A Brief History

Bob Colby


The High Lakes area of northern California is in Plumas County. While the High Lakes are entirely in Plumas County, the most commonly used access routes begin in the north part of Butte County. On the north it is bounded by three small lakes just north of Soda Ridge, the north wall of Chips Creek, on the west by the West Branch of the North Fork of the Feather River, on the south by a line roughly between North Valley and the Philbrook Dam and on the east by the mountains that form the west wall of the canyon of the North Fork of the Feather River. The area is named for the over two dozen small lakes found within what is sometimes called the High Lakes Plateau. Mostly Lassen National Forest land, the average elevation is 5500 feet with the highest point the summit of Spring Valley Mountain at 6862 feet. The Philbrook Reservoir is within this area, but not included as one of the High Lakes. However, the roads and trails into Philbrook Valley have been and still are major access routes.


The High Lakes are traversed by numerous foot and horseback trails as well as roads, mostly dirt, some passable by passenger automobiles and others only by four wheel drive (4WD) vehicles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and trail bikes. Historically, these trails and the roads go back to before the Gold Rush Day. Some may have been blazed by Native Americans, probably triblets of the Maidu people. However, there is limited evidence of this.


Early Comers


The first white Americans that 'left their mark' on the country were Alonzo and Eliza Philbrook. Around 1847 they drove cattle from their small ranch near Chico up Neal's Cattle Trail to Cuddleback Flat near the junction of today's Humbug Summit Road and the paved Philbrook Road. Ranchers in the hot Sacramento Valley commonly drove herds to graze the cooler Sierra pastures for the summer and then back to the valley before the snow fell.


It seems likely that Alonzo Philbrook grazed his cattle in the valley bearing his name, but the first rancher that we know used the valley was Christopher Lynch who came in 1877. To that time travel to the valley was by foot horse or mule. Wagons could go no further than the West Branch of the Feather River so Lynch packed all his supplies and equipment as well as women and children onto horses and mules. Young children were carried in meat sacks slung over the backs of gentle horses and babies were carried in their mother's arms. In 1877, Lynch cut the first wagon between the Philbrook Valley and the river. In later years the Terrill, Crowell, Jones and French families ran cattle in the valley.


For another Bob Colby article on Philbrook     CLICK HERE


Mining & the Two Dams


Gold miners probably prospected the mountains and streams around Philbrook Valley and in the High lakes as early as 1848 although they left little record. Eventually a number of hydraulic and drift mines were opened in what became known as the Kimshew Mining District. Some of the more notable are the Brown, Carr, Cash Entry, Gallagher and Perkins lode, Golden Summit, Hawkins, Little Johnnie, Lott, Morris, Ream and Burnside, Reese and Jones, Snow and Wescott. About 100 miners worked these mines, mostly year round with supplies being hauled in before the snow. The Carr Mine is notable because it was in continuous operation from the late 1800s until 1980 when it closed because it was causing sedimentation of Philbrook Creek. It has been open sporadically since then


A small community grew around the Terrill's store and hotel. It was on the site of the current dam at the west end of the valley. In 1908 the Oro Water, Light and Power Company built an earth-fill dam; it failed catastrophically in January 1909. Then in 1926, PG&E contracted Henry J. Kaiser to build another earth-fill dam on the same site. Kaiser went on to build Hoover Dam and become an icon of American Industry. PG&E still operates his dam and in the 1940s started leasing cabin sites around the reservoir. The road that PG&E built from Humbug Summit Road to get Kaiser's equipment to the dam site apparently followed an older trail to Philbrook. It was used by cabin holders, campers, fisherman, hunters and boaters until 1970 when the United States Forest Service (USFS) built a concrete bridge across the West Branch. In the best of times, the old road was a challenge and the author has never met a Philbrook old timer who had anything good to say about it.


For another Bob Colby story about the Philbrook dam.    CLICK HERE


Getting There


After it was constructed, the 1926 PG&E road became the major route to the High Lakes and the Philbrook Valley, running along the north shore of the reservoir, past the Willing, later Jones and now Horning store and up the rocky slope to the Carr Mine and Lott's Lake. The portion of the road past the store is far older than 1926 and was an early route to the High Lakes. The road always was rough and rocky and when Jess and Cornelia (Lott) Sank drove their 1922 Buick touring car to the lake each summer, they could count on blowing two or three tires. Today, property owners have blocked that portion of trail above the Philbrook Store.


