In the high desert of northeast California, Willow Creek has carved a scenic canyon through lava rimrock. From its source near Eagle Lake, Willow Creek flows southeast past the community of Susanville to the Susan River, which ultimately feeds into the closed basin of Honey Lake. Along the way, the creek flows through the southern portion of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) 20,437-acre Tunnison Mountain Wilderness Study Area (WSA). Willow Creek is one of the higher quality perennial streams in this dry region and is the most distinctive feature in the WSA.
The lava rimrock that defines Willow Creek canyon provides excellent opportunities to appreciate the outstanding scenery of the creek and its rugged canyon clothed in sage, rabbit brush, and juniper. Willows, native bunch grass, and other riparian vegetation line the stream. Just as visitors appreciate this scenery today, ancient peoples were inspired by these views in the past. The canyon rimrock is the location of the well-known Belfast petroglyph site.
Unfortunately, the BLM in 1987 recommended only 7,889 acres of Tunnison Mountain WSA for wilderness protection even though the agency found that the entire area to be predominantly natural providing good opportunities for solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation, including hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, wildlife observation, and petroglyph appreciation.
Alarmingly, the BLM did not recommend the southern portion of the WSA, through which Willow Creek flows. Fortunately, as with all BLM WSAs, the area is managed by the BLM to protect its wilderness qualities until Congress acts on the agency’s inadequate recommendation.
As part of the 2007 Eagle Lake Resource Management Plan, the BLM found eight miles of Willow Creek (including the segment flowing the WSA) to be eligible for National Wild & Scenic River protection. Unfortunately, the BLM chose to not recommend Wild and Scenic River protection for Willow Creek, due to opposition from the Lassen County Board of Supervisors.
In its wild and scenic evaluation, the BLM determined that the stream was free flowing and possessed outstandingly remarkable scenery, recreation, cultural values. The outstanding scenery of Willow Creek’s rimrock canyon is evident to anyone who visits the area. The creek’s outstanding recreation is largely associated with anglers who fish the creek for trophy brown trout, as well as hunters, hikers, and those who explore the rimrock to view petroglyphs. The creek’s outstanding cultural value is represented by the Belfast petroglyph site overlooking Willow Creek canyon. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places.
To protect the Belfast petroglyphs and preserve the wilderness qualities of the WSA, BLM established a parking area on the Belfast Road set back from the canyon rim and the WSA boundary. A short, flat walk leads from the parking area to a break in a low ridge of lava rimrock overlooking Willow Creek canyon. The Belfast petroglyphs are found on scattered lava boulders in the rimrock overlooking the canyon to the left of the notch. You will need to carefully climb up to the top of the rimrock to see all the petroglyphs.
Showing the relationship between ancient peoples and the environment, the Belfast petroglyphs may have been created and used by several different Native American groups over the last 2,000 years. Some scholars believe the petroglyphs are connected with solstice events. The site is a popular day-use destination for local school groups.
Past the Belfast site, the trail continues through the notch and drops down about 200 feet to Willow Creek, providing creek-side access for anglers and hikers. Overnight camping is prohibited in the vicinity of the Belfast petroglyphs. Although there are no official trails along the creek, those interested in exploring the canyon bottom can easily make their way upstream and downstream along the creek.
Directions to the trailhead: From Main Street/Hwy 36 on the eastern edge of Susanville, turn left and head east on Riverside Drive. Riverside Drive almost immediately becomes Johnstonville Road and then Center Road. Continue east on Riverside Drive/Johnstonville Road/Center Road for 10 miles. Turn left on Belfast Road. Belfast Road is a gravel road with several side roads that lead to ranches and houses. Continue on Belfast Road for approximately 3 miles, crossing a bridge over Willow Creek and past two major side roads branching off to the right. Beyond the bridge, the road is not maintained in the winter and could be impassable. Continue on Belfast Road as it climbs up to low mesa. Approximately one mile past the bridge, look for a fenced parking area, information kiosk, and picnic tables on your left. The trail to the Belfast petroglyph site and Willow Creek canyon begins at the parking area.
For more information on the Willow Creek Petroglyphs Hike: For road and trail conditions to Willow Creek, call the BLM Eagle Lake Field Office in Susanville at (530) 257-4831.
Caution: Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials.