Flowery entry to Bald Hills from the east
They lined much of Paradise Trail like a decked-out wedding aisle a couple of Saturdays ago as we set out from the South Fork Road trailhead for the mile of switchbacked climbing that would bring us to the eastern section of the Little Bald Hills Trail. Perhaps our timing was perfect; maybe those rhodies are already fading. But the thousands of low-slung purple and white irises promised a lengthier prime time.
First, a couple of travel notes:
• Once you hit South Fork Road off of U.S. Highway 199, it’s 6.7 miles south to the Paradise trailhead. Make a note of that, because the only sign marking it faces the other direction, as if the folks driving up from Big Flat are the only ones who need to know.
• We chose the Paradise trailhead as our starting point because it’s easier to get to, but you could continue on South Fork Road a little less than a mile farther south and turn right onto a dicier road known as 16N23, then drive another mile to reach the actual eastern terminus of Little Bald Hills Trail. By taking the Paradise Trail shortcut, we missed the first mile and a half of Bald Hills, but we got those flowers.
A thick mist provided comfortable coolant as we climbed. The irises kicked in immediately and graced almost the entire journey. The rhodies were more sporadic — some were bloomless. It wasn’t as bad as last year when an overdose of spring rain on the North Coast kept most of them flowerless. The azaleas appeared at higher altitude, just a few at first, then in healthier numbers.
When we weren’t transfixed by the gray-topped vistas, we enjoyed the variety of looks this trail features. Pines, firs and the occasional reddish madrone. Other flowers made cameo appearances, including lupines, columbines and beargrass.
The terrain was versatile as well. A little over an hour after we hit Little Bald Hills Trail, it got arid and gravelly as it veered away from the ridgeline. Water dribbled over a rock wall resembling a backyard fountain, and at its base was a thriving cluster of meat-eating Darlingtonia californica, the “pitcher plant” capable of dissolving and digesting insects. We hadn’t seen such a presentation of the rarity since walking Myrtle Creek Trail.
Another stretch of the trail seemed built of red clay, then the path grew lush again. We’d entered the meadow atop Little Bald Hills.
In all, the humpback trail is about 10 miles long, stretching southeasterly from an old-growth redwood beginning on Howland Hill Road and climbing about 1,600 feet in the middle. We’ll employ the two-vehicle approach next time so we can traverse its entirety on a one-way hike. But we had already done the western half in March before getting turned back by deep snow (to read of that encounter, go to triplicate.com and enter the search words, “Bald Hills”). This day was devoted to the eastern half, so we picnicked and then turned around at the border of the Smith River National Recreation Area and Redwood National Park.
With immaculate timing, the sun burned through the mist as we began the return trip, casting a new hue and revealing snow-capped peaks to the east. When we regained the north-facing ridge, the deep-green river sparkled below us.
We had begun a heavenly descent to Paradise Trail.
• THE HIKE: A nine-mile round-trip on Paradise Trail and the eastern half of the Little Bald Hills Trail.
• HIGHLIGHTS: A flower show throughout, with irises lining much of the trail and plentiful patches of rhododendrons and azaleas. Impressive views of South Fork Road and the South Fork of the Smith River coiling northward.
• SWEAT LEVEL: The 1,600-foot gain in altitude is spread over sufficient distance and splendor as to not seem all that arduous.
• GETTING THERE: East of Hiouchi, turn south off of U.S. Highway 101, cross two bridges and turn left onto South Fork Road. Go 6.7 miles and find the Paradise trailhead on the right. The trailhead sign faces south, so it’s easy to miss coming from the north.