It’s not summer without a day spent on a lake. But what’s even better than spending one day on a lake? Spending an entire weekend swimming, paddling and fishing on endless uncrowded lakes! Because unlike eating chocolate chip cookie dough, you can never have too much time spent by water on a summer day.

Lakes Basin, California is an unspoiled treasure trove of alpine lakes located off the very beaten path to Lake Tahoe. Most people haven’t heard of this stunning secret little nook in the Sierra’s. In fact up until the moment I arrived I didn’t really know exactly where I was going or what to expect.  When we turned off Highway 49 onto the Gold Lake Highway and got a glimpse at the Sierra Buttes I realized I had stumbled upon a very special place. Lakes Basin has the pine trees and rugged granite of Tahoe, minus the traffic, fancy SUV’s, and hoards of pseudo-outdoorsy people breaking in their new gear for the first time.

The most well-known attraction of Lakes Basin is the Sardine Lake Resort, which was featured in Sunset Magazine a few years ago. Situated on Sardine Lake, the Sardine Lake Resort has an incredible location on one of the most breathtakingly beautiful lakes in California.

Aside from the Sardine Lake Resort, and a handful of other rustic lodges and campgrounds there aren’t a lot of accommodation options. In other words, if you need someplace with valet parking, head to Lake Tahoe. Lakes Basin is all about simplicity. A morning paddling on the lake, an afternoon mountain biking,  fishing for rainbow trout in the evening, and falling asleep under a starry night sky.

lake with fishing near sardine lake
Endless lakes await in Lakes Basin, California

What To Do in the Lakes Basin

Hiking

There are miles of trails throughout the Lakes Basin area, and not surprisingly most the trails take you to a lake. Below are a few of my favorites.

Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail: This hike is an uphill trek to the top of a big mountain. Actually it’s even higher than the top of the mountain since you have the option of climbing up to the fire look perched on the mountain top. The best place to start the trail is at the Sierra Buttes Lookout trailhead. Almost immediately you will have views of Sardine Lake below and the surrounding mountains. The view only gets better the longer you hike. In the summer months the trail is dotted with wildflowers and it’s absolutely magical. Trail Length: Approx. 5 miles roundtrip 

To get to the trailhead: Without cell-phone reception it’s a little tricky to find. Turn off Gold Lake Highway onto Packer Lake Road . Packer Lake Road is before you reach Sardine Lake Campground. Follow Packer Lake Road up the mountain past Packer Lake until the blacktop ends. Keep going on the dirt road for less then one minute until you see a small parking area and a trailhead on the left-hand side. Side-note: the dirt road is well maintained and flat.  My minivan had no problems so I feel confident in saying that most cars can probably handle this section of unpaved road.

sardine lake on sierra buttes trail
Looking down at Sardine Lake
trail in Lakes Basin that takes you to Sierra Buttes Lookout
The trail heading towards the Sierra Buttes
stairs leading up to the fire lookout in Lakes Basin, California
The final steps of the journey, climbing the stairs to the fire lookout

Grassy Lake: Full disclosure, when you’re looking at a trail map of Lakes Basin you will notice a few waterfall symbols near Lakes Basin Campground. These little squiggles on the map will excite the adventurers in you. However, the first waterfall is hard to see and the second  waterfall isn’t particularly noteworthy. If you’re limited on time, you’re better off doing a different hike. Should you happen to be staying in Lakes Basin Campground this is a convenient trail and connects to other more spectacular scenic spots such as Long Lake. Trail Length: 3+ miles depending on your route

To get to the trailhead: Enter the Lake Basin Campground. Follow the signs through the campground and you will see a small parking area and a trailhead.

Grassy Lake in Lakes Basin California
Grassy Lake, a pretty place to stop and rest but continue onwards if you’re looking for a swimming spot
waterfall in lakes basin
A glimpse of the waterfall
long lake near Grey Eagle Lodge
After searching for waterfalls hike out to Long Lake

Bear Lakes and Round Lake Loop: A fantastic hike that takes you to numerous pristine lakes without too much effort. Bring a picnic, a swimsuit and a fishing pole and you can easily spend an entire day exploring the various lakes along the trail. After hiking this trail and realizing how relatively effortless it is to get to beautiful alpine lakes you will never want to do a grueling all-day trek to a crowded mountain lake again. Trail Length: Approx. 4 Miles

To get to the trailhead: You will see a sign for Round Lake and the Gold Lake Lodge. There is a decent sized dirt parking lot and a trailhead sign.

Round Lake
Hiking past beautiful Round Lake
bear lake with the sierra buttes in the background
Hike the loop in the evening after the crowds have left for optimal serenity
hiking round lake loop
So many lakes it’s impossible to pick a favorite

Paddling

There are no shortage of places to canoe, kayak, or SUP in Lakes Basin. Below are a few of my favorite lakes.

