the Imposing Cliff
Copyright © 2002-05
by Richard S. Platz, All
Patterson Lake Backpack
South Warner Wilderness
August 7-10, 2002
Asleep in the sage
Lupine between my legs
Increasingly cool weather was forecast for the
beginning of the week. Record lows were possible, with freeze
warnings in the Rogue and Klamath valleys. Smoke from the Biscuit
fire straddling the California-Oregon border had closed Highway
199 and threatened the evacuation of the Illinois River valley.
Cave Junction, O'Brien, and Selma was reportedly under siege.
So when we left Blue Lake on Sunday around noon,
we were in no big hurry to go backpacking. In fact, we weren't
sure where we were going at all. A light drizzle fell as we
gassed up, and it sprinkled on and off on our way east along
Highway 299. Sun-yellowed smoke thickened as we drove from Willow
Creek to Weaverville. Our first choice of Wright Lakes in the
northeast corner of the Marble Mountains began to look like
a bad idea. Instead we continued east through Redding, enjoying
the unseasonably cool weather, then circled north to our cabin
in the Southern Oregon Cascades, where we hunkered down and
waited. The temperature got down to the upper thirties at night.
On Tuesday morning smoke obscured the trees across
the lake. But the weather radio promised a warming trend later
in the week. So we resolved to head east, away from the smoke,
to the South Warner Wilderness.
The smoke thinned as we progressed east. At the
Modoc National Forest Ranger Station in Alturas we stopped and
sought counsel. None of the young rangerettes could think of
a single reason why we wouldn't have a fine time hiking up the
Pine Creek Trail to Patterson Lake. No, none of them
had ever hiked up there, but lots of folks do it. So
we took directions and headed for the Soup Springs Campground
at 6800 feet. As we entered the Jess Valley from the town of
Likely, the massive shoulder of Eagle Peak hid from us behind
the smokey haze.
The actual spring at Soup Springs was protected
from thirsty cattle by a pyramid wooden rail fence, as was the
rest of the campground. Only two other parties were camped there,
a group with two horse trailers and a couple who hovered about
their open minivan as if perpetually departing. After dinner
we walked up the Slide Creek trail a mile or so and saw at last
the outline of distant Eagle Peak through the haze. Overall,
the smoke was much diminished. The weather was cool and windy,
and the temperature got down to 37 degrees that night.
Early Wednesday morning a short drive north on
the West Warner Road took us to the Pine Creek trailhead. We
slathered on sunscreen, buckled on our packs, and began the
hike. The first part of the trail followed Pine Creek through
a tall shady fir forest and past several small ponds cut into
the moraine by the creek's babbling waters. A spur trail cut
down to one deep and attractive pond in the forest with a dandy
On the trail we stood aside for a lone horseman
riding out. He sported a magnificent handlebar moustache. We
asked about potential campsites beyond the meadow ahead. He
had seen no campsites, but assured us we could camp well at
one of several wooded areas above the meadow where streams trickled
After an hour or so we encountered a young man, who introduced
himself as Jessie, and two teenage girls, one toting a black
backpack and the other riding Jessie piggy-back. Miss piggy-back
had sprained a tendon in her ankle and was being carried back
to the parking lot for extraction. Jessie, we learned, was a
youth group leader from Mountain Meadow Ranch in Susanville.
He was shepherding a dozen teenagers for a two-nighter at Patterson
Lake. Jessie entrusted us with a message for Max waiting with
the others at the meadow ahead.
pressed on to the meadow and found a group of teens jabbering
loudly in the shade, waiting for Jessie to return and lead them
onward to salvation, or at least to something more interesting.
Barbara passed along Jessie's message. The constant chatter
was an offense to the wilderness, especially in the face of
the spectacular vista of Pine Creek Basin which had opened as
we emerged from the woods. The teens seemed not to notice at
all. We decided to hike a bit further for lunch to spare ourselves
the mindless prattle. One of the group was helpful in showing
us the proper trail cutting north through the meadow.
