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George Sexton descends through an old-growth forest toward the Smith River on the Summit Valley Trail. Photo by Brodia Minter

South Fork Smith River is a gem

Big wildlands? Wild and Scenic rivers? Old-growth forests? Remote hiking trails? The Siskiyou Wilderness Area has you covered. In particular, the South Kelsey Trailhead on the South Fork Smith River provides year-round access to adventure and natural wonders.

Long prized for its wild steelhead and considered one of the clearest rivers in California, the South Fork Smith River is largely undiscovered as a hiking destination — particularly upstream of the rustic Buck Creek Shelter after the trail enters the designated Siskiyou Wilderness Area.

The Smith River watershed is famous for its concentration of Wild and Scenic Rivers and is renowned as one of the largest free-flowing rivers in the country. Of the three major forks of the Smith — the others being the North Fork and the Siskiyou Fork — the South Fork has the best hiking access due to the old Kelsey National Historic Trail, which follows a gold-rush era mule trail that once stretched from Crescent City to Fort Jones. The Kelsey trail dates back to 1851 and it's thought that the last mule trail traversed it in 1909. It remains today as one of the premier backpacking routes in the Klamath-Siskiyou region.

While mining and off-road vehicle damage continue to threaten much of the Smith River National Recreation Area, you won’t see any of that here: The South Fork is wild, undamaged and beautiful.

The Kelsey Trail on the South Fork Smith River is one of my favorite and most frequent hiking spots. On my most recent visit there in late March, I was rewarded with showy wildflowers, views of snow-capped Siskiyou Mountain peaks, and a profusion of tributary creeks that were near flood stage. Despite the recent rains and high water, the river remained as clear and pristine as always.

One cannot help but be impressed by the old-growth forests along the river. It may be the only place on Earth where you can see Coast redwoods, Pacific yew, sugar pine, Douglas-fir, tanoak, black oak and Port Orford cedar all on the same hike.

It is possible to visit the South Fork Smith as a day hike from the Rogue Valley, but it makes for a very long day. Much like visiting the adjacent redwood state park, it’s a more rewarding trip if you allow for a night out.

To reach the trailhead, take Highway 199 just east of the town of Hiouchi to the bridge leading south across the mainstem of the River, which is signed for the famous redwood “Stout Grove.” Almost immediately you will cross a second bridge and hang a left onto the South Fork Smith Road (FSR 15), which you will follow a good long way to FSR 15N39, which steeply veers down to a former timber sale landing serving as a trailhead.

As always, it is essential to have a good map, water and plenty of gas, all of which can be obtained in Hiouchi.

From the trailhead, follow a short downhill spur to the riverside trail. From here, heading upstream to the confluence with Eightmile Creek is as rewarding of a day hike as you are likely to find, while longer backpacking trips into the heart of the High Siskiyou Wilderness beckon the adventurous backpacker.

George Sexton serves as the conservation director for the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.

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