Tucked away in a sparsely populated region of Northern California, at the northern terminus of the Sierra Nevada range lies a land of dense, rolling forests, deep canyons, cold clear streams, and jagged peaks that tower over teal, post-glacial lakes. And weaving their way through this serenely beautiful landscape is a network of ever-growing trails, the vast majority of which can be traversed by bike.
Almost everyone’s first encounter with the Lost Sierra is through the charming historic mining town-turned mountain bike mecca, of Downieville. The town’s fabled Downieville Classic hosts thousands of people and their bikes for a long weekend wrought with bikes and bike-related shenanigans – the event has become a longstanding staple of ever-evolving mountain bike culture, partly for the allure of its location, but primarily because of the quality of the region’s trails. It was the Downieville Classic that first drew me into the area years ago, and each visit back has had me yearning to see more. A standard visit to Downieville consists of two or three days of hammering out shuttle laps on the quintessential downhill trails. Big Boulder, Pauly Creek, Butcher Ranch, and Third Divide all have you fully engaged, flying through and over chunk, between trees, laying your bike over into loose corners, and scanning ahead for any undulation in the trail or feature that you could use to send you up and over as many roots and/or rocks as possible. But what always gathered my attention most was what I saw when the trails reached the bottom of their natal canyons – deep, turquoise pools of swirling cold water could be seen dancing between walls of rock and falling its way toward Downieville far below. Wherever a good vantage was to be had, you could find me, pausing the shred to stare into those hypnotic streams, looking for the fish I knew were there.
After staring into those streams for the last few years I decided it was finally time to do something about it. I found a like-minded accomplice in Colton Jacobs – a seasoned snowboarder and fly angler who also happened to grow up riding motos and BMX (yeah, one of those bastards that’s naturally good at everything). Colton’s always up for some good, solid fun in the mountains so I knew he’d be game for a bit of a blind adventure. Fun descents, fish, and whiskey were promised, and he was in. Easy peasy. The plan was this; load up the bikes and packs with fly rods and enough gear to float us for 3 days of wandering through the Lost Sierra, and then head out. Intentionally, we’d keep our itinerary loose so that we could camp and fish wherever we damn well pleased, and take full advantage of whatever we found. All we knew is that we’d be starting from the Lakes Basin area, working our way up toward Mount Elwell at some point, then determine a route back down to Downieville, stopping to catch fish and spend the night somewhere along the way. The goal was to draw things out – to stretch a one-day, masochistic mega ride into a three day, semi-casual expedition.
We pulled into Downieville around 5pm on a Friday and grabbed a quick dinner and a beer. As promised, we picked up a bottle of whiskey and then headed up toward Packer Saddle for the night. Just as the last light of the evening was bouncing off of the Sierra Buttes we settled into one of the better primitive spots I’ve come across up there. With the Buttes looming above us, and a sprawling view of the valley below, we christened the whiskey and began setting up our bikes for tomorrow’s early morning departure.
With little to impede it the sun rose quickly the following morning. Seeming eager to get the day started, it filtered through the few pines that stood around our camp, casting long shadows and blanketing everything it touched with a warm, golden haze. Basking in its warmth, we finished readying our bikes and loaded them up on the car to depart for the starting point of our trip.
Parked and loaded up, we set off into the Lakes Basin, each carrying an extra 30-35 pounds above and beyond our normal ride weight. From the car things trended immediately upward; first up and over roots and clusters of small boulders - each effort raising the heart rate and sending us gasping for the air we’re both used to at sea level. Before long we had both dismounted, carrying our bikes up 3 foot ledges and steep, loose climbs riddled with scree. Short, rolling sections of trail punctuated each effort, giving us just enough time to recover before the next punchy climb, dismount, gasp, and walk scenario played out. The great thing about having to stop and gasp for air though (once all of the swirling black dots dissolved…), was that we gained the opportunity to pause and look around. At one point, one such effort left us winded atop a ridgeline, and the time offered by our labored breaths revealed a series of shimmering blue lakes dotting the landscape below us on either side.
We continued on like this for a few more hours, riding, pushing, and passing by lake after lake, making a jerrymander-ed route through the basin in a masochistic attempt to see as many lakes as we could. Eventually we made our way up and beyond the ridge below Mount Elwell and found a lake to call home for the night. Granite spires jutted up from the east side of the lake, shading deep, blue water, and the far end of the lake rose up to the lip of a glacial moraine, with merely a few feet worth of land and rock there to keep the clear cold water from spilling over and down into oblivion below. As a few wary fish pock-marked the glassy water’s surface, we set up our tents and readied our rods, smiling ear to ear at the thought of having an alpine infinity pool all to ourselves for the evening.
