If you’re in search of wilderness solitude – look no farther than South Warner Wilderness. Note, you have to pay for the solitude by driving about as far north-east as you can without leaving California. Twenty-one miles south of Cedarville on Surprise Valley Road, this trip starts at Emerson Trailhead, which has a few campsites and vault toilets. The trailhead is at 5,829 feet, to make this trip a loop, head south from the parking lot gaining 2,000 feet in elevation over four miles to North Emerson Lake. On the second day hike to the top of Cole Peak, which is another 2,000 foot gain over two miles. On your last day enjoy a leisurely morning before hiking the two and a half miles downhill back to the trailhead. I would rate this trip moderate – low mileages, some elevation gain and loss.
I scouted this trail for a Leave No Trace (LNT) course in late June 2010, in a quick overnight trip. A call to the Modoc National Forest and I found out no permits are required for the wilderness and there are only a few bears in the whole Warner Range. After reaching the lake, I stashed my pack and speed-hiked up to Cole Peak. To get to the peak from the lake continue north up the trail, once you reach the saddle turn east and pick your cross-country route to the top. Keep your eyes open for the peak log stored in a cairn! After a few quick pictures I descended back to camp. I didn’t pack a tent to save weight on the quick trip – horrible mistake! I was mauled by mosquitoes so bad it looked like I had the chickenpox…
The actual LNT course was in late August; we experienced drastically different weather than my scout trip. The first day was sunny, but the next morning we woke to rain. We took advantage of a break in the precipitation to hike up to Cole Peak, took our token photos, and raced back down as more weather came in. One of our participants had to hike out because his jeans left him ill-prepared and another participant that worked for Modoc National Forest hiked out with him for safety. Two lessons there – cotton has no place in the back country and safety in numbers. It finally stopped raining at some point during the night, because it started snowing… Thankfully the clouds broke up during breakfast and our hike out was gorgeous with a fresh dusting of powder and blue skies.
Both trips were awesome and we didn’t see another group on the trail either time. Enjoy the solitude – but bring a tent and don’t wear jeans!
North Emerson Lake is fantastic and the view from Cole Peak is tremendous. The Warner’s are one of California’s best kept secrets!