South Warner Wilderness Area
Photo © Jean Bilodeaux
It is sometimes called the Crown Jewel or the Switzerland of northeastern California. The South Warner Wilderness Area includes towering snow capped mountains, volcanic uplifts, pristine creeks and alpine lakes filled with trout. Located on the western edge of the Great Basin the Warner Mountains, an isolated mountain range, rises dramatically and almost vertically from the floor of Surprise Valley. Mountain lions, bear, elk, bobcats, and coyotes are just a few of the animals that call this place home. Trails creep along its crest, diving down into treacherous canyons. It is basically untouched since the Native Americans used Patterson Lake as a vision quest destination thousands of years ago. If wilderness hiking or horseback riding and not many people is your thing then this is the place for you.
The South Warner Wilderness of the Modoc National Forest is located in the southeast portion of the Warner Mountain Ranger District and is 18 miles long by 8 miles wide. It was created in 1931 as the South Warner Primitive Area. With the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the area became a formal part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The 1984 Wilderness Act added more land, for a total of 70,385 acres. The wilderness area has very steep slopes on the east side and moderate slopes on the west. A variety of vegetation adorns the area from high desert sagebrush and juniper to high alpine terrain.
The South Warners offer picturesque vistas and the highest peaks in northeast California. All of Modoc County, much of Lassen County, and the Black Rock Desert in Northwestern Nevada are visible from higher viewpoints. Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen can be seen in the western panorama.
Seven high mountain peaks dominate the South Warner Wilderness. The three most distinctive are Squaw Peak, Warren Peak and Eagle Peak. Squaw Peak at 8,646 feet is a landmark at the north end of the Wilderness. Warren Peak at 9,710 feet marks the north central section. Eagle Peak towers at 9,892 feet in the south central section. Massive cliffs rising dramatically behind Patterson Lake to the north of Warren Peak are typical of the strikingly beautiful geography in the South Warner Wilderness.
The South Warner Wilderness has ample opportunities for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, hunting and fishing. It offers snowcapped peaks, mountain meadows, sparkling streams, trout fishing amid scenic grandeur, a profusion of colorful flowers and shrubs, countless birds and small animals as well as bear, deer, mountain lions, bobcats, pronghorns and the rare, but occasional bighorn sheep.
There are 77 miles of trails well suited for hikers and horseback riders. Trail elevations range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet. The South Warner Wilderness may be entered from eight trail head locations, making much of the area accessible by a series of one-day excursions. Many possibilities exist for loop hikes or rides. One scenic trip begins on the Summit Trail at Pepperdine Campground and horse camp, heading south and returning by Squaw Peak Trail. This is a moderate, one-day hike that covers about 10 miles of trail with views of crystal blue lakes, verdant meadows and alpine splendor.
If short hikes are more to your taste, park at Mill Creek Falls Campground and trail head and walk uphill ¼ mile to the overlook for the beautiful Mill Creek Falls.
The Mill Creek Falls Campground is located at the south end of the beautiful and lush Warner Mountain Range. This range is wetter than most in this area, largely due to its relatively higher elevation and volcanic origin (volcanic rock does not absorb water and it is more fertile).
One of the most significant features of the Mill Creek Falls camp is that it is accessible completely by paved road. That's quite rare in the Modoc region. And the fact that this camp is so nice is just an added bonus.
This campground is set up in one simple paved loop at the end of the Mill Creek Road. Sites are under tall and shady, ponderosa and jeffrey pines. The elevation is low, so it can be warm here, making the generous shade appreciated. Sites are averagely spread apart, with only a couple being quite close to neighbors.
Water spigots and garbage cans are conveniently located near each site. Each site has a fire pit with one of those flip over grill attachments so you can cook right over your fire. Toilets were very clean...impressively so for a holiday weekend. Sites 10 - 14 are close enough to the waterfalls that they can be heard...a dull roar, but a pleasant white noise. Great for sleeping.
The Clear Lake/Poison Flat Trails depart from the back of the campground. From the trailhead, it is approximately 10 minutes to Mill Creek Falls (no more than 100' elevation change whole route). Mill Creek Falls is one of the largest waterfalls in Modoc County.
Further beyond that is beautiful Clear Lake at approximately 25 minute walk (a little more difficult). There is a pleasant trail around Clear Lake with a nifty foot bridge across Mill Creek at the outlet. From here you can continue up into the South Warner Wilderness connecting with the Summit Trail or you can connect to other campgrounds at Patterson, Emerson, Soup Springs or Pepperdine using a shuttle (not provided, of course).
I love the Warners, if you couldn't tell. The bottom line with Mill Creek Falls is the campground which is very accessible, and thus usually is busy on the weekends. And the camp isn't very large either, so expect company. You'll probably need to show up early for a holiday. Nearby Soup Springs is usually a safe bet when Mill Creek is full.
Opportunities for viewing and photographing wildlife on the South Warner Wilderness are plentiful. In addition to the large animals mentioned, beaver live along streams and lakes. Rabbits, squirrels, porcupines, chipmunks, coyotes, badgers, bobcats and weasels are common. Bird watchers enjoy quail, dove, geese, ducks, woodpeckers, warblers, sapsuckers, flycatchers, owls, hawks and grouse. Less common species in the wilderness include golden eagles, bald eagles, prairie falcons and northern goshawks. More than 120 different species of birds have been seen and documented at Pepperdine Camp.
Wilderness permits are not required for day or overnight trips into the South Warner Wilderness. A free campfire permit is required if you use a camp or backpack stove, a charcoal barbecue or build a campfire. Permits are available at any Forest Service, BLM or California Department of Forestry (CDF) office in California. Some of the campgrounds require a small fee of $7.00 per day.
The outdoor recreation opportunities are unlimited here in Modoc and include horseback riding, hiking, biking, swimming, camping, hang gliding, para sailing, hunting, fishing, rock hounding, star gazing, OHV riding, birding and so much more.
Open all year round, however, many of these areas in the higher elevations are inaccessible during the winter months through the early spring. It is best to contact the Modoc National Forest before venturing into these areas.
Fees: There are no fees in most of the areas with the exception of Blue Lake.
Because of the abundance of animals that can kill and eat pets, they are not recommended, but allowed.