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Sections of the Kelsey Trail require hiking over snow. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

A walk into history on the Kelsey Trail

With views into deep canyon gorges with tumbling waterfalls that slice through narrow slots; hiking along a sometimes rumbling Kelsey Creek and across slippery tippy-toe creek crossings; and, because it's still winter, pounding out tracks in sometimes ankle-deep snow, hiking the Kelsey Trail is a way to get away from it all.

But it's also a way to get a taste of what once was. This year, at a time when the trail is usually buried under snow, the supposed four-mile hike to Maple Falls is challenging but doable. "Supposed" because although Klamath National Forest maps and signs show four miles, everyone with a GPS or a tracking device on our hike showed the one-way distance as five miles.

Whatever the distance, hiking the Kelsey Trail is a treat.

Located in the Marble Mountain Wilderness 19 miles from the cozy Siskiyou County town of Fort Jones, California, it's also a history hike.

The historic Kelsey Trail runs across Scott Valley and over the Marble Mountains, eventually following the Smith River to Crescent City. It was built to transport supplies to settlers and placer miners in the suddenly populated regions of Klamath and Scott Valleys following the 1850 discovery of gold by John Scott at Scott's Bar. Travelers also carried food and other essentials to Fort Jones, a short-lived — 1852 to 1858 — military post 20 miles southeast of Yreka. In 1855, Ben Kelsey was contracted to construct the trail.

Historical records indicate 20- to 70-mule pack trains made the round-trip from the coast to Fort Jones in about three weeks. Barry Evans, who wrote about the trail, said a local horseman explained mules are excellent pack animals because "unlike a horse's scraping hoof, a mule's gait stamps straight down with all its weight, making it the ideal weight-bearing beast for the narrow and winding trail that was the original Kelsey route. A side effect of the mules was compaction of the trail from their hooves into such a dense surface that sections of the original trail are still intact and visible."

The trail was used until 1909 when Highway 199 was completed along the Middle Fork Smith River.

Our out-and-back trip began at the trail's east side from the Kelsey Trailhead 19 miles west of Fort Jones. The first half of our hike was moderately steep and snow-free. But as we gained elevation — the trailhead is about 2,400 feet while Maple Creek is about 4,400-feet — we tramped through deepening snow.

Frequent views of the river — sometimes rumbling beneath the trail — demanded photo stops. So did other sights, including a tree polka-dotted with orange mushrooms, shiny madrones, old-growth incense cedars, massive boulders covered and colored with lichen and moss, and ribbon-thin feeder creeks weaving through narrow, tree-lined chutes.

About halfway to Maple Falls, smatterings of snow began. Crossings over streams feeding Kelsey Creek became more challenging. One potentially slip-slide creek was made easier after we stacked large rocks to provide relatively secure footing.

Lunch was an overlook across from Maple Falls, a 33-foot-high waterfall. In summer, day hikers and backpackers often continue another three or four miles, and another 2,000 vertical feet, to Paradise Lake and then on to the Pacific Crest Trail and other areas of the Marbles.

It was late afternoon when we huffed and puffed back to the trailhead. But we'll wait until the snow melts to extend the trip to visit Paradise Lake and other sections along and off the Kelsey Trail.

— Reach freelance reporter Lee Juillerat at juilleratlee1@gmail.com or 541-880-4139.

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