Nestled in the northeastern part of the US state of California, the Modoc National Forest protects 1,654,392 acres (669,509 ha) of vast, ecologically diverse wilderness, including ephemeral wetlands, lava beds, high-desert plateaus, coniferous forest, rugged canyons, and sage steppe.
The Modoc National Forest contains 144 named mountains. The highest summit in the forest, Emerson Peak (8,976 ft/2,736 m), lies within the Warner Mountains in the South Warner Wilderness. The most prominent peak, Mount Hoffman (7,897 ft/2,407 m), is located near Medicine Lake, northwest of Mount Shasta.
The Modoc National Forest is bound by the California-Oregon border to the north, the state of Nevada to the east, the Shasta-Trinity and Klamath national forests to the west, and Lassen National Forest to the south.
The second-largest forest by total area in California, the Modoc National Forest covers almost two million acres of land. Of this area, approximately 1.6 million acres (647,497 ha) are administered by the U.S. Forest Service, while another 300,000+ acres (121,406+ ha) are privately owned or administered by public agencies.
The topography of the Modoc National Forest is incredibly diverse, ranging from the rugged and forested Warner Mountains region in the east, to high plateaus dominated by sage steppe, and ancient lava flows of the Medicine Highlands in the west. Elevations across the forest range from 4,000 feet (1,219 m) to nearly 10,000 feet (3,048 m) above sea level.
Located along the eastern boundary of the forest, the Warner Mountains region is separated from the remaining forest area by the Goose Lake and Pit River Valley. This division of the forest consists mainly of moderate to steep sloping summits.
This part of the forest also houses the South Warner Wilderness, a 70,000-acre (28,328 ha) primitive wilderness area that protects expansive vistas, mountain meadows, and some of the highest peaks in northeastern California, including Eagle Peak and Warren Peak.
While the west side of the Warner Mountains is far less rugged in character, the eastern Warner Mountains resemble a small-scale replica of the main Sierra Nevada. Several summits along the 65-mile (104 km) serrated ridge of the Warner Mountains, within the Modoc National Forest, range in elevation from 7,000 to 8,000 feet (2134 to 2438 m).
Surprise Valley, also known as the Tricorner Region, hugs the eastern slopes of the Warner Mountains in the forest for roughly 65 miles (104 km) in a north to south orientation. As part of the Great Basin, Surprise Valley is generally characterized as a high-elevation desert valley.
In contrast, the northwestern region of the Modoc National Forest is occupied by a mostly flat volcanic plateau.
Located along the western border of the Modoc National Forest, the Medicine Lake Highlands lie within the volcanic caldera of the Medicine Lake shield volcano and they encompass 200 square miles of craters, lava flows, and lava tube ice caves. The Medicine Lake Highlands contain the incredible Lava Beds National Monument and they span portions of the Modoc, Klamath, and Shasta-Trinity national forests.
To the north of the Medicine Lake Highlands, the northwest corner of the Modoc National Forest connects with the Tule Lake Valley, which is home to Tule Lake and the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Finally, the Modoc Plateau, a volcanic table ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 feet (1,200 to 1,800 m) in elevation, separates the Medicine Lake Highlands in the west from the Warner Mountains in the east, covering roughly 1,000,000 acres (400,000 ha) of the forest.
The Modoc National Forest is composed predominantly of volcanic and associated sedimentary formations.
The Medicine Lake Highlands, located in the western region of the forest, were formed roughly 500,000 years ago with the development of the Medicine Lake Volcano, a broad shield-shaped volcano. Between 180,000 and 100,000 years ago, the center block collapsed creating an enclosed caldera basin. This wide caldera basin lies at the summit of the volcano and contains its namesake lake, Medicine Lake.
Over the last 13,000 years, flank eruptions from the Medicine Lake volcano created expansive lava flows in the region. The most recent lava flows of pumice and obsidian from Medicine Lake were at Glass Mountain less than 900 years ago.
Volcanic deposits have also been found in the Warner Mountains, along the eastern boundary of the Modoc National Forest. Bedrock within the Warner Mountains, a fault-bounded block of the Basin and Range province, consists of sedimentary rocks of the Oligocene epoch overlain by rhyolitic to basaltic rocks of the Miocene epoch.
As a result, volcanic deposits in the region vary from lightweight pumice, or ‘floating rocks,’ to dense, glass-like obsidian. The Warner Mountains are particularly famous for their variety of obsidian, a dense volcanic glass, usually rhyolite in composition. Obsidian can be mined in the forest, with a permit, at four designated mines: the Lassen Creek Rainbow Mine, Needles Mine, Middle Fork Davis Mine, and Pink Lady Mine.
