Sierra Buttes

22 Oct 1998 - by Pat Ibbetson

With the end of daylight savings time only a few days away and an enormous list of unwritten software sitting on my desk that would only get longer whether I was there or not, I sped up Interstate 80 towards Auburn, remembering for a change to stop at the store and get some film and munchies, enjoying my temporary divorce from buggy Microtrash Compilers and fragile ODBC drivers. Once in Auburn, I got on 49 north and instantly began longing to be back in Fresno where people seem to know fairly well how to operate motor vehicles. With early onset road rage just one more old lady away, I found myself in Grass Valley, which is the most beautiful town I've ever seen. And it even has a freeway...with no traffic! What more could I ask for?

Too quickly it all passed, and I was once again stuck behind old ladies on an all too windy 49 threading its way up the twisted canyons of the South, Middle and North Yuba Rivers. While my instinct was to take I80 all the way to 89, the people at work suggested taking 49 to Sierra City. I should have trusted my instinct, because a mere 4 hours after leaving Sacramento I arrived in Sierra City ready to murder the next person I saw.

Luckily for everybody else, they weren't anywhere to be seen. Luckily for me, the fun was just beginning. Jeffery Schaffer's The Tahoe Sierra says to drive 5 miles east of Sierra City and make a left turn onto Gold Lake Road. 5 miles from sierra city was an unsigned road exiting left, which I turned onto and quickly discovered went nowhere. Returning once again to 49, I turned left onto the next road (also unsigned), a couple of tenths of mile north of the previous road, and again found another dead end. Two more dead ends later I gave up and decided to go home, since it was already 4:00pm. I decided to head east on 49 and go through Truckee on return trip, and almost SEVEN miles from Sierra City, was the highway, clearly signed.

About 1 and a half miles up the road I turned left onto county road S621, which was signed for Packer Lake. After a sharp left turn there is another junction, and it is necessary to turn right to stay on S621. After a little over 2 and a half miles, a junction is reached with Tahoe National Forest road 93, which I took south. From the intersection, the road gently drifts for a while then pitches up the hill dramatically, heading straight up the crest of the ridge in places, until it reaches Packer Lake Saddle, 1.6 miles later. At the saddle was a major intersection, bustling with the activity of a full scale logging operation. I took the road less traveled (and less noisy) and headed south along the crest of the ridge for another quarter mile to the trailhead for Tahoe National Forest trail 12E06, the Sierra Buttes Trail.

I quickly swallowed a quart of water, threw on my tennies and raced up the closed logging road signed as the PCT with guide book and camera in hand. Closely following the guidebook because of my dangerously low time frame (I had no poly pro on, just a cotton T-shirt and left my truck at 4:27pm), I followed the logging road down to Tamarack Lakes before I realized that the guidebook failed to accurately convey the nature of the complex network of logging roads. Following the guidebook word for word led me to drop over 400 feet below the crest of the ridge, which I had to regain by heading directly upslope wearing tennis shoes. The only redeeming thing about the slog to regain the ridgecrest was a sighting of a young (4 point?) buck munching on sage brush.

Once back up on top of the ridge, I resisted the urge to slow down and continued jogging up the now well worn trail. Shortly after I caught my first climpse of the lookout tower, I slowed down on some switchbacks below where the trail re-connects with the OHV trail. Once back on the easier OHV trail, I sped up again, as a fierce wind began whipping up. I fought off the urges to turn back that started filling my head when I saw the sun drop into the smog layer and slowly start changing color and instead ran up the hill. I was rather disappointed with the lackluster view. I couldn't see the coast ranges, Freel, Santa Rosa, and most surprisingly, Lassen.

As I rounded the corner and spotted the lookout tower I felt my stomach drop seemingly to China. The wind was whipping by hard enough to knock me over, and seperating me from my destination was a very steep series of exposed stair cases. I almost turned back, but decided what the hell and slowly went up first staircase, then the second, and then the third, reaching the main pinnacle 50 minutes after leaving the car. From here it was possible to walk over to the lookout tower. Something told me not to go up the final staircase all by myself but I went anyway. At the top I was greeted by much better view (funny what a few hundred feet can do) and spotted Lassen, Freel, Castle, Pyramid, and possibly Round Top. I slowly walked around the exposed wire mesh catwalk, reading the forest circus propaganda signs, all the while not paying attention to the building wind.

After taking my last pictures, I headed back down the staircase, noticing before I reached it that the entire left side of the staircase was detached from the tower, having rusted through. I made it only three steps down before a violent gust shook the staircase, sending me quickly down to the rock below. Luckily I came down right next to the staircase and found myself kissing the rock I landed on. There wasn't much to do except head back down, but I made sure I climbed the highest rock (the tower isn't built on the highpoint of the pinnacle) which was done by making a few class 2/easy 3 moves. The view down the north side of the rock made me sick to my stomach and I immediately got down and went down the stairs.

Once back on the OHV trail, I realized that the sun was setting and watched it dip below the coast range and then started running back down, hoping to make it back before it became totally dark. A few places were too steep to run, but I made it back to the car in under 20 minutes.

The Sierra Buttes are truly beautiful and the view is amazing, but I don't know if one and a half hours on the mountain was worth the four hour drive up there. I returned to Sacramento by going over Yuba Pass and then taking 89 to I80, returning to downtown Sacramento in only 90 minutes. If you are heading up to Sierra Buttes during a trafficky time of day, 89 is definitely the way to go.

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