Highway 299 Revisited
Copyright © 2007 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(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 Van).

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.

Leaving 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 mercilessly exposed.

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 morning.

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.

In 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 reservoir.

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 pass.

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.

The 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.

Gathered 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 rocky draw.

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 within.

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.)

Occasionally, 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 lake.

Barbara 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," Nancy murmured.

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 time.

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.

On 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.

Mr. 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.

Saturday 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 Lake.

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 campfire permit.

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.

Return to Backpacking in Jefferson