Tucked into California’s northeastern corner, Modoc County is vast, isolated, and exceptionally beautiful.
As Modoc’s only incorporated city, Alturas serves as the county seat. A tight-knit community, which once marked the gateway to California for many a wagon train, Alturas still embodies the pioneer spirit. The city center is marked by the impressive Modoc County Courthouse framed by the picturesque Warner Mountain Range. One of the last freestanding courthouses in California, the courtroom chairs feature hangers for cowboy hats underneath. A half dozen restaurants dot the main drag, but don’t skip The Brass Rail, just a mile outside of downtown where Basque food is served family style, including delicacies like roast lamb stew and picon punch. Tuck in for the night at the historic Niles Hotel. If you’re feeling restless, make like a local at the Niles Saloon where the beer-and-shot combo serves as a failsafe nightcap.
Every route to Surprise Valley requires traversing a mountain pass. But the winding drive to get there is only part of the fun. As you descend steep switchbacks, you’ll be greeted by lush landscapes and big skies where snow-capped peaks and green grasslands create a stunning contrast. In Fort Bidwell, visitors can see an old stone schoolhouse and the site of the former military outpost. Farther south, the town of Cedarville boasts a lovely little center. Depending on your appetite, sample a chicken-fried steak or a freshly baked cinnamon bun from Country Hearth Restaurant & Bakery. Just east of downtown Cedarville sits Surprise Valley Hot Springs Resort. Deluxe rooms include a private outdoor hot tub fed by geothermal pools where you can watch valley skies turn from blue to black, filled with sparkling stars.
East of downtown Cedarville, book a deluxe room to enjoy your own private hot tub, fed by geothermal pools at Surprise Valley Hot Springs Resort. End your evening with an outdoor soak, watching the valley skies turn from purple to black, filled with sparkling stars.
The Modoc National Forest protects more than 1.6 million acres of wildly gorgeous terrain. Visit the Devil’s Garden to see herds of wild horses grazing on the grassy plateau. Horses have been grazing here unfettered for more than 140 years after settlers released the once-domesticated animals. Today, visitors can see black, bay, appaloosa, and Palominos running free. While the land is largely undeveloped, it’s not difficult to find well-marked trails close to Modoc County’s town centers. Between Alturas and Cedarville lies the Cedar Creek Lower Trailhead where hikers can enjoy a steep 3-mile challenge through shaded juniper groves punctured by towering rocks.
Mill Creek Falls is located just on the Western edge of Modoc County’s South Warner Wilderness. Follow the protected lands only paved road to the Mill Creek Falls Campground. From there, visitors can hike up the trail for a quarter mile to see the flowing falls. Views are best in spring thanks to snowmelt, but the trailhead is open all year round, and the waterfall is active even in the ice and snow. On warm days, continue past the falls for another 10 minutes to a small wooden bridge. Downstream is a swimming hole frequented by locals on steamy summer days.
Directly south of Alturas sits the Modoc Wildlife Refuge. Hike the three-mile loop to see mule deer, antelope, and more than 200 species of birds. Flow from the Pit River provides a natural oasis for the fauna who flock the refuge to drink, nest, and rest. Each spring and fall, the protected land teams with countless birds, including sandhill cranes and tundra swans in the midst of their migration. Birds of prey are most easily spotted in the winter when bald eagles and hawks soar over the water hunting for fish.
Check into the historic Niles Hotels, the most prominent structure on Main Street in Modoc County.