Cedarville and the Surprise Valley are located in the far northeast corner of California. Most travelers avoid this gateway to the Great Basin as, at least according to the all but most detailed maps, the road in appears lead nowhere.
While it’s true that this excursion is most appropriate for the adventuress souls, it’s the kind of place that once visited will tend to call you back. Leaving Alturas on 395 north about seven miles ahead make a right turn on Highway 299 going over the Warner Mountains and on to Cedarville. The road winds up to Cedar Pass following the small creeks draining east and west. Most the upper elevation area is part of Modoc National Forest. There’s a campground on the right before Cedar Pass and another on the left about a mile and half after the pass. The latter campground, called Stough, is particularly attractive and very lightly used. It’s an easy mile in from the highway and offers a small fishing pond with consistently good action and nicely sheltered sites in a conifer forest surrounded by towering rock formations. There’s a very small sign on the highway indicating the road to the campground, so be attentive. Probably not appropriate for real large RV’s.
A little further towards Cedarville on 299 is the Cedar Pass Snow Park on the right. There’s what appears to be a rope pull lift with minimum facilities. That aside, it’s reported to be a great area for down hilling and cross country skiing. Apparently run by volunteers, the last few winters have not produced enough snow to allow much use, but this year the snow came back. There’s also a nature trail along Cedar Creek with descriptive signage explaining the flora and fauna – best in the spring while the creek is still running. Continue down the east side of the Warmers on 299 to Cedarville.
The town appears to have been air freighted in from Kansas. Probably more than anything else it’s the emptiness of this country that attracts. At the risk of being overly philosophical, one tends to shed the everyday concerns of life, sex, money, and death. There’s too much space for myopic introspection. While it’s probably not true for everyone, the vastness tends to induce clarity. Some may equate it with a religious experience. The cleansing sensation for me is more physical as I can see how small I actually am in the grand scope of things. I like Cedarville and the Surprise Valley. But enough – it’s time for a beer.
On the right as you descend the mountains is the Modoc County fairground, which offers some fun activities over the warm weather season. The fairgrounds also has a RV park, as do many of the rural fair sites throughout the west. There’s a relatively new gas station/mini mart with decent pricing. Ahead, at the stop sign, is main street with most the offerings to the right or south. This is actually Highway 1 and 81 which runs from Fort Bidwell to the north through Cedarville, on to Eagleville and finally turns east into Nevada. There’s an undeveloped hot spring near Eagleville reportedly along the highway if you want a hot soak. The road skirts the east side of the Warner Mountains most the way. A few miles past Eagleville on the right or west side, is a decent gravel road that leads over the south Warner mountains. Just past the summit is a very poor road that goes to Lost Lake, one of the true gems of the Warners. Good fishing, but the road is so poor that only the toughest of four wheel drives can pass. Slow and careful is the key. This road continues on to Jess Valley and Blue Lake to the west.
Turning right on Main Street which, for all intent is about four blocks long, are a number of restaurants, shops, places of lodging, and even a bookstore and publishing house. We’ve eaten at most and can recommend them without reservation. You wouldn’t find chain style food, but no restaurant will last long in a small community that doesn’t deliver the goods. At the end of July is an annual barbecue well worth a trip. The Surprise Café is a San Francisco style coffee house with occasional music and poetry. We heard some local ‘cowboy’ poets there one night that had us laughing out loud. There’s a bar called The Station which, at least at last visit, was open on Friday and Saturday nights. We spent a fun night there with the local ranch hands and their ladies – drinking, dancing, and pretending to be young once again. Rumor has it that the Station now has a Tapas bar. Go figure.
One true gem in Cedarville is a radio station at 89.1 known as ‘The Fine 89’. It is part the Open Sky Radio with four stations throughout northern Nevada and north eastern California. It’s a non-profit, listener supported network nothing like NPR. The music is none stop, eclectic, and better than anything I’ve ever encountered on the radio. The creative souls who put this together deserve support and a big thank-you.
The town has a number of motels but one place that stands out is the Surprise Valley Hot Springs. At the Main Street stop sign, keep going east across the Playa or dry lake bed about five miles. On the right you’ll see the hot springs and motel. This is a class operation. Each room, which are large with kitchenettes, has an outside private spa with water pumped in from the hot springs. There are also a number of accommodates available on outlying ranches. Check the Chamber of Commerce website for more info. If you want a taste of the real west, Cedarville delivers.
A number of interesting side trips are available. I recommend taking 299 east a few miles out of town on to the Playa and turning off the highway to the south on the Playa proper. Drive about a mile out over the dry lake bed. You can poke around, play with a Frisbee, or just look to the south where the playa is vast enough to see the curvature of the earth. Obviously a clear day and open mind help.
If you continue east on 299 the road turns into gravel and eventually leads to Nevada and Oregon. This is a fair weather route and only advisable in late spring through early fall. The terrain is high desert mountains with some interesting geological formations. It’s not a route you can find on MapQuest and has absolutely no services. It is nonetheless, for the adventurous, worth the trip and a back door into south eastern Oregon – one of our favorite places.
From Cedarville north you can take the Surprise Valley Road to Lake City and Fort Bidwell along the eastern edge of the Warner Mountains. There’s nothing much in basic necessities up this way, so stock up and be prepared, particularly in winter months. Fort Bidwell was originally an Army base established in the 1850’s to protect the early emigrants on the Lassen and Applegate Trails as well as ore trains traveling from Idaho to Northern California. As was common throughout the area, relationships between the Indians and whites were contentious and led to a number of conflicts and extended “wars”. A couple of good websites for information about the Native Americans and emigrants are Trails West and Sierra Nevada Geotourism.