In 1970 when the USFS built the concrete bridge across the North Fork, the road from it to Philbrook generally followed a road shown on the Official 1901 Map of Butte County. (It is possible that this is the route that Christopher Lynch followed in 1877.) This road goes through the Philbrook Valley to the Carr Mine. The 1886 county map also shows a trail to the Lott Mine that follows in the same direction. Along with building a concrete bridge over the West Branch and new road to Philbrook in 1970, the USFS built a 7.5-mile road into the High Lakes from the road along the north shore of Philbrook Reservoir. It ended at the 'T' where the east branch went to Lott's and other lakes. The west branch went down through Chipps Creek and up to Soda Ridge. Although sometimes rough, the dirt road to the 'T' greatly facilitated getting into the High Lakes. Branching off of this road is the road through the Carr Mine that is private.


Another route from the Humbug Summit Road begins at a ford across the West Branch just below the PG&E's Snag Lake Dam. This 4WD trail goes around the southwest tip of Snow Mountain and up onto Soda Ridge, the northern side of Chipps Creek. The Pacific Crest Hiking Trail runs near Soda Ridge.


A route into the High Lakes from the south is the County Road, sometimes called the Concow/Philbrook Road. This road starts at Concow and also can be reached via the Rim Road from Jarbo Gap. The Official 1877 Map of Butte County shows a 'surveyed road,' generally following this one northward from Oroville through the Kimshew Country and the Philbrook Valley where it intersects the road past the store. From here it passes Lott's Lake and crosses Chip's Creek finally joining the Humbug Summit Road above Butte Creek House. This road shows on the 1886 and 1901 county maps, but not on the one for 1862. Furthermore, the northern part of the road past Lott's Lake, across Chips Creek and north to the Humbug Summit Road does not show on modern maps. Other roads from the south developed into the High Lakes from early trails from North Valley and Campbell Cow Camp. These are both 4WD routes.


There are several routes into the High Lakes from the east and Highway 70 in the canyon of the North Fork Feather River. They are narrow, switch back roads up the west canyon wall. One begins at Tobin and another at Rock Creek. Both end up on Tobin Ridge from where you can reach the Campbell Cow Camp or North Valley trails. A third route starts at Pulga and eventually connects with the County Road. Another way in from the east is the foot and horseback trail that climbs over 4500 feet from Belden on the North Fork of the Feather River up past the Ben Lomond Lookout site (1915-1933). In 1930 at age 60, Plumas National Forest Ranger Harvey Abby rode his horse from Butte Meadows through three to 10 feet of snow in the High Lakes past Spring Valley Lake to Ben Lomond and then down to the Belden Ranger Station


For more information about The Ben Lomomd Lookout    CLICK HERE


Getting to these remote lakes has never been for the feint-hearted, although many routes were traveled by 2WD vehicles in the old days. 4WD vehicles were not readily available until after World War II when the Jeep came home from the war. Actually few people had heard of the High Lakes. And while those who frequented Philbrook did not exactly keep the reservoir and the lakes above it a secret, they certainly did not broadcast it. Even with limited use, time and weather seriously degraded the routes. When the 1970 USFS road from Philbrook was finished ordinary two wheel drive 2WD automobiles could get to the 'T' with relative ease. Autos were driven clear out to the Lott Mine, but by drivers experienced in off road travel. There always was the possibility of 'doing' your oil pan and/or getting 'hung up' on a rock. 4WD or at least high clearance, low geared 2WD vehicles really are 'the only way to go.'


The Lakes


The High Lakes were always a paradise for fisherman, hunters, campers, miners and 4WD and ATV enthusiasts. Indeed, there is a sign high in a pine tree on the way to Spring Valley Lake that says: THIS IS GOD'S COUNTRY ' DON'T LEAVE IT LOOKING LIKE HELL


The lakes mentioned here are those that can be reached by 4WD vehicles and ATVs. There are a number of other lakes that are off limits to anything but foot travel

Lotts Lake is an azure jewel formed in a 300-foot deep glacial cirque. Many of the lakes in the High Lakes formed in cirques, depressions created when small glaciers 'plucked' material from the country rock.The lake is named for Judge Charles Lott, a 49er pioneer of Butte County. In the 1870s he built what became known as the Old Lake House on the slope of Spring Valley Mountain overlooking the lake. He died in 1918 and the building burned. Jess Sank who married the judge's daughter, Cornelia, built a small cabin in 1928-29 that still stands today. Jess willed the Lott property to the Native Sons of the Golden West and it is used and maintained by them. This property and the others on the south shore of the lake are privately owned.


