There are celebrated regions of the Klamath Mountain–preserved and maintained for our enjoyment as monuments or wilderness–and there are others with little or no designation beyond National Forest land. How does the outdoor enthusiast find these little-known places? In the case of the isolated botanical areas of the Scott Mountain Crest, the main route in and out is on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Dancing with raindrops from car to porch on any number of oft-spectacular Humboldt Bay days, I was hungry for a lunch date. As I shook my hands dry, the push of a bell initiated the shuffle of feet, a crack of the door—and soon after—a long, sincere, chuckle. The opening door revealed a smile to go with the laughter. It was the same way every time, and I always loved it. John’s spirit was contagious and he always brightened my day.
In the late 1960’s, after arriving at Humboldt State University as a new professor, John O. Sawyer received a letter in the mail from G. Ledyard Stebbins. Stebbins, widely regarded as one of America’s leading evolutionary biologists but also a lover of rare plants, suggested to John that he needed to visit a remote place in the Klamath Mountains known as Blake’s Fork. Here, he said, John might help verify a report for one of California’s rarest conifers–the Engelmann spruce. Stebbins hoped John could record his findings in a new database called the Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of California organized by the California Native Plant Society. With conifers calling, John and his friend and co-worker Dale Thornburgh went on a journey that would change our understanding of conifer distributions, plant associations, and wilderness in California.
Ecological amplitude is the range of habitats, often dependent on and defined by elevation, within which a certain species has the ability to survive. In the Klamath Mountains there are two species of pines that define the highest elevations–growing at or near the summits of peaks from ~7500′ to 9000′ (The Klamath Mountains get no higher). Foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) inhabit our sky islands where they are the crowning jewels of this coniferous wonderland.
Box Camp Mountain is interesting for several reasons. The first is that its summit is only 7,267′ yet both species of said pines live in this fringe habitat. This is generally on south-facing slopes where lack of competition from firs and hemlocks (which thrive on north-facing slopes) is minimal. When approaching the summit I began to doubt the reports of these pines being here; but in the last few hundred feet they began to appear. Throughout Holocene warming, these two species (and others) have slowly been retreating up regional mountains. Now, after thousands of years, they have reached their ecological climax on Box Camp–there is no more up on which to grow. This mountain holds the most formidably presumptive story I have attempted to read in a high elevation Klamath landscape–and what I read does not appears to have a happy ending.
Our adventure began in the heavy rain of late June. We waved farewell to Allison from the Canyon Creek Trailhead to walk the Bigfoot Trail–in search of wild plants and places–for two weeks. As we climbed into the Trinity Alps it was doubtful we would be able to hike very far because of heavy snow and high water. On our second day, as the rain cleared, we approached the dangerously swift Stuarts Fork and were, for a moment, stopped by Mountains and Water.
It has been several years since my last visit to Wooley Creek. This was far too long. The Salmon River Country is magical and I was fortunate enough to find some magic this wet northern California weekend when I spent the night along one of my favorite California creeks (Check out Gambolin’ Man’s take on my other favorites). Wooley creek roared as it funneled past the trail and my camp–draining hundreds of square miles of Marble Mountain Wilderness. It would soon enter the Salmon River, briefly, before merging with the mighty Klamath River on its way to the Pacific Ocean. It felt like spring as flowers and bud were popping in the wet (and mildly warm) conditions. The mixed-evergreen forests of the Klamath Mountains are waking up.
During this extended period of phenomenal weather, we packed our weekend bags to rough it on the edge of the Siskiyou Wilderness. Nearly ten years ago to the day, I pursued this route to reach Clear Creek in the wilderness, a new transplant to the Klamath Region. Had I known there was a cabin en-route that I could have rented, on the top of a mountain and in a botanical area no less, I may have never properly understood the hardships that weather in northwest California could offer the winter traveler. On that particular trip I endured snow and rain for four days, alone in Bigfoot country–meeting my first Brewer spruce, Port-Orford cedar, and Darlingtonia. I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form.
However this February 2011 weekend, surrounded by friends, it was mostly sunny with a strong chance of incredible.