After lunch we hiked up the trail trying to locate one of the
potential campsites that Mr. Mustache had boasted about. We
climbed above the fir forest and into the broad sage-covered
slopes of the Pine Creek Basin, spangled with patches of flowering
Mule Ears and Corn Lilies already well past their prime. Here
and there groves of aspen and whitebark pine and a decreasing
number of Douglas fir peppered the sage-green landscape above
us, but we could not be certain where a streams ran or a spring
might bring water to the surface.
We encountered a young couple hiking down from
Patterson Lake with a tale of woe. They said hordes of people
and horses infested the lake, and that the night before thick
ice had formed on their dog's water bowl. They had arrived at
the lake late, prepared their dinner in a strong cold gale,
and endured the night in an inadequate campsite in a small meadow
beside the lake. They were hiking back down to the Pine Creek
meadow for the night.
With this news we reconsidered our options. It was already past
two in the afternoon, and we had nearly eighteen-hundred feet
of vertical gain yet to climb. If we went too far, there would
be no more water until the lake, and we would be arriving there
in an abyss of low blood sugar. We explored a small grove of
fir trees near a small steam we had just crossed and decided
to make a campsite there. I built a rock ring for the campfire
and we scraped out a reasonably level tent site from the duff
and dried cow pies.
Late in the afternoon Jessie and his charges straggled past
under heavy backpacks. They did not see us reclining in our
hammocks in the shade of the nearby grove. Their eyes were on
the steep trail, their chatter silenced at last by the upward
That evening was pleasant. We sat in the fragrant
sage with lupine between our legs transfixed by the spectacular
view of the Pine Creek Basin. It was a geologist's dreamscape.
a brick. A large brick. A tremendous brick, fifteen miles long,
north to south, six miles wide, east to west, and five thousand
feet thick. This South Warner brick began as sediment deposited
at the bottom of an ocean and was levered up by the Pacific
tectonic plate slowly jamming beneath it. On top of the sedimentary
layer fell a fifty-foot-thick layer of pyroclastic rock and
pumice and ash from the exploded volcanoes to the west at Medicine
Lake, Mount Tehema, and Mount Mazama, fused into a pale breccia.
On top of the breccia flowed three hundred feet of basalt lava
in layers like frosting on a cake. Heat and pressure transformed
the sedimentary rock below into metasedimentary schists and
cherts and slates. Then imagine this colossal brick being tilted,
uplifted on the east to nearly ten thousand feet, so that the
brick's short side drops more than five thousand feet down to
the alkali sinks of the Surprise Valley below, its wide side
sloping back to the west to the four thousand foot Alturas desert
plain. Then imagine unmelting snows accumulating to form a glacier
in the center of this brick, its grit-bearing ices slowly gouging
downward into the lava crust and excavating a massive gorge
over a mile and a half wide, north to south, and two miles long
east to west. As the glacier receded, it deposited glacial till
in a series of benches. This was the Pine Creek Basin laid out
before us. We watched as orange light of the smoke-filtered
sunset rose slowly from the lush green meadow below to the lava-crowned
rim of the basin surrounding us like a haze-varnished mural.
Thursday morning was sunny and clear. As we ate
a leisurely breakfast, light from the rising sun passed through
leaves of quaking aspen, dancing on the trunks and branches
as if reflected from ripples on a pond. Small birds, drawn by
the water, flitted about us. The smoke had cleared to reveal
Mt. Shasta's snowy mantle hovering on the western horizon as
we began our hike up the long moraine northeast towards the
Summit Trail. We were glad for the cool weather because the
trail was steep. Through the pale green sage and patches of
wilted Corn Lilies we crossed and recrossed the small steam
that had provided us water. At 8144 feet we passed through a
potentially fine campsite in trees near a larger stream, the
last water we would encounter before Patterson Lake. Fir and
aspen gave way entirely to whitebark pine, standing in small
groves and short solitary trees, as the trail ascended the moraine
benches in long switchbacks. The silent climb was pure zazen:
an endless series of vivid steps and deep breaths, signifying
nothing, pushing all thought from the mind.
