By: Bob Michael
Eagle Peak (9,892’)
Part Basin and Range, part Cascades, and a dash of far northern Sierra describes the Warner Range in the far northeast corner of California, a place so remote from the rest of the state that I have dreamed of going there since I was in college. Dream became reality in September, when “Vegas” George Quinn and I summited Eagle Peak, the highest nonvolcano California peak north of Lake Tahoe. Up there I realized anew just how vast our state is; from a vantage point in the South Warner Wilderness, Little Picacho seems almost as distant as Aconcagua.
The east end of Modoc County is remarkably like the Sierra/Owens Valleyllnyo Range in miniature. The Warners are a structural analogue of the Sierra; a tilted fault block (made out of layered volcanics instead of granite) with a gentle western slope and a plunging eastern escarpment which falls away to a rain-shadowed ranching valley with little poplar-shaded communities and playa lakes beyond; easterly still, in the extreme northwest corner of Nevada, rise desolate brown flattopped desert ranges. Amazing how that very same geologic landscape repeats itself in our part of North America, from Oregon (Steens Mountain) all the way down into Baja (Big Picacho).
The Surprise Valley, however, differs from the Owens Valley in one very important respect; it’s too far from anywhere to have had its water stolen, so it’s lush ranching country where sleepy little old towns — Eagleville, Cedarville, Fort Bidwell — far off any tourist track are a vestige of an earlier California that has largely vanished elsewhere. (Perhaps ominously, an SUV with an LA Dept. of Water & Power logo was seen parked in a driveway in Cedarville.)
We drove east from Alturas over Cedar Pass on State 299 to Cedarville. At the crest of the pass is a sign that gave us a thrill: “Rim of the Great Basin”. It really does mark a significant boundary. West of the pass, the white pyramid of Shasta rises in the far distance above the blue-black Ponderosa expanse of the Modoc Plateau; the view in the other direction is pure basin-and-range desert.
The Warners are beautifully forested with aspen, white fir, Ponderosa (and its variant the Modoc Pine nowhere else), lodgepeople and whitebark pine (Oddly, no bristlecone or foxtail pines). Glacial lakes sparkle in cirques chewed into the eastern escarpment. Some of the volcanic layers must be hostile to tree growth, so the eastern side of the range as seen from Surprise Valley has a curious “piebald” look, with bands of dense forest interspersed with barren, almost deserty intervals. Our strenuous dayhike began at Emerson Campground southeast of the peak. This is accessed by excellent graded Modoc County Road 40 which veers west off the main Surprise Valley road 1-1/2 miles south of Eagleville. Although the trailhead to a Forest Service wilderness, there were no Wilderness Permits, no Adventure Passes — and no people. The route climbs 4,000 feet in about 12 miles RT. It follows a woodsy creek about four miles to North Emerson Lake at 7,750’, set in a glacial cirque below frowning volcanic cliffs. The trail then cuts north up the side of the cirque to the range crest. According to the calendar, it was still summer, but a bone-chilling Novemberish gale raked the stunted sagebrush on the divide. Scudding charcoal gray clouds barely cleared the top of Eagle Peak which rose one linear mile and 1,600 steep trailess feet to the northwest. The southeast ridge ascends through stands of whitebark pine into an excruciatingly miserable slope of obsidian crumbs at about the angle of repose; look for faint traces of use trails to slightly temper the suffering on this stretch. Above this stretch are thickets of whitebark pine krummholz as the ridge levels off into the broad, flat summit of northeast California. Clouds restricted the view to the west somewhat, but we could still see a vast reach from Mount Lassen all the way east to craggy King Lear Peak rising above Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The numbing wind chill and thoughts of the long way down curtailed our summit reverie. We hit the truck just at dark. Cold rain had the kindness to hold off until we were enjoying Mexican Night in the cozy and excellent Country Hearth Café in Cedarville.
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