Situated on the border of two major rock types, Myrtle Creek Botanical Area is floristically challenging as well as aesthetically arousing due to this unique geological architecture. Along the western slopes of the Myrtle Creek drainage, the North Coast Range meets the Klamath Mountains against an ancient island-arc accretion known as the Josephine Ophiolite. Plant communities are often defined by rock type, and this juncture creates unique plant assemblages. It is a place where complex rock interacts–nutrient rich soils of Coast Range meets the nutrient poor serpentines of the Josephine Ophiolite. It is also a place where ample rain falls, often in the amount of 100 inches per year. Because of these complex abiotic interactions, plants touch roots with plants in associations that almost never occur. For example, redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) grow with pitcher plants (Darlingtonia californica) and western redcedars (Thuja plicata) with knobcone pines (Pinus attenuata).
Historically, the drainage saw major mining operations transform the landscape when placer mining (panning) in the late 1800’s gave way to the more destructive–and potentially more lucrative–hydraulic mining during the early 1900’s. Eventually, all the accessible gold was removed and as the miners left the landscape, it slowly recovered. Today, all that remains from the operations is a major sluice where the trail begins, a ditch upon which the trail is built as well as several old shafts that are fenced in for protection.
The plants have returned and, with a few exceptions, are flourishing. The wildflowers begin in mid-March and continue into early June. Orchids, trilliums, azaleas, rhododendrons, mustards, buttercups, sorrels, wood roses, huckleberry, and more create a rare botanical legacy of unique associations–ready for exploration and self-discovery. Located within the Smith River National Recreation Area, the trail has interpretive signs to aid your discoveries along the 1+ miles to the creek.
Pictured above is California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica) growing on serpentine, which is not unusual in Del Norte County. What is unusual is that along Myrtle Creek it associates with salal (Gaultheria shallon) which is in the picture and growing just above–casting shade–is a redwood tree.
North Coast CNPS Page for Myrtle Creek Botanical Area
—– COMMENT: AUTHOR: Sue DATE: 4/24/2014 4:18:08 PM You said: “… a ditch upon which the trail is built…” This was no ditch, but a carefully constructed Chinese Footpath – the kind a person would see in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, or other Asian rainforest areas. In addition to a mining camp was a Chinese labor camp. They built the footpath – which used to extend from near the falls to what is now hwy 199. I have taken several Vietnam Veterans on this trail, and they are all amazed at the similarity between this “ditch” (as you call it) and trails they saw while in Vietnam. These Chinese trails are noted by drainage area on the ‘mountain’ side of the trail, and a berm on the “creek” side of the trail. This construction helps keep the trail intact despite wet weather. Unfortunately, after over 150 years, there have been some serious mudslides along the creek that covered portions of the footpath – making it very difficult to get to the falls. There are still gold mining claims along the creek, and in the past, these mining claims have been protected with rifles. But not any more. I love this creek, have hiked it for 40 years, and treasure the botanical life. But a well-maintained trail would be nice. I would love to be able to hike to the falls again on a real trail.
Sue- Thanks for the comment. Sounds like you have a great understanding and appreciation for this wonderful creek canyon. I am sorry if I offended you by calling it a ditch, I know better now! -Michael
Surely one of the most beautiful rivers in the state of California, this wild and untraveled stretch of the South Fork Trinity River is a special place to visit. South Fork Road ends 11 miles from where it begins at the junction of the South Fork and Main Fork, and for over 10 miles, runs wild and free from human disturbance–upstream to the isolated hamlet of Hyampom. The entire South Fork of the Trinity River is designated as wild and scenic, but the Hell’s Half Acre section is the epitome of this wild and scenic designation.
With the end of the school year in site, my calcifuge tendencies had me running to the hills. Ever since our winter trip to Hawaii I have been pondering the Ericaceae family, gaining a new found love for this diverse group of plants. I also knew that they, like me, had a propensity to ‘flee from chalk’ so to speak. Ericaceous plants generally prefer, if not acidic soil, a harsh medium on which to grow. Could this familial disposition–to thrive in the presence of harsh soil–be due to the extant members of this tribe having evolved from a common ancestor? I thought I must visit one of the oldest members of the family and get to know where they grew and what they knew or could share. Though I have been hearing the call of the Kalmiopsis for many years, I had failed to yet make the trek into this remote country. With snow lingering this spring, keeping me from my typical high Siskiyou destinations, the time was right for Oregon’s second largest wilderness. The lower elevation wilderness is so named after a relict plant Lilla and John Leach discovered here in 1930.
