This essay was submitted on February 3rd, 2016. We thank Ray for sharing his travel log and route with us. He definitely chose some challenging alternate routes to the trail! It has been unedited by the Bigfoot Trail Alliance and opinions expressed are his own. Enjoy.
HIGH ADVENTURES ALONG THE BIGFOOT TRAIL
By Ray Cooper
September 8 to October 1, 2015
Before I begin, I would like to mention that I did not follow the official Bigfoot Trail route. As always, I prefer to follow my own path. One of the beauties of this concept is that there are several opportunities to change the route as you go.
The Bigfoot Trail is, without a doubt, the best trail experience Northern California has to offer. I’m from here, and have hiked extensively in some of these wildernesses. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, I thought I’d pretty much seen it all! Be ready for a REAL backcountry experience that will bring out the best in route finding and navigation skills. This is no conga line for sure, nor it is beaten or marked. Please take a few moments to hear my story of this great adventure.
I live in Petaluma, California. I’ve been a long distance backpacker for 8 years. I average 3 trips a year of up to 100 miles with some approaching 300. I’ve hiked in places like Jarbidge, Nevada, Lost Coast and Yolla Bolly wilderness inf California, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho, and the Grand Canyon and Superstition Mountains in Arizona.
I read about the BFT in Backpacker Magazine in early 2015. There was a blurb on the side of a page that caught my eye. I got on the website and was able to determine the basic route. Since I already had maps of the areas, I started to plan my own journey. The biggest leap between wilderness areas was between Yolla Bolly and Trinity. I was curious how the Bigfoot did this. I studied the area between them and realized that there is no way to do it without a lot of road walking, or maybe forest roads that don’t really go north and south. It seemed like there was no other way so I planned to traverse this section on highways. Otherwise, the transitions between wildernesses is more or less straightforward.
My route started at the southern end of Yolla because I was coming from the south on Hwy 101. I also cut off the upper bubble of the regular route by turning west halfway through the Marbles. I had already done the portion of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) above there and wasn’t interested in doing that again. I would rejoin the official trail midway through the Siskyou at Clear Creek, (a wise decision as it turned out, because of fire damage in the northern Siskyou).
So, let’s get started.
I was dropped off September 8th at Beaver Glade, 4 miles south of the Smokehouse trailhead entering the Yolla Bolly. This was during a triple digit heat wave that was expected to continue for a week. I had been in the Yolla Bolly for 14 days back in July of 2009 and was somewhat familiar with the area. My description of the Yolla is that it’s a wonderful place, desolate, dry in a lot of areas, rocky and easy to navigate by sight. With a heavy pack and a light heart, I made my way towards the trailhead. As I remember, the only vehicle I saw was a van camped at Hammerhorn Lake. The lake was dry and I remember worrying about water. It was very hot and we were in a drought. I planned to stay high on the ridge and skate right through without dipping into the canyons. This was wishful thinking as I would soon learn. I was able to fill my containers in a small creek as I wound my way up to the trailhead at around 5000 feet.
I stepped into the Yolla and officially began my wilderness excursion. The trail started out easy enough as it made its way toward the ridgeline and Hammerhorn Mountain. It became scattered and overgrown in places and I remember having flashbacks of other wildernesses where the trail got scarce (all of them, really). Up on the ridge itself there isn’t a trail, but you’ve got a wonderful view and the ridge to guide you. As expected, it was dry so I made a decision to use French Cove trail to Soldier Ridge. It looked like there was water in the basin at the Cove. The spur was extremely hard to find and it was an indicator of what was to come. There was a trickle of water in the cove but I mistakenly didn’t fill up, thinking that there was some water in Minnie Lakes on Soldier. All that was up there was a mudhole, though, and it took an hour to get one litre of water. Blue lined creeks on the map were dry as I headed for higher elevations. I remember finding the headwaters of the Eel River back in 2009. I wondered if it was still the huge 30 acre spring like back then. Soldier Ridge was extremely hard to navigate. It had been severely burned and was massively wide. It was hard to determine where the ridge or the trail was. I did make Solomon ridge and camped in perfect conditions near Solomon Mountain.
