Lightweight Bikepacking the Sierra Buttes

Words and Photos by Fergus Liam. 

My mother is a Beatles fan. Their music never rubbed off on me despite listening to all of her LPs on the old Fisher turntable we had arranged in the living room as a child. I just can't get into the upbeat good feeling jangles of their earlier songs and that sudden transition into what felt like an amateur exploration of psychedelics and what came with the social responsibility of being a celebrity in the late 60's. To each their own, as it were. When I graduated from college, I found myself in a transition I'm sure most young adults feel with the throws of educational structure gone and an ambiguous future that lay before me. I remember my mother telling me, "you know, Fergus, life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Probably the most useful advice she had ever given me, despite her reveal of the quote belonging to Lennon. 

Author, Fergus, mid-ride in the Sattley Valley

Cut to many years later, a life delivering packages by bike firmly behind me, a stint with amateur elite road and track racing waning on the immediate horizon and a strong desire to keep the legs stretching found me taking short 3-5 day trips with nothing more than my bike and a destination. To say I bike pack is a stretch at best. Really, it's traveling to somewhere else by bike, a longer than normal commute is probably more accurate. My preffered set up is a saddle bag for a change of off the bike clothes, normal shoes & a jar of peanut butter and a bar bag with food, a note book, Swiss Army knife and patch kit.

Dustin mid-ride in the Sattley Valley

I've been on a few of these rides, by no means an expert, but comfortable enough to consider this in my wheel house and still energetic to expand on my experience. Earlier in the summer, when work took me to Lake Tahoe, California I saw an opportunity to explore the quiet roads of the Sierra Buttes; a mountain range separating the Northern most portion of the Central Valley from Nevada. I invited my friend Dustin along, since I knew he would be up for the adventure. Knowing we had to end in Sacramento to catch the train home, I plotted a loose route from our start in Truckee to Quincy to Grass Valley ending in the State's capital. What occured between start and finish were what I believe my mother told me was what was happening while I was making plans. 

Smithneck Rdmore than a few mile from Loyalton

Google maps is an excellent tool for assessing distance, topography and routes. Their definition of "roads", however, is loose at best. I have found myself on cow trails and single track clearly indicated on Google as a defined road with a name. More than usual, pleasant unpaved surprises like this present themselves. The valley shown above, is a few rocky pot-holed miles from Stampede Lake, shortly before a 12 mile gravel road descent that dropped us outside Loyalton on the edge of what I refer to as the Sattley Valley. 

More than a few flats on day 1

No bike trip is complete without an obligatory flat. Dustin payed his flats forward to the next few rides with 5 flats over the course of 80 miles. Thankfully we found comfortable places to post up and practice patching tubes. 

You can view our route for day one here.

The city limits of Strawberry Valley run from edge to edge on the general store

On my mother's side, I am 4th generation Californian beginning with my great-great-grandfather Hanrahan settling in the Sierras in the mid-1800's for the promise of gold flowing from the hills. As a child, we would stop here, at the Strawberry Valley general store for Jolt cola, a sandwich and bait before pushing further into the woods where my ancestor struck his claim and searched for a treasure of riches that never quite panned out. It felt strange and special to ride this land, breathing in the same crisp alpine air heavy with lore and memories of my youth.  

Possibly our most interesting day, and hands down the hardest. View the route

The start to the third and final leg was forlorn

Hotels are cheap and lighter than a sleeping bag. This one had a pool where an overweight woman laid beside the edge in a lawn chair, her toes grazing the water, who didn't raise an eye brow to us exhausted covered in salty sweat stains and fully kitted dropping into the deep end. Later, as the sun sat, I could hear her sing Bonnie Raitt from the pool area while someone plucked a guitar. We left early the next day, hoping to get a good start on our journey but the day before was hard and still cast its shadow over our remainig miles. 

Free water

On paper, the third and final day was net descent, but a stubborn climb out of the American River started the day before we would benfit from the drop in elevation. Surprisingly, there are still more than a few 3-5 building large towns in Northern California- some more bicycle friendly than others. This pit stop marked the end of the foothills that ripple into the Sacramento Valley where we would pull along the American River Trail for 20 miles to downtown to an unceremonious ending of our trip where a train waited to take us to our plans someplace else. 

With our trip winding down quickly, the last day felt more like a scramble. View it here.