday of Bassetts. One fellow said that to run a place like Bassetts you had to be a “joint man”, which meant that you had to serve locals and visitors equally well, because the visitors are only around when the road is passable. Not sure why that makes you a “joint man”, but there it is.

We decided against the Sierra Buttes peak hike – just too darned hot today. But I would like to try that on a cooler and clearer day. There’s a fire lookout at the top, with a catwalk around it that offers a 360º view. We’ll be back. To cool off a bit more, we continued on up CA 49 over Yuba Pass and explored the Sierra Valley. Another place I’ve never heard of, but it is described as the largest alpine valley in North America. Beautiful.

Back to camp. I would probably check out the campgrounds in the Lakes Basin next time, but Wild Plum Campground was just fine. Our site was quite large and private. The camp itself was very quiet, even when full on Saturday night. You can hear the sound of the creek all night, but that’s about it.

Site 20

This is site 20. Another one that looks good is 32. The Pacific Crest Trail runs past here, and I had one opportunity to chat with a through-hiker. Sierra City is close by, so it’s a resupply destination for them. On our last night, we saw lots of campers gathering at a nearby site, which was cause for some concern. They had all these chairs set up in a ring around the fire pit, Council of Elrond style. Some boisterous banter was noted. The campground Stellar’s Jays set up a sentinel post in our camp to observe, as they determined these campers were probably CWC*. But soon enough the Council dispersed, and the camp settled back into its quiet state.

Later, as we watched our little camp fire and had some tea, someone was performing what looked like a Blessing Way ceremony with an LED headlamp on the other side of the campground. Mesmerizing.

So, in summary, I would say that the trip was an overall success, mitigated only by the high temperatures.

* Careless with Cheetos

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