A valley on the summit? Most people think of summits as having peaks, but not this one! I was dubious until I saw it for myself. With a crack of dawn start, my hiking buddy and I were driving a winding road through the southern part of the Smith River National Recreation Area (NRA) hoping to catch a spectacular sunrise at the trailhead. We figured an early start would also increase our chances of seeing wildlife along the way.
ABOVE: The cascade and pool at Buck Creek on the South Kelsey Trail Photos courtesy of Haven Livingston
The drive to the trailhead begins with a scenic ride along the South Fork of the Smith River off U.S. Highway 199. Where South Fork Road makes a ‘Y’ near Big Flat Campground, it veers to the right, becoming the Gasquet-Orleans Road, or G-O Road. The upper reaches of the G-O Road don’t see much maintenance as it follows Lems Ridge, so drive cautiously to avoid rocks and debris that have fallen into the road from the hillsides. From Lems Ridge, sweeping vistas are worth a stop to look out across the Goose Creek drainage toward Red Mountain and the ocean.
There are two strategies for hiking Summit Valley Trail. One is to drive to the trailhead near the end of the G-O Road, hike north on the trail and return on the same trail to your car. An alternative is to take two cars, leave one just off the G-O Road at the South Kelsey Trailhead, and commit to a one-way, 11.1-mile hike from Summit Valley Trail through to South Kelsey Trail. We decided on the one-way hike, and planned for a long full day.
The trailhead is inconspicuously located on the north side of the road, with the parking less than ¼-mile beyond, and starts with a short incline through knee-high Manzanita bush. It’s unusual to have such spectacular views from the very start of a hike, but here they are abundant as a result of the long drive that climbs to the trailhead.
Quickly the trail gains a ridge top and follows the western border of the Siskiyou Wilderness along the ridge. A few Brewers spruce and Western white pine grow up over the scrubby Manzanita, creating a speckled canopy. Brewers spruce, or Weeping spruce, is one of the rarest spruces on the continent and is endemic to the Klamath Mountains of southwest Oregon and northwest California. It is well adapted to growing on ridge tops with its ability to cope with snow loads on its strong branches and drooping branchlets.
A half-mile beyond the valley a sign appears announcing a lookout. A vague spur trail rises up to the rocky summit where rubble, wire and a few timbers are all that remain of the old Summit Valley Lookout. Barren at first glance, we soon discovered cryptic flowers of the buckwheat family poking out between the rocks along with stonecrop and sedge. Seemingly insignificant from the main trail, this side excursion shouldn’t be missed.
On a clear day, the lookout spot affords expansive views of Twin Peaks and Prescott Peak to the north and toward the ocean in the west. Returning to the main trailhead from this location would make for a satisfying four-mile walk, but we were headed along the ridge and down into the South Fork Smith basin.
The hike through to South Kelsey Trail is a full-day commitment, but not strenuous. Most of the trail is level or downhill. After passing the lookout, the exposed trail begins a descent of more three miles down the nose of the ridge. Low, brushy Manzanita hugs the trail and views into the Smith River basin are punctuated by a few towering Jeffrey pines.
As the trail pitch steepens, crumbling banks reveal serpentine rocks with their characteristic blue-green color. A small patch of grand Port Orford cedars huddles around a watering hole where a stream runs near the trail. The white pine and Douglas fir canopy closes back over the trail as the elevation drops and tan oaks appear in abundance where the trail levels out.
After the final descent, we reached the Summit Valley-South Kelsey Trail intersection at Elkhorn Bar. We found ourselves in a shady riparian habitat getting eaten by mosquitoes and hastily set off west to follow the South Kelsey Trail along the South Fork Smith.
This section of South Kelsey Trail passes one of its most popular destinations, Buck Creek. Its popularity is the result of one of the most picturesque of all waterfalls and pools in the Smith River NRA.
Water from Buck Creek cascades down a dogleg-shaped funnel into a deep crystalline pool of green before filtering its way through a cobble bar to the South Fork Smith. The pool is contained by smooth tall rocks, ideal for both jump spots and sun bathing. Looking down from any of the tall rocky edges reveals a stretch of the boulder-studded South Fork, glowing in afternoon light, mingling with tributary waters of Buck Creek and flowing by serenely.
On the banks above the pool a three-sided shelter offers a protected place for backpackers to cook with plenty of flat areas surrounding it for camping. This area is heavily visited and all visitors should use “leave-no-trace” etiquette when burying human waste far from the river and pack out all toilet paper. Help keep the area beautiful by packing out your own trash and anything else left behind by others.
The rest of the trail walks along the edge of the South Fork Canyon with breathtaking views into pools of the South Fork Smith River. Every corner turned revealed another “must-take” photo opportunity looking down at the river and its dream-like pools.
Finally, the path turned away from the river and led us back to our car at the South Kelsey trailhead. On the drive to retrieve the car at Summit Valley trailhead we spent just as much time talking about the views from the Summit Valley Trail as the river views from South Kelsey Trail. Whichever way you choose to hike Summit Valley Trail, you will be rewarded.