Mention Modoc County and most Californians won't say "I've been there." Perched on the top far right of the state map in Upstate California, the region's far-flung geography ensures seclusion. Cities are scarce, but nature supplies Modoc's finest features: the rugged Warner Mountains, Surprise Valley's geothermal springs, and vast miles of sagebrush outback where cowboys still ride the range.
Discover the Warner Mountains
The Warner Range may not have the Sierra Nevada's cachet, but these mountains score on scenery—snowcapped summits, mountain meadows, and trout-filled streams and lakes. On the range's south end, the South Warner Wilderness contains 70,000 acres of wild country highlighted by lofty peaks and more than 75 miles of trails. Walk the short, easy trail to see shimmering Mill Creek Falls, a quarter-mile from Mill Creek Falls Campground and less than an hour's drive from Alturas. Longer trails lead to Patterson Lake, tucked below a towering glacial cirque, or forested Clear Lake.
In Alturas, a sole traffic light marks the T-junction where maps show major highways meet—but they're really just two-lane roads. This cowboy crossroads with 2,500 residents is Modoc's commercial hub and county seat. Peek into the grand neoclassical Modoc County Courthouse, its entrance guarded by Ionic columns. Under the jury-room chairs you'll find a hanger for your cowboy hat. Stop for breakfast or lunch at the Auction Yard Cafe, a high-desert gem serving old-timey favorites like patty melt on rye. Spend the night at the 1912 Niles Hotel, or just knock back a whiskey in its Old West saloon. South of town, Modoc National Wildlife Refuge provides a chance to see great horned owls and more than 200 other bird species.
Soak in Hot Springs
Head east from Alturas on Highway 299 and you'll climb up Cedar Pass, where a tiny ski hill and snow park are run by volunteers in winter. As you descend into Surprise Valley, it's easy to imagine you've landed in Montana: A 60-mile stretch of open range is dotted with cattle ranches, alfalfa farms, and alkaline lakes. Search out herds of wild horses—descendants of the steeds that carried emigrants to California—at the Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory. Linger a while in small-town Cedarville, where you'll find steaming hot tubs and starry night skies at Surprise Valley Hot Springs Resort and awesome pulled-pork pizza at Woody's Saloon.
See Ancient Carvings
Modoc's landscape tells an ancient volcanic story, and Petroglyph Point tells its human counterpoint. On the northeastern tip of Lava Beds National Monument, a volcanic-tuff cliff contains one of California’s greatest concentrations of Native American art—more than 5,000 weathered carvings made by multiple generations of Modoc Indians. Walk a short trail to see these ancient treasures, then hike to the top of Petroglyph Point for broad views of the Medicine Lake volcanic region.