Copyright © 2007
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Patterson Lake Backpack
South Warner Wilderness
August 27-September 4, 2006
Photos by the
Author and Barbara Lane Except Where Noted
"Maybe this is as good as it gets"
Highway 299 sprints eastward from the Humboldt
Bay on the Pacific Ocean with the drive and power of a four-lane
limited-access interstate, exhausting itself into a two-lane
within six miles. It winds dizzyingly over the coastal range
into the Klamath Mountains, tiptoes across the blazing Sacramento
Valley, climbs the western slope of the Cascade Range, then
dawdles up the impounded Pitt River on the eastern high plateau,
out of breath and losing strength. In northeastern California
the highway finally struggles over Cedar Pass into the Surprise
Valley like a wounded animal, where any remaining promise is
sucked dry by the alkali sinks of the basin and range. By the
time the road crosses into Nevada, it has dwindled to a dusty,
forgotten, gravel byway.
On this thread of asphalt and concrete spun across
the width of northern California would be woven our encore backpack
of the 2006 season. At Blue Lake, where Highway 299 abandons
its aspiration of being a freeway, Mr. Popper and Nancy joined
us around 9:30 on Sunday morning. In separate cars we motored
east on the winding two-lane with no firm plans. Ours was the
familiar Ford Taurus we had previously rented for the Sky Lakes
Wilderness backpack, and theirs was Nancy's modest Corolla station
wagon. Together the vehicles held only half of what we might
have toted in the Ford van, had it not burned up three months
earlier (see Burning
The Klamaths were still in flames, pumping acrid
smoke over our route like thick, unbreathable fog, especially
near Denny, where we stopped at the Big Bar Ranger Station to
pick up a self-issue fire permit. Barbara and I had already
camped in the wilderness three times that summer without the
benefit of a permit, not out of principle or protest, but forgetfulness.
Finally we remembered.
At Redding it became clear the two couples were
enjoying different experiences. Mr. Popper and Nancy had cranked
down their windows in a futile attempt to dissipate the stifling
heat, while we lounged in the air-conditioned bliss of the Taurus.
We ate lunch outdoors at the Turtle Bay cafe with a view of
the bizarre white sundial bridge, then walked down the hot slope
to the murky waters of the Sacramento River. Had the beach afforded
a little privacy, Mr. Popper would have jumped in.
Redding, we diverged from Highway 299 onto Highway 44 to look
for a campsite on Hat Creek just north of Lassen Park. We climbed
out of the valley heat and found vacant a choice campsite at
Twin Bridges, where we deployed our tents. A few pickups lumbered
over the bridge, occasionally pausing to take in the snowy north
face of Lassen Peak, but the passersby left us alone. The evening
was warm and the stars brilliant. Far from city lights, the
Milky Way was truly milky. In the morning, as we were leaving,
we encountered what looked like a septic pumper truck, but was
actually a tanker hauling fish to dump into Hat Creek for stocking.
At Old Station we left Highway 44 and followed
Highway 89 as it swung north to rejoin Highway 299 at a forlorn
four-way stop in the forest northeast of Burney. After a pleasant
lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Fall River Mills, we walked
around the old town and toured the renovated hotel with its
formal dining room, cafe, and bar.
The terrain grew increasingly dry as Highway
299 blazed straight across the Big Valley through Nubieber,
Bieber, and Adin, where the road climbed north into the scrubby
Junipers and tall Ponderosa pine at mile-high Adin Pass, then
plunged again into the Pitt River Valley. Our goal was to reach
the Ranger Station in Alturas before it closed at 4:30 for an
update on wilderness trail conditions. We arrived with half
an hour to spare.
An amicable ranger manning the front desk helped
us find maps and directions to Patterson Lake, confirming that
we would probably find running water on the Squaw Peak Trail
and maybe even on the Summit Trail where it crossed Parker Creek.
