You can get there from here
Open spaces. Hawks overhead. Lots of sky. Hidden lakes.
The pure raw beauty of Mother Nature at her finest.
This is the feeling of upper scenic Highway 49, from Bassetts Station at the base of the Sierra Buttes to the sleepy town of Vinton, a grand drive of about 80 miles.
This part of 49 takes you higher in altitude – from around 5,000 feet to a spike of 6,700 at Yuba Pass. The air here feels clean and dry.
Trees galore – evergreens and aspen – line the road, making this a terrific treat in the fall when the aspens turn golden and shimmer in the wind. The scenery alternates between dense forest and open valleys with some truly breathtaking vistas in between.
Towns are small and few in number in sparsely populated Sierra County. The first one after Bassetts is Sattley, a great place to stop for hot coffee, ice cream sodas, and some of that old West feeling at the general store. You can’t miss it. It’s right on the highway and painted bright blue. An imposing silver Malamute/timber wolf mix named Tundra happily greets those who enter this movie-like Western set, complete with displays of old colored bottles, rusted logging saws, an old crank phone, and advertising from long ago.
Just browsing could use up half an hour, easy.
Proprietor Laura Hoverkamp, 37, says the worn plank floor is original – about 130 years old. She, by the way, is also the town’s postmistress. All she has to do is turn around, and there are the mail slots, all 36 of them. Not too far down the road is the town of Sierraville, population 350 and home to Sierra Hot Springs – a heavenly place to soak away cares and rejuvenate. Coming into this small town you’ll see the historic 1860s Globe Hotel, a charming place to stay while visiting the hot springs. It’s filled with antiques.
A stop at the Stagecoach Steak House and Branding Iron Saloon will satisfy any hankering you have for steak and homemade sausages, although you are in for a gourmet vegetarian treat at the hot springs themselves.
Follow the signs to Sierra Hot Springs, passing a small airfield, and arriving at the lodge, a two story house with a large porch. Everything you need but the tubs are in this building: bedrooms, lounge, dining room, a large stone fireplace, a guest kitchen. This is where you learn the ropes, too. No alcohol, drugs, or dogs. Children are welcomed if they are supervised and well-behaved. And the big rule: “Clothing optional.” (If you’re squeamish about that, rent the private Phoenix Baths.) This is also where you pay. The best deal of all? $15 for a whole day (until midnight – you won’t believe the stars) of soaking. Manager Shannon Lontz, 32, says that fall and winter months are some of the best times to discover the springs “because they aren’t so crowded.” The winter, he says, is temperate and beautiful.
Now to the baths. While there are a number to choose from, the biggest and most popular is the Temple Dome (indoor) and attached pool (outdoor). The mood is tranquil as a dozen people lazily sunbathe on the deck or float in the warm mineral water that feels silky on your skin. Tall evergreens, a glorious view, deer grazing nearby – no wonder Native Americans called this a sacred healing place. Indeed, Lontz says the philosophy of Sierra Hot Springs is to achieve a union of spiritual and ecological consciousness. They do this with such things as yoga, drumming circles, and meditation for those who wish to participate.
Because the 700-acre property borders on National Forest land, sporting opportunities are unlimited – from biking and hiking in the summer to cross-country skiing in the winter.
Leaving the hot springs, relaxed and happy, continue on Highway 49, starting a slow ascend that offers a breathtaking view of the Sierra Valley, largest alpine valley in the continental United States. A huge flat pan of land with few trees, meandering streams, a ranch here and there and a mountain rim, it has a stark, wild look, especially when covered with snow, but even when lush with spring grass. The quiet is profound. The sky enormous. It feels good for the soul.
Thirteen miles from Sierraville the town of Loyalton emerges. A quiet place that’s gotten quieter since the timber mill closed a couple of years ago, locals say, it offers the visitor a good jumping off place to outdoor recreation of all kinds, including skiing, ice fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, hiking, and swimming. Friendly folks give nods and hellos. If the proprietor isn’t at her antiques and collectibles Brick Store, a simple call to the number posted on the door will bring her there post haste.
Don’t miss a chance to eat, have a beer, and play a round of pool at the Golden West Saloon, a hundred-year-old establishment that used to rent rooms to miners for 25 cents a night. Owners Bob and Evon Bowling run the place, with brother Don lending a hand as manager. The menu is a binder an inch thick that lists everything from milk shakes to full prime rib dinners – “the most popular dish of the locals,” says the satisfied owner. To get a feeling for the area, Don suggests a read of the “Sierra Booster,” a tabloid size newspaper that used to be dropped from a plane by a colorful local, the late Hal Wright.
At City Hall, a two-minute walk away, pick up a copy of “Events Guide & Campground News,” which is THE publication to get for more about the history and outdoor recreation possibilities of the area, including some awesome fishing. According to the paper, “The Sierra Valley has more German brown trout, mile for mile, than anywhere else in California.” Streams, reservoirs, and many lakes provide the habitat in the combined counties of Sierra and Plumas – a veritable paradise for fishermen.
One of the closest bodies of water in this area is manmade Frenchman Lake, only a hoot and a holler up the road from the last town (Vinton) on 49. The scenery on the 6-mile turnoff from Chilcoot is definitely worth a side trip. Past groves of huge cottonwood trees, a stream with a beaver dam, a fantastic “canyon” of stone outcroppings splashed with red and chartreuse lichen and alive with swallow activity, you finally arrive at the placid lake where you can camp or RV (a dump station is included) in peace. Plenty of Old West charm and the great outdoors await travelers on the upper part of Scenic Route 49, winter or summer.
The entire loop, from Nevada City, up Route 49 to Vinton, then back Routes 89, 80, and 20 to Nevada City, is about 230 miles. It could be done in a day, but why not linger a little?
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