There are no sand dunes on this stretch. No redwoods, either, and just one fleeting ocean view. So there you have what the trail to Yontocket is not.
What’s left? A serene stroll amid the pines and spruces, sometimes closed in, sometimes opening out to ponds, marshy side trails and panoramic expanses. And something more: the realization that you’re journeying toward the ultimate place of Tolowa tribal sacredness. Once a village and the scene of a massacre, it’s now a pair of cemeteries.
The knowledge can lend a sense of anticipation and reverence to every step.
You probably won’t be alone. This is a popular route for joggers, dog-walkers and horse riders. But it’s Del Norte-style congestion — encountering another party every mile or so.
After driving north on Lower Lake Drive and west on Kellogg Road, park near the first trailhead on the right, marked by a gate. A beaten-up sign promises ponds, marshes, Yontocket and ultimately the Smith River.
You can map the route in advance by going to tolowacoasttrails.com. Unlike some parts of Tolowa Dunes State Park, the map is fairly inclusive of the trail options in this area.
Throughout, the trail follows a two-track road used only by authorized vehicles. Within a few minutes, side-routes lead left to two sets of primitive campgrounds. Twenty minutes in, the Marsh Trail veers left, but it’s well-named and this time of year the prudent choice is to keep right on the Ridge Trail. A spare sign at the junction refers only to “Marsh” and “Ponds,” so go with the latter.
Soon the trail opens to its final expanse. A hawk soars its greeting before perching in a tree like a sentinel near the two wood-fenced cemeteries.
Yontocket. The Tolowas’ Center of the Universe. A pastoral setting that 160 years earlier was the scene of genocide: more than 450 tribal members killed by white settlers. A fourth annual candlelight vigil was recently held here to recall the atrocity and grasp at a 21st Century perspective.
No one in the know just passes through. History itself makes for a solitary commemoration.
Beyond the east cemetery are twin streams of sun-splashed blue, the nearby slough and distant Smith River. You could veer right from here on another twin-track trail that turns into Pala Road. It leads to a parking lot providing much closer access for folks looking to reach the cemeteries without a long hike.
You could also continue north another four-tenths of a mile to the river, or find a couple of westward passages to the beach and the option of a long, sandy return trip to Kellogg Road.
This time, on New Year’s Day, there seems no more appropriate turn-around point than Yontocket.
The hike: A nearly 6-mile round trip from the Kellogg Road trailhead to Yontocket and back.
Highlights: Wooded stretches that give way to the expanse of Yontocket, where two cemeteries mark the scene of a once-thriving Tolowa village and an 1853 massacre.
Sweat level: The route is mostly level, and you can even bring your dog(s).
Getting there: Take Kellogg Road west from Lower Lake Drive, then park at the first trailhead on the right. You could make this a 3-mile, one-way trek by parking a second vehicle at the end of Pala Road, also reached by Lower Lake Drive.