Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Scouting out Sierra Buttes trails

Having barely survived a tough bike ride on a hot day last week, we took off for a four day camping trip in the Gold Country, with the goal of exploring trails around Downieville, Sierra Buttes and Lakes Basin. I did not bring a bike with me, Marketa and I wanted to hike and run some of the trails together.
Equipped with a detailed and indestructible tyvek map of the area, purchased at the Yuba Expeditions bike shop, we realized there were numerous 4WD dirt roads, multiuse (hike, horse, bike, quad) trails and hike / bike singletracks. The whole trail system is maintained by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. It seems that the local guys have figured out how to make all users happy on these trails in the Tahoe National forest.
Our first destination were Tamarack Lakes on Sardine Lake overlook trail. Seven miles round trip seemed easy enough to have plenty of time either to continue onto the Sierra Buttes Lookout at 8,597 ft, or for a swim in one of the lakes. Altitude, temperature in the high nineties, underestimating the amount of water needed and very loose trail surface made this hike a tiresome affair. We slogged along the steep, loose and exposed trail in a semi-dehydrated state at a snail's pace. The trail is very steep at places, the surface is never firm, mostly consisting of loose rocks of all sizes and shapes.

Tire tracks indicated it can be ridden, but my guess is as a one way downhill from Packer Saddle, and would be very technical, but the views of Sardine lakes were fantastic.

A late day swim in Sand Pond (an old gold mining "tailings" pit, probably full of arsenic and cyanide) cooled our dusty and overheated bodies.

Reaching the watchtower at the Sierra Buttes summit had to be postponed for the next day. It was even hotter, but this time we carried 6 liters of liquids, for another hike just six miles long and about 2000 feet elevation. Trudging slowly up a jeep road from Packer Lake, we joked that such distance and elevation is what we would normally run on trails in our neighborhood, never considering it hard. Yet here it seemed very hard, mainly I think because there was never a firm footing to be found on steep grades.

We crossed the Pacific Crest Trail and continued up. At one trail intersection, we found bunch of 4WD vehicles, ranging from pickup trucks to all decked out Toyota FJs, with their adventurous drivers sitting in camp chairs and drinking beer. But the singletrack trail turned into a boulder field, forget about riding here.

Another stretch of a jeep road took us to the rocky summit, where steep ladders over gaps let you climb up the lookout.

The descent felt easier and this time, there was enough time and energy left to first get an ice cold German beer at the Packer Saddle Lodge, then jump into beautiful Packer Lake, and finally take some rest at the lake shore.

The third day of hiking took us to the Lakes Basin area. We started out on a beautiful, but for biking, very technical Grassy Lake trail along lovely waterfalls and reached Long Lake, a real jewel.

As during the previous couple of days, we did not see any mountain bikers on these trails and very few hikers. I saw some tire tracks on Long lake Connector trail, meaning it is rideable, but in my assessment and knowing my skills, I could imagine this would be a slow, technical and unforgiving ride, with lots of rocky drops and a constant lifting of the front wheel over obstacles.

Our planned afternoon of swimming in Long Lake was rudely interrupted by a sudden thunderstorm, which had formed within minutes from a few innocently looking cumulus clouds.

Since the weather forced us off the mountains early, we had plenty of time to stop in Davis on the way home, to enjoy some tasty Czech food and wine in Little Prague restaurant despite the evening 100F temperature.
In conclusion, it seems that trails marked as green dashed lines on the Yuba Expeditions map are much more suitable for mountain biking, the red marked trails are super technical and would likely include lots of hike a bike. Using the shuttle service from Downieville to Packer Saddle and riding the famous Butcher Ranch, Pauley Creek and Divide trails back to town is probably the best option to taste these trails. Numerous other rides are surely possible by combining the jeep roads and singletracks, although none would be very easy, that I am sure of. The whole area is very scenic and not very populated, making it a paradise for outdoor sports, as the few who live here must have discovered.

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