Sam McManis

In Plumas County, a.k.a. the Lost Sierra, tee up or mountain bike in solitude

Mountain biking rivals golf as Lost Sierra’s big lure for active vacationers. The Chalet View Lodge near Graeagle has installed a track for bike riders on its 9-hole golf course.
Mountain biking rivals golf as Lost Sierra’s big lure for active vacationers. The Chalet View Lodge near Graeagle has installed a track for bike riders on its 9-hole golf course.

The bloated Calloway bag, sprouting bulbous lacquered club heads and irons, almost appeared to be the same size as Jack Cornish, at 80 a diminutive but wiry fellow. He finished securing his spikes in the parking lot of Graeagle Meadows Golf Course, hoisted the bag over his shoulder, looking more like Diego Rivera’s “Flower Carrier” than the Greek god Atlas, and clomped to the clubhouse to begin his round with his wife, Lorraine.

Half an hour later, a mile or so east on a wide dirt shoulder near the intersection of Highway 89 and Gold Lake Highway, Jeff Wourms and two buddies dismounted their mountain bikes having just finished bombing the single-track downhills on the Mills Peak Trail. Wourms, a tall and lean 40-something, lifted the bikes onto the Thule carrier tied to the back of his red Jeep with Idaho plates and sped off to sample the craft beer at the Brewing Lair.

Such are the dominant outdoor pleasures – generationally divided, or so it seems, between chasing a white ball around manicured fairways and careening over roots and rocks on a fat-tire bike – to be found in the tourist-board-branded Lost Sierra, the relatively undiscovered recreational playground in Plumas County, an hour’s drive northwest and light years away from the commercialism of its more famous neighbor, Lake Tahoe.

It’s a compelling juxtaposition, this commingling of hackers and bikers, of visors and trucker hats, of people who repair either to wine-sipping on verandas or small-batch breweries. This sporting detente reaches its apogee at the Chalet View Lodge, where, incredibly, a mountain-biking pump track serves as a de facto hazard on the golf course’s second hole.

Here’s what you’ll find in the Lost Sierra, should you venture farther afield from the azure lure of Tahoe:

▪  Five challenging championship 18-hole golf courses and nicely appointed country clubs, whose descriptive names, such as The Dragon and Grizzly, match their distinctive layout and personalities, as well as three 9-hole offerings and a ’50s throwback driving range, attached to mini-golf and ice cream stand, in the heart of Graeagle.

▪  Scores of mountain biking trails, either created or maintained by the nonprofit Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, that weave through the red fir and white pines of the Lakes Basin, which also is a haven for hikers, trail runners and fishermen.

▪  Accommodations that range from the luxurious (the recently opened Nakoma Lodge, attached to The Dragon golf course) to the adventurous (Chalet View Lodge, with zipline, bocce and pump tracks amid the high-end villas and lofts) to the charmingly rustic (the Gray Eagle Lodge, where cabins are seamlessly woven into the Lakes Basin Recreation Area wilderness).

Here’s what you won’t find, a la Tahoe:

▪  Chain stores or cheesy tourist-trinket outlets.

▪  Long waits for tee times or traffic jams on popular mountain-bike trails.

▪  Criminally inflated prices; just the standard we’re-your-only-choice inflation.

In many ways, the Lost Sierra is what the Lake Tahoe area had been before it became a world-known ski and resort area. OK, granted, Tahoe’s got that big blue lake, against which the Lost Sierra’s offerings – Gold, Long and Big Bear lakes – pretty much pale, and then there’s the whole gambling thing at Stateline that Plumas doesn’t offer. But here’s the Graeagle area’s advantage, and it’s a big one: solitude.

“What people like when (they) come here is its different pace,” said Kimberly Kaznowski, who moved to Graeagle from the Tahoe area 12 years ago and owns Howling Dogs Bike & Ski there. “Tahoe-Truckee has changed a lot. It’s gotten busy and crowded and Bay Area-ish. Too much of a hub of activity. Here, total solitude. It’s like a step back in time coming here. It’s a diamond in the rough, undiscovered. People come up here once and they always tell me, ‘I can’t wait to come back.’ They start to get it in their soul.”

But not necessarily in their pocketbooks. Greens fees at the country clubs average less than $100, rooms at the resorts rarely climb above $200 a night, villas and condo rentals affordable enough to leave you with enough of your budget left to splurge at a high-end restaurant such as Longboards, overlooking the first tee at Plumas Pines Golf Resort.