8962 feet and five miles from the trailhead the Pine Creek Trail
dead-ends into the Summit Trail. A scrawny pine, a patch of
flowering Mule Ears, and a signpost mark the junction. The vista
was awesome. Before us to the east steeply chiseled canyons
fell away to the Surprise Valley and the vast Nevada desert
beyond. A few green rectangles of irrigated farmland below were
dwarfed by the bone white-playas and the pale gray mountain
ranges marching east to the horizon. Due south the Summit Trail
traced the scrubby head wall of the upper Pine Creek Basin and
defined the western edge of the Great Basin. Its eastern edge
lies in the Wasatch Range and the Colorado Plateau. Water running
eastward down this slope would never find the ocean, but would
evaporate or sink into the harsh alkali sumps of the Surprise
Valley. Five miles further south rose the rounded mound of 9892-foot
Eagle Peak. To the west the Modoc plateau lay out like a great
table. On it sparkled the Pitt River wetlands, into which Pine
Creek drained. The waters of the Pitt meander west, beyond our
view, to join the McCloud and Sacramento Rivers at Shasta Lake,
then flow south to merge with the San Joachin in the Delta and
on to the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco Bay. Mount Shasta,
shimmering on the horizon, demarcated another dividing line,
separating the vast Klamath River drainage to the north from
the Sacramento to the south. Abruptly to our north loomed 9710-foot
Warren Peak, around whose impossibly sheer basaltic cliffs the
Summit Trail would take us.
We hiked north on the Summit Trail, climbing,
intoxicated by the views. As we approached Warren Peak, it looked
like the trail would end at a stone wall of frozen lava or else
be squeezed off the cliff into the Great Basin. But the trail
led us around to the east side on the narrow top of a debris
field sloping steeply downward from the basalt cliffs. At last
we crested a final ridge of pale breccia talus and beheld the
vista north, previously concealed. The mountain crest undulated
out ahead toward Squaw Peak, its nippled crest below us now,
dipped down to Cedar Pass, gained momentum, then rose again
unbroken by another highway for fifty miles as Oregon's rugged
North Warner Mountains. Squaw Peak is the same peak toward which
we had climbed the previous year on a day hike south from Pepperdine
Campground. We stood at 9350 feet, a mere 350 feet below Warren
first view of Patterson Lake was amazing. Beneath the imposing
cliff of Warren Peak the water glistened a deep turquoise. Whitebark
pine, many twisted and broken in testament to the winds and
lightning and harsh winter snows at 9000 feet, were the only
trees in the lake's north-facing glacial cirque.
The primo campsite on the terminal moraine of
the lake's north shore was miraculously empty. Unfortunately,
it was located directly above where the Mountain Meadow teens
were camped, jabbering and preening. I had a word with Jessie,
relating our long journey to Ukamon Lake, where we had encountered
two troops of Boy Scouts, and extolling the virtues of teaching
respectful silence in the wild, as the teens gathered round.
When the point was clear, one of the girls threatened me with
Just to make sure, I circled the north shore looking
for another campsite on the rising moraine. Two ladies from
Santa Rosa camped at a remote campsite further west said the
teens had been very loud when they arrived the previous night.
About eight o'clock one had gone down and complained, after
which the noise had subsided. No other campsite was quite as
fine as the one near the teens, so in the end we took it, at
least in part because they had expressed their intention of
leaving the next day.
