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ADV News15 Spots You Don’t Want To Miss On A Ride Thru The Lost Sierra

15 Spots You Don’t Want To Miss On A Ride Thru The Lost Sierra

An incredible adventure is waiting to be had in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada.

Published on 02.21.2023

About an hour North of Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevada holds a hidden gem found beyond the main roads — a region filled with craggy peaks, ancient lakes, countless picture-perfect vistas, and a history made rich both literally and figuratively by California’s famous Gold Rush. More than 170 years ago, the lure of gold brought in droves to the Lost Sierra. Today, the same glacier carved valleys that once humbled early prospectors remain relatively untamed and wild, still promising a wealth of riches to anyone seeking an unforgettable adventure.

While it received its nickname ‘Lost Sierra’ because it is one of the less well-known and less-developed parts of the Sierras, it contains some of the most remarkable scenery California has to offer. Finding yourself here is like traveling to a different time — gone is the hustle and bustle of neighboring Tahoe, replaced with a sense of tranquility and exploring the great wilds. 

Riding The Lost Sierra

The town of Downieville serves as the Lost Sierra’s unofficial gateway and lays host to a number of outdoor activities — mountain biking and river rafting being the most popular, but few know of the incredible journey that lies in wait on an adventure motorcycle. With an endless number of forests and logging roads, you could spend months exploring in every direction finding mining ruins, geologic monoliths, and viewpoints that will make you think you are riding through a postcard. 

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Having spent hundreds of hours exploring the area’s vast network of trails, and forest roads, we’ve put together a list of incredible points of interest that exhibit a healthy mix of historic mining ruins, awe-inspiring views, numerous places to set up camp, and much more. Check out our interactive map and GPX tracks to get started, and get ready to discover what makes the Lost Sierra an epic destination for adventure riders.

1. Volcano Lake

In the shadow of the Sierra Buttes sits a small lake, hidden from most by a steep, narrow, and very rocky track. Right off Gold Lake Highway, the road starts by taking you through a creek crossing that can vary greatly in depth between seasons but is easily traversed without drama. From there, a 3-mile ride over large rocks and embedded boulders takes you the rest of the way.

You know you’re getting close when the intermediate track suddenly steepens and becomes a bit more challenging. Waiting for you at the top sits my favorite place in the region to sit and ponder. If the calm lake water mirroring the surrounding crags and forest doesn’t appeal to you, the tranquility surely will. Just be aware that campfires are not allowed in this protected area any time of the year.

2. Sierra Buttes Lookout 

Sierra Buttes Lookout - Riding The Lost Sierra

Established in 1916 and offering the only 8,500-foot views in the region, the Sierra Buttes Lookout is one spot you don’t want to miss. From the West, you’ll head up from Gold Lake Highway where the pavement ends North of the trailhead. A short 3-mile ride through a beautiful sub-alpine forest gets you to just below the Lookout. 

Sierra Buttes Lookout View Sardine Lakes

For those seeking greater adventure though, the only way up is from Sierra City. A long shelf road with numerous exposed drops and switchbacks reward with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. At the trailhead, you can either ride to the top, or park and hike the remaining 2 miles to the lookout, but we recommend bringing your two-wheeled steed to the top assuming you’re up to the task. If the last bit of this stunning track doesn’t leave you winded, the altitude and vistas assuredly will!

3. Jamison Mine Complex 

Lost Sierra Jamison Mine Complex

Situated East of Graegle, at the base of Mt. Washington, sit the remnants of a gold mining complex in the Plumas-Eureka State Park. Surrounded by jagged peaks, and dense forest, this is a must-see spot on your way East to La Porte. Established in 1887, this mine produced upwards of $17 million in gold and is famous for being the site where a 52-pound nugget was found. Today, numerous structures, mine shafts, and ruins of the once bustling mine remain. The complex is reached by a 1-and-a-half-mile long out-and-back gravel road, or from the Upper Jamison Campground – a beautifully maintained established campground sitting right beside the mining complex. From here you can ride toward La Porte on Johnsville-Mc Crea Road, a 20-mile stretch of dirt that carves through the mountains proving to be one of the best rides in the region.

4. Devil’s Post Pile 

Devil's Post Pile Lost Sierra

Frequently confused with a larger and more famous geological formation near Mammoth Lakes, Sierra County’s own Devil’s Post Pile formation sits secluded on the West side of the Lost Sierra. Accessed through an expansive network of trails that will take you past Saddleback Lookout, as well as the South entrance road to Poker Flat, these incredible basalt formations are sure to capture your imagination. With a few different ways to reach the formation, it’s up to the rider to decide whether they want a challenge, or a scenic doddle to reach this destination. The geological anomaly sits roughly 500 feet off the main road and is marked with a sign. If you miss it, you’re not looking hard enough!