Known as a region of ecological contrasts, the Modoc National Forest contains a variety of habitats that are home to unique plants and wildlife. These are some of the most notable species found in the forest:
Bunchgrass and juniper thrive at lower elevations in the Modoc National Forest. Alternatively, higher elevation regions contain stunning alpine meadows and mixed stands of ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, lodgepole pine, western white pine, red fir, and white fir.
Ponderosa pine and Jeffrey pine, in particular, are the primary tree species of the Modoc National Forest. Much of the western half of the forest, as well as portions of the Warner Mountains, the north end of the Devil’s Garden region, and ranges extending south, are covered in these pines. Meanwhile, the Devil’s Garden Plateau contains one of the largest continuous expanses of western juniper in the world.
Despite its predominantly dry, high-desert climate, the Modoc National Forest also contains a wide variety of vibrant and fragrant wildflowers. During the spring, it’s not uncommon to see the forest decorated in colorful yellow primroses, Indian paintbrush, red owl clover, wild pansies, purple lupin, and yellow buttercups, among others.
Covering roughly 1,000,000 acres (400,000 ha) of land in the Modoc National Forest between the Medicine Lake Highlands and the Warner Mountains, the Modoc Plateau serves as a habitat for two federally listed annual grass species and five sensitive plant species. This high desert plateau also contains dry forest pine stands, juniper woodlands, and sage steppe habitats.
The Modoc National Forest supports over 300 species of wildlife, including six threatened and endangered species—bald eagle, peregrine falcon, Modoc sucker, Lost River and short nose suckers, and northern spotted owl.
Birdlife is particularly abundant in the Modoc National Forest. The Pacific Flyway crosses the region, so many birds travel through the area during their migration from Alaska and Canada to Mexico. As a result, thousands of waterfowl are known to frequent wetlands in the area.
Though only a small population of black bears reside in the Modoc National Forest, it’s not uncommon to see Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope roaming the landscape. In fact, the Modoc National Forest is said to contain roughly half of the Rocky Mountain mule deer in California.
Wild horses have also inhabited the Devil’s Garden Plateau within the Modoc National Forest since the first settlers of European descent arrived in the area. Most of the early horses in the region were released when settlers no longer deemed them useful. Today, the forest manages the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory, which not only protects the population of mustangs in the area, but also allows visitors the opportunity to view them safely.
Initially established as the Modoc Forest Reserve in 1904, the Modoc National Forest is named for the Modoc people, one of the many Native American tribal nations that thrived on the region’s natural resources for thousands of years.
The Modoc, Pit River or Achomawi, and the Northern Paiute all inhabited the area now occupied by the Modoc National Forest before they were forced off their land upon the arrival of settlers from the United States.
The eastern region of what is now Modoc National Forest, as well as Surprise Valley, are the ancestral homelands of the Paiute, while the Modoc flourished in present-day northwestern Modoc County, near the Lost River and Clear and Tule Lakes. The Pit River, or Achomawi, generally resided in an area between the Paiute and Modoc, from the headwaters of the Pit River into the Fall River Valley before European contact.
Although the land in the forest is now claimed by the United States, the Pit River Tribe does own some land in the region. Meanwhile, some Modoc are enrolled members of the Modoc Nation in Oklahoma and others are enrolled members of the Klamath Tribes in Oregon. There are also many distinct Paiute Tribal Nations located throughout parts of California, Nevada, and other parts of the Mountain West.
Though the first European travelers believed to enter the Modoc National Forest region were Hudson Bay trappers in the early 1800s, the first officially recorded expedition to the area was made by General John Charles Fremont in 1846. While en route to southern Oregon, Fremont mapped Tule Lake and several nearby topographical features. Not long after, in 1848, gold miners heading to California entered the area.
Conflict between Indigenous peoples and White colonizers intensified as more settlers traveled to the area. Between 1872 and 1873, this conflict culminated in the Modoc Indian War, the only major Native American war fought in California and one of the costliest wars in US history.
Conflict between Indigenous peoples and White colonizers intensified as more settlers traveled to the area. Between 1872 and 1873, this conflict culminated in what would become one of the costliest wars in US history, the Modoc Indian War.
In the winter of 1872–1873, Modoc leader, Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack, led a small band of Modoc from the Klamath Reservation in southwestern Oregon back to their native land along the Lost River in California.
Unnerved by the presence of Native Americans in the area, white immigrants insisted that the Modoc people be forcibly returned to the reservation. As many as 600 US soldiers were deployed from Fort Klamath to confront less than 60 Modoc fighters.
Highly outnumbered, Modoc warriors and their families retreated to Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a virtually impenetrable natural lava fortress that lies within present-day Lava Beds National Monument.
After roughly 6 months of conflict, the Modoc were forced to surrender. Modoc leaders, including Captain Jack, were convicted of war crimes and executed, while remaining tribal members were returned to the Klamath Reservation.
