“Where the West still lives.”

Stephanie Buck
May 09, 2018

California is full of clichés. Sandy beaches line the coast, the ocean waves dotted with surfers. Hollywood starlets wink from the red carpet. Hippies and tech moguls (somehow) coexist in the Bay Area. Even majestic Big Sur is a well-trod tourist destination.

But there’s one corner of the state that gets little attention, and many residents prefer it that way. The northeast has been called California’s best-kept secret, a high-altitude treasure trove of federally preserved mountain ranges, lava beds, and desert.

And while it may be dry, it’s no Death Valley. Vast fields of juniper and wildflowers give way to dense ponderosa pines, and if you know where to look, gushing waterfalls bust through the dusty hills. In short, it’s an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, with a lot less traffic than Yosemite.

Rabbit brush near Schonchin Butte, in Lava Beds National Monument.
Jeff Goulden/Getty Images

The region’s borders are defined as much by culture as by geologic characteristics. The far northeast actually has more in common with southern Oregon and eastern Nevada than the rest of northern California, with its agricultural valleys and coastal redwoods.

Tule Lake Refuge.
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Mosey through politically conservative Modoc County, the third least populous county in the state, and you might spy its official slogan, “Where the West Still Lives,” not to mention a few shotguns. Stay for the Fourth of July parade in Alturas, the county seat, for prancing cattle princesses, vintage hot rods, and loads of country music. Brave the lines for a plate of popular Native American fry bread. Modoc is named for the tribe of people that from 1872 to 1873 defended their land from the U.S. Army in a strategic lava tube stronghold. The federal government has since established several tribal reservations and a Lava Beds National Monument.

Besides the lava beds, volcanic terrain abounds given the proximity of four active volcanoes that comprise part of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire. Mt. Shasta is a mountaineer’s paradise, while further south Lassen Peak is one of only two volcanoes to erupt in the contiguous United States in the 20th century. Thanks to its active status, people visit hot springs and mud pots; one of the more popular hydrothermal areas is called Bumpass Hell.

Bumpass Hell.
Witold Skrypczak/Getty Images

Cool-water-seekers will not leave disappointed, either. Burney Falls is a shocking 129-foot waterfall tucked off of Highway 89, a mere 60 miles northeast of Redding, California. Fly fishers catch-and-release from the pool at the bottom, but more flock to the lower Pit River. Or they tackle trout in one of Surprise Valley’s crystal clear creeks (pronounced “criks” in this region), but beware of mountain lions that shelter in the adjoining South Warners. Instead, discover tons of other wildlife: deer, antelope, geese, quail, and, in some areas, wild horses.

Burney Falls.
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Blink and you’ll miss the nearby town of Likely, California, one of this writer’s favorite stops. On close inspection it’s not, in fact, a ghost town. As of the 2010 census, 63 souls lived in Likely. Fuel up at the one-pump gas station in front of Likely General Store, a creaky shop that stocks everything from frozen dinners to firewood to off-color greeting cards. Next door is the town saloon. If you have an RV or a tent, camp out next to the 18-hole golf course, an unlikely yet beautifully maintained green in the middle of nowhere.

Warner Mountains.
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You needn’t worry about light pollution blocking the unparalleled view of the Milky Way galaxy, which bursts like a creamy paint streak across the sky. Stargazers travel to the region from all over the world; the high altitude makes for clearer air and better views. And the sunsets will stupefy anyone.

California as a whole is lacking neither great sunsets nor starry vistas. The state’s sheer variety is one explanation for the relative untapped tourism of the Northeast—that and its fiercely protected way of life. The Wild West is alive — it’s just not being advertised.

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