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Larry Turner

SOUTH WARNER MOUNTAINS, CALIFORNIA—Some of life’s best surprises occur at one’s backdoor—an old friend out of the blue stopping for a visit, a flower that blooms unexpectedly near the weathered walkway, a glorious sunset through the screen door that defies description, an extraordinary local attraction visited for the first time.

This travel story is about the latter.

Not too far from the end of the pavement—after passing through picturesque and pastoral Jess Valley outside Likely, California—the dirt road climbs a mere two miles to sparsely used Mill Creek Campground, gateway to several treasures in California’s South Warner Mountains, the campground included.

Randy and Cathy Christensen
Mill Creek Waterfall
Dixie and Duane McGarva


Amy Hartell and I pitched our tent and organized camp for our sojourn. Our pleasant outdoor labor was soothed by the euphoric background sounds of cascading water—the yet seen Mill Creek Waterfall less than a quarter-mile away. Chipmunks, squirrels and a symphonic mix of bird sounds added to the outdoor mix. Any moment we expected the great Japanese spiritualist musician Kitaro to show up with a koto flute in our psuedo dreamlike state.

We had left the day before from Cedarville, California, exiting Highway 447 a few miles below Eagleville onto backcountry road 64 with the intent of getting to Mill Creek Campground and fishing Clear Lake that afternoon. A vapor locking pickup—temps in the 90s—deterred us from the intended arrival. Long ago though—as a seasoned traveler and camper—I learned to be adaptable if the unexpected happens.

Luckily, the vapor lock happening going uphill, allowing me to coast the pickup downhill—not an easy task—and park onto a small offshoot road beside Mosquito Creek near where it empties into East Creek in the South Warners. It was an event of good fortune as the fishing was marvelous and our camp held a wild view of the creek framed by a sea of fireweed and mountain arnica. The namesake of the creek didn’t live up to its moniker that was an additional benefit. That evening we had fresh trout for dinner with garden vegetable and a good Chilean cabernet wine.

One vehicle had passed during our Mosquito Creek stay. After a gingerly morning of successful trout fishing, we broke camp and headed to Mill Creek Campground, stopping en route at Blue Lake where I cast a fly a few times unsuccessfully from the dock. The area game warden stopped by and said that the Blue Lake fishing had been good, mentioning one lucky angler who recently had boated a six and a half pound rainbow.

Author fly fishing Clear Lake
Photo by Amy Hartell

Boy Scouts carrying canoe from Blue Lake
Mill Creek near exit from Clear Lake


We watched Boy Scouts canoe across the lake—led by their scout leaders, both California Highway patrolman—as part of a morning exercise. I mentally reminisced on my found memories as a Boy Scout at Oregon’s Crescent Lake’s Camp Makulla years ago. The boys, in all of their youthful exuberance, tied up the canoes to the dock, and then portaged them to a waiting vehicle trailer.

Blue Lake is a lovely lake but a catastrophic fire ravaged its deep forest in 2002.

Though we were enticed to stay by the still lake and jumping trout, our hearts were set on reaching Mill Creek and Clear Lake.

En route we visited old friends Duane and Dixie McGarva and new friends Randy and Cathy Christensen who live along the fringes of Jess Valley—both operating picturesque retreats for guests. The McGarvas own Mill Creek Lodge (millcreeklodge.com) and the Christensen’s Mahogany Ridge Guest (mahoganyridgeranch.com). We made a mental note to return and stay at both of these unique quest houses. The McGarvas operate a lovely bed and breakRanchfast whereas the Christensen’s rent out a full house—replete with a hot tub and spectacular views—sequestered behind a picturesque barn separate from their personal residence.

Mill Creek Campground is a mere two miles from the McGarvas. If driving Highway 395 south of Alturas, Mill Creek is accessed by turning east out of Likely onto County Road 64 followed by nine miles to West Warner Road where there is signage to Mill Creek Falls which is four and a half miles northeast.

Amy Hartell carrying float tube to Clear Lake
Fishing and beer bucket carried by Tony Ewing, Alturas
Amy taking a plunge in Mill Creek


After setting up our Mill Creek camp, we walked the one-half mile trail to Clear Lake, briefly exiting to view the surprisingly beautiful Mill Creek Waterfall, a hidden gem for this neck of the woods. The waterfall tumbles headstrong eighty feet into a ruggedly beautiful canyon. Rare it is to find waterfalls in California’s far east side. A word of caution, when viewing the falls, keeps a safe distance from the canyon’s tenuous banks.

Amy and I shared carrying the float tube uphill to Clear Lake—a South Warner jewel formed when an earthquake jarred two large rocks slides, blocking the natural flow of Mill Creek. This recent event transpired 150 years ago, leaving a lovely alpine lake a half a mile long and 200 yards wide.

The lake is home to an active brown and rainbow trout population although they eluded me during my brief fishing stay. However, while hiking the trail we came across two fishermen who had a bucketful of freshly caught trout mixed with their Coors Light beer that was still on ice. They gave us each a beer that we enjoyed when we reached the lake.

The Clear Lake Trail circles the lake. The route we took was across the Mill Creek Bridge near where the creek empties from the lake—a veritable paradise in the Warners. The creek is wide, deep and cold here as it makes its way from the lake to the waterfall.

We couldn’t resist as the day temp had reached nearly 100. Near a secluded pool, we shed out clothes and dove in, the bracing water causing both of us to lose our breaths followed by the hoop and holler of the shock, surely known in some circles as the “call of the wild.” I was charged, cooled and ready to fish. A triple shot of espresso could not have jolted me more. Amy—a braver cold water soul than I—lingered in the emerald pool under the stately pines and firs while I exited to fish.

Though my fly-fishing was unsuccessful, we had the lake to ourselves along with solitary mergansers with young in tow, a circling bald eagle and the successful fishing osprey. A glorious sunset led us down the trail to our evening encampment.

During the night, thunder and lightening awoke us. When the first drops of rain fell, I realized that we had forgotten to place the rain fly on our tent. Hurriedly, I got up and with a small flashlight—I didn’t take the time to find my headlamp—in my mouth I quickly attached the rain fly, just in time before a brief downpour. The smell of fresh rain on the dry earth—along with the soothing waterfall—made for a restful sleep in the solitary South Warner Mountains. My last thoughts were of a backdoor freshly discovered and explored. I couldn’t wait for more.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION: The South Warner Mountains are a unique range seldom visited. There are some wild flowers existing here found nowhere else in the world. The highest peak, Warner Peak, is a formidable peak (nearly 10,000 feet) requiring stamina and preparation if a trek is to be made. Two weeks before this story was published, a 50-year-old lady on a vision quest succumbed to hypothermia while in her camp because of an unexpected storm, lowering Warner Mountain temperatures considerably. Prepare one's self for the unexpected if going into the backcountry.

AUTUMN: Autumn in the Warners is glorious with ample color along creeks, lakes and mountain meadow springs. There is an abundance of aspens sprinkled throughout this range.

CONTACTS: Modoc National Forest Warner Mountain Ranger District 530-279-6116 phone or fax 530-279-8309. Visit Modoc National Forest at: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/modoc. BLM: 530-279-6101

LODGING: Mahogany Ridge Guest Ranch 530-233-4996 or visit their website at: mahoganyridgeranch.com or email mahoganyridge@citlink.net. Millcreeklodge.com, 530-233-4934.

LOCATION: Far Northeast corner of California. Nearby towns: Alturas, Cedarville, Eagleville, Likely.


Prints may be purchased by contacting Larry at Skiturn789@yahoo.com.

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