I did not embark on a typical backpacking trip in late June–but it wasn’t a typical spring. Snow lingered in the high country and the big miles and long trails I had come to expect in June did not present those hiking opportunities. The landscape was set short and deep for foot travel as snow pack nourished the aquifers of the Klamath Mountains. I knew I needed to start my summer in the Siskiyous because–besides that fact that they are becoming my sacred place–the range is both lower elevation and more temperate that other ranges in the Klamath Mountains to the east. This would surely allow the high country access I was yearning for.
In 1969 Dale Thornburgh and John Sawyer discovered the first subalpine fir in California and also in the Klamath Mountains. This discovery was made in the vicinity of Russian Peak in what is now the Russian Wilderness. Since that time the species has been found in a total of eight locations in California’s Klamath Mountains and twice in Oregon’s Klamath. One of those Oregon locations is near Mt. Ashland and the other was recently discovered by Frank Callahan to the east in the Red Buttes Wilderness. This second location, in an isolated cirque on the north side of Tannen Peak was my destination–with Frank Callahan as my guide.Continue reading “Subalpine Fir in the Red Buttes Wilderness”
Venturing east on Highway 299 from Humboldt Bay, a stark transition–rarely noticed by travelers–occurs at Berry Summit (2900 ft). Leaving the Coast Range and entering the Klamath Mountains the landscape becomes defined by varied, complex rock types. One of these unusual rock types is known as ultramafic rock or more commonly as Serpentine. In North America, serpentine rock appears at the Earth’s surface most frequently in northwest California. The Horse Mountain Botanical Area (HMBA) is a celebration of the rock and climate that interact to create unique high elevation plant communities. In coastal northwest California, spring has arrived. Allison and I did not want winter to pass us by–we were ready for some snow play. Packing our snowshoes and lunch, we drove to the snow of the HMBA in the Klamath Mountains in less than an hour.
High above the headwaters of the Salmon River and Coffee Creek, the remarkable ascension of Packers Peak is surprising next to the seemingly superlative granite of the Alps. The peak is a pedestal on which to perch, understand, and enjoy the complex Trinity Alps Wilderness that surrounds you. It is a steep climb from Big Flat, at the end of Coffee Creek Road, to reach this vantage point; but if you are willing to climb the nearly 3,000 feet in just under 3 miles, you will be rewarded.
Gaining an understanding of geology and fire ecology
I had often pondered a high and extensive ridgeline in the middle of the Trinity Alps Wilderness from other mountain top vantage points on which I stood–at one point or another–in my adventures in the Klamath Mountains. It took me several years to realize this jagged range had its own name and many years more to actually get to this isolated place. Finally, in October, I climbed my way into the high country known as Limestone Ridge. I had read this extensive ridgeline (over 3 miles long) was one of the best examples of Karst topography in western North America. This summer, the spectacular Marble Mountain was my first introduction to Karst limestone landscape in the Klamath so I assiduously pursued a chance to see more. With those distant images and arresting words burned on my brain I was finally climbing–up–up–up–from Hobo Gulch in the Trinity River Canyon.
In the hinterland of northwest California, the Smith River’s crystal blue waters drain abruptly from the Siskiyou Mountains toward the Pacific Ocean—along the way gouging out sparkling canyons through ancient serpentine rock. High levels of precipitation coupled with serpentine geology have fostered unique plant communities in this region. Because the serpentines soils of the Josephine Ophiolite are rich in heavy metals the ecosystem appears infertile. Seemingly sparse red-rock forests endure in stark contrast to the lush redwood forests of the North Coast Range only a few miles away. But upon closer inspection, the red-rock nurtures plant communities that are species rich and teeming with life. Continue reading “Carnivorous Plants of the Smith River Region ~ Stoney Creek Trail”