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The meadow at Pine Flat. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Howe

Pine Flat trail shows off natural and man-made wonders

The hike into Pine Flat is one of the more popular backpacks in the 180,000-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

The trail is a moderate six miles and leads to a dreamy meadow adjacent to a remote section of the Wild & Scenic Illinois River. In the summer, Pine Flat is probably the only place in the Kalmiopsis interior where you might actually see a person, or even a group.

But with a high point of about 1,700 feet, Pine Flat can be all yours this winter or spring as the transient snow levels rise and fall between 3,500 and 5,000 feet.

I you go, start out with the Wild Rivers District Map. From Redwood Highway 199 in Selma, head west on Illinois River Road for about 30 miles to the Briggs Creek Campground. The last couple of miles are only suitable for a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, and the road can be hard on your car or truck.

As an alternative, from Highway 199 follow Illinois River Road west for about 6.5 miles to Forest Service Road 4105. Head north on 4105 and follow it to School Flat, where the road loses its gravel and dims to a steep jeep track. From here hike the steep dirt road for about 1.5 miles to the Illinois River Trailhead at Briggs Creek Campground. The alternative adds mileage but uses a better road and could save some headaches.

Illinois River Trail 1161 starts with a bridge crossing over Briggs Creek. The trail traverses the slopes of the Briggs drainage and winds into the rugged Illinois River Canyon. In less than a mile, you'll reach Panther Creek and find the trail contouring a steeper, more rugged slope that spills into the Illinois River's north bank.

Building a trail here was no easy task. Laborers hauled the largest rocks they could find, carefully embedded them into the slope and built retaining walls that have outlasted snow, survived floods, fallen trees and fire. No mortar. No outside materials brought in. Just rocks from right there shaped with elbow grease and placed like puzzle pieces.

Take note of the next small stream crossing, Hayden Creek. After that is York Creek, which has a small Kalmiopsis leachiana botanical area around it. York Creek is definitive of the area's riparian zones, boasting a basket of flowers in the spring.

Beyond York Creek, the trail ascends up a south-facing slope through a forest exposed by the 2002 Biscuit fire before reaching the deep, dewy draw of Clear Creek.

Ignore the signs for the Shorty Noble Site on the Creek's west side and continue through a forest peppered with tanoak, Douglas fir, sugar pine, knobcone pine, western white pine, Ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, canyon live oak, madrone, Port Orford cedar, incense cedar and even some black oak.

At about 5.2 miles from Briggs Creek, you'll reach a saddle and a junction with Pine Flat Trail 1219. Head left, downhill toward Pine Flat. The last mile is by far the steepest and nosedives about 800 feet to the confluence of Pine Creek. Across Pine Creek and through the woods is a large, dreamy meadow with a few campsites off the grass. Always camp on durable surfaces and leave no trace.

The map may tempt you to follow the Florence Way Trail 1219-A to Bald Mountain, but that trail is overgrown, filled in with downed trees, arduous to pass and quite difficult to find in many places. If you choose to extend this hike to Oak Flat near Agness, head back up to the junction and follow Illinois River Trail 1161 there. From Briggs Creek to Oak Flat is about 30 miles.

On the way back to the trailhead, it's easy to get lost in the canyon views. But I'm always most mesmerized by the dry masonry that delicately holds long trail sections from falling into the river canyon.

The rock walls testify to the power of human capital. As we creep into a pivotal election cycle, it's a welcome reminder that people can and do work together to fulfill tremendous challenges.

Gabriel Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.

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