He had not been up there recently, however, and the streams
dry up fast this time of year. He cautioned that there was a
high wind warning for Wednesday as a cold front was scheduled
to move through. Our proposed route along the ridge would be
Irritable in the blazing heat of the asphalt
parking lot outside, we debated what to do. One option might
be to bide our time until the high winds blew over and hike
in on Thursday, but that would either cut our backpack short
or make for a gruesome dash home on Monday. Another was to change
our plans entirely and pick a more benign destination. I telephoned
the Surprise Valley Hot Springs Motel, but pilgrims to the Burning
Man Festival had filled their rooms for the night. It was much
too hot to try to camp in the valley, so we resolved to drive
up to Pepperdine Campground, at 6800 feet the northern terminus
of the Summit Trail, and figure out what to do the following
Alturans, whose open-range mentality inclines
them towards the unruly, parked their pickups so haphazardly
it was impossible to approach the gas pumps at the main Chevron
at the intersection of 299 and 395. We stopped instead at an
independent station and food mart boasting cheap gasoline, but
in the unforgiving heat it was like something out of a third-world
Night of the Living Dead. The pumps were all marked "Pay
Before Pumping Gas!" No one spoke English. How we managed
to gas up and purchase snacks, I can no longer recall. But it
felt good to leave the heat and chaos to climb into the South
Warner Mountains on Forest Service Road 31, a good gravel road.
At one point a few miles before the campground, Mr. Popper had
to pull over for a few minutes to let his motor cool down.
As we drove into Pepperdine, we saw two young
women strapping on backpacks at a new equestrian campground
overlooking a reservoir a quarter-mile down the hill from the
trailhead. We pressed on to the primitive old campground, with
its four campsites, pit toilet, and water spigot, and found
no one there.
a large campsite on the edge of the forest, beside a stand of
trembling aspen and a meadow gone to seed, we set up our tents
(N 41 27' 02.2", W 120 14' 30.5"). A huge white Ponderosa
snag loomed like a bleached skeleton over the dry field of brittle
corn lilies. Barbara and I had camped there once in the late
Spring, when the grass had been greener and flowering columbine
attracted humming birds, bees, and butterflies. A throne-like
seat chain-sawed into a giant stump had weathered gray in our
five-year absence. The altitude made the air feel luxuriously
cool. In the evening I built a small campfire. After dinner,
we all walked back to inspect the trailhead and the new equestrian
campground. Below the road cows grazed beside the bucolic, grass-rimmed
Nancy was disposed to see Patterson Lake, which
had been recommended by her old friends from the Boot and Blister
Club. Barbara and I had been there once before, hiking in from
Pine Creek to the south (see
"Beneath the Imposing Cliff"),
and welcomed a chance to return from the north. In fact, the
hike was on our "to do" list. Mr. Popper hesitated.
He was concerned about a mild, intermittent cardiac arrhythmia
that had bedeviled him for several weeks, for which his doctors
could find neither cause nor cure. He did not fancy pitching
over dead miles from the nearest trailhead and urged moderation.
I reminded him that dead was dead, no matter how far
from the trailhead, and that the real problem would be ours,
dragging his carcass out. This did not seem to lighten his spirits.
We settled on stretching the hike into Patterson
Lake into two days. The first night we would camp at the springs
below Squaw Peak, where the ranger had assured us we could find
water. That way, we would climb 1400 feet
in about three miles the first day, and another 900 feet in
four miles the second. Our pace would be leisurely. No rain
was forecast, and we would by god just tough out whatever winds
might blow on Wednesday. As with all things, this gale would
Tuesday morning before ten we set foot on the
Summit Trail. Through
a thick forest of fir and huge Ponderosa pines we switch-backed
steeply upward for about a quarter of a mile until we crested
the ridge into an open dreamscape of gnarled red rock, varnished
black in places and speckled with bright rings of lichen. Immediately
we encountered the wilderness boundary sign, where we paused
to drink in the stunning change of landscape. A
few short whitebark pines protested the stingy high-desert soil,
from which bloomed mariposa lily, larkspur, and mule ears. Mt.
