Modoc County

Undiscovered California: Where the West Still Lives in Modoc County

Likely, California: population 99, with a business district that consists of a general store, a post office, and a windowless saloon. Modoc County: the northeastern corner of California, one of the largest and least populated counties in the state, bordered by Oregon and Nevada.

This is where my husband, kids, and I found ourselves staying in August, a few weeks into our full time RV travels. The questions “Where the heck are we?” and “What is there to do here for a whole week?” may have crossed my mind. To our surprise, it ended up being one of the most memorable experiences from the past 6 months, and a place we hope to return to some day.

Likely Road
Route 395 north of Reno

The 200+ mile drive on Route 395 from Lake Tahoe was truly remote once we pushed north of Reno. The last gas station before Likely is in Standish, over 70 miles to the south. You’d have to detour west from Standish to Susanville to find a restaurant. With a full tank of gas and a stocked pantry in our home-on-wheels, we set off on the last leg of 395 with nothing in sight but mountains, forest, meadows, and the occasional herd of cattle or horses.

Modoc County
Horses grazing next to Route 395

The Likely Place Golf & RV Resort was our home for the week. It was also the only accommodation in town. There was a small store at the surprisingly busy golf clubhouse, which also served up fresh breakfast and lunch, and a delicious homemade walnut bread. Back over on the main drag, the Likely General Store ended up being a gem. The well-stocked store sold local meats and sausages, and had a big section in the back with gear for ranchers, including tools that we found useful for RV living too. The service was friendly, and local kids sold lemonade on the front step.

modoc county
The welcoming Likely General Store

Our surroundings were breathtaking: desert scrub gave way to miles of open land surrounded by distant mountains. That first evening I took the dogs for a walk and witnessed one of the most sublime sunsets I’ve ever seen, reflected in a small pond edged with cattails. If that wasn’t enough to convince me of the appeal, the giant full moon rising low over the distant horizon, followed by a sky full of bright stars, did the trick.

Modoc County
Likely sunset

The next morning we ventured to the county seat town of Alturas for some breakfast and shopping at the nearest chain drugstore. The 20 mile drive passed through the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, part of a chain for the Pacific Flyway. We spotted cranes and egrets, and even some pronghorn antelope, who were busy ignoring the Refuge borders and grazing on crops in someone’s field.

Likely Pond

If you’re not equipped with an RV or tent to stay in Likely, Alturas is a good base to explore the area. There are a few chain and independent hotels in town, most notably the Hotel Niles from 1908 with a grand presence on Main Street. The Niles is reputed to be haunted, although our kids did not want to stick around to find out for sure.

The Wagon Wheel Cafe on 12th Street was a popular spot for breakfast, and we were not disappointed with the solid diner fare of eggs, sausages, pancakes, perfectly fried hash browns, and friendly service. The clientele at the Wagon Wheel was clearly local ranchers, in cowboy hats and boots and denim. We overheard a conversation that illustrated the laid back vibe. While pouring coffee, the waitress asked a regular customer, “Any plans for the day?”. His response: “I’m gonna go buy the paper, then I’m gonna go sit and read the paper.”

modoc county
Desert scrub and open land

An attempt to visit the California Historical Landmark in the area turned into an adventure. The Infernal Caverns Battleground was the site of a famous 1867 battle between US soldiers and the Shoshone, Paiute, and Pit River Indian Tribes. There is plenty of information online about the battle itself, but not so much about how to find the Historical Landmark. We ended up driving a few miles on a narrow, rutted, and muddy unpaved road that we were pretty sure was private. We finally found a small marker at a wooden fence, and could see six soldiers’ gravestones further up in the hillside. We were willing to jump the fence, but not to venture on the muddy trail covered in cow patties for a closer look.

Likely Landmark
The view from the Infernal Caverns Battleground

Much of Modoc County is federally protected land. There’s some incredible hiking in the South Warner Wilderness that we missed out on, being accompanied by a 7- and 5-year-old. The one hike that we did take to a waterfall and mountain lake was perfect with the kids and dogs, and we had it all to ourselves. After a drive into the mountains, with a gorgeous farmland valley that appeared suddenly, like Shangri-La, we found the Mill Creek Falls Campground. The falls were a half mile walk from the trailhead and pretty spectacular, with a 75-foot drop. We hiked another mile through thick pine forest, with the dogs happily off leash, to the beautiful and surprisingly large Clear Lake.