The next day I made a decision to drop down to Cottonwood Creek via Lazyman Ridge. I didn’t want to run out of water trying to continue north. This is where things get a little sketchy. Lazyman started out alright but became more difficult to follow with a complete lack of trail, with converging ridges coming in from both sides. This made it difficult to determine the route. If you guessed wrong you could drop down into a dead end, then forced to work your way back up. Water was a big issue at this point. The elevation drop to the creek was probably around 3500 feet, which I knew would have to be made up. I made it to Lazyman Camp which was marked by a sign. The spring was dry but I knew where I was, and the creek shouldn’t have been much farther. It was unclear where the trail continued from the camp because it was a large meadow that had been stomped down. I did see a large brown bear here. He was about 70 yards away and we could both see each other well. I yielded the high ground to him as I carefully maneuvered below for a good look. It seemed he was curious too and would’ve hung out all day if I was up to it! I made it down far enough to where I could hear the reassuring rush of the creek and found a little spring to get me through the night. The trail had disappeared the day before, so when I woke up I pretty much had to wing it moving sidehill upstream. I did eventually connect and dropped down to the Cottonwood Creek trail. The trail followed the creek on the right but was difficult to pick up initially. This was a wonderful segment, it was beautiful and close to the comforting sound of water. I went for one last swim as the trail departed up the mountain towards Saunders Place and the Humboldt trail. It wasn’t long before the trail started disintegrating again. This time it was huge area of burn and deadfall punctuated with stands of 7 foot tall thistles. The thistles went right through my pants and prevented me from seeing anything. This would be for sections of more than a half mile in width, with no idea where the trail is. It got worse and worse until abruptly ending almost within sight of Saunders and Humboldt.
I camped at Saunders and was delighted to see that Humboldt and most likely the rest of the Yolla was smooth sailing. Humboldt led to Pettijohn then out of the wilderness to Stuart’s Gap.
Thus began the road slog of around 65 miles from Stuart’s Gap, White Rock, Wildwood, Natural Bridge, Hayfork, Hwy 331, and on into Junction City for resupply. I would caution anyone walking on roads through this area to wear blinders and keep moving. Especially on the approaches and outskirts of settlements. In the summer you’ve got cannabis activity and nervous folks with dogs that sometimes aren’t contained. They aren’t expecting people on foot, especially the dogs. I was charged by several dogs and learned to stand my ground but not to move. I had a tiny bottle of pepper spray which was probably useless but made me feel better.
The very nice lady at the post office in Junction City recommended that I buy some jerky because it was another 14 miles to Trinity and there were a lot of dogs! The jerky worked like a charm on a huge German Shepherd who did an immediate about face when offered the treat.
I left Junction City at about 1 pm with 23 pounds of added food. It was uphill and paved for 14 miles and my feet hurt terribly. I wondered if my feet or body was going to hold out. Amazingly marker by marker, I drew to within 2 miles of Canyon Creek trailhead. I could see the ominous granite crags of the great Trinity before me.
Hunting season was in full swing, I believe it was opening weekend so the parking lot was full. Bear Creek trail wound up and over a punishing ridge. At the saddle I encountered some hunters, but they would go no farther. The interior was mine I thought selfishly. I dropped down into Stuart’s creek and was treated to a well maintained rolling trail that followed the creek. This is the heart of the Trinity Wilderness and you could not mistake this. Granite sawtooth ridges and beautiful scenery to no end. I headed upstream to Portuguese Camp and up Caribou trail scramble which was well marked. This however was the most punishing climb-out of the whole trip. It looked like maybe 2500 feet and a couple miles max. This sun was on me and my pack still had all that food in it, or maybe I was just tired. The switchbacks were endless and long, and I actually had to stop every 15 minutes or so. It took the rest of the afternoon until I finally crested and was treated to an awesome view of Caribou Lake. I noticed snow on the ground and figured I was up at about 7500 feet. It had rained on me all day when I walked from Hayfork to Junction City and this was the remnants, and proved to be the only time it rained.
I iced down my soda that I keep for special occasions, like running out of water, and had a great dinner.
The next day I made my way to Caribou Lake to fill my containers. I ran into some backpackers who had come in from the other direction and I inquired about the South Fork trail. None of them knew what I was talking about and that was scary because they walked right by it. I was just getting weary of those black trails. I carefully picked my way down from the lake and I knew the junction was close. To my surprise the trail was marked with a sign! So I headed off feeling good, but that lasted all of a quarter mile. The trail came to an outcropping and the choices weren’t good. It boiled down to a side hill that would make for a ridge, and then two more drainages before dropping down on the Little South Fork trail. It was only about 4 miles, and it ended up being the longest 4 miles of my hiking career (Black Warrior in the Sawtooth being a close second).
