The Modoc Trip – Pyramid Lake

The Modoc Line heads out of Wadsworth in a north-westerly direction towards Pyramid Lake – about 34 miles in distance. For much of the way the line is visible from highway 447 so I was able to find a few locations to take some photos of the abandoned roadbed. The roadbed itself has been partly paved so it is quite easy to drive on. However being alone and not sure of the tires of my 4 wheel drive I decided to not chance it for this trip and kept to the main road. Smaller roads would leave the main highway and cross the line at various points so I was able to get a good view of the roadbed from these crossing points.

Here are some crossing points:
It looks like the roadbed has been recently traveled on. The earthworks for the railroad are very distinct in these photos. Not much has changed in 50 years.
I had a four wheel drive for this trip but didn’t trust the tires on this road. It looks OK now but who knows what it is like further along. I didn’t fancy getting stuck on my own in the desert.
Further ahead the roadbed has been incorporated into the surrounding roadway system.
I’m planning a camping trip with my brother along this route. The plan is to rent a Jeep and drive the complete route to Klamath Falls over a few days.
The Truckee River

The Truckee River runs along much of the same route as both the Modoc Line and the highway and what is interesting is the way it greens up the surrounding land either side of the river banks. The contrast between the dry dusty desert and this snake-like oasis is striking. In many places this strip of land is farmed.

The road, river and railroad parallel each other all the way to Pyramid Lake. In this map view the greening of the surrounding river banks is quite striking against the dry desert land around it. The area has very hot summers and bitterly cold winters that made railroading in these parts challenging all year round.
At this point I’m standing on the railroad bed. I wouldn’t describe the scenery of Nevada as conventionally attractive but nevertheless the bleak and empty landscape affected me deeply.
Where the river valley flattens out farms have been established. At this point however the banks are too steep and so we just have this weir that sends water to some farming land just a bit further north.

Pyramid Lake

After a very pleasant drive up the Truckee River valley I eventually reached Pyramid Lake. The lake is fed primarily by the Truckee River and has no outlet: water just evaporates out. It is a spectacular location. The railroad continued to follow the highway alongside the lake. My next destination was a town called Sutcliffe situated midway along the western bank of the lake through which the railroad once ran.



I eventually reached the settlement of Sutcliffe (population 250). Aside from a place called Big Canyon and Wadsworth this was the only location that water was available for steam locomotives. My goal was to visit and photograph the original water tower that has been left in place ever since this part of the route was abandoned in 1963. Sutcliffe was founded in 1880 by Jim Sutcliffe as a way station to serve as a camp for cavalry troops and an overnight stop for the Reno to Ft. Bidwell stage. The railway through the settlement was abandoned in 1963 when it was rerouted via the Western Pacific.


I was amazed that this was left in place after the railroad left town. My book on the Modoc Line contains a photo of a locomotive stopping for water at this point.
This would make fine modeling subject.

The roadbed heads north out of Sutcliffe and then leaves the lake in the north-western corner. The road pavement ended and I wrongly assumed that it was closed so I had to detour back to Reno and approach my next destination – Flanigan – from the Nevada-California border.

Leaving the water tower behind me, the roadbed heads north towards the next major destination: Flanigan where it crosses the Western Pacific (now Union Pacific) mainline.
A clear view of the roadbed from the highway. It it continues to be very drive-able upon and I hope to do that trip in September.


This part of the journey was spectacular. The lake view was really stunning and I can’t wait to get back here for another visit in September.

Next Flanigan

Leave a Reply