Gem of the Sierra*: Where in the World is Plumas County?

An hour and a half from both Chico, California, and Reno, Nevada, lies Plumas County, gem of the Sierra. Dominated by the Plumas National Forest, the county is dotted with small communities that are home to an eclectic population ranging from descendants of early logging and ranching families to transplants from the city seeking a quiet life in the mountains. Despite being only a half-day’s drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, Plumas County feels like another country altogether.

Images of Bucks Lake, Lake Almanor, scenic drive, and kids jumping off rocks illustrate the natural beauty of Plumas County.

Plumas County is highlighted in this map showing California's counties.Here you can’t go grocery shopping without running into several people you know; be prepared to catch up on the local news! If five cars pass by before you can cross Main Street, that’s a traffic jam. The drugstore checker will comment on the weather, the bank teller is your neighbor, and the nurse at the doctor’s office has a grandkid in your kid’s class. The hardware store sells knitting supplies. People leave their houses unlocked. Your longest wait all year might be in the line for the volunteer fire department’s pancake breakfast. Without the stress, crowding, and in-your-face politics, this is a side of modern-day California that’s rarely seen.

The county seat, Quincy, has a grand old courthouse, two stoplights, and the county’s only movie theater. Residential lots border ranchland; you can hear cattle lowing on warm summer evenings. Don’t be surprised to see teens riding horses along the highway near the local community college. A 10-minute walk can take you deep into the mixed-conifer forest, up to a sunny oak grove, or to a secluded swimming hole. And often you’ll have these natural wonders to yourself. Throughout boom cycles, rapid growth, and housing bubbles, Plumas County’s population hasn’t changed much since the 1980s; in fact, it’s shrinking a bit!

European-Americans flocked to the area during the Gold Rush, displacing the native Maidu. The local economy was subsequently supported by logging, ranching, and railroading. Now the major employers are the Forest Service, local hospitals, Sierra Pacific Industries’ lumber mill, and county government. The county gets little tourist traffic—due partly to the fact that it isn’t on any major routes leading elsewhere—but it does have a high percentage of second-home owners and seasonal residents. Plumas County may lack the grandeur and the winter snowpack of Tahoe, but that means visitors and locals can enjoy the beauty of the Northern Sierra Nevada without crowds or pressure.

What Plumas County does have is a disproportionate number of resident artists—everywhere you look, you can find gorgeous local art! (I think the best way to share the beauty of this area is through the lenses and canvases of local photographers and painters.) What I couldn’t find when I moved here 10-plus years ago, though, was a selection of locally made gift items. I’m proud to help fill that niche with Elliptical Sunrise products, which have the added cachet of being made with recycled materials. Locals can enjoy and share products made right in their backyard, and visitors can come away with an absolutely unique souvenir. Even if you don’t live in his or her community, buying from a local artisan supports small local economies and family businesses.

Living here requires a commitment: jobs are scarce, winters can be tough, and anonymity is impossible but loneliness is not. However, those that make Plumas County their home do so for good reasons: they love either the small-town vibe or the chance to be close to nature—or both! In fact, Quincy was voted one of the top 10 coolest small towns in America in 2013. Overall, the county has an aging population that votes Republican … but it also hosts a huge music festival every year. Real cowboys sit next to hippie raft guides at the pub. Long-haired back-to-the-land homesteaders get advice from fourth-generation loggers. Maybe it’s the conscious choice people make to live here, but the area provides a place for people of many persuasions to live peacefully side by side—and in today’s world, that may be the most valuable commodity of all.

*Our license plate holders say “Gem of the Sierras,” but in my other life I’m a professional copy editor, freelancing through I. Burke Writing & Editing, so I can’t help but point out that this is grammatically incorrect. Because “Sierra” is Spanish for “mountain range” (“Nevada” means “snowy”) it shouldn’t be made plural. We wouldn’t say “gem of the mountain ranges,” because we’re just talking about one: the Sierra.

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