You’ve heard all about the Sierra Nevada stars like Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and Mammoth Lakes. But do you know about the Sierra Buttes? If not, you’re not alone. This alpine wonderland of 8,500-foot peaks, nicknamed "the Lost Sierra" and dotted with turquoise lakes, is decidedly untrammeled. Much of the area lies within the federally protected Lakes Basin Recreation Area, an under-the-radar gem dotted with 50-plus glacially carved lakes. For sweeping vistas of the lakes and surprisingly rugged peaks, follow 15-mile-long Gold Lake Highway, which meets State Highway 89 about an hour north of Truckee.
Gold Lake, the biggest of the lakes, has a public boat launch and rental boats. Swim, fish, or waterski in the morning, then sail or windsurf when the afternoon breezes pick up. At sunset, relax with cocktails at Sardine Lake Resort. Cabins and lodges line the shores of several lakes; alas, they’re usually booked months in advance by families who have been coming for generations. For a luxe option, check out Nakoma Golf Resort, about a half-hour north, near Clio. Got your tent? Choose from a dozen drive-in campgrounds, including perfect-for-family sites at Sardine Lake, Salmon Creek, and Lakes Basin campgrounds.
Once you resolve your creature comforts, let your rugged side roam free. Kids love to romp along the easy trails to Upper Sardine Lake or Frazier Falls, while more intrepid hikers conquer the Lakes Basin’s obligatory challenge: the 178 stair-steps to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout. It’s a roughly five-mile round-trip hike to the tower’s base, then test your vertigo tolerance as you climb, climb, climb to its deck. If the ascent didn’t make you dizzy, the 360-degree view will. The panorama includes 10,457-foot (often snow-capped) Lassen Peak and the turquoise Sardine Lakes, sparkling 2,000 feet below.