Shasta hovered like a prayer flag in the west. To the northeast
the pale alkali lakes and dry white scabs of playa shimmered
on the Surprise Valley floor. For the next four days we would
be hiking "on top," with long views in every direction.
trail wound through a stunted forest of twisted mountain mahogany,
where Mr. Popper retrieved a cluster of three silver-blue party
balloons, risen like a bad dream of civilization and snagged
in the branches of a mahogany. They read, "Happy Baptism,"
and echoed like gunshots when he popped them with a sharp stick
to pack out as trash.
We continued to climb through a draw, walled
by sheer rock faces, then a forest of whitebark pine, emerging
on a dusty trail up a long, steep, open slope of dry grass,
dappled with short manzanita, mule ears, and yellow-flowering
sage. Wind had already begun to buffet us on the exposed slope,
a day earlier than forecast. A mile ahead, at the top of the
ridge, we could see a small pale cross marking the junction
with the Squaw Creek Trail.
The last half-mile slog up the steepening trail
was slow and grueling. One by one we arrived at the Squaw Creek
Trail junction and dropped our backpacks. Mr. Popper, the last
to struggle in, stood huffing, his wiry legs like fuzzy brown
popsicle sticks beneath the swollen plum confection of his backpack.
Out of an abundance of caution, he had hiked unhurriedly and
was experiencing no signs of irregular heart beat.
around the wind-blown trail marker, we discussed our options.
The Summit Trail continued its climb into pine forest on the
western slope of Squaw Peak and would arrive at Patterson Lake
in about four miles. The Squaw Peak Trail forked left, dropping
into a verdant pocket valley on the east side. The two trails
would not reconnect again until just below Patterson Lake. They
would have made a superb loop, had the Squaw Peak Trail not
lost, and then had to regain an unnecessary extra thousand feet
of altitude on its way.
After a bit of rest for sightseeing, Mr. Popper
bloomed. The exertion had pumped that old wilderness vigor back
into him. Assuming command, he hoisted his backpack and led
us down the Squaw Peak Trail in search of water and a first
night's campsite. Contouring
above a series of springs, we could have scrambled down the
steep bank of loose yellow soil, brush, and dry corn lilies
to find a gritty trickle, but elected to press on into the valley
in hope of a campsite alongside a flowing stream. Soon a prominent
spur trail forked down toward a patch of forest and green meadow.
We emerged from the woods on the bank of a small creek, which
we followed uphill to campsites in a mature stand of whitebark
pines (N 41 25' 31.5", W 120 13' 16.3"). The wind
howled up the canyon as we searched for tent sites. Mr. Popper
and Nancy set up their tent beside the gurgling stream, and
Barbara and I found a more sheltered spot in the mouth of a
Before dinner, Nancy explored alone along the
Squaw Peak Trail to a ridge crest southeast of Squaw Peak. There
she could see the Patterson Lake cirque in the distance. The
Summit Trail would take us around the other side.
In a sunny windbreak of corn lilies beside the
stream we whiled away the afternoon. In the evening, we followed
the retreating sunlight out onto an open ridge overlooking the
Surprise Valley and, hunkered down in the dry grass, traced
the line of Highway 299 as it sliced straight across the Middle
Alkali Lake to dissolve into a bright chop of gravel slashing
northeast into the barren Nevada foothills bound for the Sheldon
Wildlife Refuge. Even with our collars turned up against the
northwest gale, we had to retreat to our tents when the sun
dropped below the Squaw Peak ridge. It was too windy to risk
an evening campfire, so we retired early. All night the tent
flapped and strained against the gusts, while we slept warm
By Wednesday morning the winds had died down,
and I built a small warming fire and boiled water for our tea,
coffee, and breakfast. We broke camp early, hoping that the
cold front had blown through a day early. As we climbed out
of the sheltered valley, a powerful, relentless northwest blast
buffeted us at the exposed ridge where we rejoined the Summit
Trail. Soon after we crossed Parker Creek,
finding the stream bed dry, we found a brief respite from the
gale in patches of forest. But when the Summit Trail emerged
on the the ridge spine, a steady, staggering squall made it
difficult to stand upright.