Salmon Lake: One of my all-time favorite lakes to explore on an SUP. It’s a modest sized lake that lacks the grandeur of Sardine Lake, but it is protected from afternoon wind and has a smattering of little boulder strewn islands. Paddle to your own granite island and bask in the sun before continuing on across the lake.

Sardine Lake: The most well-known lake in Lakes Basin. This lake is best explored by boat either in the morning or evening before the afternoon winds start gusting across the lake. Just a heads up, swimming is prohibited so you’ll have to find a different lake to jump in post-paddle.

If you feel like going out on the lake, minus the paddling, it’s possible to rent a small motor boat from the Sardine Lake Resort. Rates are either by the 1/2 day or whole day.

SUP on salmon like
A quiet summer evening on Salmon Lake

Mountain Biking

Almost every car you see in Lakes Basin has a mountain bike strapped on it. Nearby Downieville is a well-known mountain biking mecca but the Lakes Basin region has quite a few trails as well. Many of the trails are technical (narrow, granite rocks etc.) but beginners can enjoy cruising along the network of fire roads.

Fishing

Find a little piece of shoreline and cast a line into your favorite lake. It doesn’t seem fair to give away local fishing secrets so I’ll let you find the best spot to catch dinner.

boy fishing lakes basin
Could there by a more peaceful way to spend an afternoon?

Where to Stay in the Lakes Basin

As mentioned before, everything in the Lakes Basin area is pretty rustic and your choices are limited.

Sardine Lake Resort: Cabins situated right on Sardine Lake with the option of renting a boat of grabbing a meal at the restaurant make this a good choice for a laid-back vacation. Just a heads up, this place books up fast so you’ll need to make a reservation months in advance.

Gold Lake Lodge: We stumbled upon this cozy lodge and found it to be a perfect alternative to camping for times when you want to feel campy without actually camping. Meals are included. Dinner was the highlight, a delicious, filling, four-course feast served by friendly staff in the dining room. A hearty meal that you don’t have to cook is such a treat after a day on the trail!  The cabins are simple but considerably more comfortable then sleeping in a tent.  Don’t be surprised if a few bugs sneak their way into your cabin, but that’s to be expected and only adds to the nature vibe.

Sardine Lake Campground: A small campground that’s popular with families. It’s a five minute walk to Sand Pond, a shallow warm pond that’s fun to float in on a hot day.  Sardine Lake is just a little further down the road and Bassetts is a quick drive away if you get a hankering for an ice cream cone.

Packsaddle Campground: Located near Packer Lake, Packsaddle Campground is a good base camp for hiking enthusiasts. Campers are a short hike away from Deer Lake, as well as the Pacific Crest Trail, and other trails.

gold lake lodge cabin
Skip the hassle of tent camping and get a cabin at the Gold Lake Lodge
sierra buttes and sardine lake
Stay at Sardine Lake Resort and you’ll be basking in the spectacular beauty of the Sierra Buttes
pacific crest trail near sardine lake
A section of the Pacific Crest Trail near Packer Lake

Things to Know About The Lake Basin

  • Lots of Mosquitos. Mosquitos are a real issue during the early summer months. Bring repellent, citronella candles, and any other weapons you have to defend yourself against the evil little blood suckers.
  • No Cell Phone Reception. There is absolutely no cell phone reception in the Lakes Basin Area and we couldn’t find anyone who would let us use their internet. The closest spot to get a signal is in Sierra City.
  • Hot. It can get really hot during the day. Perfect for lounging by a lake but you’ll definitely want to hike early to avoid being baked by the intense midday sun.
  • High Altitude. The elevation at Lakes Basin isn’t extraordinarily high, but it is high enough that you’ll feel a little winded hiking and it’s extra important to wear sunscreen since you’ll burn faster
  • Winding Roads. There isn’t a straight, easy way to get to the Lakes Basin. All roads are two-lanes with car-sick inducing turns. If you have a sensitive stomach, good luck!
  • Bring Everything. There aren’t many places to buy items that you forgot so do your best to remember all groceries, gear, and gadgets. If you do forget something you can check the store at Bassetts or drive into Sierra City.
  • Dog Friendly. Many of the campgrounds and trails are dog friendly

What to Bring to Lakes Basin

  • Sturdy shoes. Unless you’re planning on doing a considerable amount of hiking you can probably get away with using sturdy sneakers with good traction rather than hiking boots. Many of the trails do have sections of loose rock/ granite so shoes with traction are a must!
  • Mosquito repellent. As mentioned above bugs can be a nuisance
  • Hat/Sunscreen/Sunglasses. 
  • Plenty of water bottles. Since you’ll be at a higher elevation it’s extra important to stay hydrated
  • Dry bag. Keep your stuff dry while paddling

The Bottom Line: If you want a hefty dose of nature and don’t need luxury, load up your kayak, bike, and hiking boots and head to Lakes Basin. 

Further Reading on Summer Vacations in California

Planning a Summer Trip to Lake Tahoe 

Things to Do in Santa Cruz, CA

Exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park 

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