Like most of us, you probably don’t have the time to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail. But you can get a good taste of its riches by walking in some of the footsteps Cheryl Strayed made famous in her book Wild.
One of the best sections to sample leads from Sierra City, California, up into the rugged massif known as Sierra Buttes. Challenging and spectacular, this region’s mountain and lake views make it the perfect PCT weekend destination.
What it’s like
“The trail passed from the shady forest to an exposed ridge, where I could see the canyon below me for miles, the rocky buttes overhead,” Strayed wrote. She started from Sierra City, walking the mile and a half to join the PCT where it crosses Highway 49. From there, it’s a 16.8-mile round-trip hike to the summit of Sierra Buttes.
The buttes themselves look like sharp, craggy knuckles poking into the sky, with a fire lookout perched atop one of them at 8,590 feet. The trail northward from the highway gains 4,000 feet over the course of four miles, switching back and forth to parallel the ridge on mostly on exposed, dry terrain. A side trail leads to the fire lookout, 178 steps heading just about straight up.
The 360-degree view from the top is worth every step, as it’s the highest point on the trail until Lassen Peak, almost 130 miles to the north. Below, the Yuba River Canyon stretches forward and deep glacial lakes reflect the cerulean California sky.
At the time Strayed hiked out toward Sierra Buttes, she was three weeks into her thru-hike and the trail was beginning to feel like home. In fact, she had just skipped a serious section of trail, bypassing the High Sierra, because it was deeply encased in snow. She’d bussed from Lone Pine and arrived in Sierra City excited to get back on the trail. After treating herself to a bath, bed and a plate of spaghetti in town, she was left with only sixty-five cents in her pocket.
If you’d like to sample the trail Strayed headed out on, drive to Sierra City, about two and half hours northeast of Sacramento or 90 minutes west of Reno. Walk or drive east out of town on Highway 49; when you hit the PCT, head north.
Where to sleep and eat
The hike to the Sierra Buttes fire lookout can be done in a day, but since backcountry camping is allowed, you might want to pack your sleep kit and dinner and enjoy a night out along the trail at one of the previously established backcountry sites. Grab a free permit ahead of time, either at a ranger station in Camptonville or Sierraville on the way. Even if you’re going with a gas stove, you’ll need the campfire permit. That way you’ll have plenty of time to soak up the scenery and find moments of solitude. Pack plenty of water and dress in layers, since days can be hot and the trail is exposed.
In town, the Old Sierra City Hotel Bar & Restaurant, at 212 Main Street, serves up a Wild-style experience, with a rustic bar and rooms upstairs. Or park it at the Diablo Campground, eight miles northeast of Sierra City in Tahoe National Forest.
No matter how you attempt the hike, be sure to stop in for ice cream or a beer at the famous PCT waypoint, the Sierra Country Store. Strayed had passed up a cone in order to afford dinner when she passed through Sierra City on the PCT, but I’m sure she’d be with you in spirit as you savor the melty cold after a hot day on the trail.