If the redwood forests — often eerily quiet, cathedral-like places with still, heavy air and soft, needle-strewn trails — are the main event for travelers to Hiouchi and the bnb, you might wonder why I would recommend an upland, arid, wind-swept and inordinately rocky trail. Believe me, this is one of the most dramatic trails in the area. And while we absolutely adore the redwoods and the many nearby hikes that loop through the ancient forest and alongside clear and free-flowing rivers and creeks, every so often it feels great to bask in a warm sun and breathe the dry air of the hillsides and mountains to the east.
So if you can open your mind for just bit, and if you have the time to spare on your trip to the forest, this trail will reward that itch to explore further. And it’s so close, so accessible, and so seldom-traveled that it may go down as one of your favorites.
I hiked this trail in a recent late-January. It was a crispy cold and clear day — a day on the tail end of about five consecutive dry days in the redwoods. The air was crystalline and pure, the wind blew strong from the north, and the views of the snow-capped Siskiyou Range to the east, as well as a high and snowy ridge far to the north, were unimpeded. It was a glorious day to be outside.
A couple of distinct features makes this trail unique. The trailhead starts above Panther Flat, an area that was badly burned during an epic 1996 forest fire. Hundreds of spindly tree trunks speckle the hillside both above and below the first half mile or so of the trail. The trail then climbs above the fire-damaged terrain and threads through a dense concentration of fir and pine. Then it’s another costume change as the trees thin, the sky opens up, and the rocky trail begins. And it goes on and on and on. It’s the rocky terrain that’s behind the absence of trees — so many rocks and so little earth. But that’s not to suggest there are no trees at all on the trail. As you look to the east toward the Siskiyous, trees are all you see. Yes, the middle fork of the Smith is down there as is Hwy. 199, but they are hidden beneath the vast expanse of green.
After about two miles, the trail jumps a ridge top, the Siskiyous disappear and it’s only rolling hills and distant mountains to the north that you’ll see. We passed by a few patches of snow and the air temp dropped a degree or two as we climbed. With the tormented trunks of Manzanita everywhere (as well as a dense understory of shrub Manzanita) and more fir and pine, the feeling was Rocky Mountains and Sierras much more than coastal.
We followed the trail about three miles in though the full length of the trail is 8.2 miles. We promised ourselves to get back to this trail and follow it further.
It’s a nice drive to Gasquet, alongside the middle fork of the Smith, and a challenging few miles on the old toll road. Then a seldom-used Forest Service road gets you to the trailhead or close to it. This hike — one of the lesser-trod trails of the Smith River National Recreation Area — is well worth the diversion from the redwoods if you have the time and inclination to explore.
Elk Camp Ridge Trail
Length: 16.4 miles round trip
Trail Type: one-way in, one-way out
Difficulty: Moderate to demanding as there are stretches of steep climbs and descents. Walking sticks recommended for those with knee issues. Rocky stretches require concentration.
Location, distance from bnb~hiouchi: The trailhead is at the end of FS18N10, a dirt, gravel and often rutted Forest Service-maintained road. From the bnb go east on Hwy 199 toward Gasquet. After about nine miles you’ll arrive at Gasquet with its handful of stores and cafes. At the far end of town, on your left, you’ll see the Gasquet Market and US Post Office. Make a left at the Post Office on to Middle Fork Gasquet Road. At the T-stop make a right and follow the road up the hill (do not turn onto Azelea St.) and make a right at the sign indicating the Gasquet Toll Road. Follow this road for 4.2 miles until you get to FS18N10. Go left and follow that road for 1.4 miles to the trailhead. If the road becomes too rutted for your vehicle, park off to the side and walk to the trailhead.
Snapshot description: This arid, upland trail takes you out of the redwood belt into a dryer ecosystem. You’ll see destruction wrought from a 1996 forest fire and then find yourself along a ridgetop affording distant views of tree-covered hillsides and the rocky peaks of the Siskiyou range. Revel in the clean, windswept air and big sky country of eastern Del Norte County. Excellent counterpoint and addition to the cloistered redwood trails of the flats. Highly recommended.