Trace South Fork from above, then take the plunge
The Del Norte Triplicate/Richard Wiens The Smith River’s South Fork is beautiful viewed from the the Boulder Creek section of the Kelsey Trail, above, or from the water’s edge at Gordon Gorge.
Say you tire of the coastal cool and simply want to add 20 degrees to your day.
Or you’re looking for a remote swimming hole, a place to sprawl on a patch of sand and flat river rocks.
Or you’ve been hankering to check out a recently restored section of a historic trail that used to be plied by mule trains connecting Crescent City to Siskiyou.
There are so many reasons to embark on the old Kelsey Trail just off South Fork Road that Laura and I were a bit surprised to find ourselves alone from start to finish last Sunday. But then, solitude amid the splendor is yet another reason to go.
When the fog rolled over Pebble Beach, we decided it wasn’t a Coastal
Trail kind of day. But the blue sky shone through almost as soon as we
got on U.S. Highway 199, and by the time we were driving South Fork
Road, the temperature seemed to jump in 5-degree increments every time
we glanced at the dashboard thermostat.
It’s nine miles from the highway to the Boulder Creek trailhead, a
well-marked pull-off on the left side of the road. A big sign features a
quick history lesson and a map of the seven-mile stretch of the Kelsey
Trail starting here and meandering generally to the east all the way to
the Big Flat Campground.
This day, we planned to take in only the two-mile Boulder Creek
section, and we ended up not quite completing even that much — for a
very pleasant reason.
Members of the welcoming committee included bark-shedding madrones,
waist-high ferns and wild rhododendrons in full bloom — along with some
unwelcoming poison oak. They ushered us toward the marathon main
attraction, a path that tracked the route of the Smith River’s South
The heavily foliaged path afforded tantalizingly partial glimpses of
the liquid jade maybe 100 feet below. The trick was to be like a mule
and keep securely to the sometimes precipitous trail while still
appreciating those river views. At least we weren’t carrying 300-pound
packs on our backs like the four-legged travelers of the 1800s trudging
from Crescent City to Fort Jones and back.
It was a mile and a half of warm-weather bliss along a trail cut into
the rocky hillside and dotted with occasional old growth (redwoods and
Doug firs) and trickling runoff. If you take this hike with children,
don’t let them run ahead — the path sometimes narrows as you round a
bend. Another note: listen for dramatic changes in the sound of the
river along the way, caused by rapids, calm stretches of water, the
breeze and the trail’s topography.
When we reached a turnoff for the Gordon Gorge Trail, we were tempted
to descend to the river immediately. Instead we walked a bit farther
and entered a steep climb. Realizing this route was headed up to a
rendezvous with South Fork Road and eventually a second section of the
Kelsey Trail, we turned around and gave into that temptation.
This was one of those times when downhill was harder than uphill —
those mules of yesteryear probably eschewed this side trail entirely. Us
humanoids took our time, especially when we came to a precarious but
photogenic stream fed by two burbling fingers of runoff and offering
just enough rocks to pick our way across.
Soon enough we reached the South Fork’s edge at an idyllic spot that
would have made for quite the swimming hole if the temperature had been a
bit hotter and the river a bit slower. Gordon Gorge would make a great
summer destination even more easily accessed by the second Kelsey
trailhead off South Fork Road, just a mile past the Boulder Creek
trailhead for cars or two miles for hikers.
We set up shop on some flat rocks, breaking out the provisions and
soaking up the scenery as the water raced by. It seemed right to have
the river up close and personal after gazing at it from afar for most of
the journey — we were in no hurry to start the return trip.
For all the lollygagging, we were still back to our car at the
Boulder Creek trailhead less than three hours after we had set out.
Our first taste of the Kelsey Trail left us hungry for more.
Reach Richard Wiens at
THE HIKE: A newly restored two-mile stretch of the old Kelsey Trail,
with a side trail to Gordon Gorge.
HIGHLIGHTS: Great views of the Smith River’s South Fork, from above
while on the Kelsey Trail and at the river’s edge after descending
Gordon Gorge Trail.
SWEAT LEVEL: The Boulder Creek section of the Kelsey Trail is mostly
level, so the sweat is heat-induced until a steep stretch at the end
that Laura and I skipped. More perspiration may be shed descending and
then ascending the Gordon Gorge Trail.
GETTING THERE: From U.S. Highway 199, it’s nine miles to the Boulder
Creek trailhead of the Kelsey Trail. There’s a map on the trailhead
sign, or you can get one at the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center in