From each vantage point, my eyes were drawn to
the black thread of asphalt causeway stretched taut across the
waist of the Middle Alkali Lake below. A half-dozen miles further
on, Highway 299 would end its long journey from the Pacific
and rise into the Nevada foothills as something else. Provoked,
perhaps, by Mr. Popper's intimations of mortality, the lofty
perspective made comprehending the highway seem critical. After
so much strife and struggle, I wondered how it could simply
come to an end. What was that all about? I wanted
to go down there and see for myself. (Of
course, Barbara and I had been there before, had seen
where the alkali-bleached asphalt simply petered out at a dusty
cattle guard. But then I had been distracted in my own
internal babble and, as usual, not paying close enough attention.)
where the trail circled to the eastern slope, we found refuge
in the lee of the volcanic rimrock and tormented arms of windswept
mountain mahogany. To the south, we could trace our route along
the barren, exposed ridge spine to the base of a volcanic escarpment
far away, then up the forested slope toward the layered headwall
above Patterson Lake and the notch below Warren Peak. Isolated
by the howling wind, each in his own world, we plodded along,
cursing, meditating, enduring. Shortly after noon Barbara and
I reached a sheltered woods shy of the cliff face, where we
stopped for lunch, while Mr. Popper and Nancy pressed on in
search of springs indicated on the map a half-mile further.
Later we passed them as they ate lunch sprawled
on the embankment above the trail, far above the springs lost
in the emerald valley below. The trail switch-backed up through
a spare forest of whitebark pine, circled around leech-infested
Cottonwood Lake, then ascended the terminal moraine below the
and I arrived at Patterson Lake around two in the afternoon.
At over 9000 feet, the water shimmered a beautiful iridescent
green. Mr. Popper and Nancy joined us a few minutes later. Two
splendid campsites with large fire pits sat a hundred feet from
each other above the north shore. Incredibly, we had the lake
all to ourselves. The last time Barbara and I were there, we
had camped at the upper site, further from the lake, but Mr.
Popper insisted on the campsite closest to the water in a grove
of young whitebark pine (N 41 23' 00.2", W 120 13' 09.0").
A low bulwark of rock surrounded the site, tediously dry-stacked
by previous sojourners. On the rocky moraine we each found a
level spot for a tent.
The wind had died down, so Mr. Popper and Nancy
wandered down for a quick dip in the icy water. After setting
up out tents and hammocks, we relaxed in the warm afternoon
sun on a lush lawn of short grass beside the lake. Willow shrubs
and alders grew down to the water's edge. A Clark's Nutcracker
scolded us from a dead branch. Mr. Popper was feeling just fine,
as were we all. Rejuvenated. Hearty. At peace with the world.
Contentedly we watched the stark, snow-flecked layer cake of
ancient lava dance in the rippling water.
"Maybe this is as good as it gets,"
As if on cue, our solitude was shattered by the
chatter of two women descending the steep Summit Trail from
Warren Peak. We recognized them as the backpackers who had parked
their car at the equestrian trailhead the day we arrived. They
had hiked in, they told us, on the Squaw Peak Trail. In our
old campsite just above us they made camp. Toward
evening another couple with a big yellow dog arrived from the
same direction. They camped below us on the opposite side of
the outlet stream, almost out of sight. The
man fished relentlessly, morning and evening, while the woman
puttered around their camp with the dog.
That night the thermometer dropped to 31 degrees,
although on Thursday morning our water bottles had not frozen.
We sat by the lake's edge and let the morning sun thaw the world.
The other campers all packed up and were gone by mid-morning.
A pleasant breeze kept the day from growing too hot.