After the forced removal of the Modoc from their ancestral lands, early pioneers and homesteaders settled in the region and overstocked their ranges with cattle, horses, and sheep, without giving much consideration to the long-term impact to the land. In fact, most of the land was publicly owned, which left it virtually unrestricted to any type of use by both locals and travelers.
After decades of overgrazing, the Modoc National Forest was established as the Modoc Forest Reserve in 1904, largely at the request of local ranchers, in order to protect the landscape and implement management strategies to preserve the region’s natural resources.
The Modoc National Forest is known for its remote and peaceful recreation opportunities. Looking for solitude in the Modoc National Forest? These are some of the best hiking areas and trails in the forest:
Elevations in the wilderness vary from 5,800 feet (1,768 m) at Clear Lake to over 9,800 feet (2,987 m) at the summit of Eagle Peak. Another dominant feature in the wilderness, Warren Peak, towers over Patterson Lake. More than 80 miles (129 km) of trails are accessible via eight trailhead locations.
Located in the heart of the Modoc Plateau, the Devil’s Garden region is the perfect destination in the early spring when wildflowers blanket the landscape. Wildlife is also abundant in this part of the forest, with Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and wild horses frequenting the area. There are several free campgrounds in this part of the forest, making it a particularly popular destination for both developed and primitive camping.
Located in the Medicine Lake Highlands, the Medicine Lake Recreation Area and adjacent Medicine Lake are popular destinations for travelers looking to explore the volcanic past of the Modoc National Forest.
In fact, the Glass Mountain and Burnt Lava Flow Geologic Areas are just a 15-minute drive from the recreation area and the Lava Beds National Monument is just 30 minutes away. The recreation area boasts plenty of opportunities for camping, boating, fishing, and swimming.
One of the most popular trails in the area is Little Mount Hoffman, a cinder cone on the flanks of Medicine Lake that offers sweeping views of the surrounding volcanic landscape. On a clear day, hikers can appreciate expansive views of Mount Shasta, Mount Lassen, the Tulelake Basin, and the Fall River Valley.
Established in 1925, Lava Beds National Monument contains more than 46,000 acres (18,600 ha) of incredible volcanic formations and features including fumaroles, cinder cones, spatter cones, pit craters, hornitos, maars, lava flows, volcanic fields, and almost 700 lava tubes.
The park also contains two forms of rock art—carved petroglyphs and painted petroglyphs—most of which can be found near cave entrances in the traditional territory of the Modoc people.
Lava Beds National Monument contains 13 hiking trails, all of which cross or enter the backcountry. These trails lead to a number of historic sites and geological areas within the Lava Beds Wilderness, including Heppe Cave, Gillem Bluff, Petroglyph Point, and Schonchin Butte.
Looking for a place to stay during your visit to the Modoc National Forest? Here are some of the best cities and towns to check out:
Located just south of Oregon near the Shasta River in California, Yreka is an outstanding destination for visitors looking to explore Mount Shasta and the Siskiyou Mountains, as well as the Modoc, Shasta-Trinity, and Klamath National Forests. The county seat of Siskiyou County, Yreka is home to just over 7,700 residents and contains an array of lodging, dining, and shopping options.
Located on the flanks of Mount Shasta, Mount Shasta City is an idyllic alpine community packed with amazing recreational opportunities. Visitors to Mount Shasta City can explore hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails, including footpaths in nearby Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Castle Crags State Park, and Mount Eddy. This scenic city is home to an assortment of accommodations ranging from swanky ski resorts and modest hotels to isolated retreats and semi-secluded cabins.
Named after Tule Lake, an ancient lake in the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Tulelake serves as an ideal basecamp for visitors traveling to the Medicine Lake Highlands, Medicine Lake Volcano, Lava Beds National Monument, and Little Glass Mountain. Tulelake lies in northeastern Siskiyou County and is home to just over 1,000 residents. Despite its modest size, a number of lodging and dining options are available to visitors traveling to the region.
Located just two and a half hours west of the South Warner Wilderness, Redding lies along the Sacramento River, just 15 miles (24 km) south of Shasta Lake. The city’s population is just over 90,000 people, and the city is situated at the very northwestern edge of the Central Valley.
Redding is surrounded by mountains to the north, east, and west. The Market Center located downtown is the perfect place to explore the city and grab a bite to eat after a long day of hiking.
Warner Mountain, and its namesake wilderness, lie to the east of the city, making outdoor activities easily accessible year-round. The city is also surrounded by ranch land and it is home to a few local shops and restaurants.
The county seat of Klamath County, Oregon, Klamath Falls lies on the southeastern shore of Upper Klamath Lake, just 25 miles (40 km) north of the California-Oregon border. Klamath Falls is home to a number of scenic hiking and biking trails, including a network of trails centered around 458-acre (185-ha) Moore Park. Visitors to Klamath Falls can also take advantage of the city’s close proximity to six scenic national wildlife refuges and two incredible national parks.