There’s more than 4,000 miles of graded dirt roads in Plumas National Forest connecting a dozen quaint and remote mountain communities across Plumas and Lassen County, California. The landscapes are stunning, from majestic mountain meadows bursting with wildflowers to craggy granite peaks and glacially carved mountain lakes. Hidden cabins and remnants of the Gold Rush can be found everywhere along the way. The only thing you don’t see much of in the backcountry of Plumas County is people, which is why this region is quickly becoming known as The Gravel Capital of the West.
Celebrating this remarkable locale for getting lost on drop bar bikes, the Lost and Found Gravel Festival, put on by local trail heroes, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS), made its return the first weekend in June after a two-year hiatus. A lot has happened since the last Lost and Found was held in 2019. Aside from a pandemic that shuttered events like Lost and Found, the Dixie Fire – the largest single-start wildfire in California’s history – erupted last July and burned nearly a million acres of forest, much of it in Plumas County where Lost and Found is held.
In the midst of all this has been the work of SBTS and their legacy project called Connected Communities, an effort to connect 15 mountain communities across four Sierra Nevada counties by a 600-mile trail network dubbed “The Lost Sierra Route”. The project aims to revitalize economically depressed mountain towns through recreation, visitation and attracting new full-time residents who want a greater quality of life. The return of the Lost and Found Gravel Festival to one of the mountain communities on the route, Portola, serves as a fundraiser for the Lost Sierra Route’s construction.
But the beauty of all this is you don’t have to wait for the trails to be built; you can connect all these mountain towns right now by gravel or mountain bike on the thousands of miles of dirt roads in the region. A recent Lost Sierra Productions film, Lost on Purpose, documents all the gravel adventure potential of the region.
This year’s Lost and Found route featured 30-, 60- and 100-mile options, taking people through a mix of pristine forest and devastated burn zones, done purposefully to show riders firsthand the effects of wildfire. Despite the destruction, there was still utter beauty amidst the charred matchsticks; wildflowers provided color beneath, and the majestic peaks and mountainous terrain were better revealed to the eye. No wildfire can erase beautiful terrain, and Plumas County is blessed with an abundance of it.
I hadn’t ridden 100 miles since the last Lost and Found in 2019, so I figured it would only be appropriate to ride the 100-mile event this year. “Suffer Fiesta” are the words that come to mind thinking back on last weekend’s ride. After two years off I was reminded of how challenging Lost and Found is. Rocks, ruts, dust, flat tires, broken bikes; Lost and Found is the Downieville Classic of long-distance gravel events.
Although there was a lot of really nice graded road and some super fast descents approaching 50 mph, there were also many miles of nasty rocks and erosion that claimed many flat tire victims, including myself. While on the side of the road plugging a flat, I saw at least five other riders doing the same, with one guy cursing like a sailor after completely shattering his wheel about 10 miles from the nearest aid station. Dude had a long walk ahead of him, and he didn’t seem too stoked about it.
Just as the jaw-jarring rock fields abated at mile 50, the headwind started to kick up, slapping every rider in the face for the last 40 miles. While it wasn’t a gusty type of headwind that would suddenly try and throw you off your bike, it was just steady and present enough to wear your will to the bone, especially the last 10 miles of pavement back into Portola. If it weren’t for the six aid stations highlighted by Mark Weir’s bacon-wrapped pickles at WTB’s rest stop or the custom-made Rice Krispies treats at the Patagonia aid station, this intrepid reporter would have keeled over on the side of the road like a malnutritioned vicious cow somewhere out in a corner of Lassen County.
This year also marked the first time SBTS hired out production of one of their events to another event producer, Breakaway Promotions, out of Redmond, Oregon, the promoter who puts on the Oregon Gravel Grinder Series and the popular Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder. Even for just a participant, it was noticeable that having Breakaway involved took the Lost and Found up a level. Signage along the route was clear and easy to follow, and after crossing the finish line, I received a text message two minutes later from E8 Timing with my finishing time; a really nice touch and something I’ve never before experienced at an event.
After inhaling mass calories to feel like a human again, I laid back in the green grass of Portola City Park on a perfect 65-degree overcast day with a well-deserved beer and took in the glorious harmonica and guitar work of Plumas County’s own Johnny Walker and Greg Willis, as good music is staple of every SBTS event. Not 15 minutes after headliner Joy and Madness wrapped their two hours of funky, danceable, horn-laden jams, the heavens opened and rain poured down all night. It’s all about timing, and after the last two years of really unfortunate timing, this year the Gravel Gods had mercy and blessed Lost and Found’s return.