Sierraville is a high Sierra ranch town on a big plain; how strange. Hwy 49 between Camptonville and Sierraville is gorgeous, it runs along the North Fork Yuba River in a deep valley cut through the Sierra. The river was running strong still, we stopped randomly along the road on the way back home and jumped in the water (it's super cold snow melt). Downieville is really touristy but looked pretty cute, old downtown, lots of cafes and lots of mountain bikers and outfitters. I guess they run a lot of rafting out of Downieville in the spring; looks like that would be pretty fucking rad. Bassetts is not so much a town as it is one store that sells wood and ice.
The Sierra Buttes is a huge granite craggy set of peaks carved by glaciers or some shit. It's pretty impressive towering over the scenery. The first evening there we hiked up the short 4x4 road from Lower Sardine Lake to Upper Sardine Lake, about a mile. The view of the Buttes from Upper Sardine is amazing, the solid rock seems to grow straight out of the lake. Alissa took a good picture . There are some rough camp spots around Upper Sardine Lake that would be pretty sweet and very isolated; it would take a true 4x4 to get up that road though.
The next day we drove the access road up to Packer Lake which you can take all the way to the ridge top next to the Buttes. There's a good description of the roads at climber.org . Packer Lake Road is paved & a very easy drive way up to the top of the ridge and you can see for miles in all directions. We didn't actually do the hike to the lookout tower on the top of the Buttes; it looked pretty amazing but we're both semi-crippled injured sad people right now.
The actual Lakes Basin area is a bit north, all along Gold Lake Hwy. There are just tons of cold clear alpine lakes all over; the mountains made of giant hunks of rock that were glacier cut, so there are many crags and shear faces. It was alpine spring time, so there were still some patches of snow around in shady dips, and lots of flowers. It's a pretty popular area, even on a weekday it was a bit crowded. I mean, it's nothing like a Yosemite or Sequoia, but it's not exactly wilderness. The short hike to Frazier Falls was pretty mobbed. As usual, however, if you just hike a bit you can get away from everyone. We did the Lakes Basin Loop from Long Lake trailhead by Elwell Lodge, and we did the little detour up past Silver Lake to Helgramite Lake which nobody else does and we were all alone. We took a swim in Helgramite and froze.
Lying in the sun up at Helgramite, the clouds over the rocky ridge suddenly started to glow with colors; first the higher clouds started to glow red and orange, then a bank of lower clouds lit up turqoise and green and blue. We took some pictures (see one on Flickr ), but they can't really do it justice. I guess it was a Sun Dog , which would make sense in the sierra, the clouds would have lots of ice crystals in them which would cause the refraction.
The Pacific Crest Trail runs right through the area past some very scenic wilderness. It made me fantasize about doing some chunks of the PCT some day. I don't really like the idea of carrying a load on my back though. We're fucking humans, masters of the earth, can't I get a donkey or something to carry my gear?
We camped at Salmon Creek because we happened to find a really sweet spot there. #33 ; they don't reserve, but if you can get it, do. But, in general Salmon Creek kind of sucks. It's close to the highway, like most of the camp sites around there. WTF I don't get that, we're out in the woods, we drove hours to get there, there's nothing around, then the campgrounds are directly on a semi-busy highway. We checked out some of the other campgrounds around and they mostly sucked balls. That stupid fish-brained fucker Stienstra rates some of them 8 or 9 out of 10 even though they have very poor seperation from neighbors and are directly on highways. The other standout spot was in the Diablo Campground, which is mostly awful, there's one spot (#13) which is really sweet.
I'm finding the best way to scope campgrounds is just with a map. If you have a detailed map of campgrounds ( this atlas is pretty good) you can see where they are. Directly on a road? No. Directly on a reservoir? Probably no, check to see if motor boats are allowed. Motor boat = no me because it attracts rednecks. Check for proximity to cities. No. Okay you have found a campground that actually might be decent. Now just search it on the internet to read about it. When you search a campground name, you can usually get a PDF map of the actual campground layout. From that you can usually tell if it will decent. Is there a single road loop with sites crammed in the middle of the loop? That's bad. Are there a bunch of feathery roads with camps far apart from each other on the arms of the feathers? That's good.
While doing my map scanning I noticed that the Middle Fork of the Feather River is really remote. Hardly any roads get near it. What a prize! Turns out you can do a very intense rafting trip down it.
Places I've scoped out for the future :
Clark Fork : maybe a bit crowded; near Iceberg Meadow
Highland Lakes : looks very sweet, Aug-Sept ideal; good high alpine trails nearby
Loon Lake North Shore, Camino Cove : meh, boats, but supposed to be very nice anyway; good access to Desolation Wilderness
Yosemite Creek : high camp in Yosemite, maybe July
Silver Fork : simple river camp; seems pretty quiet
Pi Pi : lower El Dorado camp, in logging road territory