South Fork trail had basically turned into a very steep and boulder strewn sidehill heading in the direction of an impassable ridge that was made of towering granite. I scanned the ridgeline and looked at the map. This had to be it; there were no other possibilities. The ridge was obscured about a mile away by a stand of trees, and I hoped that the crossing was in fact hidden. It took over an hour to get into those trees. As I made my way up the draw it was unclear if there was a gap. It wasn’t until I was right on it that I saw a small break in the rock that a mule could barely get through! I stumbled my way down the other side. The saddle was marked by a cairn so I knew where I was, but my hopes for a decent trail to follow were soon dashed. There was a choice on the other side, either impossibly thick brush or giant boulders too large to climb. I just started picking my way through, hoping for the best. I stumbled and fell a few times before I got to the first creek. Still no trail. I did pick something up on the other side and I felt it was promising. That went OK for a while then completely disappeared. This is an area of extensive burn and deadfall.
Somehow I straggled into a campground and confirmed my whereabouts. What a relief! Also confirming my location was the existence of four hunters who had hiked up the Little South Fork for two days and each one had shot a male deer. There were giant horns strapped to their packs, an unusual sight. The next day I leapfrogged with the hunters exchanging stories. They were firemen and had really exhausted themselves physically. When I told them about my travels, they seemed to recognize the great effort I had made. I’m sure they realized that I had made it across three different drainages to get to theirs. I mentioned at one point that I’m vegan, and could tell they were surprised that I could do something this physically demanding, eating only plants. I could have saved them a lot of work, chasing those deer around, and then the deer of course, and their families, wouldn’t have been needlessly terrorized and killed.
We parted ways at Summerville and I headed up toward Rush Creek Lake. Rush Creek was beautiful and the creek had many swimming opportunities, which I couldn’t resist. I camped that night in a desolate meadow somewhere below the ridge and Onion Meadow trail. Even though there was no trail, I did find Onion Meadow trail on the ridge and followed that to Fish Lake trail, and both were good. Fish Lake led to Trail Creek across a highway and up to the Pacific Crest Trail. I followed the PCT through the Russian wilderness into the Marble wilderness. I turned left just before Little Marble Valley and headed through a very recent and total burn toward Spirit Lake. I headed west toward Ukonom Lake around Tickner Peak and down into Tickner Hole. Again, a very beautiful and desolate area with no evidence of recent human activity. I had my sights set on exiting the wilderness at Johnson’s Hunting Grounds trailhead. If I didn’t, I would be forced way offcourse. This was a black trail, and I was hesitant, but I went for it anyway and paid the price. As I got down into the hole, as I expected, the trail went cold. On the other hand, Johnson’s trail spur is easy to miss initially, but then becomes a little more straightforward, for a while anyway. I used up the rest of the day getting up and down, and finally exiting the wilderness at about 3pm. I slogged my way down the road (the signs are confusing) and camped.
The next day I crossed the Klamath River and started my slog toward Wingate Bar. Surprisingly, the Bigfoot Scenic Highway (highway 96) was easy to navigate because of a decent shoulder. At Wingate Bar I set my sights on the Siskiyou wilderness via No Man’s trailhead and Clear Creek. This is a wonderful road to walk on as it follows Clear Creek into the wilderness. I followed Clear Creek into the Siskiyou the next day all the way to where it originates (one tributary at least). This is, hands down, one of the best sections of trail I’ve ever walked! The diversity of conifers is unbelievable. There were many species and they were huge, truly the land that time forgot! I saw no evidence of logging or fires. Too desolate for logging and too much moisture for fire I guess. This is California at its best! Clear Creek is much more like a raging river with too many boulders to allow for rafting. Olympic size swimming holes and the cleanest water I’ve ever seen. Up at the spine of the ridge, the trail, which was decent, intersected with the heritage trail, Kelsey Creek. I hoped for happy trails from there on out considering the fact that this trail was on a state map of California. No such luck. As I rounded Harrington mountain and dropped down to the lake, things started to unravel once again. I could see my way to the lake (which I determined to be one of the headwaters of the Smith River) but not the trail. The section between Harrington Lake and Gunbarrel Camp (Smith River) was among the worst. It came at a bad time too. I was exhausted with the uncertainty of not knowing where the trail is every 15 minutes. I’ll say one thing, though. It really sharpened my trail skills. I found ways to detect the slightest trace of a trail that I never knew before. When all my skills failed, I found new ones. I came out of Harrington, promptly lost the trail and made for the ridge up a very steep grade. I crested the ridge and was hoping to confirm the trail but there was none. I camped with only a plan to bushwack and stay as high on the ridge as possible.
