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ADV NewsLost and Found: Moto Expedition To Discover The Lost Sierra

Lost and Found: Moto Expedition To Discover The Lost Sierra

A vast wilderness of granite peaks and crystal-clear lakes waiting to be explored.

Published on 08.02.2022

People get lost. Keys get lost. But forests? They’re usually kinda big, and who would have the wherewithal to misplace a forest anyway? California has apparently pulled off this unlikely feat. Directly adjacent to exceedingly famous locations in the Sierra Nevada such as Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and Mammoth Lakes are the Lakes Basin and Sierra Buttes, also known as the Lost Sierra.

Positioned roughly north-west of where California’s border kinks at Lake Tahoe, the Lost Sierra remains pristine and remote, with over 50 glacially carved lakes scattered throughout rugged mountains which enjoy federally protected status as the Lakes Basin Recreation Area. Over a few days in June, we set out to explore this lesser-known section of California, and found an adventure rider’s paradise in a region that is apparently lost, at least on paper.

Lost Sierra Motorcycle expedition on Aprilia Tuareg 660

In addition to exploring a comparatively unknown area of California, I would be doing so aboard a newcomer to the middleweight adventure segment — Aprilia’s Tuareg 660. With a wet weight of around 450 pounds, power output of 80 horsepower from a parallel-twin motor, and 9.5” of suspension travel, this fresh entry from Italy was worthy of further investigation into how it matches up with other bikes in its class.  But, this is the subject of a future comparison. Back to our journey…

Lost Sierra Motorcycle expedition on Aprilia Tuareg 660

This is not a hard rule, but seems to be a general tendency – the rougher the beginning of something, the better the end result. Our expedition started in Colfax, where we would begin the journey northward into the Lost Sierra from this small town of less than 2,500 people. Sounds like a simple task, and normally it would be, unless you immediately have a somewhat catastrophic failure with mounting straps, a heat shield issue requiring a jury-rigged solution, and your GPS setup loses power. Problems have solutions however, and in short order everything was set straight in the sweltering June heat.

Lost Sierra Motorcycle expedition on Aprilia Tuareg 660

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Then we got on the road. Before stopping to grab some food, the urban gauntlet was thrown down in the form of a DWP truck losing a long section of conduit off a reel which swung back and forth behind the truck like the tail on a giant mechanical sting ray. We all avoided getting zapped and got around the truck, only to be greeted by a sudden series of swerving brake lights dodging the couch cushion in the middle of the road. We were definitely looking forward to getting into the forest.

Our route through the Lost Sierra took us in a north-easterly direction through a collection of single-syllable roads and towns. Barb Wire, You Bet, and Red Dog are all seen on the map before reaching Dutch Flat. While less than 200 people live in Dutch Flat in the present day, at one point this town was one of the largest hydrological gold mining operations in the country. Built in 1852 and still standing, the Dutch Flat Hotel closed in 1941 and was a private residence for over 60 years before re-opening in 2004. It’s a very cool piece of history in an otherwise unassuming tiny community. For our part, we had tents packed up and were headed further into the hills.

Lost Sierra Motorcycle expedition on Aprilia Tuareg 660
Lost Sierra Motorcycle ride on Aprilia Tuareg 660

Massive scars in the landscape clearly depict the hydraulic mining operations that dominated this area during California’s Gold Rush era. Notable operations such as the Malakoff Diggings created what are now referred to as “canyons” as deep as 600 feet in some places. Giant water cannons known as “monitors” would throw exceedingly powerful streams of water that would blow entire hillsides apart and wash them away. One such monitor is actually named “Giant” and can be seen on display in the town of North Bloomfield.

Lost Sierra Motorcycle ride on Aprilia Tuareg 660

While this corner of California is famous for tearing landscapes apart in the form of mining, impressive feats of construction can also be found here. Foote’s Crossing Road is a narrow and windy single-lane path which dives down about a 1000-foot cliff from North Columbia to the middle fork of the Yuba River. This steep road is made even more impressive by the fact Italian stonemasons built the entire thing by hand, using only manpower and animals, over a six-month period. Going for a dip in the river at the base of the road was a welcome break from the oppressive heat.

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle ride on Aprilia Tuareg 660
California Lost Sierra Motorcycle ride on Aprilia Tuareg 660

Many of the towns in this part of California saw their industrial and population peaks nearly 200 years ago, and Downieville is no different in this regard. In 1851, over 5,000 people, many of them fortune-seekers, buzzed around this mountain community. Today, the population hovers around 300, and fortune-seekers have been replaced by thrill-seekers, mostly on mountain bikes bombing the extensive network of trails in the surrounding hills.

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle ride on Aprilia Tuareg 660

They say the Devil is in the details, but in the case of natural wonders, it seems like so many of the details are the Devil’s. The Devil’s Golf Ccourse, the Devil’s Throat, The Devil’s Head… somewhere there’s probably something called the Devil’s Bunion. After grabbing lunch in Downieville, we began the climb towards Deadwood Peak to check out The Devil’s Postpile. A more famous formation of these volcanic basalt columns can be found near Mammoth Lakes, but like much of the Lost Sierra, this Devil’s Postpile is more remote, and more difficult to access. Looking like a pile of gigantic busted up number two pencils, climbing to the top of the postpile here provides amazing although precarious views from just above the tree line.

