The Sierra Buttes are a great day trip from Donner Bliss. At the foot of the Buttes, you'll find a trio of lakes: Sardine Lake (pictured here), Packer Lake and Sand Pond. You can hike to the fire lookout station at the top of the mountain buttes for a once-in-a-lifetime stunning, challenging but truly rewarding hike.
It's a perfect day trip to snag a primo spot at Sand Pond, hike to the lookout, then relax by the pond or fish on Sardine Lake, and top it off with drinks and dinner at the resort.
Sardine Lake and Sand Pond
How to get there: From Donner Bliss, take the 80 East, exit onto the 89 North to Sierraville, take the 49 West (keep left on the 49 toward Sierra City), and turn right onto Gold Lake Hwy at the little town of Bassetts (at the convenience store and motel), turn left on Packer Lake Rd, then turn left onto Sardine Lake Rd. Parking for Sand Pond is right after the Sardine Lake Campground on the left. Sardine Lake is the next left down the road.
Sand Pond is where to bring your picnic and enjoy swimming and floating in the water. It's a smaller and warmer than Sardine Lake and its shores are dotted with spots to hang out. But get there early because it is very popular. There's parking and neat pit toilets within feet of the shore. There's also a short interpretive trail loop that winds between the pond and the campground that's great to do with the kids.
Sardine Lake and Packer Lake (higher up the buttes) are destination fishing spots. At Sardine, you can rent a motorized or row boat from the family-run concession on shore as well as launch your own. At Packer, you can launch your own.
We spent two days in the area, the first at the pond with the kids and then had dinner at the Sardine Lake Resort restaurant. Definitely make reservations if you plan to go. The food was hearty, camp food, not haute, but the five-generations of family that have run the place make it really special. They have seatings at 6pm and 8pm, and you should go early to enjoy a cocktail at the gazebo bar, overlooking the water and the buttes.
Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout Hike
How to get there: Follow the directions above, but instead of turning left onto Sardine Lake Rd, keep right on Packer Lake Rd, turn left at follow the Sierra Buttes signs (onto Co Rte 621 just before you reach Packer Lake), follow this road up steeply until you Packer Saddle where you turn left on Butcher Ranch Road, follow it south for 0.6 more miles, ignoring the split to the right and continuing for a short way on a dirt road until you come to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout trailhead parking lot. A steeper path takes you onto the PCT. The fire lookout path does switchbacks up the hill.
My map app clocked us at 3 miles to the top with about a 1,400' elevation gain. It took us 2 hours to get to the top, where you'll want to hang out a bit and take it all in.
The trail was still heavily covered in snow when we went at the end of June, as it had been a big snow year the winter before. Definitely wear good hiking shoes, poles would be very helpful and carry a snack for the top and lots of water. There were several people with mountain-ready dogs on the trail, waiting with them at the bottom of the steps. It was calm on the day that we went, but other hikers told us it is often very windy at the top.
It's also easy to get lost, as we did on the way back, especially with snow covering much of the upper trail. We eventually figured out that we were heading down the back side of the mountain and found the Pacific Crest Trail, which bisects the back of the buttes, and that took us back to the fire lookout trail.
Check out Josh McNair's great post on this on California Through My Lens, where I discovered this hike. NorCal Hiker also had some good info for me. And a big shout-out to my PacWest Athletics bootcamp coach, Jay Ridgeway, who introduced us to the area with a recommendation to check out Sardine Lake.