Saturday, November 8, 2014


Exploring NE California’s High Lonesome
Part 1 of 3

There’s a place in the Golden State that is not of the Golden State.  It is a region where the summer’s air is clear and sweet and the winters come with teeth in them.  Traffic might consist of an F-350 towing a gooseneck stock trailer.  Heavy traffic would be two of ‘em.

The people who live in these parts must be rugged.  They must be self-reliant.  They must care for the land – for that’s their wellspring – and for one another. 

The Barrel Springs Back Country Byway offers a glorious tour with windows into both our recent and prehistoric pasts.  It begins up in Modoc County at Cedarville, California.  The Bureau of Land Management in offers a self-guiding booklet highlighting details one would surely drive right past.

Heading east on CA 299 we are well warned of those circumstances the locals must take for granted.  They carry fuel.  And, quite probably, blankets.

This being November, at 4650 feet, Cedarville and the Surprise Valley have been kissed by frost.  Yellow leaves on the town’s windbreak trees contrast with the deep browns of the basaltic cliffs.

The area’s geologic history is a story of volcanism whose chapters will continue to be written long after time ends.  To the south of the state route in the middle of a dry alkali lake, a thermal creates steam accented by the low mid-autumn sun.

Over a crest, the pavement ends, as does the State of California.

Although the rough topography does not.  The great basin and range of the United States’ west begins in this region, hummocking the landscape from here to Colorado.  Nevada route 8A proves quite serviceable.

The 49ers hopscotched over these parts in their press westward.  Volcanic mud cones may have sparked curiosity, but the sourdoughs had more important things on their mind.

The map provided in the guide is sketchy and doesn’t correspond too well with either those provided by AAA or the USGS.  Signs along the way confirm that we’re not lost.  Knowing that we were on the road to Vya – listed as a ghost town – and that it was only two miles further – was exciting.  We looked forward to getting out and exploring the ruins.

Within that short stretch a billboard – a billboard out here?!? – advertises vacationing in what didn’t exactly look like the garden spot of the entire west.

Turns out the “ghost town” consists of a few buildings paired on either side of the road and all on private property – that of the B&B folks.  But decay has been arrested.   

The Far Western Anthropological Reach Group offer s a very nice booklet about the site, noting that it was located in what would become the dry farming area known as Long Valley.  Fremont (1843-44) had been through here on his way to wrest Monterey from the Californios; Later, Lassen used the area for his cut-off.

This day, the only resident that wasn’t bovine in nature patiently watched as we passed by beneath him.

Not listed in the ghost town category, however, are many, many homesteads, cabins and barns – some long abandoned – but each standing for more than a century against the area’s elements.

A rustic post hewn of juniper holds the barbed wire that keeps us from getting too close.

The route, now Nevada 34, rises out of Long Valley then into and out of Mosquito Valley.  We pass Barrel Springs without knowing it and find ourselves on Barrel Springs Road.

The guidebook suggests we should get our and explore at Rock Creek: two hundred yards upstream and check out the low lava cliff.

Pointilated into the rock is an image.  The technique is the same as had been seen in the Nine-Mile Canyon area of eastern Utah.

Over the course of several hundred feet, more than a handful of petroglyphs have been etched into the basalt.

Curiously, none are more than about four feet above the grade.  In the eight to ten thousand years since these were rendered, perhaps a bit of the soluble surface has eroded and deposited itself at the base of the little cliffs.  Or perhaps, when Rock Creek rages, the immediate landscape changes.

Signs of leaching are present where water has filtered into and out of a crack in the rock.  Mineral residue covers some of the art.

Beyond Rock Creek, Barrel Springs Road reenters California remaining graded gravel almost all the way in to Fort Bidwell.  Heading south on Modoc County Road 1, we pass through Lake City and return to Cedarville.  

Over the course of about six hours we have toured from Cedarville’s present day (about 1950) all the way back to well before man ever kept track of something as superfluous as time.   

The experience prompts a great deal of respect for those who braved the harshness of this place opening the west to our tender feet, and to those who reside in this subtle place, possessing the mettle to make a go of it and the heart to embrace its beauty.


Resources:  Here further information about this scenic tour from the BLM:  and their guidebook:

For a little bit about the Surprise Valley, from the local Chamber of Commerce:

For more information about the Far Western Anthropological Research Group, check out: 

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

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