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle ride on Aprilia Tuareg 660

Breaking camp the following morning, we hit a couple technical bits of trail and I started to learn about the Aprilia Tuareg 660’s off-road prowess. A mix of technical trails, fast fire roads, and steep, rocky climbs eventually lead us to the Saddleback Mountain Fire Lookout. From this high vantage point various peaks, some containing other fire lookouts, can be seen up to 100 miles away. Included in this grand landscape are the Sutter Buttes, known as the “smallest mountain range in the world.”

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle ride on Aprilia Tuareg 660
California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660

After being invited into the lookout by the caretaker on-site, we were shown how the Osborne Fire Finder is used to pinpoint the location of forest fires. The “modern” version of this device has been in service since 1915. The circular tool is essentially a map with a scope attached to it. The observer aims the sites at the fire, and pins a straight line from their station to whatever is burning. Then, from a second station, another observer does the same thing. They trade notes and where the lines cross is the location of the fire. Adding more stations into this process increases the accuracy of the location.

Pulling into Bassetts Station for fuel and lunch, our collection of motorcycles was vastly outnumbered by bicycles. In addition to the spaghetti-like collection of mountain bike trails snaking through the Lost Sierra, road-going cyclists have miles of pristine pavement winding through postcard NorCal landscapes. An added bonus to a stop here is the fact the water spigot outside is fed by an artesian spring. 

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660
California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660

Perched at nearly 8,600 feet, the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout is worth the climb up the dizzying collection of metal stairs, but not for the faint of heart. The stairs themselves are suspended in what seems like mid-air, and the catwalk around the lookout tower’s perimeter hangs over sheer drops nearly 3,000 feet to the valley floor below. Before reaching the structure itself, the road getting here is among the most difficult terrain we encountered on this trip. 

Even before reaching the latter parts of the trail where things became more technical, the “smooth and easy” part of the road is quite steep, and requires attention. Stopped by a couple driving a Suburban with a visibly shaken person in the back seat, we were informed their passenger had just driven his SUV off a cliff, and they were lucky to get him out. A few minutes later we encountered the unfortunate vehicle, in an odd situation that did not look too precarious, but served as a reminder that any lapse of attention in these mountains can have dire consequences. 

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660
California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660

The final few miles of trail put man and machine to the test. While no Ezrberg Enduro, the rocks got bigger, the switchbacks became steeper, and the ruts became deeper. Runoff from melting snow created sections of slick mud and rocks to contend with scattered throughout these final few miles before reaching the peak. Fortunately, we had swapped the stock Pirelli Scorpion STR tires for a more aggressive set of Heidenau K60 Ranger hoops. The performance of these all-new 70/30 off/on road bias dual sport tires was a welcome surprise, having never tested them prior. Upon arriving at the end of the trail, blocked by a large snow bank, we were the only motorcycles there. The small collection of hikers and mountain bikers seemed surprised to see two large adventure bikes sharing the end of the narrow road with them.

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660
California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660

From the vantage point of the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout we could see what would be our camping area for the evening — Gold Lake. We set off from the peak towards the lake below, and in an ironic twist, ran into some significant snow banks in the shaded areas near the base of the trail, while the peaks of the mountains were almost completely dry. Gold Lake is the largest lake in the area, and as such also one of the most popular. After hacking through the snow we had to navigate  a few extremely rocky and skidplate-bashing sections of trail. These steep rocky descents again proved the new Tuareg 660 to be a serious contender, as it rolled down these ledgy sections of trail smoothly, while the Tenere 700 on the trip could be heard playing its skidplate like conga drums. We finally reached the lake after a technical (and sometimes loud) descent, and were greeted by many already-occupied campsites. 

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660

As luck would have it, we decided to check out the adjacent Little Gold Lake, and scored what is arguably the best campsite on the shore. This large area at the end of the road was easily among the top-10 “on the beaten path” campsites I’ve been to, although it felt extremely remote and inaccessible, given the path we took to get here. It was not until the following day did we ride out the main entrance to the paved road that was just a few miles away.

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660
California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660

Leaving camp on the final day of the trip, the Lost Sierra reminded us of the unpredictable nature of the weather in the Sierras. In the final stages of breaking camp, gray skies turned to drizzle, and drizzle turned to rain. While only a short distance from camp to the main road, the access trail leading to Gold Lake is a very rocky path, made more challenging in the rain as things became more slick. The Heidenau K60 Ranger tires proved their worth by hooking up well in the slippery conditions, both in the rocks and tight asphalt curves of highway 49.

California Lost Sierra Motorcycle journey on Aprilia Tuareg 660

History’s pendulum has swung wide through the Lost Sierra over the past 174 years. When James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, news quickly spread to population centers back east and overseas. In the subsequent seven years, roughly 300,000 people flocked to California, primarily seeking fortune. As the gold strikes waned, so did the population. Today, the Lost Sierra enjoys status as a sleepy hidden gem within California. An adventure rider’s secret stash, which is not a secret, nor is it very lost.

Photography by Rob Dabney, Jon Beck and Ken Morse.

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.

Author: Jon Beck
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4 thoughts on “Lost and Found: Moto Expedition To Discover The Lost Sierra

    • We are working on putting together a Ride Guide of the area in the coming months with maps, GPS tracks, resources, etc. Stay tuned!

  1. A wonderful article by Jon Beck, and the photography is great, too! A real treat to “escape” to these little known areas of California through your website.

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