About the Forest
“The Smiles of Gods” is what the Native Americans, who first settled this land, called it. The forest is named for the county in which the greater part of the forest is situated. The county, in turn, is named after the Native American tribe, the Modocs. The history of the Modoc National Forest begins with the setting aside of the forest reserves by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 at the request of the local ranchers.
Separated from the more heavily populated and intensively used areas of the Sacramento Valley by the main Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, the Modoc lies in the extreme northeast corner of California. The topography is diverse, ranging from the forested Warner Mountain range in the east, to the high plateaus dominated by sage steppe and ancient lava flows around Alturas, and culminating at the Medicine Highlands (the largest shield volcano in North America) in the west.
The high desert climate in the valley areas consists of four distinct seasons and an average precipitation of 13 inches, a large part of which comes in the form of snow during the winter months of December to March.
Elevation levels in the Modoc range from 9,906 feet at Eagle Peak in the South Warner Wilderness, to 4,000 feet in the valleys.
Flora & Fauna
The ponderosa pine and its sister, the Jeffrey pine, are the dominant trees of the Modoc. These pines cover the gentler slopes of the Warner Mountains, the entire western half of the Forest, the north end of the Devil’s Garden section, and the ranges extending south. Mixed in the stands of ponderosa and Jeffrey pine is white fir, which continues on to higher elevations than the pines. Sugar pine trees are also found in the northwestern part of the forest, and lodgepole pine can be found in the higher elevations of the Modoc.
The Western juniper is irrevocably tied into Modoc County history and development. The Devil’s Garden Plateau may be the largest unbroken expanse of western juniper (Juniperus Occidentalis) in the world, covering some 300,000 acres. Other common vegetation includes the mountain mahogany, white-barked quaking aspen, and the purple sage.
Flowers of the Modoc are many and varied. Almost overnight following the melted snow, fragrant, short-stemmed star anemones appear for a short existence on rocky south slopes. In early spring, the rocky Devil's Garden Plateau produces a veritable carpet of wild pansies, pink and red owl clover, yellow primroses and pink shooting stars. Until quite late in the season purple lupine grows in masses all over the landscape.
The Modoc is home of more than 300 species of wildlife. The Pacific Flyway crosses directly over the area. During their migration from Alaska and Canada to Mexico, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl use local wetlands as rest stops. Rocky Mountain elk, wild horses, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope are some of the large, unique mammals that call the Modoc their home.
Scenery & Recreation
The Modoc’s remote location ensures recreational visitors a quiet, peaceful experience away from the crowded trails and campgrounds of the Sierra Nevada forests. A backpacker can go days or weeks without seeing another human while visiting the South Warner Wilderness. Views from the Summit Trail in the wilderness extend from the snow-capped peaks of the northern Sierra Nevadas and Cascades, to the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada. Auto tours and scenic byways also offer great scenery for those less adventuresome.