5. Upper/Lower Sardine Lake(s) 

Sardine Lakes - Lost Sierra

Named for a Miner’s Mule that fell into its waters, Upper and Lower Sardine Lake make up two of the nearly two dozen glacial lakes that make up the aptly named Lakes Basin. Running North to South, the Lakes Basin is an incredible visual contrast of immaculate lakes surrounded by rough, jagged mountains and cliffs. The Sardine Lakes are home to a seasonal resort that hosts incredible fishing, hiking, and other outdoor recreational activities – though the most worthwhile activity here is simply taking in the scenery.

Upper Sardine Lake

Numerous trails of varying difficulty dot the area, many of which are accessible on two wheels, though beware as some of these tracks can quickly become hostile to larger bikes. Numerous camping opportunities dot the area, so whether you’re just passing by or wanting to hold over for a day or two, the Sardine Lakes are prepared to cater to all your adventure needs.

6. Saddleback Lookout

At 6,635ft, the Saddleback Lookout sits perched atop a rocky knoll North of Downieville. Its proximity to many trails and landmarks (both historical and geological) makes this a fantastic stop on your way to explore this part of the Sierra. The current tower was built in 1934 and from Late Spring until the end of fire season remains manned 24 hours a day to keep watch over the Lost Sierra’s forestlands. To get here you simply hop on Saddleback Road straight out of Downieville where you’ll slalom through the dense forest on a nicely graded road for 8 miles. The final ¾ of a mile stretch is steep and rocky, but with numerous places to sit and peer out at the expansive wilderness, this is a perfect place to take a break. On a clear day, Lassen Peak is easily seen to the North, some 68 miles away. The Sierra Buttes sit unmistakably to the West, while a glance East quickly reveals the Sutter Buttes and California’s Coastal Range, more than 100 miles away.

 7. Gold Lake/Little Gold Lake 

As the largest lake in Lakes Basin, Gold Lake’s pristine shoreline will make you question why the Lost Sierra is so sparsely populated. The view from Gold Lake Highway is world-class, with tall craggy ridges rising high above the banks. Entering from the highway quickly takes you off the pavement where you’re met with a technical, meandering 4×4 trail that splits right between Gold Lake and Little Gold Lake, its smaller but equally stunning sister.

Riding The Lost Sierra

If your nerves dare, the trails continue straight up and over the ridge above the lakes and spread out in numerous directions, both toward the Sierra Buttes, and North toward Johnsville-Mc Crea Road. For those who would rather bask in the glory of simply reaching the campground, the West side of Gold Lake offers dozens of spots to set up camp for the night. While you’re at it, you can partake in any number of activities from swimming, fishing for Sockeye Salmon, birdwatching, and more. No matter your choice, there are few better places to end a long day’s ride than Gold Lake.

8. Henness Pass Road 

Riding Henness Pass

Originally a travel route used by local Native American Tribes, in 1849 Henness Pass served as the only maintained emigrant route over the Sierra Nevada. Today the remnants of this route extend from Camptonville, California over the Sierra to Verdi, Nevada. In total, the road stretches more than 90 unpaved miles across the spine of the Sierra Nevada alongside numerous ghost towns, meadows, mountains, and lakes. There’s no better way to get a riding tour of California’s Gold Rush history than a ride along Henness Pass Road.

9. Mills Peak Station 

Mills Peak Station Lost Sierra

Mills Peak Station is a fire lookout perched high on a single 7,200ft peak, high above the surrounding valleys. Accessed through a network of scenic and unmaintained logging roads, the 360-degree views from the top are unrivaled if you wish to see the entirety of Lakes Basin as well as toward Sierra Valley. The latter valley serves as the headwaters to the Feather River and is where you can find the remnants of a lake similar to Lake Tahoe that became silted some 10,000 years ago. Depending on when you visit, the 90-year-old tower may be manned and open to visitation, but if not you can just as easily bask in the views from the surrounding terrain.

10. Webber Falls 

Webber Falls - Lost Sierra

Riding Henness Pass during the Summer and want a nice spot to cool off? Look no further than Webber Falls. Situated just beyond Webber Lake, Webber Falls is a largely unknown plunge fall that drops 80 feet from the top. Better yet is the pool where water accumulates just before leaping over the edge. Here you can relax in Webber Lake’s immaculate waters without the crowds often found at the lake before continuing East toward Nevada.

