This Road Trip Alturas adventure actually begins as you head out of Burney to the east at the intersection of Highways 89 and 299 and continues east to Alturas.
Driving ahead some five miles you’ll pass over Hat Creek. Just before the bridge is Hat Creek Park on the creek with picnic tables, vault toilets, and a super stretch of the blue ribbon section of Hat Creek.
Read the bulletin board for regulations. If you walk down about a half mile you’ll come to the intersection of the Pit River and Hat Creek. There are some very sizable, very wary trout throughout this walk. Another quarter mile up 299 is the Pit River with off road parking on both sides of the bridge.
The Pit, unlike Hat Creek with a screening weir at its mouth to prevent non-trout fish from entering, has squaw and white fish or more commonly, trash fish.
There’s still trout and bass in the river so it’s worth a shot.
About an additional two miles up 299, as you begin to ascend up the side of the canyon towards Fall River Mills, is a turn off to Clearwater Lodge, the Pit 1 powerhouse, and a nice BLM campground on the river. The Clearwater Lodge is open during trout season with very nice accommodations and reportedly good food.
I like the campground sitting as it does along the river. Even the power house is of architectural interest with huge penstocks coming down the cliff side from Fall River.
As you continue up the canyon there’s a vista turnout with a good view of the massive canyon. It turns my stomach with the sheer cliffs and all, but then I don’t like heights. A few miles more and you descend into the town of Fall River Mills and the Fall River Valley. On the right is Fall River Golf course, a real piece of heaven for duffers. They have a driving range, carts, food, friendly staff, and sensible prices. A little further in, on the left is the Fort Crook Museum which is actually a round barn with assorted agricultural and logging equipment scattered around the outside.
Fort Crook was a military establishment constructed in 1857 to protect the Shasta Yreka road and named after Lt. Crook who led the initial army expedition into the area. It’s a sad piece of American history. Crooks’ philosophy for dealing with the Indians was to go out and eradicate them. The Pit River Indians, actually a fairly diverse grouping of tribes, were not inclined to take this lightly. The museum is free and well worth a visit.
Fall River Valley is loaded with streams and lakes all tied together in a maze of water ways. It is also what I consider the edge of the journey into the far west, particularly as defined by its’ vastness and arid conditions. It can feel like Montana more than California. The town of Fall River Mills sits on a low ridge between the Pit River and Fall River. As you pass over the river there’s a tavern called the Mayfly Pub on the left offering food and drink. A little further up as the road forks to the left, turn right for a couple of the better offerings in town. You’ll see Hal and Kathy’s restaurant on the east side of the street and ahead on the right is the Fall River Hotel. Hal and Kathy’s is a great place for truly home cooked food,
local gossip, and years of displayed memorabilia.
The Hotel, built in the 1930’s and remodeled over the past ten years is a favorite of ours. It has a courtyard with newer rooms, the original rooms, a café, and separate dining area for evenings, small full service bar, and the opportunity to rub elbows with the locals. The hotel is also pet friendly. It’s not the Hilton, but hopefully you did come here for that.
Fishing and hunting for waterfowl are its’ major attractions along with the aforementioned golfing. There are only two areas to launch a boat or pram which are mandatory to effectively fish the area. The Cal Trout access is off Island Rd., the P.G. & E. site on McArthur Rd. near the church. Parking is limited and you must portage your boat to the river. There are also numerous lodges and vacation rental house with access. A third site is near Big Lake off Channel Rd. but I’m not sure exactly where. I recommend, for first timers, hiring a guide. It’s not an easy water system to learn on your own. The fish are large, the hatches consistent, and the water very clear. There are two sporting goods shops on 299 between Fall River Mills and McArthur on the right. One is primarily a gun shop, the other a fishing shop. Information is available at either. Note that the Fall River Valley is almost exclusively private farm land and trespassing is frowned on. Wild rice is their crop of distinction. By the way, Fall River is the largest wild rice growing area in the world.
Another interesting side excursion is the Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park. This park is only accessible by boat which can be launched at the P.G. & E. site. It’s excellent for canoes and kayaks. The area is a recent (geologically speaking) lava flow with extensive shoreline and springs feeding the Fall River basin. This whole complex of waterways receives a reputed 1.2 billion gallons of water from the springs daily.
The park has low rock walls forming ponds where the Indians captured fish back before Lt. Crook had his way. This is a special place and a wonderful addition to our beleaguered State Park system.
Back on highway 299, you’ll come to McArthur, about five miles from Fall River. This small farming community sits at the edge of the Shasta and Lassen county lines. There’s a restaurant on the right side and a good saloon, The Buckhorn, on the left. Its principal feature of outside interest is the Inter-Mountain Fair Grounds which, you guessed it, hosts the Inter-Mountain Fair over Labor Day weekend.
I like rural county fairs and this one is about as down home as they get. It starts with a colorful parade with lots of cowboys and cowgirls, farm animals, a rodeo, amusement rides, one of the best quilt shows around, plus the mandatory beer garden. Give it a go, you won’t regret it.
Leaving McArthur and the Fall River Valley highway 299 goes up Big Valley Mountains, a narrow mountain range separating the Fall River Valley from Big Valley. Folks were real creative with names back in the old days. You’re getting deeper into what was once the western frontier. Most the people are third and fourth generation.
The economy is agriculturally oriented and dominated by ranching with large swathes of land dedicated to alfalfa and hay production. The original extractive economy of mining and timber harvesting is fairly exhausted. The prime virtues of this land are minding your own business and being independent. That doesn’t mean being unfriendly or cold hearted. Even if you run across a long time enemy stranded in a snow storm, you help him as he would you. Family and friends are the most prized of assets and strangers will not be that for long. You may control a thousand acres of marginal land, but you have to fight each year for a modest living. I say all this because the essence of traveling well is appreciating the people and land you cross.
