Medicine is a word of several meanings. As in, Take Your Medicine, or more beautifully, This Place Has Powerful Medicine. Medicine Lake is named for the second meaning, the sacred meaning, but the two seem to overlap here in the deeper meaning of healing, either body or spirit, and of course, both are connected.
Medicine Lake is a small lake in the bottom of a 4 by 7 mile caldera on the Medicine Lake Highlands near the Northern California border. This sweet little lake is just a couple hours drive from Klamath Falls, and yet I don’t often hear of people from Klamath traveling here. Most of the license plates are from California, with folks driving up the nice paved two lane road from Mt Shasta. It is a bit of a drive, off the grid entirely, so perhaps that accounts for the open campsites and quiet lake.
There are no hookups here, no cell phone service, water in the campground but not at the sites. We came ready to boondock for six days, with a full tank of fresh water and empty waste tanks. Generator use is allowed in the campground from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, but we tried to be considerate and except for one early evening movie when the campground was nearly empty, we only ran the generator for an hour or so in the morning to keep up the charge. We were careful and when we left, our tanks still had plenty of room to take on the extra six gallons of water we added with jugs and a funnel. Mo has a small solar panel and although it doesn’t support heavy use, it does keep the charge up throughout the day.
Medicine Lake Highlands has the distinction of being the largest volcano in the Cascades and the largest volcano in California. Unlike the dramatic peaks we are all so familiar with, Shasta, Lassen, Mt Hood and others, this volcano is a broad volcano with dacite and rhyolite lava and obsidian flows as recent as 1000 years ago spreading from the shield volcano for more than 30 miles in every direction. From Klamath Falls, the Highlands can be seen in the distance to the south, unassuming, appearing as a nondescript broad plateau.
Medicine Lake Highland’s volcanic area exceeds 200 square miles in Modoc and Siskiyou counties and encompasses portions of three National Forests including Modoc, Klamath and Shasta-Trinity. Over the last half-million years, volcanic eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano have created a rugged landscape dotted with diverse volcanic features including more than 700 lava tube caves. Some of the most popular features include Glass Mountain, Burnt Lava Flow, Medicine Lake Glass Flow and Undertakers Crater. Medicine Lake has no known outlets yet the water remains clean and clear with inflows only from snowmelt, rainfall and springs.
Driving south from Klamath Falls through Merrill, home of one of the best quilt shops in Oregon, Tater Patch, we continued into California on Highway 39 to Alturas, turning west toward Tionesta 40 miles or so south of Tulelake. The road to Medicine Lake is well marked, but narrow, paved but very rough. Abby and Jeremy complained quite a bit about the thumping, bumping rough sounds of the regular seams across the road. I guess they are created to prevent frost heave on a road crossing soils thick with pumice deposits.
The road rises over 20 miles or so from the juniper sage desert at 3900 feet to high red fir and lodgepole pine forests at nearly 7000 feet elevation. We watched the temperatures drop from the mid 90’s to the high 70’s as we drove. The skies were clear and gorgeous, with just a bit of smoke from the California fires marring the blue. In the past few years, we have planned trips to Medicine Lake, changing our mind at the last minute because of fires and smoke. This time we decided to go anyway, because fires and smoke in the west seem to be a constant and if we wait for no fires, we may never get back to this favorite little place.
We decided to skip the tow car on this trip, instead hauling the boats and bikes in a small trailer. We have traveled here several times, and spent days wandering the forest service roads exploring lava flows, obsidian flows, and taken in the views from the high mountain fire lookouts. This time we intended to relax completely. Without the car, we wouldn’t be tempted to wander any farther than we could go on a bike or our own two feet.
We arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, to find one of our favorite sites wide open. There are three main campgrounds at Medicine Lake, with the first one a bit more open and a sign says not suited to larger rigs. We aren’t quite sure what that means, because the sites are quite large, but the road is narrow. The sites are also not even close to level. We could camp there in a pinch, but the second campground, Hogue, is our favorite. There are a few sites in the upper part that can accommodate bigger rigs, but our favorites down by the lake are a bit small and not level. Medicine campground is the third one in, usually busier with lots of room for larger rigs. The Headquarters campground is farther west on the gravel road beyond Little Medicine Lake, and is very quiet, open and usually empty because it is a bit of a distance from the lake with no lake views. Another place that would do in a pinch if you drove a long distance to camp and there are no reservations here.
Our site 45 has a gorgeous view of the lake, a nice big picnic table down the slope from the rig, and for some reason there are two additional rock firepits added to the big one that was here when we camped last in 2008. A rocky trail leads down to the water and with a bit of maneuvering, we got the boats down to the shore where we could leave them safely for the duration of our visit.
We settled in for a great afternoon of watching the water, watching the sky, playing cards, and I brought out a decidedly sinful and delicious supper of old fashioned hot dogs, baked beans and potato salad that I made the day before at home. The site has only a small drawback. It really is a bit more suited to tent camping than a rig, but we managed to get the MoHo leveled and pulled in far enough that the back end was off the camp road. It is times like these that we are grateful for our perfect length of 26 feet. We can fit most anywhere and yet still have enough room to travel comfortably for weeks or months.
Our sleeping area looked out over the camp road, but there was no one in the site across from us, and the road was quiet, so it wasn’t a serious problem. The night was completely silent, the moon was low and reflected on the lake and the stars were brilliant. I wondered momentarily about the next several days. No internet, no phone, no car. Just a book, a boat, a bike, and a chair. Ahhhhhhhhh.
Next: kayaking, birds, and social life at Medicine Lake