Utahns driving to San Francisco pass them by with no idea of the scenery and seclusion they're missing. Residents of Reno, on the other hand, know them well. They go there to spend a quiet weekend.
I'm referring to Sierra and Plumas counties in northeastern California. They are rural California as I have never seen it before. They offer beautiful mountain scenery and towns yet unspoiled by tourism.Directions are simple. Take I-80 to Truckee and turn north on Highway 89, which cuts a winding swath along the eastern slope of the Sierras. Settlements are scattered through an array of mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes.
Towns are small and few.
Sattley, population 60, lies at the northern end of Sierra Valley where a meadow covered lushly with grass meets a forest of pines. Every man is a member of the volunteer fire department. The Sattley Cash Store, a 120-year-old building with peeling paint and a listing floor, is the hub of activity. A wood-burning stove, now dusty and cold, is the store's sole source of heat in the winter. "It keeps the temperature at 40 degrees," says the 22-year-old clerk who wears a duck-billed cap, a T-shirt and jeans to work. "That's as hot as you can get it in here."
Its shelves carry a cross-section of goods - canned fruit and vegetables, candy bars and cookies, toothpaste and cereal.
It is a ramshackle predecessor of the modern convenience store. Customers buy incidental items here. Otherwise they drive to Reno or Marysville, Calif. The store only accepts cash because there are no banks in town.
Small as it is, Sattley is a metropolis compared to Bassetts, an outpost on Highway 49 that's known for its delicious hamburgers. It used to be a stage-coach stop and weigh station. Nestled in pine trees across the highway from Bassetts is the High Country Inn, a bed and breakfast with an unimpeded view of the Sierra Buttes, a series of rocky peaks that reach almost 8,600 feet in elevation.
Graeagle is yet another small settlement. The 30 original buildings that line both sides of Highway 89 are painted red with white trim. The color scheme dates back to the 1920s when the town was owned by a lumber company. In 1958 Harvey West and his siblings bought 10,000 acres and the 30 red buildings for a half-million dollars. The town was vacant at the time. They added a golf course and housing developments but the original buildings, now boutiques and businesses, remain red.
There are 800 year-round residents. In the summer the population swells to 1,200.
The list of towns goes on: Sierraville, Sierra City, Clio, Downieville and Quincy. They all charming. They are all small.
Last year 12 kids graduated from the high school in Downieville. Listings for both Sierra City and Downieville take up one page in the phone book. Plumas County has one movie theater and no traffic lights.
Sierra Countys population is 3,500. That wasn't always the case. A century ago, at the height of the gold epidemic, hundreds of mines and mills dotted the hillsides. Ten thousand people lived in Sierra City alone, not a quiet community of 225.
The Kentucky Mine is near Sierra City. The mill, tunnel trestle and blacksmith shop are a historical park and museum operated by the Sierra County Historical Society. The museum is open Wednesday thru Sundays from Memorial Day through September and on weekends in October. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are four tours a day. The cost is $2.50 per person.
The mine, begun in the early 1850s and operated off-and-on until 1053, has a 10-stamp mill.
The mysteries of milling unfolded before me at the Kentucky Mine. Ore is separated into large and small pieces on the top level of the mill. Small chunks that can be processed without being crushed slide through a shoot down to the leaching room three stories below. Large pieces descend to a bin where they are crushed by the stamp - thick metal disks on the ends of cylinders. A pelton Wheel, which is powered by water, turns pulleys that power the camshafts that lift the stamps up and down. It's a noisy and dusty process. And I was seeing only one stamp in action. Crushed ore drops another level to the metal leaching table where gold was removed chemically.
It is a fascinating demonstration.
For people who prefer music to mining, however, there is a summer concert series at the outdoor amphitheater near the mine.
Accomodations in Plumas and Sierra counties run the gamut from condominiums and motels to bed & breakfast inns.
Among the elegant bed & breakfast inns in White Sulphur Springs Ranch Bed & Breakfast Inn on Highway 89 near Clio. Many of the furnishings are original including a pump organ that came around the Horn. The Olympic-size swimming pool has naturally heated water from the hot spring.
The three-story colonial building used to be a stage-coach stop on the Quincy-to-Truckee route. Like now, guest back then could sit on the veranda and look out over sprawling Mohawk Valley.
The Feather Bed in Quincy is a restored Victorian bed & breakfast furnished in antiques. It has old-fashioned bicycles for guest to use and serves a hearty and elegant breakfast.
Quincy is the largest city in Plumas County with 9,000 residents. It is also the county seat. Even at that it is small enough that I did the historic walking tour in less than a half-hour. Buildings date back to the mid-1800s.
The Plumas County Museum at 500 Jackson Street is a collection of artifacts and pictures the document the area's history and culture. it is open daily from May 1 thru Oct. 1 and on weekdays the rest of the year.
If you do as the natives do, you'll go to Bucks Lake, popular summer retreat a short drive from Quincy. Summer cabins line its shores and fishing is a major activity.
If you do at the tourists do, you'll relax and enjoy the scenery. Sierra and Plumas counties are replete with pastoral scenes that make the big city seem like it belongs to the future.
Kathryn Clayton visited Sierra and Plumas counties as the quest of the California Office of Tourism and Delta Air Lines.