Updated: Dec 18, 2019
Do wild mustangs, the high desert, lava tubes or volcanoes intrigue you? Then consider this portion of the California Backcountry Discovery Trail in far northeastern California for your next adventure.
Adventure Rating: Epic
Trip Length: 2-4 days, 204 miles
Season: June - November (check with Modoc NF for conditions, the final section through the mountains near the Oregon border often has snow into late June)
Technical Rating: Green
Recommended Vehicle: Suburu with all terrain tires.
Adventure Vans: Yes. We recommend a 144" Sprinter 4x4 with all terrain tires.
Alternative Routes: Extension to Lava Beds National Monument.
The Modoc covers more than 1.6 million acres, and is named after the indigenous people that settled here, who referred to it as, "The Smiles of Gods". The Modoc BDT (Backcountry Discovery Trail) is based on the route by the same name published by the Modoc National Forest. The route traverses topography that may be unfamiliar to those who've visited other regions of California like the high Sierra, Coast Ranges, or Mojave desert. Over the course of the route, you'll ramble past lava flows surrounded by prehistoric volcanic buttes and craters, semi-arid plains littered with sage brush, and the alpine forests of the Warner Range. The crowds seemed to have overlooked this part of California, so you'll likely have much of the forest to yourself. And because there are no large population centers close to the Modoc, you'll be treated to some of the best star gazing in the lower 48.
Like the other Backcountry Discovery Trails mapped by the forest service in California, the Modoc BDT can be navigated by a stock 4x4 (or Suburu with decent tires!). The BDTs that the forest service put together are a great way for those just getting into off road traveling to gain their sea legs, including those traveling in adventure vans (although we typically recommend 144" Sprinters with 4x4). Some of the must see places along the route include Medicine Lake, the lava caves at Lava Beds National Monument, and the wild horses in the Devil's Garden. We highly recommend checking out the various caves (lava flows) at Lava Beds National Monument. Cave Loop Road is a 12.5 mile out-and-back detour to Lava Beds National Monument, and features some of the parks most popular caves. There's a lot to explore here, so considering making reservations at Indians Wells Campground and spending the entire day there! Did you know the Modoc National Forest manages the largest herd of wild horses in the forest service? Most of these wild mustangs make their home in an area known as the Devil's Garden, which lies in the heart of the Modoc Plateau. The Modoc Plateau is a mile-high expansive prehistoric lava flow, with areas of sparse vegetation, rough broken lava rock, juniper trees, and sagebrush flats in a semi-arid region covering about a half-million acres. The plateau is thought to have been formed approximately 25 million years ago. (source US Forest Service). The final leg of the route makes its way through the alpine scenery of the Warner Range. You may be surprised to learn that the Warner Range belongs to neither the Sierra nor Cascade Ranges, but rather the Great Basin Mountain Ranges spread across much of Nevada. The Warner mountains provide a welcome contrast to the expansive high desert below, as the route tops out at just under 8,000' in elevation. It's not uncommon for snow to be found along this portion of the route in early summer, so be sure to check with the forest service about road conditions. The route finishes at the base of the Warner mountains on the California-Oregon border.
Dispersed camping is allowed and encouraged (find your favorite spot and setup camp!)
Indian Well Campground (Lava Beds National Monument)
Medicine Lake (multiple campgrounds)
Timber Mountain Lookout
Blue Mountain Lookout
Sugar Hill Lookout
Cave Lake Campground
Cave Loop road at Lava Beds National Monument is a quick 12.5 mile round trip from the Modoc BDT. Lava Beds National Monument contains over 700 lava tube caves. Some of the highly recommended caves on Cave Loop road and the surrounding area include Sunshine, Cave, Skull Cave, Mushpot Cave, Golden Dome Cave, and Hopkins Chocolate Cave. Lava Beds National Monument does charge a visitor fee. Some caves may be intermittently closed due to hibernating bats that call some of these caves home.
Maps & Navigation
>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions. Recommended Maps
Google Maps (offline enabled)
Gaia GPS (Base map layer & USFS 2016 map layer)
Modoc National Forest official paper map (Nat'l Map Store)
Download GPX files
TIP: To expose alternative routes in Google Maps, open the sidebar and select the desired layer.