A smattering of casts left us empty handed, but the quiet serenity of the empty alpine lake more than made up for it. We retreated back to camp tired and happy after a long first day. We filtered some water, boiled up some ramen, and sipped some whiskey. As night fell the stars sprung to life, and we laid down with our heads outside our tents for an unobstructed view of the show, and dozed off. Not long after I had fallen asleep I awoke, startled to hear the sound of a large twig snapping about 50 feet from the door of my tent. A nearly full moon had risen now, and in its diffuse light I made out the fuzzy silhouette of a large black bear pacing the perimeter of our camp. Back and forth it went through the moonlight, likely figuring out whether or not our camp was worth investigating any closer. I sat up in the door of my tent and watched it for a matter of minutes before it decided we were better off left alone and scrambled up a draw above our camp. In the morning I woke up to find Colton asleep, still halfway out of his tent and completely unaware of our midnight visitor. He was energetic and eager, fresh off a solid night’s sleep. I couldn’t say the same for myself.
Before we sent off on our next leg, we figured this morning would be a great day to ditch the bags and get some laps in first without the extra weight, and that we did. With camp broken and the bags stashed off the side of the trail, we set out to see a couple more lakes and get some climbs and descents in. After only one day of riding with the bags and packs, it was amazing how light and effortless it felt with them off. We flew up climbs with weightless abandon, and threw ourselves into corners and off of rocks on the way down. It was as if every ounce of input to either maneuver or propel the bike resulted in three times the outcome of what we had recently become used to.
It was tough putting all the weight back on, but we really needed to get moving and get some fish in hand. Up to Packer Saddle we went, then across to Pauly Creek, descending from the open, subalpine environment into denser and denser forest. We continued on Pauly all the way down to its confluence with Butcher Creek then maintained course downstream of there. Plunge pool after plunge pool teased our periphery, pulling our gaze away from the trail just long enough to find us nearly getting into some serious shit-eating scenarios on a few different occasions. After several miles of dusty, weaving high-speed single track, we eventually spotted camp for the night. It was an old mining claim along the edge of Pauly Creek. It was flat and nestled between two gorgeous pools, one upstream and another just below. We hurriedly threw up the tents in the fading light and rigged up our rods. Colton’s second cast got him into a fish; a small but feisty native rainbow trout. He quickly removed the hook and released the fish, and as quickly as he let it go it vanished into the water without a trace, disappearing amongst the rocky substrate and clear, teal water.
We fished until night fell, and night fell quickly. Pauly Creek Canyon’s walls are steep and tall, and the diffuse light of dusk makes hard work of getting down to the bottom of the canyon where we set up shop for the night. More ramen was scarfed, whiskey was sipped, and we sat in the darkness chatting and fighting off sleep until the stars revealed themselves. And that they did – traversing the small sliver of sky we could see between the canyon walls was a bright and glowing Milky Way, running nearly the length of our view.
We had no visitors that night. We both woke up refreshed after being lulled into a deep and steady sleep by the sound of the creek (which probably masked the sounds of any locals that dropped in to say hi…). We worked our way upstream in the morning and were lured a little farther than we had planned by each tempting pool we encountered around every bend. We brought several more fish to hand, getting our fill before setting off on our last leg of the trip. Today was our last day, and with only an hour or so of downhill to get down to Downieville we figured we would take our time to fish or swim anywhere that caught our fancy. Little did we know how much fun we’d have letting go of the brakes on Third Divide, and once the speeds got up, we had a hard time forcing ourselves to reel them in. Before we knew it we were only a couple of miles from Downieville, perched on a bench cut section of trail staring down and the jade-colored pools of Lavezolla Creek. It was getting hot, and we wanted to get into some more fish, so we carefully made our way down the steep an shaly slope toward the water. The creek was gorgeous, careening between dark, polished boulders and plunging into seemingly bottomless pools of churning, bubbly water. And there were fish, lots of them. On his third or fourth cast Colton got into the fish of the trip; a 13” native rainbow with coloring fit to compliment the beauty of its home stream.
Satiated, we took a quick dip to cool off and got back on the bikes to head to some cold beers and burgers. Within the hour, said beers and said burgers were dusted, and we were hopping into the chilly waters of Downie Creek to celebrate a long weekend done right. It felt refreshing to slow things down, to draw out every mile of trail and let it fill the span of a few days rather than a few hours. We saw and experienced so much more than a short, fast-paced ride has to offer. Going fast is fun as hell, and while I won’t be giving that up entirely, I will surely be slowing my pace more often.
Much thanks to the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, whose steadfast dedication to the development and enhancement of mountain bike trails in the Lost Sierra made trips like ours a possibility. To support their endeavors, head to www.sierratrails.org to see how you can get involved or contribute.
Editorial by Jason Fitzgibbon