Up The Road: Volcanic California Tour: Onward Travel

Sep 16, 2020

The Redding Hotshots scouting for lightning fires in the South Warner Wilderness in 2017.
Credit Pacific Southwest Forest Service, USDA, courtesy Redding Hotshots / Flickr Creative Commons

This week we wrap up our Volcanic California Tour, visiting several more special places you could add to the list, whether your road trip is for-real and right now, or imaginary, at this point.

Let’s start with Medicine Lake Highlands, 14 miles south of Lava Beds National Monument by gravel road. The Modoc National Forest terrain here truly qualifies for the “lunar landscape” label often used to describe volcanic lands. In 1965, astronauts from the Manned Spacecraft Center in Texas came here, to the pumice fields, to prepare for the first moon landing.

The lake itself—good camping in these parts—sits within the caldera of the largest shield volcano in North America. “Big medicine” rites were traditionally held here, and still are, by various Native American tribal groups.

Patterson Lake, a cirque lake in the South Warner Wilderness.
Credit Pacific Southwest Forest Service, USDA

About that lunar landscape: Don’t miss Glass Mountain, a 1,400-year-old flow of black obsidian and glassy dacite that ends suddenly in the stark contrast of white pumice, stone so light an average person could toss huge boulders with ease. But don’t: All of the area’s natural features, and any artifacts or archaeological sites, are protected.

Continuing east from Lava Beds and southeast from Alturas takes you to the South Warner Wilderness Area—possibly the finest summer hiking spot in the state, some 70,000 acres of streams, natural springs, and small glacial lakes. From 26-mile Summit Trail along the narrow crest, look east to Surprise Valley and Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, or west over the entire Modoc Plateau, and Mt. Shasta beyond. The remote South Warners offer almost 80 miles of looping trails. So just come back if you want more—or hit bad weather, or hunting season.

Predictable for the South Warner Wilderness is unpredictable weather, with freezing temperatures, thunderstorms, and brutal winds anytime, though less likely in July and August. Come prepared for anything, and bring everything. 

Back toward Mt. Shasta is remote Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park—6,000 acres of wilderness lakes fringed by oak, pine, juniper, and chaparral, one of the largest freshwater spring systems in the world. You can reach Ahjumawi (“where the waters meet”) only by boat, be it kayak, canoe, or fishing skiff.

Little Medicine Lake, near Lake Medicine.
Credit Michael McCullough / Flickr Creative Commons

In addition to solitude, Mt. Shasta presiding, highlights include fascinating basalt formations, good birding, and fishing. Wander 20 miles of trails, but you’ll need special equipment to explore otherwise, because this is very rugged lava landscape.

To get here: From McArthur head north on Main past the Intermountain Fairgrounds and continue on dirt road through PG&E’s McArthur Swamp—known locally as “the Rat Farm”—to the boat launch/parking area. That catchy nickname refers to a onetime muskrat farmer, who freed his herd right here. For more park information, contact the rangers at nearby McArthur-Burney Falls State Park.

Facilities include nine very basic first-come tent sites, all within a few miles of the boat launch. Pack out everything you bring. Do bring mosquito repellent, and watch for bears—and, oh yeah, rats. Very big rats, with large flat tails.

 Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel  


Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread.

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