High and lonely, the Warner Mountains are one of the most isolated and beautiful places in California. Most (few that they are) who venture into these mountains come to graze sheep or climb Eagle Peak (9,892) and Hat Mountain (8,737), the Modoc and Lassen County highpoints. Most of the rest of the range, which extends northward into Oregon, is left infrequently traveled, wild, and spectacular. Despite being 182 feet shorter than its southern neighbor, Eagle Peak, Warren Peak is the mightiest summit in the range. Its rounded western slope gives little indication of the massive cliffs and lake basin that characterize the eastern side of the mountain. While Eagle Peak does have rugged characteristics on its eastern face, they do not compare to the hulking cliffs and scenic lakes the define Warren Peak.
The best place to view Warren Peak is from the eastern shore of Patterson Lake. The lake rests in a large bowl, 700 feet below the summit. Soaring volcanic cliffs surround the lake on three sides, reaching their zenith at the summit. The mountain itself is pyramidal, the cliffs above the lake forming the eastern side. The southern face is only slightly less steep than the eastern face, though it is populated by stunted whitebark and lodgepole pines. The western face is gradually sloping, dropping off slowly as it progresses westward. This is in keeping with the structure of the rest of the range.
Two lake basins are found on the east side of Warren Peak. Patterson Lake, the larger of the two, is a massive mountain lake, nearly 0.25 miles across. The cliffs of Warren Peak rise 700 feet directly out of the lakes western side. Snow usually lingers the entire year in the crevices and notches in the cliffs. The sunrise spectacle at Patterson Lake is one of the finest in northern California. If fishing is what ones desires, Patterson Lake delivers some of the finest, largest trout around. The vast, deep, lake sees little fishing action and monster trout are abundant. Just north of Patterson Lake is the smaller Cottonwood Lake. Though not as large, deep or beautiful, the lake nonetheless does not fail to impress. Like Patterson Lake, it has rugged cliffs towering above. It is unknown if the lake has fish. Water from the lake feeds Cottonwood Creek, one of the major eastern watersheds in the Warner Mountains. Owl Creek, which lies south of the summit, is another major Warners drainage that begins on Warren Peak. Small Linderman Lake, which is nestled into the lower flanks of Warren Peak, contributes to this watershed.
The Warner Mountains are a classic fault block mountain range. Like the Sierra Nevada and the Oregon Cascades, the Warners have a long, gradual western slope and a sheer eastern escarpment that drops off dramatically from the summit of the ranges highest peaks. Viewed from the Modoc Plateau to the west, the Warners look mild and rounded, little more than large renditions of hills found throughout northern California. However, looking east from the Surprise Valley, these mountains are rugged and foreboding.
The Warner Mountains lay to the east of the California Cascades, in eastern Modoc County. The vast tableland between the Cascades and the Warners is referred to as the Modoc Plateau. It is composed of layers of volcanic flows and periodic volcanic uplifts. Lava Beds National Monument contains the best examples of these, although numerous locations boast similar features, such as the Ahjumawi Lava Springs. Large lakes and wetlands are found throughout the region. The largest lake, Goose Lake is nearly as big as Lake Tahoe and straddles the California-Oregon state line at the foot of the Warners. The western slope of the Warners also feed the Pit River, one of California’s longest rivers and one of only three waterways to transect the Cascade Range.
Eagle and Warren Peaks are the only two summits in the range that exceed 9,000 feet, both reaching to nearly 10,000 feet. The rest of the range contains and abundance of peaks well over 8,000 feet. This is true of the portion of the range in California as well as the northern third that lies in Oregon.
The Warners are in many ways a singular and unusual range. Standing at the transition point between the Cascade Range and the Great Basin, they exhibit qualities of both regions. Sagebrush is ubiquitous, as are vast wildflower displays. In fact, the Warner Mountains boast some of the finest wildflowers in northern California. Interestingly, these characteristics lend the Warners a striking similarity with the Rockies. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the abundance of aspens and the fault-blocked appearance of the Owl Creek drainage, among other places.
Volcanic, Not Volcanoes
While the Warner Mountains are composed of volcanic rock, they are not volcanoes. As stated previously, they are classic fault block mountains. The range is similar in composition to the Modoc Plateau to the west, which was covered by a series of successive lava flows. However, unlike the rest of the region, a massive fault uplifted, breaking apart the layers and pushing them upwards. This is visible in many areas on the eastern side of the Warners, but the cliffs above Patterson Lake are one of the best examples of this. Layers of at least 11 lava flows can be seen accreted together in the cliffs.
East of the Warners is Surprise Valley, a rift valley created by the fault uplifting. The valley is split between California and Nevada. The mountains on the eastern, Nevada side of the valley are not nearly as impressive as the Warners. Surprise Valley is home to the large but often-dry Upper, Middle and Lower Alkali Lakes. The small communities of Cedarville (the largest), Fort Bidwell, Lake City and Eagle all support agrarian communities.
South Warner Wilderness
One of the 1964 Wilderness Act’s freshman class, the South Warner Wilderness remains one of California’s most remote and least visited wilderness areas. The wilderness is found at the southern end of the Warner Mountains and is the only wilderness area in the range. Containing 70,614 acres in an area 18 miles long and 8 miles wide. 10 lakes are found in the wilderness, though Patterson Lake is the largest, prettiest and attracts the most attention, scant as it is.
Nearly 100 miles of trail penetrate the wilderness. The highlight of these is Warner Summit Trail, which traverses the highest portions of the wilderness. Combining this trail with the Squaw Peak and Owl Creek Trails creates a spectacular 45 mile loop that travels above top of the range and then passes below the crest rim through the rugged, eastern drainage basins. Most of the lakes are passed and the highest peaks are close to the Summit Trail. Few venture into the wilderness. Most who do are locals or shepherds, the preponderance of whom seem to be from Peru.
South Warner Wilderness Map
From the junction of Highway 299 and Highway 395 in Alturas, head south on Highway 395. At the south end of downtown, turn left (east) on County Road 56, which is also named E. McDowell. The road winds for several miles, climbing up to a levee and passing a reservation casino before dropping into a shallow canyon. Views of the west slope of the Warners are excellent. Eagle, Warren and Squaw Peaks are prominently visible. Eventually the road enters Modoc National Forest and becomes Forest Road 31. Although the pavement ends the road is in excellent condition and is passable by sedans. After climbing a few more miles through the forest turn right onto Forest Road 42N79. Look for signs marking Pepperdine Camp. Do not turn left to go to the horse camp but continue straight a short distance to the parking lot at the marked trailhead.
When To Go
Summer has spectacular wildflower displays throughout the Warners. October is also an excellent time to go, since the abundance of aspens means awesome fall colors. Many creeks flow year-round, but the presence of lakes assures the availability of water. The Warner Mountains is often buried in snow until mid-June. The hiking season generally lasts from then until October. The road to Pepperdine Camp is not plowed and impassable in winter. Access is difficult before the temperatures increase.
Warren Peak is located in the South Warner Wilderness. Normal wilderness rules and ethics apply.
Modoc National Forest provides an excellent map for the South Warner Wilderness
Grazing is permitted in the Warner Mountains, so it is possible to see sheep or cattle. Because of this, it is a good idea to filter water.
Modoc National Forest
800 West 12th Street
Alturas, CA 96101
Warner Mountain Ranger District
PO Box 220
Cedarville, CA 96104
The nearest campground is available at Pepperdine Camp, near the trailhead. Dispersed camping is allowed throughout the forest, so camping is permitted at the trailhead.