11. Forest City 

Riding The Lost Sierra

Originally called Brownsville, in 1854 this now ghost town and its nearby cemetery are only a few minutes off of Henness Pass Road. Gold was first discovered here in 1852, and soon after the population boomed to more than 1,000 residents. Over the next 30 years, the population fluctuated before going into steady decline, eventually culminating with the post office closing in 1947. Today several structures from the 1880s remain including the dance hall and numerous residences. There are many historical markers and a large collection of mining equipment as well, while the cemetery serves as a reminder of those who chose to make this place home through the late 1800s. If ghost towns and history are your things, Forest City is definitely worth the short detour.

12. Johnsville 

Exploring Johnsville in the Lost Sierra

Serving a population of 20 residents, Johnsville nearly qualifies as a ghost town. The nearby historic Ski Bowl, Plumas-Eureka State Park, Jamison Mine Complex, as well as the incredibly scenic roads carved through the mountains here make Johnsville a fantastic place to stop on your way through. The state park hosts an eclectic museum displaying the region’s history, as well as a large and well-maintained campground. On the North side of town, you can see the historic ski area and lift where some of the first competitive skiing in the Western Hemisphere occurred in 1863. The runs remain though the tow-rope style lift is long ceased operation. If you seek a bit more adventure, a rough track to the top takes you to Eureka Lake where you’ll encounter spectacular views of the jagged cliffs that surround. 

13. St. Louis/Howland Flat 

Old St. Louis Bridge in the Lost Sierra

Between La Porte and Poker Flat, there are a few other ghost towns, and historic ruins from the California Gold Rush, all situated along Port Wine Ridge Road. Little remains today of the once busy gold mining village of St. Louis, but the cemetery is well-marked. Beyond St. Louis, a few decaying structures remain, slowly succumbing to the elements.

Further ahead you’ll find the remains of Howland Flat – a mining site that at one time contained the largest Chinese settlement in Sierra County. The scenic dirt road combines a surreal mix of decaying ruins flanked by new-growth forest and steep terrain. Exploring here quickly gives an idea of how difficult life must have been 150 years ago.

14. Poker Flat 

Riding Poker Flat on Adventure Bikes

Not for the faint of heart, the road to Poker Flat is one of the most grueling in the area. Best experienced on a lightweight thumper, Poker Flat Road is little more than a 1.5-mile-long rock and boulder-filled chute straight into the canyon. Once you start going down, you are basically committed because coming back up is even harder if you feel like turning around. An easier but still challenging route enters about 3 miles North of Saddleback Lookout. Though steeper on paper, this route lacks all of the large rocks and boulders to navigate up or down into the canyon. It’s said that supply wagons would drag tree trunks behind their wagons as a way of keeping them from speeding down the slopes when entering the mining village. 

Once at the bottom, you’ll find the remnants of Poker Flat. During its heyday, upwards of $700,000 of gold per month (that’s 24.5 million in today’s money) was pulled from the area. Referred to as a “miserable hole” by one of its long-time residents, all that remains of Poker Flat today are the collapsed Smith Building, various mining artifacts, and a few foundations. There’s also a primitive campground along Canyon Creek where the brave can set up for the night. Listen closely and you may even hear echoes of the past.

 15. North Bloomfield

Riding The Lost Sierra (North Bloomfield)

Though not officially a part of the “Lost Sierra,” North Bloomfield is one of the most well-preserved mining towns in California. Converted into a state historic park, it features some well-preserved buildings, and operations that quickly immerse you in what life was like in the 1850s. The best way in is accessed from Highway 20 through the town of Washington. From there, the pavement quickly ends and the road winds up and over into San Juan Ridge. This track will take you along a stunning stretch of mountainside that reveals panoramic views toward the South. Along the way, you’ll ride through Relief Hill where a couple of abandoned structures still stand as a landmark for what once was another of the region’s many mining towns. One thing is certain – both the road and the destination will leave you wanting to explore more of this historical region.

The Hendy Giant strip mining water canon in the Lost Sierra.

Planning Your Trip

Riding Terrain: Since the Lost Sierra once hosted a large number of gold mining operations, there is a massive network of trails and unpaved roads connecting all of the ghost towns, lakes, and mountain peaks. The tracks we provided are roughly 70/30 with a bias toward unpaved routes, though this could easily be turned into more or less pavement depending on your desires. Many of the roads are well manicured and offer adventure opportunities to any level of rider, though closer to the center of Lakes Basin you can expect a large number of intermediate and expert routes that are aimed more toward thumpers and 4x4s than large adventure bikes. 

