Road Trip Through the Lost Sierra

Tumbling rivers, hot springs, and historic gold mining towns are just some of the riches here.

Downieville's historic buildings line a street through the core of the town.
Walk past historic buildings in Downieville.
Kial James

Follow the winding ribbon of the Yuba River up the northernmost stretch of Highway 49, passing one tempting swimming hole after another, and you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled on a secret corner of the Sierra that time forgot. With uncrowded trails, serene and motor-free lakes, wild rivers, and towns little changed over the past 150 years, the Lost Sierra, as it is now known, makes the perfect setting for an old-time mountain road trip. 


A tiny hamlet of 200 people, this former Gold Rush boomtown still retains the photogenic balconied storefronts and wooden sidewalks of its heyday. Downieville owes its rebirth as an outdoor adventure hub to the mountain bikers who come for the dizzying 15-mile plunge popularized by the Downieville Classic Downhill race. But just as many come to hike, fish, kayak, or simply swim and lounge along the two rivers that run directly through town. Downieville Outfitters will rent you mountain bikes, or e-bikes for those less ambitious. Thanks to a cluster of friendly, historic, and well-outfitted hotels—the Carriage House Inn, Riverside Mountain Lodge, and Downieville River Inn & Resort—the town makes an excellent home base for exploring the region.

A savory lunch from JADAAs Kitchen in Downieville, loaded with cheese, bacon, tomatoes, and chives.
A savory lunch from JADAAs Kitchen in Downieville.
Kial James

Start your day at Sabrina’s at the Forks, which opens early to serve hearty fare from scrambles to salmon-topped bowls. Cool down after your hike with an ice cream or iced coffee at Cold Rush Café, which also offers breakfast and lunch in partnership with adjoining Empire Creek Provisions, where you’ll find the makings of a gourmet picnic, from artisanal cheeses and breads to sweets and savory snacks. The big news in town is the opening of JADAA’s Kitchen, a long-awaited permanent location for a beloved seasonal food truck. La Cocina del Oro opens this summer with creative veggie-forward Mexican fare and a festive river deck.

Evenings find locals and visitors alike gathering at St. Charles Place, a time-tested Western saloon where dogs snooze under the century-old mirror-backed bar and a friendly pool game is perpetually in progress. Speaking of dogs, Downieville welcomes them so enthusiastically that at times they seem to outnumber people. 

Shoes and other historic items line a room inside the Kentucky Mine Historic Park and Museum in Sierra City, California.
Inside the Kentucky Mine Historic Park and Museum in Sierra City, California.
Kial James

Sierra City

With the Pacific Crest Trail crossing Highway 49 just a mile past town, Sierra City buzzes from spring through fall with the activity of through-hikers who congregate on the porch of the Sierra Country Store. It’s not often that you get to hear—and feel—the vibrating clang of an original Gold Rush stamp mill, but that’s one highlight of the twice-daily tours at the Kentucky Mine Historic Park and Museum, which also hosts the Music at the Mines concert series on select summer weekends. 

Sierra Valley and Sierraville 

Daydream an instant and you’ll miss two-block Sierraville, but it’s worth a stop for the fluffy biscuits and breakfast burritos at Smithneck Farm’s Cafe, or the smoke-infused BBQ at the Farmhouse Café next door. On Mondays, the valley turns out for the café’s weekly multicourse dinner featuring homey fare such as lasagna and pot pie. Perhaps Sierraville’s biggest draw, clothing-optional Sierra Hot Springs, offers day and evening passes to its multiple soaking pools as well as on-site camping and rustic lodging.

Clio, Graeagle, and Blairsden

This trio of towns at the northern end of the Sierra Valley boasts the area’s biggest selection of restaurants, stores, and facilities, including 18-hole Graeagle Golf Course. Stay at the retro-chic Clio Inn, where the woodsy, pine-paneled rooms reflect the building’s history as the former general store and the downstairs taproom continues the tavern tradition. Stop into the Lost Sierra Visitor Center in Blairsden, or pick up an official Lost Sierra trail map from the outdoor supply shop and head up the Gold Lakes Highway to start your lake adventure. 


Lakes Basin

To complete your loop, take the Gold Lake Highway through the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, passing a string of stunning alpine lakes framed by the granite peaks of Mt. Elwell and the Sierra Buttes. The glacier-carved basin encloses some 50-plus lakes, among them boater-friendly Gold Lake and Salmon Lake, a favorite for swimming. The basin’s network of hiking trails are connected to a key portion of the Lost Sierra Route, an ambitious 600-mile complex of multi-use hiking, biking, and equestrian trails under construction by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship that will ultimately connect 15 mountain communities.

For a good introduction to the region, choose the 1.3-mile Sardine Lakes trail and the paved mile-long path to multitiered Frazier Falls. Those up for something more strenuous might opt for the five-mile climb to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout, with its  unparalleled 360-degree views, or the six-mile trek to Jamison Lake, ringed with sun-splashed boulders perfect for picnicking.

With so many choices, it’s no wonder that both adventurers and nature lovers are lured back time and time again to explore the Lost Sierra.