At 8,857 feet in elevation, Sierra Buttes is the tallest peak in the Lakes Basin region, and offers a fantastic day hike excursion. The craggy, multi-pinnacled buttes rise sharply above the North Yuba River Canyon lying 4,500 feet below, and stands as a watchful guard over the many serene lakes that dot the Lakes Basin landscape.
Beyond being a magnificent mountain in its own right, there is an additional surprise awaiting the explorer of the Sierra Buttes Trail: a decommissioned fire lookout tower perched on the summit. The lookout tower is one of the more exposed fire lookouts on the west coast, requiring a climb of 150 feet up a steep and narrow metal stairway. While the exposure may be unnerving for some, the views are a highlight and will hopefully outweigh any discomfort.
The hike up Sierra Buttes is best done between June and October when the trail is free of snow. During summer months, open road access allows an approach up from Packer Lake that abbreviates a 2,800-foot climb to a very doable 1,600 feet over 2.5 miles (County Route 621 climbs to Packer Saddle and connects to Butcher Ranch Road, which leads to the Sierra Buttes Trailhead a short distance past the Saddle).
Upon leaving the trailhead at 7,000 feet, climb the semi-steep hill that gains Sierra Butte’s north shoulder/ridge. This section of trail overlaps with the Pacific Crest Trail for about a mile until the PCT veers off the ridge toward Sierra City. Once on the ridge, you’ll have striking views of Sierra Buttes with the precariously placed fire lookout leading the way. Wildflower displays during summer bring out beautiful colors along the ridge.
Follow the ridge and trail above Tamarack and Young American lakes as you dip in and out of forest cover. Around the 1.5 mile mark you’ll pass a dirt road (a forest service fire lookout tower access road) that you rejoin to gain the summit. The access road leading up the summit switchbacks a handful of times until suddenly you’re standing below the steep fire lookout tower stairs.
If heights present an issue, views from below the tower are still quite good, although the feeling you get from peering over the lookout tower’s grated platform (equipped with railing) toward Sardine Lakes is an experience you won't soon forget. On clear days, you’ll be able to see as far north as Lassen Peak, and at times Mount Shasta, and to the south you'll see the north edge of the Tahoe basin and the peaks around Donner Pass.
Once you’ve had your fill of lofty northern Sierra scenery, retrace your steps back to the trailhead parking. Dogs are permitted on the Sierra Buttes Trail.