The Northern Sierra encompasses a large region stretching north from Yuba and Sierra counties, and including landmarks like Mt. Shasta and Lassen Volcanic National Park. With densely wooded conifer forests, large active volcanoes, and a richly diverse collection of plants and animals, the Northern Sierra is as beautiful and memorable as it is remote and rugged.
Northern Sierra Highlights Map
The Northern Sierra is a massive area that is as geographically and ecologically diverse as it is large. In the far Northeast lies Modoc county, a sprawling area comprised mostly of high desert and dry conifer forests. The Modoc National Wildlife Refuge is a 7,000-acre area located along the South Fork of the Pit River. This refuge serves as an oasis in the high desert environment and is a migration stopping point for several species of birds.
Traveling south, Lassen Volcanic National Park lives up to its name with its jagged volcanic peaks and active geothermal activity including hot springs, geysers, and other wonders. Sadly, much of Lassen National Park burned in the 2021 Dixie Fire, which was worsened by the effects of climate change and improper forest management.
To the west of Lassen, Mt. Shasta towers above the surrounding landscape. Mt. Shasta is the fifth-highest peak in California at 14,179 feet, but its unique strato volcanic formation makes it especially impressive. Shasta features several glaciers and the mountain serves as the headwaters for the Sacramento River, a vital source of water for agriculture in the Northern Central Valley and for many unique species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Just south of Mt. Shasta, in the foothills of the Southern Cascades, lies the Ishi Wilderness. This 41,000-acre area is defined by rugged basalt caves, outcroppings, formations, and ridges. The wilderness provides a safe haven for many animals, including the Tehama deer herd—the largest migratory herd in California.
Moving south, Butte and Plumas counties are defined by large national forests, miles of winding rivers, and large natural and dam-created lakes. This region has been hard-hit in recent years with over 1,000,000 acres burned by forest fires, including both the Camp Fire and Dixie Fire, among others.
The southern portion of the Northern Sierra is comprised of Nevada, Yuba, and Sierra counties. In Sierra County, the Sierra Buttes are a small mountain range within the larger Sierra Nevada that feature unique craggy peaks and several streams, waterfalls, and lakes.
To the south in Nevada county, Donner Summit’s open granite slabs and high peaks make it a beautiful but rugged environment. The infamous Donner Pass claimed the lives of several members of the Donner Party, but today it is known for treacherous conditions and frequent road closures of I80 during winter.
To the west, Yuba county stretches from the floor of the central valley up to the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. Home to the three forks of the picturesque Yuba River, this area is host to some favorite summertime swimming holes and unique flora and fauna.
As the largest reservoir in California and the third largest body of water after only Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea, Shasta Lake is an unmistakably significant part of the Northern Sierra. The lake is manmade, created by the 602-foot Shasta Dam, which was constructed in the 1940s. Water from the Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit Rivers, among others, are all stored by Shasta Lake. While the reservoir provides valuable water to California’s Central Valley, it is also the site of a lot of environmental and cultural controversy.
The flooding of the area now known as Shasta Lake erased over 90 percent of the ancestral territory of the Winnemem Wintu tribe. Additionally, it blocked the migration of salmon upstream, erasing habitat for the fish and cutting off a large area of the dammed rivers from vital nutrients provided by them. Despite unresolved issues with environmental and endangered species impacts, record-low water levels due to prolonged drought, and further potential damage to Native American cultural sites, the Bureau of Reclamation has a plan in place to raise the dam an additional 18.5 feet.
To the north of Shasta Lake, near the Oregon border, Tule Lake provides a unique and vital habitat to many migrating and endangered species. Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge protects a large portion of Tule lake and surrounding waterways. Species like the greater white-fronted goose and snow goose use the area to rest and feed along their long migratory journeys, and endangered fish like the Lost River sucker inhabit its waters.
To the South, the Feather River, which consists of three forks, is the Sierra Nevada’s largest river, flowing 185 miles from its headwaters at the Sierra Crest to the Sacramento River. Aside from being breathtakingly beautiful, the river provides a habitat for critical species including steelhead trout and Chinook salmon. Though 111 miles of the Middle Fork of the Feather River remain dam-free, the river eventually flows into Oroville Reservoir, the namesake dam of which threatens fish populations and the overall health of the river.
California is not known for its wild salmon, but that is mainly due to the modern damming of all of its major rivers. Despite the presence of the Oroville Dam, Chinook salmon still run from spring through fall in the scenic Feather River, which provides a vital spawning habitat to the fish.
California Mule Deer
Native to the Sierra Nevada, the California mule deer inhabits a large area of the mountain range but prefers the lower foothill elevations. The deer can be found in the grasslands, oak and conifer mixed forests, and hills of the Northern Sierra foothills.
Mountain lions are native to California and they inhabit a range of areas from coastal regions to high mountains. In the Sierra, they are typically found in the foothill areas where deer populations are highest.
Yarrow has a distinct flat-topped cluster of white and/or yellow flowers. This medicinal plant, which is found in meadows and on open slopes such as those covering much of Mt. Shasta, can be used to stop bleeding in cuts and wounds.
Fireweed is a magnificent species of wildflower that is known for being one of the first species of plants to grow after a wildfire. With millions of acres burned in recent years, fireweed is a common sight across the Northern Sierra.
As a tree that is well-adapted to cold climates, short growing seasons, and drought, Jeffrey pines can be found across the Sierra Nevada. The Jeffrey pine beetle, a bug that can kill these trees by burrowing in their bark, is becoming more common in the Sierra due to climate change.
The region comprising the Northern Sierra is the ancestral territory of several Native American tribes, including the Shasta, Modoc, Achomawi, Atsugewi, Northern Paiute, Midue, Yana, Wintu, Konkow, Nisenan, and Washo.
Today, many towns and small cities dot the landscape, though vast swaths of the Northern Sierra remain uninhabited in protected areas that include Lassen Volcanic National Park and Plumas, Lassen, and Shasta-Trinity National Forests.
The town of Mt. Shasta lies at the western base of its namesake mountain. Located along the I5 corridor and in close proximity to Shasta Lake and the neighboring mountain, this city of about 3,250 people relies heavily on tourism and outdoor recreation. With less snow than usual and record-low water levels in Shasta Lake in recent years, this industry is already feeling the strains of climate-changed induced drought.
Mt. Shasta isn’t the only Northern Sierra town to feel the effects of climate change. To the south in Plumas county, the town of Greenville was all but entirely destroyed in August 2021 in the massive Dixie Fire. A historic gold rush town, it is unclear what the future holds for Greenville, with most of its buildings burned and the surrounding forests also scorched.
One silver lining of the dire wildfire situation in California is the burning of wood harvested during wildfire mitigation fuel reduction projects in the area to produce electricity. Honey Lake Power near Susanville, CA converts wood fuels into electricity to generate green energy for the area.
To the south in the foothills of the Sierra, the neighboring Nevada County cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City blossomed as mining towns in the 1800s but have since successfully transformed into diverse economies reliant on tourism, agriculture, and trade.
Just 50 miles to the east lies Truckee, another historic mining town nestled in the heart of the Sierra. Today, Truckee is known as a hub of tourism just outside of the Tahoe Basin, with close access to ski resorts, lakes, and a plethora of outdoor activities.