We dayhiked up the Summit Trail toward Warren
Peak. While Barbara waited at the saddle, watching raptors and
enjoying the spectacular views of Eagle Peak and the Surprise
Valley, Mr. Popper, Nancy, and I made our way up a rocky, steep
spur trail to a knob overlooking the lake. This appeared to
be the route to Warren Peak, but in these our senior years of
hiking, we did not attempt to bag it. Instead, we wondered at
the geological formations, the hoodoos, volcanic flows, and
sedimentary strata, written by fire, water, and ice over unfathomable
That evening we spread into the adjacent campsite
forsaken by the two young women. Here, on our previous trip
to Patterson Lake, Barbara and I had slept while all about us
chattered youth from the Mountain Meadow Ranch. We lit an evening
campfire in the huge stone fire pit, watched the stout branches
burn to embers, then returned to our tents for the night.
Friday, with such fine weather and no one else to bother us,
we found it difficult to leave such a splendid place. We hiked
steeply downhill through the whitebark forest, then again along
the razorback ridge with clear views in every direction. A gentle
breeze had replaced the gale that had blown us in. At well over
8000 feet, we were hiking on top of the world. But by noon we
had grown weary. Near dry Parker Creek the shade of a west-facing
forest of whitebark pine offered a pleasant lunch break. Then,
after passing again the desolate junction with the Squaw Peak
Trail, the seriously steep downhill trek began. Varnished
red rock, mountain mahogany, lava sand, dust, manzanita, mule
ears, the relentless blazing sun, and a limitless horizon blurred
together with our perspiration until we dropped over the edge
into the cool shade of the mixed conifer forest.
Popper and Nancy beat us back to the trailhead by a good fifteen
minutes. When we arrived around mid-afternoon, Mr. Popper stood
dripping stark naked with one foot on the gravel road and the
other splayed in a horse trough, bathing himself in the questionable
equestrian waters. The trip had transformed him. He had grown
young and vigorous once again. None of us had any doubt that
Mr. Popper was going to live forever.
I telephoned the Surprise Valley Hot Springs
Motel. Although contrary to their summer policy, the clerk offered
to let us stay for a single weekend night. We caravanned down
the steep eastern face of the mountain on Forest Road 31 to
Cedarville and rejoined Highway 299 at the four-way stop in
the center of the sleepy farm town.
Surprise Valley Hot Springs is indeed a surprise,
a green oasis in the alkali desert. The motel anchors the eastern
end of Highway 299 in the same way Blue Lake, in the misty Redwood
forest, anchors the west. From the front, the building looks
like every other one-story motel, but inside, each room is decorated
with a different theme. After registering,
we compared rooms. Ours was the Sports Room. Each had a hot
tub outside the back door, surrounded by a high board privacy
fence. Boiling mineral water could be mixed with cold to suit
one's taste. Beyond the fence the scrubby desert spread all
the way to the foot of the steep eastern escarpment of the Warners.
morning we awoke to the call of coyotes and cranes. With the
back gate open, we lounged in the hot water and gazed up at
Warren and Squaw Peaks, where we had awakened the day before.
We watched a northern harrier, yellow-headed blackbird, and
Canada geese. In no hurry, we strolled around the motel grounds,
tossed a frisbee for the resident dog, then wandered out to
the open steaming hot pools in the desert. The amicable frisbee
dog came with us. Mr. Popper, having grown up watching Mr.
Wizard on television, inched down the slippery bank to emerse
his thermometer in the stream. Barbara and I held our breath
lest he or the dog might tumble into the boiling water, scalding
themselves like old Bumpus did at Lassen Park.
We loaded up and drove to Cedarville, ate a late
breakfast at the Country Hearth, then followed 299 east over
Cedar Pass to Alturas. At Adin we had lunch and decided to look
for a place to camp another night on the way home. On a whim,
we turned north to caravan up Highway 93 bound for Medicine
The Medicine Lake Highway is two-lane blacktop
climbing the gentle slopes of an ancient shield volcano as it
slices through the impenetrable timberlands of the Modoc National
Forest. Immediately a one-ton pickup hauling a massive fifth-wheel
camping trailer breezed past us going the other way. This we
found ominous, inasmuch as it was Labor Day weekend. Every few
minutes another huge camping rig zoomed by departing the lake.
