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Jonathan Stull | 06.09.2016

Situated in the northernmost swath of the Sierra, Lakes Basin is a lake and granite peak-studded outdoor hideaway in the southwestern corner of Plumas National Forest that encompasses the Lakes Basin Recreation Area and Sierra Buttes to the south. Splattered with lakes big and small, this beautiful and under-appreciated stretch of forest offers a wealth of recreational opportunities for visitors of all kinds—even the four-legged.

First, By Land

Lakes Basin's trails are open to more than just hikers. Many of them offer themselves to mountain bikers, including Mills Peak Lookout, a 6-mile climb to a fire lookout at the summit of Mills Peak at 7,340 feet. The fire lookout was built in 1932. Horseback riding is permitted in parts of the area, and there are designated off-road trails near Gold Lake (fair warning!). But perhaps most importantly: the entirety of Lakes Basin is open to dogs.

  • A good place to start, Bear Lakes Loop via Round Lake (5.0 miles) offers a tour at the heart of Lakes Basin that touches or overlooks six of the area’s innumerable lakes.
  • Frazier Falls is a waterfall of nearly 250 feet, and it is positioned just a short walk on paved trail from the highway.
  • Rock Lake and Jamison Lake (6.0 miles) are moderately easy to hike to and feature beautiful views of granite peaks and opalescent pools.
  • Sierra Buttes is one of the most dramatic scenes in the area, and the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout is the prized vertiginous perch at the end of the Sierra Buttes Trail. The peak is the tallest in the Lakes Basin region at 8,857 feet.

Then by Sea

Counts on the number of lakes vary, but whatever the actual number is—some say as many as 50—there’s no shortage of abundance and variety, and many of them offer a peaceful place to rest your head. Some limited backcountry camping and primitive sites at many of its lakes make the Lakes Basin very economical for visitors on a budget.

  • The Forest Service maintains Lakes Basin Campsite, which offers 22 tent/car sites.
  • Gold Lake is one of the biggest in Lakes Basin, a lake that is stocked with fish and the only lake friendly to motorized boaters. It has a reputation for excellent fishing, and mackinaw, brown trout and rainbow trout swim in its waters.
  • Some of you may stay just the day, and Packer Lake Day Use Area is a great place to throw a boat or set a picnic.
  • For those looking to relax on the water, Smith Lake, Grass Lake, Rock Lake, Wades Lake and Jamison Lake in Lakes Basin Recreation Area are appropriately sized for an inflatable flotilla, and all of them allow limited backcountry camping. The same applies to Gold Lake, Goose Lake and Haven Lake, which also boast primitive campsites for little cost.
  • Sardine Lake rivals Gold Lake for its fishing, but with the Sierra Buttes looming overhead, it might trump Gold Lake for scenery. Set up camp at Sardine Lake Campground.
  • For the posh among us, divas of uncompromising style and ferociousness, there’s Packer Lake Lodge and Sardine Lake Resort. Both offer rustic lodging (in individual cabins at Sardine Lake) and full amenities, including electricity and showers. For pelagic royalty or the occasional Viking funeral, both lodges offer boat rentals as well.

Even in Snow

When winter visits Lakes Basin, an entirely new landscape becomes available for outdoor adventures. The area’s hiking trails, capped in snow, become perfect for snowshoes.

  • Gold Lake, which can freeze over when the temperatures drop low enough, offers ice fishing opportunities where the ice is thick enough.
  • When snows fall, the Gold Lake Highway, Lakes Basin Recreation Area's main thoroughfare, is left unplowed, opening its 10-mile stretch to cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.
  • Note: campgrounds in the area are seasonal, so plan accordingly.

After Spring Melts

Situated at or above 6,000 feet in elevation, the alpine meadows of Lakes Basin explode with color during the spring and through the summer.

  • On the trail to Grass Lake, buckbean blooms throughout July alongside elephant’s head and bog asphodel.
  • Trails near Graeagle Creek bloom with yellow monkey flowers, white bog orchids and blue monkshood.
  • An alpine garden grows along Smith Lake Trail, where bloom several species of penstemon, blue-eyed grass, Bigelow’s sneezeweed, ranger’s buttons, swamp onion, Scouler’s St. John’s wort and western coneflower. And of course, in the higher reaches, several species of the iconic and incomparable paintbrush.

The Mark of a Human

Communities in the Lakes Basin area grew from gold prospecting in the 19th century and persisted during the movement of that time toward recreation and relaxation in the outdoors. That legacy continues today in sites like the Wallis Mine, located along the Deer Lake Trail, and relics of the lost era are still left to rust all over the basin alongside the living monuments to modern-day adventures. But the Lakes Basin has also preserved a portion of its indigenous history as well. An interpretive trail near Elwell Lodge in Lakes Basin Recreation Area describes petroglyphs inscribed by Native Americans in millennia past. The Lakes Basin comprises lands once inhabited by the Maidu people, and though there is some confusion on the source of the petroglyphs, they are attributed to the Maidu.


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