For more Lott Lake history by Bob Colby     CLICK HERE


Less than a mile to the east is Spring Valley Lake, just to the south of the mountain by that name. A shallow, circular lake, it too was scooped out by a glacier. With careful driving it can be reached by 2WD vehicles, preferably with high clearance. It is a favorite for family camping. Trout fishing can be good here, especially for kids. Catfish were introduced illegally into the lake and now abound. The largest porion of Spring Valley Lake is owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, although there is some Public Lands are on the east and west edges


Bear Lake is two miles south of Spring Valley Lake on the upper end of the North Valley Trail. The fact that there are bears in these mountains is a good guess as to how the lake got its name. Fed by Rock Creek, it is only 75 yards across, but its isolation makes it a special place. Trout fishing is supposed to be good here even though there also are catfish. The trail is an old route into the High Lakes from North Valley and requires 4WD. Just below Bear lake is the remains of the old shingle mill, and possibly one of the reasons for North Valley Trail to get the shingles to rail cars.


About 2.5 miles southeastward along the 4WD trail from Spring Valley Lake the trail forks. The left fork leads to Morris Lake and the Lott and Morris mines. Before reaching the mines another trail climbs the mountain and eventually reaches the Ben Lomond Lookout site. There are nearly a dozen very small lakes north of this trail; only Chips Lake bears a name.


The Morris Mine is a hard rock, drift mine. It and the lake are named after John S. Morris who staked the original claim. The lake is known for its German brown trout. The 4WD trail to it is not without challenge, especially climbing back out. Starting in the late 1930s, Marion Hodges, a mining engineer lived and worked at the Morris Mine. He was sometimes called the Hermit of Morris Lake and hiked the 5.5-mile trail down to Belden for supplies and then packed them on his back on the 4500 foot climb out of the Feather River Canyon. He lived at the mine year round and one spring his remains were found having been chewed upon by a bear. The Lott Mine just to the northeast of Morris Lake was owned by Judge Lott. It is on the eastern slope of Mount Hope and was a hydraulic mine where water was brought by ditch from sources miles away. Both of these mines are private property.


The right fork off the main trail is a 4WD route that leads to Campbell, Long, Grassy and Saddle Lakes. There also are a number of other small lakes including Oliver, Murphy and Mud, accessible only on foot. Cattle used to graze in the meadows around these lakes. Campbell Lake is probably named for the Campbell family that operated Campbell Cow Camp several miles south over a 4WD trail. Some of these lakes have been stocked into the late 1990s and the trout fishing is supposed to be good.


About 1964 to 1966 CDF, using convict labor, with funds provided by California Fish & Game and P.G.&E. dams were built at the outlets of 5 of the lakes: Spring Valley Lake, Long Lake, Morris Lake, Saddle lake and Grassy Lake These dams were for the regulation of water outflow into the creeks fed by the lakes.


About 1975 the Lassen National Forest (LNF) began evaluating usage of the thousands of acres under its stewardship. On what was called the High Lakes Plateau, initial proposals would have created a wilderness area closed to recreational use. However, after consultation between the USFS and fisherman, hunters, campers and off road vehicle enthusiasts, only part of the area was designated as wilderness. In 1976 a recreational use plan was established that created an Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) area. 4WD vehicles, ATVs and trail bikes were permitted in this area, but only on marked, designated trails. Individual four wheelers and 4WD clubs volunteered to perform trail maintenance under supervision of rangers. A good example of this cooperation was the 2005 hauling and emplacement of several tons of crushed rock on the trail in the vicinity of Spring Valley Lake by four wheelers. The rules for vehicle usage worked well for years except for the irresponsible few who thought that the trails were not challenging enough. They made their own trails and generally abused the landscape. As there are no 'hard core' sites in the High Lakes, his has been an increasing problem. Exacerbating it was the fact that in recent years the LNF made only a very limited effort to manage and maintain the area and to enforce the rules. Patrols by rangers were few and far between. As result the trails degraded and in July 2007, OHV use as well as camping, hunting, mining and fishing in the High Lakes were severely limited by the issuance of a Temporary Forest Order. It is for one year or until the LNF completes the planning process and designates routes for vehicular use. This will decide the future the High Lakes and their use by the public. This order has been lifted.



Robert E. Colby is a local Author and Historian, living in Magalia, and an avid 4 Wheeler with a 1966 Tuxedo Park CJ-5



Bob Colby in JPMag