After setting up the tent, I spotted a flock of
white pelicans high above the lake, and we watched as they circled,
flashing white, almost disappearing, then flashing again, perhaps
considering landing on our lake. They flew off in a mesmerizing
swirl. After dinner we hiked to the meadow on the south end
of the lake and chatted with the group leader, Jessie, who also
works for Outback Adventures out of San Diego leading kayak
trips to Baja. Later, near dusk, down from our campsite in another
small meadow facing northeast, we saw an endless stream of nighthawks
flying south. They seemed to be heading toward the lake. We
wondered whether they had nests in the high volcanic cliffs
overlooking the lake, but it was too dark to tell. Despite the
ukelele, we slept well.
as the teens packed up to leave, Jessie offered us some fresh
trout he had caught that morning, but we declined because we
had no frypan. We watched them climb along the ridge crest up
to Warren Peak on their way out. After breakfast we hiked north
towards Squaw Peak and had lunch on a ridgetop with great views.
On the way back we tried to swim at Cottonwood Lake, but the
water was too shallow. I waded further from shore, but the water
never got much deeper, and I sank to my ankles in the soft muck
and ooze fermenting on the bottom. When we got through splashing
around, we dried off and lay on our towels in the sun.
My feet itched. I gazed down.
"What the hell are those things!"
A dozen tiny liver-colored worms were attached
to each foot. Shuddering, I began scraping them off with a fingernail.
We surmised they were leeches. We examined each other, but found
to Patterson Lake, we jumped in, and quickly out, because the
deep lake was icy. On the other side of a shrub nearby, the
two ladies from Santa Rosa were cannon-balling naked off a rock
into the deep waters. We chatted with them for a while. The
weather was pleasantly warm, and they seemed very content in
the present moment. Like us, they were excited about all the
bird activity. We had seen bluebirds, flickers, woodpeckers,
nuthatches, Clark's nutcrackers, nighthawks, wrens, robins,
juncos, pelicans, killdeer, osprey, and more.
Later we hiked along the outlet stream down to
a meadow, and I crossed over to the edge to view the expanse
of Surprise Valley. Then we heard some loud people arriving,
and they turned out to be another group of teens from the same
Mountain Meadow Ranch. One black girl was looking for a spot
away from the group, so I told her about the site that Jessie's
group had vacated. But she was forced to stay with her group
at the foot of the trail across the end of the lake from us.
was definitely warmer and the birds flitted and fluttered, pecked
and perched, darted and dangled all around and on top of us
as we sat by the lake, enjoying a leisurely morning. Barbara
was pumping water when the filter developed a leak in the plastic
casing, but we managed to fill our bottles for the hike out.
At the trail summit, we chatted with the teens'
group leader and found out he was Jessie's Australian friend.
We returned a frisbee that the other group had left behind.
They were also hiking out and planned to go up to Warren Peak
to leave their messages in the bottle up there. As we hiked
down the trail we watched them scramble along the rocky outcroppings
to reach the peak. Then we ran into a half-dozen people from
McKinleyville, with two friends visiting from the Engadine Valley
in Switzerland, strung out along the trail.
Approaching the meadow, we stopped and chatted
with a wistful Ranger who was on a twelve-mile day-hike from
Pine Creek Trailhead to Pepperdine Campground. In the 70's,
he informed us, he used to live in Blue Lake in the "infamous
red house" with his brother. Now he lives in the Surprise
Valley. He said it was smokey in the Warners the week before
we got there, but the wind changed and cleared it out. He also
told us that this year was the first time in 125 years that
they did not allow cows to run up Pine Creek to the lake. Instead,
they were putting the cows up Slide Creek.
We stopped for lunch in Cedar Basin at a campsite
where Pine Creek, meandering through the meadow, crossed the
trail. At the parking lot we hoisted off our backpacks and repacked
the van. Patterson Lake was great for no ticks, few bugs, no
rain, lots of birds, white bark pines, and spectacular views.
The volcanic cliffs had outcroppings with ancient ancestor-like
shapes. And I had no musculoskeletal complaints for the first
time since my hip surgery.
As we drove home, Barbara began a checklist for our next trip
to the Warners:
1) Ask about where the cows are running.
2) Call Mountain Meadow Ranch for their schedule.
3) Check to see if any scout groups are coming
4) Plan to visit the waterfalls on Squaw Peak
Trail below Patterson Lake.
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