Even during the summer high season, Sierra County, home to fewer than 4,000 souls, is off the beaten track for most Northern California travelers. In fall, it can feel like your own private realm. Pack a suitcase, pop Max and Moxie into the car and embark on a 170-mile loop trip along the Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway to explore this rugged, less-visited part of Gold Country.
The first part of the route springs north from Interstate 80 to follow Highway 49 through Grass Valley and Nevada City. From there it charts a winding, 44-mile course to Downieville, one of the hands-down most charming, history-steeped towns in the Mother Lode. The rushing North Yuba River is a scenic centerpiece for pet-friendly lodging at places including Sierra Streamside Cabins, the Lure Resort, Riverside Inn and Downieville Loft.
Once you’ve established base camp and explored the town, pack a picnic and venture up Gold Lakes Road into the Gold Lakes Basin Recreation Area, where you and your fur buddy can put paws to path on a variety of Tahoe National Forest trails, including the gentle Sand Pond Interpretive Trail and the moderate Lakes Basin Ridge Trail, which affords panoramic views of this high, rugged country. The challenging Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail leads to a fire lookout with spectacular views at 8,587 feet, but you probably won’t want to take Fido up the three courses of metal stairs—more than 200 in all—on the final ascent.
Moving on, you’ll come to Sierra City, where lodging options include Herrington’s Sierra Pines Resort, boasting dog-friendly accommodations and a trout pond where many a kiddo has caught his or her first fish. The scenic byway turns south onto Highway 89 at Sierraville, and soon broad meadows—gorgeous in fall—take the place of steep, forested ravines. As you head into Truckee, be sure to make a pit stop at the Donner Historic Camp at Alder Creek, where interpretive signs along a flat, 1/3-mile, dog-friendly trail tell of the horrific travail experienced by the pioneer party stranded here in the winter of 1846-47.