The Siskiyou Wilderness is a wonderous place where mountains and meadows tower high above vast watersheds of old-growth forests while pristine headwater creeks feed crystal-clear water into the Klamath, Illinois and Smith Rivers.
Of all the wilderness areas in the West, if I had to pick a favorite, the Siskiyou would likely be my choice. The combination of expansive vistas, flowering meadows, ancient forests and sparkling mountain streams is a backpacker’s dream.
Doe Flat Camp at the edge of the Siskiyou Wilderness is one of the most pleasant Forest Service campgrounds in the region. Nestled in a mountain pass, its three campsites are rarely full despite being located next to a popular trailhead. A couple of picnic tables, a few fire rings, and an outhouse provide the car-camping basics without noise, bustle and fees that accompany many Forest Service campgrounds.
Doe Flat Camp is situated in a perfect location for enjoying magnificent sunrises and sunsets. Because the camp rests on a shoulder of Siskiyou Pass, the morning light streams through the forested gap below Twin Peaks before the sun rises above the mountain crest to the west. Fog often fills the pass and the valleys below the mountaintops before dissipating as the day warms.
Sunset from Doe Camp can be unforgettable as the orange rock peridodite geology of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness far below to the west glows while the sun sinks into the marine air of the Pacific. The quality of the light from this vantage is among the best I have ever seen and cannot be adequately captured by photographs or words. The light from this kind of alpineglow was what John Muir had in mind when he spoke of beloved mountains “miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, [they] seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it …” Once seen, it is a sight one never forgets.
Most visitors to the Doe Flat Trailhead come not to gawk at gorgeous sunrises and sunsets but rather to hike to the iconic Devil’s Punchbowl Lake five miles into the Siskiyou Wilderness. This granitic cirque lake is understandably popular given the dramatic cliffs, deep azure lake tones and dramatic views. Less-frequented hiking options lead to aptly named Clear Creek, Young’s Meadow, Wilderness Falls and Preston Peak farther and deeper into the Siskiyou Wilderness.
Local author and ecologist Michael Kauffman refers to the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains as “Conifer Country,” and the forests in the Doe Flat area live up to this name. With some effort hikers can spot 15 different species of conifers in a few short miles. This astounding diversity defies easy categorization as different ecosystems and transition zones blend into one another creating a forest environment that is complex, resilient and unique. Keep an eye out for the endemic (existing nowhere else in the world) Siskiyou native trees such as Brewer spruce and Port Orford cedar.
While the ecology of the Siskiyou Wilderness is undeniably fascinating, the human history of the area is equally interesting and complex.
Back in the 1970s the Forest Service proposed punching a logging road through the high peaks and meadows of the area that would have literally cut the wilderness in half. While conservationists fought for congressional wilderness protection, local tribes brought a case against the Forest Service all the way to the Supreme Court trying to protect mountains and forests they regard as sacred. One of the Native American plaintiffs described these Siskiyou Mountains as being so special that they are “not even part of this world that we live in. That place up there, the high country, belongs to the Spirit, and it exists in another world apart from us.”
Indeed, the peaks of the Siskiyou Wilderness have been an integral part of local beliefs and a source of renewal and inspiration for thousands of years.
Due to the efforts of the tribes and conservationists, much of the Siskiyou Wilderness remains just as intact, beautiful and inspiring today as it was for the generations who came before us.
To start my day bundled up on the side of a mountain with a fresh cup of coffee watching the sun chase the mist from a half-dozen majestic peaks and to finish the day in front of a campfire while the sun sets into the glowing Kalmiopsis Wilderness are great gifts and ones I don’t take for granted. We live in a special place and are immensely fortunate to be co-owners and caretakers of public lands like those surrounding Doe Flat Camp.
— George Sexton is conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.