A Wilderness Cure
Gold mining put Sierra County on the map, but by the late 1800s, city folk were coming here for rest and relaxation. Doctors of the era, recognizing the restorative value of time spent out in nature, developed a treatment “for relief from the frantic pace of urban life.” They called it the “Wilderness Cure” and more than a century later, Sierra County is still filling the prescription.
Times may have changed drastically in the rest of the world, but in this forest-clad pocket of Northern California, it’s as if time has stopped, or at least come to rest.
Tucked into the rugged folds of the northern Sierra Nevada, Sierra County has a total population of just 3,360. The old ‘Gold Rush Highway’ (Highway 49) meanders along the North Fork of the Yuba River through the historic towns of Downieville and Sierra City.
Just past Sierra City, visitors enter the Lakes Basin Area, which offers more than fifty (!) clear alpine lakes for fishing, swimming and boating. Sitting and staring is OK, too. The only sounds are of the river and creeks rushing by or the call of birds. Starry nights, clear blue skies, rustic cabins and historic inns give a feeling of timelessness, of what California was like decades ago.
Because much of the area lies within Tahoe and Plumas national forests, that same natural beauty that attracted visitors a hundred years ago still exists. There are no stop lights in Sierra County and visitors won’t find fast food or any other signs of modern development. Mary Wright of the Sierra County Visitor’s Bureau says it well: “Life is slow up here. There’s nothing to pull you away from nature.”
As a native Californian, I have watched many rural areas disappear or change over the years. In my first visit to Sierra County and the Lakes Basin Area six years ago, I searched for words to describe the nourishing experience of being there. As I looked across Gold Lake, I saw only the pine trees touching bright blue sky beyond the shimmering water. There were no visible signs of man. Then I read about the ‘Wilderness Cure’ and laughed: The magic is still there.
Since then, I have become a devoted visitor. I’ve camped, stayed in cabins and inns, hiked, swam, dined, canoed, and star gazed myself through many summers.
Warning: After taking the Wilderness Cure, you may not want to return to the frantic pace you left behind. The feeling of wilderness can absorb you. During a week-long visit last summer, I sat all morning by Packer Lake, using watercolors that I hadn’t used all year. I read books, took naps, hiked the Sierra Buttes. I laughed with my daughter as we tried to maneuver a boat around Salmon Lake and found ourselves going in circles. We swam, toasted marshmallows and ate s’mores. We identified the constellations and marveled at the Milky Way that we’re miraculously a part of.
But let’s face it, when something is that special, it is in demand. That’s definitely the case at the Lakes Basin area and the cabins sprinkled around the lakes. Many families have returned annually for thirty-plus years. At Packer Lake Lodge, parents and grandparents relax and sip their wine as the kids run in and out. Life still feels sweet here.
When I asked Bill MacQuattie, the owner of Packer Lake Lodge, what changes had he noticed in the eighteen years he has been there, he laughed and answered: “None.” Precisely. Then he added: “But our waiting list has gotten longer!” But don’t get discouraged if you can’t get in to these cabins during the summer (some of the waiting lists run for six years.) During off-season, spring and fall, many places have openings, when you can enjoy spring wildflowers or Indian Summer.
But in the summer, a secret is that you can go just down the road to Sierra City or Downieville and stay in many fine inns and hotels, then
drive to the lakes for swimming, fishing and boating. Or you can camp at the many campgrounds.
For mountain-biking enthusiasts, Downieville offers two full service mountain bike shops, Downieville Outfitters, and Yuba Expedition, which sponsors the Downieville Classic Bike Race each year. Both shops offer shuttles to the many local mountain biking trails. One favorite trail, called the ‘Downieville Downhill’ involves a shuttle up to Packer Saddle, elevation 7,200 feet, and a long coast downhill along mountain trails, about 3-4 hours. Although it sounds easy, this is actually an intermediate-to-expert expedition. But there are many other easier trails for all ages and abilities.
Camping sites, part of the Tahoe National Forest, abound along Highway 49 and the North Yuba River, beginning before Downieville and continuing through Sierra City. Then along Gold Lake Road, many more pop up along the lakes there. These campgrounds are on a ‘first come, first served’ basis and there are no phone reservations. They have running water, pit toilets and cost $12 per night with a 14-day limit.
If you’d like more information, call the North Yuba Ranger Station at (530) 478-6253.
For me, camping at its finest is to enjoy the day, picnicking for breakfast and lunch and then head out to a restaurant for dinner. That’s also the time of day when the mosquitoes want to have you for dinner, so it can be a relief to get away from the campsite for a few hours.
The choices for dinner are many. The restaurant at Packer Lake Lodge offers rustic charm with rough beams and wagon wheel lights, lanterns and fresh flowers on the tables, and their chef is excellent. They offer a Sunday brunch for around $10. Wednesday night there’s Bingo and an Italian buffet for $10.75 that starts at 7 p.m. It’s loads of good old-fashioned family fun. Be sure to call for reservations.
Sardine Lake, one of the most picturesque lakes in the area, also offers dinners in a rustic cabin setting. Call way ahead for reservations to this popular spot.
The Pacific Crest Trail winds through this area and the hiking possibilities are endless with hikes for all skill levels. Maps are available through the Downieville Ranger District or the Sierra County Chamber of Commerce.
The Sierra Buttes, the rugged and craggy peaks which jut up from the surrounding tree-lined hills, reach an elevation of 8,700 feet at the summit lookout tower. To hike the Buttes trail, visitors drive to a parking area and begin part way up, so don’t be intimidated by how high they look from the road. The hike is best done early in the day. A picnic at the top is a great celebration and the view is worth every minute of the climb. Last summer, we could see all the way to Lake Shasta. Be sure to take plenty of water, wear good hiking shoes and allow three to four hours.
If you’re wary of heights, just don’t do the last minute of the ascent, up the stairs of a former fire lookout station. After you’ve hiked back down, I suggest going to Basset’s Station for a well-deserved ice cream cone. They give real old-fashioned generous scoops for a friendly price.
So go ahead and take the Wilderness Cure. You will have memories that you will cherish, a glimpse of what California used to be like and feel relaxed in ways you can only imagine.
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