I wanted to see this region from top to bottom, so I spent four days exploring the folded landscape crossing dirt roads, two-lane highways and camping along the way. In spring, the hills are usually covered with a fresh green mantle, but the hot summer had turned the grasslands a golden hue.
"We sometimes call this the undiscovered landscape," Schneider said, as we rested at an overlook atop Lake Berryessa, shimmering in the sun one morning during a short hike. "The reality is if we don't do something to save it, it will go away."
Schneider elaborated on the region's biodiversity, which includes herds of Tule elk, one of the four remaining subspecies of elk in North America and three subspecies in California. They're often visible in the meadow west of Cowboy Camp near California Highway 16 during winter and spring.
Later standing atop 3,655-foot Goat Mountain (which Schneider insisted I summit), I took in the view of California's vast coastal range as it must have looked for thousands of years. Roads were hidden, towns were obscured and all that stood in front of me were the silhouettes of folded ridgelines extending deep into the horizon.
In a state filled with people and sprawling concrete jungles, I was elated to know untouched land still exists so close to some of the people who need it the most.
I was at a dead stop in the middle of nowhere, and my guide, Laurel Sutherlin from KS Wild, an Ashland, Ore., environmental group, was pounding the steering wheel with excitement.
We'd been driving down a one-lane dirt road flanked by a thick mixed-conifer forest and swarms of butterflies when a mountain lion darted across the road. Sutherlin slammed on the brakes, skidding and kicking up a cloud of dust.
"Oh my God, did you see that?" he shouted. "That was my first mountain lion!"
The large cats are hard to spot and even though he knew the regions where they're seen, they had eluded him until today.
We were exploring the Cascade Siskiyou Crest, a dramatic east-to-west ridgeline that straddles the California and Oregon border in one of the state's most remote and hard-to-access regions.
At night while camping along the crest, I watched thunderstorms and sunsets play across the sky. On the second day I went for a low-key, five-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail to the summit of 6,969-foot Red Mountain, a serpentine mountain formation locked between two granite peaks less than five miles away.
The red-rock summit and 360-degree view were spectacular. Mt. Shasta hung in the air to the east and the dramatic, folded geography of the Klamath National Forest stretched out before me to the south.
I had seen its beauty in summer, but I realized that the nuances of nature meant I had to come back again and again to see how the seasons worked their magic on this place.
The last stop was the Modoc Plateau, a landscape locked in the Wild West of the early 1900s.
About 3 million acres could be protected if the area attains monument status, but I devoted my time to the 1.6- million-acre Modoc National Forest, on the northern edge of the potential monument.
I camped two nights in the Warner Mountains and spent a day driving around the mountains and plateau with Modoc public affairs officer Jim Gumm and recreation officer Jessie Berner.
From the air-conditioned comfort of their SUV, we drove dirt roads flanked by juniper forests and man-made marshlands used by migrating birds. Gumm explained that the juniper trees were taking over the ecosystem and how that damaged the region's diverse sagebrush steppe ecosystem.
Gumm and Berner both highlighted the forest's ability to provide a true wilderness experience, but in the end it was the night sky that really stood out.
Sitting at my campsite after the fire died down, the blackened sky opened into a blanket of shimmering stars and a Milky Way so dramatic I felt as though I could almost touch it.
Swilling a beer and resting my feet, I reflected on the last month. I covered 3,500 miles, hiked nearly 100, spent almost every night under the stars and explored millions of acres of land. In today's hyperactive outdoor recreation environment, I realized that slowing down to a crawl can make the small beauty of a single wildflower transcend all the grandeur of the Yosemite Valley.