Big Valley is exactly that. There’s three small towns, Nubieber, Bieber, and, at the far east end of 299, Adin. The Pit River flows through it but offers little recreational opportunities as it is, at this point in its long progression, essentially a source of irrigation. Ash Creek flows in from the east end and forms what’s called Big Swamp, home of Ash Creek Wildlife Area, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife preserve. They offer camping, fishing, hunting, and bird watching. There are Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, and a whole assortment of waterfowl. Additionally, the site is home to Pronghorn Antelope, beavers, and mountain lions. The area adjoins highway 299, look for the sign.
Adin is about as cute as little towns get. The highway drops down along a tree line corridor some six blocks long. There’s a gas station as you enter town, a burger joint on the left, and near the end of town by Ash Creek, the Adin Supply.
This is a great place in a turn of the century building with wooden front porches, grocery store, butcher shop, deli, sporting goods, and western apparel shop. As their sign says “Starbuck’s is 70 miles away. Our coffee will get you there.” It’s well worth the stop. A good side trip and one of our ‘not so secret’ spots is to Ash Valley. Take Valley Road heading south from the center of Adin. This gravel road is well maintained and about twelve miles ahead you’ll come to Ash Valley with Ash Creek meandering through it. There’s a small campground to the left and over the bridge, though some prefer to pull up along the creek. The fishing can be good, particularly in the spring walking down stream below the bridge. You can take Canyon Rd. on to Highway 395, but there’s not much to recommend. If you go back out the way you came to Adin, turn right and head towards Alturas. Note that 299 is now combined with highway 139.
Ahead is Round Valley before you begin to ascend into the Modoc National Forest. There’s a small campground to the right that’s good for an overnighter. Adin Pass over the top of the mountains is about ten miles ahead. At the bottom of the descent lies the Pit River. Just past the bridge is a gravel road that follows the Pit back and leads to another campground which I’ve never used. Ahead on 299, highway 139 turns to the left towards the Klamath Basin and Klamath Falls. It’s a long, dry drive before dropping into the Basin, which we’ll cover in another posting. Canby lies about two miles ahead on 299. At times the Canby Hotel is open, at others, not. There’s a decent bar and on occasion, food. The real treat in the area is to take a right turn on Centerville Road across from the hotel, go up about a mile and veer to the right towards Ballard Reservoir. This is a fairly rough road and not advisable for larger trailers and RV’s. Ballard is another ‘secret spot’ and can be wonderful, mostly depending on the winter’s precipitation. There are no developed campsites, but you can pull up along the west shore of the lake and have things to yourself. The fishing is sometimes incredible in late spring, early summer before the ‘draw down’ for irrigation begins.
From Canby to Alturas the highway skirts the edge of the Warm Springs Valley. This is the typical cattle and hay production grounds with the Pit River running its meandering course through the center. There are some hot springs, but all on private land. Interestingly, some are used for fresh water shrimp production. Alturas lies ahead sitting at the foot of the Warner Mountains. To the north along 299 is the Modoc National Forest.
This is an area I’ve never explored but, should you care to take a look, the Forest Service headquarters is on the left as you enter Alturas and they would have information.
There’s a place back in called Devils Garden I’ve always been curious about. This is also an area of wild mustangs, mule deer, antelope, bird watching, fishing, hunting, boating and wild flower shows in the spring. There are four developed campgrounds but camping is allowed pretty much anywhere. Unfortunately, the mustang herds are currently under threat of being heavily reduced in this area.
So what about Alturas? It’s the county seat of Modoc County and the hub of everything in northeastern California. All the basics are available – food, fuel, and fun. A few restaurants worth mentioning are the Lolo’s Taqueria on the left entering town before the stop signs at main St., the Stock Yard café a couple of blocks before Lolo’s, the Wagon Wheel motel and restaurant about a quarter mile past Main St., the Brass Rail (Basque) a little further east, the Thai Orchid on Main two block past 299, Antonio’s Cucina Italiana, High Grade Room in the Niles Hotel on Main, and a Chinese place across from the Niles back one block (I don’t know the name).
The Niles Hotel (530-233-3773) is a great place for local history, a good bar, authentically restored vintage era rooms, and unquestionably the most interesting building in Alturas. There’s a small RV park just past the county building on the left behind the city park. The park also has a museum and picnic areas. If you continue east on the road boarding the park you’ll come to the Desert Rose Casino. I hear another Casino, The Laa-Wee-Ja, is being built by The Pit River Indian Tribe. There’s also a golf course on the left entering town on 299 plus another RV park nearby.
Just outside Alturas to the south on 395 (and Main St. in town) is the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge. Heading south on 395, turn left on county road 56, about a mile ahead go right on 115 to the refuge headquarters – there are usually signs. This area is on the Pacific Flyway where much of the west coast waterfowl travels north to south each fall and spring. The Modoc Refuge is home to a large population of Sandhill Cranes. It also features Dorris Reservoir which has fishing, boating, and swimming. There are a couple of other small lakes near the refuge with good fishing. Ask for directions in town. From Alturas we will be heading in three separate directions with different postings. Going on 395 north we will head along the base of the Warner Mountains to Lakeport, Oregon. Going east from 395, we will go over the Warners into Cedarville and Surprise Valley. Heading south on 395 we’ll follow along the base of the south Warners to Susanville. Don’t forget to share your experience. See ya on the road.