No one was traveling our direction. How, we radioed each other,
could that many people even know about Medicine Lake,
much less spend a weekend there?
The Medicine Lake access road wound through forest
with only glimpses of the water. At each developed campground,
we encountered a sign reading "Campground Full." We
had grossly miscalculated how many backwoods campers might flock
to this remote spot. Who the hell were all these people? Where
did they come from? The road became dirt and a sign pointed
on to "Overflow Camping" in a primitive, dusty, and
viewless woods far from the lake. The afternoon had grown late
and our reasonable alternatives evaporated, so we had no choice
but to stay there. After setting up our tents, Mr. Popper and
Nancy drove off to try to catch a view of the touted lake.
As Barbara began preparing dinner on the JetBoil
stove beside a huge ring of fire-blackened rocks, I went off
to collect wood for a robust evening campfire finale. While
I was away, a wizened old deputy climbed arthritically out of
his dusty Siskiyou County Sheriff's cruiser and growled at Barbara,
"We don't allow no campfires here." Befitting the
mentality of a small ranger overwhelmed with too much humanity,
he jabbed a bony finger at the JetBoil. "An' y'need a fire
permit for that stove o'yers." He demanded to see Barbara's
Barbara informed him that I had the permit and
would be back in a few minutes. Smirking, he drove across the
road to terrorize another groups of late-comers in a truck-mounted
camper. Barbara caught me descending the steep slope with a
huge armload of splendid fire logs to warn me. She knew my sarcasm
might escalate into unpleasantness, especially after my low
blood sugar had been goosed with a couple of cans of beer.
When the deputy returned, I unfolded our fire
permit as nice as pie and handed to him. "First time in
twenty-five years I've ever been asked for my fire permit,"
I explained, a little inebriated. "I want to thank you.
This makes carrying it all worthwhile."
He eyed me balefully, unsure if he detected mockery.
For a long time he studied the little yellow scrap of paper,
trying to find something wrong. His jaw moved as if his teeth
hurt. Finally he handed it back and snapped, "No campfires,"
then drove off.
That night the temperature dropped to 32 degrees.
Sunday morning, without a campfire, it seemed even colder. Wind
howled through the branches. We did not tarry at the overflow
camp, but drove around to investigate Medicine Lake. Unfortunately,
the once-sacred lake had become bad medicine, with ski boats
and personal water craft bobbing from plastic buoys, the campgrounds
bulging with chrome-plated vehicles, campers, and trailers,
and a press of screaming children and their adoring families
waiting for the day to warm enough for splashing and bicycling
and frolicking as if there were no tomorrow.
On the way out we stopped by Jot Dean Ice Cave
and in the crevasses deep inside saw ice gleaming in our flashlight
beams. A fellow arrived with his family in a big black 4x4 pickup
and informed us that Highway 299 west of Redding was closed
because of new fires.
Mr. Popper and Nancy were low on gas, but we
opted to take the "scenic" Modoc Volcanic Route anyway.
What could go wrong? The road was winding and in great disrepair.
After miles of forest, as we neared Highway 89 and a return
to civilization, we came to a huge fallen tree completely blocking
the route. It looked like we would have to turn around and maybe
syphon gas from our car for Mr. Popper's. But we stomped around
on both sides of the road until we found an off-road track through
the brush, around the fallen log, which both low-clearance passenger
vehicles managed to negotiate. We made it to McCloud in time
for a picnic lunch by the Railroad Station. No longer thinking
of driving home, we caravanned to Yreka and spent our final
night at the Miner's Inn Motel, complete with swimming pool.
On Monday we drove home on Highway 96 along the
Klamath River. Mr. Popper and Nancy lagged behind to watch the
Blue Goose Steam Train blow down its boiler in preparation for
a daily tourist run. Through Happy Camp and Orleans we drove
into increasing smoke, rejoining Highway 299 at Willow Creek.
By mid-afternoon, as if running backward in time, we arrived
at the cold, foggy coast and the place where Highway 299 began.
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