Yet, this must be noted: Other than a few boutiques and antique shops on Graeagle’s two-block-long main drag, there’s nothing akin to Tahoe’s “retail therapy.” Nor is there much nightlife in the Lost Sierra, unless you count spying on the black bears rummaging through garbage cans at Chalet View Lodge. The only real city within easy driving reach is Portola, a fine burg, not exactly a “destination” spot.

No, you come to the Lost Sierra not to be entertained and dazzled, but to make your own entertainment in the dazzling outdoors.

And that means two main activities: golf and mountain biking.

The Lost Sierra has its share of second-home residents, avid golfers such as the Cornishes, who “winter” in the Palm Springs area and call Graeagle home for five months. Most are older, retired and tee it up almost daily, rotating among the five championship courses or squeezing in a quick nine at the municipal offerings. But golf tourism has become viable here in recent years, as country clubs upgrade their facilities to lure hackers and scratch golfers away from Reno and Tahoe.

You can incite much heated conversation by asking Graeagle golfers to scope out the courses. Some favor the vertical, almost Picasso-like cubism of The Dragon; others the natural beauty of pines and high-desert foliage at Grizzly Ranch; or the versatility of Plumas Pines, which balances its many hazards and undulations with its “true” greens; or the wide fairways and open vistas of Whitehawk Ranch or Graeagle Meadows.

One avid local golfer, Bob McIlroy (he coyly suggests he might be related to Irish pro Rory McIlroy), is a one-man Yelp review for local courses.

“Grizzly Ranch is the best course,” he said, in a stern tone that precluded any disagreement. “It’s tough. Every hole is different and a challenge. You got a couple blind tee shots, everything is natural. Nothing is contrived. They’ve got small water falls coming down there. A lot of wetland and they’ve maintained it. No artificial rock. What I like about (Graeagle) Meadows is ... it’s like you’re playing at the top of the world. There’s no houses around it. Look around. Except on the first hole, there’s not much housing on the course. You almost feel like you’re in Big Sky country.

“Then there’s (The Dragon). A lot of us don’t play it because it beats us up. We’re just out to get recreation. Their … motto is: ‘Bring Us Your Heroes.’ Even if you hit a good shot, exactly where you want it, you’re still sort of screwed because you got an uphill or downhill or side-hill lie.”

If Graeagle Meadows and Whitehawk appeal to the mellow duffer, The Dragon at Nakoma appeals mostly to extreme types, golfers with low handicaps and high self-esteem. It’s a course with greens that have clifflike drop-offs, anorexic fairways, more undulations than Beyoncé. Back in the early 2000s, when the country club opened, it staked its claim on its degree of difficulty. But after going through bankruptcy in 2006 and now under new ownership, the golf pros and designers have softened the course – and the “extreme” sales pitch, though several holes still have provocative names such as “Defiance,” “Revenge” and “Audacity.”

“It’s not as hard now as people say,” Matt Webber, The Dragon’s assistant pro. “The reputation is harder than the course. Every year, we’ve made some tweaks to soften it. It’s still not an easy course. The greens and tricky. There are some carries. But that’s why a lot of people come here.”

They come, too, to ogle that clubhouse, erected in 2001 from designs the famed Frank Lloyd Wright made in 1924 for a never-built clubhouse in Wisconsin. There are high windows, octagonal walls with stained glass, with a welcoming fireplace as the centerpiece. Wright protégés, including longtime Taliesin architect John Rattenbury, wanted to make the Native American-tinged structure blend into the tall pines. That it does, but it still sticks out as a beacon for people who couldn’t care less about bogies and bunkers.

“We get a lot of architecture people come in,” Webber said. “They say it’s one of the most unique buildings they’ve ever seen.”

Both the design of the buildings – the lodge and villas, too, are Wright-inspired – and the challenging course is what keeps bringing back Vic Alberti, a tourist from Clovis.

“You gotta be on your game here,” Alberti said. “Actually, that’s true for any of these courses here – Grizzly, Whitehawk. If you’re not hitting the ball straight, you’ll have a hard time.”

Grizzly Ranch’s director of golf, Van Batchelder, believes his course is just the right amount of challenge for elites and easy enough for high-handicappers to retain a measure of dignity after a long day on the course.

