Little-known and unforgettably beautiful, the South Warner Wilderness makes a great destination for backpacking and hiking. Located in the far northeastern corner of the state, the Warner Mountains stand on the edge of the Great Basin.
With ridges and peaks reaching almost 10,000 feet, this narrow range rises abruptly from the Modoc Plateau on the western side and drops even more dramatically to Surprise Valley on the eastern side.
The range offers steep volcanic ridges, meadow-filled canyons, colorful and weirdly-eroded rocks, abundant wildflowers, extensive aspen groves and diverse wildlife. Forested areas as lush as the Sierra frequently give way to arid, open stretches more typical of Great Basin landscapes. Despite the drought, and some dry stretches of trail, several creeks and springs provided reliable sources of water during our five-day backpacking trip in late July.
Deep in the heart of the wilderness, the true jewel of the region is Patterson Lake. Large in size for a mountain lake, the 700-foot vertical volcanic slope of Warren Peak forms an unforgettable backdrop beneath a blue sky. At 9,000 feet in elevation, healthy whitebark pines and wildflowers ring the other sides. The lake is especially beautiful at sunset and sunrise and offers reliable fishing for trout (mostly rainbows) to 12 inches.
There are a few other lakes in the wilderness, most of which are small and shallow. Close to the Mill Creek Trailhead, Clear Lake is the other large lake inside the wilderness boundary and it also offers good fishing. It is a popular destination for people car-camping at the Mill Creek Falls Campground. Nearby Blue Lake is accessible by car and offers lakeside campsites and good fishing.
In addition to the scenery, the grand views from the trails are another great attraction. From the western edge, you can see far into California. From the eastern edge, you can peer across the Surprise Valley into the mountains of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The one thing you won’t see is many people. In five days, we saw fewer than 10, and all but one was encountered at Patterson Lake.
Hikes range from the easy half-mile round trip to Mill Creek Falls to the strenuous 45-mile Summit Loop, which does exactly what its name promises, circling the highest part of the range and including most of the best views.
One reason we found it appealing was that its narrow, oblong shape makes it possible to shorten your trip by using east-west cutoff trails if necessary.
This proved to be helpful, as we lost a day of hiking when wild weather hit us at Patterson Lake. Despite being in a relatively dry part of the state, in the driest part of a dry year, we nevertheless had to hunker down under a shelter for much of a day while rain, hail, wind and violent lighting and thunder unleashed itself upon the mountains.
This weather came as a surprise after temperatures hovered near 90 degrees on our first day of hiking, even when we were above 7,000 feet. From what I’ve read and been told, both extremes of weather are not uncommon in the Warners.
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No wilderness permit is required, but hikers and backpackers should sign in at the registry provided at each trailhead. There are eight trailheads leading into the South Warner Wilderness, and you can start a trip on the Summit Loop at any of these points.
Elevations vary, and we started at the 5,700-foot Mill Creek Falls Trailhead so we could fish Clear Lake, despite the fact this trailhead is lower than some of the others and made for a steep, hot climb on the first day.
Traditional summer grazing of sheep and cattle continues in the South Warner, and you may see them in lower-elevation meadows. We saw deer and extensive evidence of bobcats and mountain lions.
The South Warner Wilderness is most easily accessed via Highway 299 from Redding or 395 from Reno. Supplies and services are available in Alturas and to a lesser extent in Cedarville. The USFS South Warner Wilderness Map is essential to planning a good trip, and additional information can be obtained from Modoc National Forest’s Warner Mountain Ranger District Office by calling (530) 276-6116. You can also find useful information at http://www.summitpost.org/warner-mountains/607119.