Southwest Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness is the 180,000-acre, “big-W” core of a half-million total roadless acres. This region is (arguably) the wildest and most biodiverse landscape in Oregon, and the largest chunk of undisturbed habitat between the Olympics and Baja California on the Pacific Coast.
It’s also a difficult place to love. The Kalmiopsis is comprised of low elevation mountains lacking much in the way of geologic or aesthetic elegance, and is prone to extremes of weather and climate. It’s filled with scratchy, poisonous brush, scorpions, and snakes. It has a reputation for violent outlaw prospectors, solitary 19th-century holdovers convinced the crystalline waters of the Chetco will cough up enough gold to make their fortunes. On top of this, the Kalmiopsis was almost entirely burned over in 2002’s then-unprecedented Biscuit Fire, making an already somewhat unlovely landscape harsher on the eyes.
Yet the Kalmiopsis took hold of my imagination, and Kate’s. Our first trip here in 2013 only highlighted its paradoxical appeal. There are few places I’ve been that have made me feel as uneasy starting a trip, 20 miles down a heinous forest service road lined with shotgun casings. Or places where backpacking felt as much like tropical fieldwork, replete with heat, thorns, and pit vipers. But there is also nowhere else I’ve been in the US that can replicate its particular brand of solitude: a solitude rooted not in austere rock and ice but in living things piled on living things, a vibrant ecosystem utterly indifferent to your existence.
Part of the reason solitude in the Kalmiopsis is so total (beyond its discomforts) is the complete abandonment of a once-extensive trail network following “the fire.” Over a decade out, regrowth has swallowed nearly everything. As southwest Oregon is already the largest but least-funded unit of the US Forest Service’s PNW region, maintaining trails in a poorly-visited, scabby-looking burn zone has not been a high priority.
Which is where the Siskiyou Mountain Club stepped in, in 2010. Founded by Gabe Howe and Jill Stokes, the SMC’s specialty is primitive backcountry trails in Southern Oregon; restoring lost routes in the Kalmiopsis its labor of love. Two weeks ago, we joined Gabe, Jill, and their longtime volunteer Tom on a three-day backpacking trip crossing the Kalmiopsis from east to west. The route, beginning at the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead above the Illinois River Valley and ending at the Vulcan Lake Trailhead above Brookings, OR on the coast, is 26 hard but manageable miles. Bring a map and good notes, and be prepared for steep, rocky trails.
Kate’s writing about the place for work, so I’ll let her extensive research and narrative notes speak for themselves when published. I’ll only say it was a blast to get to see this fantastic trail in the good company of those who made it a possibility, and share in their enthusiasm for an oft-ignored place. There’s a lot of the greater Kalmiopsis region that remains vulnerable to mining, road-building, and logging, but little momentum towards permanent protection. The SMC makes a strong argument the best way to change hearts and minds can be with clippers and Pulaski.
Looking south towards the origin of the Biscuit fire. The route’s early miles are the bleakest.
Jeffrey Pine (Pinus jeffreyi) is widespread in the Sierra Nevada, but occurs in SW Oregon mainly as a serpentine soil specialist. Serpentine soils (seen here) are a difficult substrate for plants, thanks to their low calcium to magnesium ratio, lack of common nutrients, and high concentrations of nickel and chromium. Their widespread presence in the Kalmiopsis (and the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains more generally) is a major reason for the region’s outstanding botanical diversity.
The California Cobra Lily, Darlingtonia californica.
Dawn from our first camp on the banks of the Chetco.
Box Canyon mostly escaped the blaze and retains its verdure, a heavenly oasis after a hot and exposed climb over the ridge from the Chetco drainage.
The trail’s latter miles seemed to have burned with the lowest intensity.
Tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus).
Jill, the legendary “Barefoot” Brad Camden (our shuttle driver), and Tom, at the trail’s end.