“Our putting greens are what we’re known for – just flawless,” he said. “The biggest attribute is, there’s just an ambiance around here that gets to people.”

Grizzly Ranch, ranked by Golf Digest as the 11th best public course in the state, features waterfalls and lakes, a covered bridge and a Lake House that looks as if torn from the pages of Dwell magazine.

“We like to think it’s a natural experience, coming here,” Batchelder said.

A real nature experience, sans sprinkler system and mowers to tame the grass, can be found in the hills of Plumas National Forest that loom over Graeagle.

That’s where mountain bikers, perhaps weary of the hordes on Tahoe’s Flume Trail, come to ride in relative solitude.

Wourms and his two friends, Jim Muren of San Diego and Sam Props of Indianapolis, said they had ridden that popular Tahoe trail but preferred the Lost Sierra trails.

“It’s got a more remote feel to it,” Props said. “We like more cross-country type of riding, so Plumas is perfect, and there’s enough elevation so you do get the downhill, too.”

And, yes, the uphill. The day before they tackled the Mills Peak Trail – a 9-mile single-track that gains and loses about 3,000 of elevation, the trio traveled farther into the Lakes Basin and traversed the Mount Elwell Loop, only 8 miles but the first 4 straight up the mountainside for a 2,025-foot gain. Near the summit, when the trail devolves into rock scree, they had to dismount and lug their bikes up.

“Totally worth it,” Wourms said.

True. The view from Mount Elwell, at 7,818 feet, is hard to beat. Lassen Peak points upward to the northwest, the Sierra Buttes a little to the south and the Sierra valley, with sparkling Long Lake in the foreground, spread out to the east.

“People come in the store after they’ve been out on the trails in the Lakes Basin and they can’t believe the beauty,” Kaznowski said. “The trails are multi-use – hiker and equestrian – but it seems people know it most (for mountain biking). We’ve been featured in bike magazines, and that gets the word out. But it’s not like we’re being overrun with people.”

That’s the charm of the Lost Sierra. There’s solitude, or, at least a measure of it, with other loners lugging nine-irons or fat tires. And, at day’s end, they perhaps can even meet and mingle for an ice cream cone at Fros-Tee, merely a chip shot from town.

The Lost Sierra

Where: Graeagle, 44 miles northwest of Truckee on Highway 89

Lodging: Nakoma Lodge: 348 Bear Run, Clio (nakomagolfresort.com); Chalet View Lodge, 72056 Highway 70, Portola; (www.chaletviewlodge.com)

Golf courses: The Dragon at Nakoma, 348 Bear Run, Clio; Grizzly Ranch, 250 Clubhouse Drive, Portola (www.grizzlyranch.com); Whitehawk Ranch, 768 Whitehawk Drive, Clio (www.golfwhitehawk.com); Graeagle Meadows, Highway 89, Graeagle (www.playgraeagle.com); Plumas Pines Golf Resort, 402 Poplar Valley Road, Graeagle (www.plumaspinesgolf.com)

Mountain Biking trails: Mills Peak Trail: 9.1 miles, out and back. Directions to trailhead: From Graeagle, take Highway 89 south to Gold Lake Road and turn right. Go 1.2 miles and turn left at a sign for “Mills Peak.” Drive a half-mile to a dirt pullout to park. Mount Elwell Loop: 8 miles. Directions to trailhead: From Graeagle, take Highway 89 south to Gold Lake Road. Turn right and drive 5.1 miles to a right-hand turn signed for Smith Lake and Gray Eagle Lodge. Drive 0.4 miles on a dirt road, take a sharp right on a rockier dirt road. Go 0.1 of a mile until the road ends. Route: Take the Smith Trail northwest for a mile, turn left on the signed Mount Elwell Trail. Follow up switchbacks for 3 miles. At the summit, follow the trail down the southern side of the mountain. At 4.6 miles, turn left on the Long Lake Trail. Continue north after passing signs for the Gray Eagle Trail. At a three-way junction 6 miles into the ride, veer left and follow signs to Gray Eagle Lodge. Before the lodge, veer left onto the Smith Trail to return to the trailhead.

More mountain biking information: Howling Dog Bikes & Ski, Highway 89, Graeagle; howlingdogsbikeandski.com; 530-836-2754

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