Likely Waterfall
Mill Creek Falls

Our next excursion took us to the Modoc County Fair, which we discovered from a flyer hung on the community bulletin board at the Wagon Wheel Cafe. Apparently, the crowds came later in the day; we arrived a few hours before the horse riding and rodeo competitions were scheduled. Still, we had fun exploring the grounds and the juried exhibits of local artwork, quilts, and an interesting category of all different types of “collections”, from vintage gloves to miniature furniture. The midway had half a dozen carnival games, and an enthusiast barker with a microphone who tried to encourage the few kids around to join in events like toy lawn mower races.

Likely Fair
Modoc County Fairgrounds

Our 7-year-old daughter gamely stepped up for the kids’ lasso throwing contest, which had plastic cattle skulls mounted on bales of hay. She’d never thrown a lasso before, and we certainly couldn’t give her any tips, but after the contest, a cowboy stepped in and gave her a one-on-one lesson with his own rope.

Likely Fair Lasso
Learning new skills

Lava Beds, an often overlooked but unforgettable National Monument, is in the northwest corner of Modoc County. It is a long but doable day trip from Alturas, about two and a half hours round trip, or well worth a stop on they way north into Oregon. (We moved to an RV park nearby with unfortunately not much to recommend it besides proximity, unless you like mosquitoes.)

Likely Lava Beds Landscape
Lava Beds Landscape

The surreal landscape at Lava Beds includes 700 lava tube caves, with over 20 at varying levels of difficulty that can be explored on your own. We had one of the most memorable National Park experiences as a family when we hiked the Sentinel Trail – over 3,200 feet in the pitch black except for our flashlights, which are helpfully available at the Visitor’s Center. The four of us were by ourselves the entire time as we scrambled over rocks, up iron ladders, and, for about one second, stood in total darkness when we agreed to turn the flashlights off.

Likely Lava Beds Explore
Exploring outside the lava bed caves

The National Monument also includes Petroglyph Point, an incredible display of thousands of individual carvings, estimated to be at least 5,000 years old, on a former island in ancient Tule Lake. It’s one of the largest panels of Native American rock art in the West, and another place we had to explore by ourselves.

Likely Lava Beds Petroglyph
Petroglyph Point

The rest of our time was simply spent relaxing at the RV park. We saw cowboys leading cattle through fields, lizards and cottontail rabbits, sunsets and sunrises, and shooting stars. We took daily walks, with the dogs running around off leash, in the miles of desert scrub around us. I found myself singing “Home on the Range” or “Don’t Fence Me In” as I gazed upon the intoxicating open land and sky and distant mountains.

Likely Offleash
Running free in Likely

The fact that we ended up in Likely at all is certainly part of the beauty of traveling full time: we can pick a random place on the map, without being sure what we are getting into or worrying about using up precious vacation time. But even if the answers to my initial questions were “In the middle of nowhere” and “Not much”, I would recommend Modoc County and a town called Likely to anyone looking to experience a slow pace and stunning natural beauty that feels undiscovered, even in California.

About The Author

9 thoughts on “Undiscovered California: Where the West Still Lives in Modoc County”

  1. The next time you head to Modoc County, try visiting the Modoc County Museum. It’s operated by volunteers with the Modoc County Historical Society and the Alturas Chamber of Commerce. The museum has amazing items on exhibit. It’s usually open during Fandango Days, an event held near the 4th of July….first Saturday in July. The event includes a wonderful parade, plenty of fun activities and food at the park across the street from the museum. Once your children become a bit older, the South Warner Wilderness will be a must for exploring.

    1. Thanks, Valerie! I’m sorry we missed the museum, will be sure to visit our next time around, and try to time it with Fandango Days. Sounds fun!

  2. very cool article! I just wish you touched more on the tribes of this area, especially the 11 autonomous Bands that make the “Pit River tribe”. lots of culture in the area. : )

    1. Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! I would love to delve deeper into the rich history of Modoc; thanks for the lead. Can’t wait to go back and explore more.

  3. Hi was hoping I could use your top photo in this page for a wayside exhibit I’m working on for the BLM. Its purely for educational purposes.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top