The next morning I broke through brush constantly until finally I confirmed a trail. The ridge itself is not conducive to a trail so it veers to the left side. This takes it through old burn and windswept deadfall which is frustrating. Also there’s the notion that the trail could have made a turn and was now on the spine, of course you wouldn’t know it. It gets worst as ridges converge at the same time the terrain opens up making it harder to see which direction to go. As you may have guessed, the worry is that you would follow the wrong ridge down into a hole. It’s like this more or less until you get to Gunbarrel. Once I got there I couldn’t pick up the trail that continues down to the G-O road. I took a long break then, after picking my way down the riverbed. I actually found the original sign. Unfortunately I couldn’t see where the trail left the creek. I knew it was on the left and soon, but it wasn’t there. I committed to a cat trail and started up the embankment. It was obvious that this wasn’t the trail, but I stubbornly persisted up the steep hill. My thoughts were that I might be able to circle over and cross the trail somewhere. I plowed uphill through impossibly thick brush with nothing to show for it. The trail wasn’t there. I was at my wits’ end. I was almost out of food and I had an out in the form of Gunbarrel trail. Just a mile or two and I would be out on the road. The conservative side of me was winning out and I decided to make my way back down there before I got too far and couldn’t come back. I was finished. Well, instead of going straight back down, I started to arc towards the river in a way that was a little less steep. It was my last chance to spy the trail. As I emerged through some thick brush and over a berm that obscured my view, I spotted what looked like a perfect specimen of a trail right where it should be. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Just like that I was headed down the river. There were signs and everything confirming my location. The trail got better and better as it wound its way down the riverside. Had I gone out at Gunbarrel, I would’ve been tossed onto a road system that wouldn’t connect to anything for 20 miles in the wrong direction! I would’ve been starving for sure.
The next morning as I exited the Siskiyou, I realized that the whole wilderness had been closed because of fire activity (I had seen none). I thought, oh well, can’t go back, nor did I want to. (I do now though.) I thought, can you really close a wilderness, like a store or something? That would be a difficult task. In my opinion, the wilderness is always open; we enter at our own risk. We can try and close it, but we could never create obstacles more impassable than the wilderness itself.
From there it was relatively straightforward to the G-O road and the Smith River. This Smith was one of the cleanest and most magnificent rivers I’d ever seen! Beautiful and unpopulated, still on the backside of Crescent City. It’s an effort for people to get there, even by car. You can see the evidence of hydraulic mining on the side canyons. Then it was Bald Hills trail out of Sand Camp on the Smith. Still no redwoods, but I knew they would be coming! Up on the ridge and Crescent City was finally visible. I realized that I was beyond the point of no return for legal camping and assessed my possibilities for making it to Crescent City before dark. I calculated the total miles to be 27 if I made it. Food was very low, definitely no good stuff. Maybe some dried bean soup…. or the Thai place in town and a nice shower? My pace quickened. Then the redwoods started. First memorial groves, then constant 30 foot diameter redwoods for the next 6 miles as it grew steadily dark. It was completely dark by the time I got to the outskirts and walked by the casino. I decided to go on into town which I figured to be close (incorrectly).
As I passed the casino, the road tuned residential again and then there were no more streetlights, or town for that matter. It’s like the town disappeared. I was extremely bummed yet determined. I came to a “T” intersection and reluctantly turned to the left. Still no sign of lights or direction to the town. You’d think there would be a sign or something. Nope, nothing. Also, it was so dark, and there was no business open or people to ask. I started down the road, and thankfully a kid came by on a BMX bike and almost didn’t stop because I was a little too energetic. He assured me that the town was down the road maybe a half mile. Great! My feet were beyond hurting and I wondered if I may have done permanent damage (just being negative). After a record 30 miles I finally limped up to the door of the Thai place at 8:55vpm; they close at 9 pm. This is great, I thought, just in time. Not going to happen. The lady took one look at me and practically threw me out! Too bad, I probably would’ve eaten $100 worth of vegan food and tipped another $50! Oh well, she didn’t know, but it still hurt. It turned out that Taco Bell was in the parking lot of my motel, so I immediately set up a command post. Best burritos in Crescent, I said to myself. When I got up from my meal it was all I could do to limp across the parking lot. The next morning I felt like a million bucks as I always did. That’s the thing about backpacking, you sleep so deeply and dream so vividly, It’s like watching four movies a night!
Total days on the trail: 23
Thank you for reading this, my only regret is that you weren’t able to join me!
Ray Cooper Jan 31st, 2016