Riding The Lost Sierra

All of the provided tracks were done by us on heavier machines, but we’ve marked the tracks where we would recommend only the most seasoned riders venture if they choose to bring such a bike.

In between the POIs, there are few services outside of Downieville, Sierra City, and Graegle. Be sure to fill up your tank at Bassetts Station as exploring here can quickly run a tank empty before reaching the next piece of civilization. The longest stretch between fill-ups is about 100 miles between Nevada City and Bassetts, though the entire territory hosts only 3 fuel stations. Sierra City, Downieville, Graegle, and Bassetts are all good places to resupply or to take advantage of a handful of dining options, while La Porte has a general store with an assortment of goods. Still, this is a very remote area and it is recommended to bring a buddy, a GPS messaging device, ample water and food, as well as tools, first-aid, and anything else needed to survive a few days in the rugged wilderness. 

Riding The Lost Sierra

Weather: Like much of the Sierra Nevada, the Lost Sierra is largely impervious during the Winter months. Things begin to open in May and run through October before everything begins to shutter and prepare for hibernation. During the open season, expect the possibility of Spring and Summer thunderstorms that often bring large temperature swings. In the Summer, daytime temperatures can vary between the mid-60s and high-90s depending on where you are, with nighttime lows varying between the 30s and 50s, again contingent on where you decide to set up your tent for the night. On one of our recent trips, we experienced highs approaching 100 degrees in Downieville, with lows in the 40s during our final night. This paired with a weather system that dropped rain on us until we were out of the Sierra Nevada serves as a reminder that here, you prepare for everything.

Camping/Lodging: Between Nevada City in the West, and Graegle to the East, there are dozens of campgrounds and lodging opportunities. Dispersed camping options are also widespread, and we tend to frequent those. For a more civilized overnight halt, there are several state park and USFS campgrounds that offer civilized camping arrangements ranging in cost from $10 per night, up to $25 per night. Grounds on the higher end include picnic tables, running water, flushing toilets, and more whereas the lower end of the cost spectrum will get you pit toilets and a fire ring. Keep in mind that the Sierra Nevada is extremely susceptible to wildfire so there’s a decent chance that in the Summer months, you may encounter a campfire ban.

Camping in the Lost Sierra

Sites at Plumas-Eureka State Park can be booked in advance at reservecalifornia.com. The USFS sites that take reservations can be reserved at recreation.gov though a number also allow first-come-first-serve camping.

Maps and GPS Tracks

We’ve put together a route through the Lost Sierras that will allow you to visit all the places mentioned in this Ride Guide and more during a 4-day trip. Downloadable GPX tracks and a larger interactive map are available for free.*

View Larger Map

* Terms of Use: Should you decide to explore a route that is published on ADV Pulse, you assume the risk of any resulting injury, loss or damage suffered as a result. The route descriptions, maps and GPS tracks provided are simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due diligence. It is your responsibility to evaluate the route accuracy as well as the current condition of trails and roads, your vehicle readiness, personal fitness and local weather when independently determining whether to use or adapt any of the information provided here.

Photos by Rob Dabney

Author: Ken Morse

While Ken’s two-wheeled exploits began only a few years ago, he’s no stranger to adventure. Since 2006, he’s been wandering all over the U.S. in various four-wheel drive toys, exploring as much hidden terrain in the backcountry as possible. Having straddled his first motorcycle in 2019, he quickly became obsessed and made the switch to two wheels. Now he spends most of his free time riding, wrenching and traveling on adventure motorcycles from his base in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

Author: Ken Morse
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Kellen
Kellen
February 21, 2023 10:45 pm

I gotta get to devil’s postpile this summer.

Jonathan
Jonathan
February 22, 2023 9:51 pm

Awesome! As an ADV rider that just moved to the area, this is greatly appreciated!

Mark
Mark
March 1, 2023 4:57 pm

Where do I get the interactive map?

ADV Pulse
ADV Pulse
March 2, 2023 12:05 pm
Reply to  Mark

Hey Mark, click on the hyperlinked text that says “larger interactive map.”

Tucker
Tucker
November 30, 2023 7:53 am

Great description of the area. I’ve done most of these on my old KTM 640, including Poker Flat south to north – never again. Wild area that’s awesome to explore, with extra gas and lots of water.

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