Richard Wiens, The Triplicate

Save yourselffor the finalpush to topEditor's note: I don't like to drive a long distance before hiking, so I turned the column over to Kelley and Nick this week for a trip to the far-eastern edge of Del Norte County.

When you hit the trailhead it feels like you've just walked into the butt of a joke.That's because for the first 3.8 miles you're thinking about how easy the hike has been and that it doesn't really warrant such a satanic connotation. But as you crane your neck upward and stare past the sign that reads "Devil's Punchbowl," you realize that this hike is no laughing matter - the last leg will be hell.Getting to the Devil's Punchbowl is a difficult, nearly 13-mile round-trip hike - 2.5 miles of which are straight up the side of a mountain - in the Siskiyou Wilderness.Luckily the breath-taking sight is worth it in the end. Finally peering out over the clear blue-green lake gives the feeling you just stumbled upon something no one has ever seen.The punchbowl is a lake of melted snow shadowed by the tallest mountain in Del Norte County - Bear Mountain, which rises to 6,411 feet. The 6-plus-mile hike there is not for the faint-hearted, but the average hiker can enjoy it at an easy pace. Our group of four started out at 6 a.m. on a Sunday when the sky was still a sea of black.Only one other car was parked at the trailhead to Doe Flat Trail. The sun had risen during the drive, giving the Siskiyou Mountains a purple haze that reminded me of the "America the Beautiful" line, "for purple mountain majesties."Backpacks strapped on, we headed into the wilderness. About a mile or so in we detoured to Buck Lake, which would make a nice campsite, but for us it was a great spot to eat breakfast and snap a few photos.The rocky trail snaked between the mountains - rolling up and down as if atop waves approaching the shoreline. At some point we walked right over the boundary line between the Smith River National Recreation Area and Klamath National Forest.The looming mountains and trees made a nice canopy to keep us cool. The trees themselves are interesting. Among the standard Douglas fir, white fir and incense cedar are a couple of rarer species, such as brewer's spruce and Alaskan yellow cedar, left over from the last ice age, according to Smith River NRA Manager Don Pass.After comments among the group that the hike wasn't that bad, we came to the Devil's Punchbowl trailhead and laughed nervously. Hikers can chose to continue along the moderate hike to Clear Creek. However, our mission was to make it to this seemingly mythical punchbowl, which meant taking a sharp right and ascending into the sky.There are no less than 28 switchbacks up an unnamed mountain heading toward Bear Mountain. At the top of the trail (not the peak), we stepped from underneath the tall evergreens into the hot sunlight and quickly had to remove a layer or two.July is the best time to go to the Devil's Punchbowl, after the mountain snow has melted. But there had been little snowfall yet in this mild (so far) winter.Coming down the same mountain we went up, we found a gushing waterfall that materialized from the punchbowl. On the way back up, the warm weather beckoned a fellow hiker to take his shirt off and dip his hair under the water.It certainly didn't feel like December. Being a Midwesterner, all I could think was "This is California" while craning my neck to take in the panoramic sight. One can feel tiny in the midst of mountains. As I took a break and stared out into the quiet landscape, I pictured myself on a topographical map and zoomed back trying to imagine where exactly I was located at that moment. Suddenly everything around me felt giant.Our goal was to make it to the punchbowl by high noon, which we did in about 3.5 hours at a leisurely pace. In the heart of the wilderness, we discovered our path had disappeared before our eyes and we were now simply walking over rocks with only, ironically, rocks to guide us. Rangers and previous hikers have set up stacks of rocks to follow to the punchbowl. This could seem a bit nerve-racking for those used to a beaten path, but it becomes a game to find the rock guideposts. Truth be told, we did stray a few times from the "trail," but quickly realized our error.Do not be fooled by the first small lake you come upon. Discovering it, one of our group shouted out, "This can't be it." This lake was not quite round enough to be a "punchbowl," we decided and continued in the hot sun wondering, "Where is this damn thing?"Maybe that would be the punchline: it doesn't exist.Once we reached the punchbowl it was nothing like the pictures I discovered online. It is almost perfectly round - as if this is where the devil comes to sneak a sip. The sun had not yet peeked over the mountain ridge towering above the water, so its true color was never revealed to us - not this time of year.Out of the sun, the temperature dropped and layers had to be put back on. During the summer, it would make a great place to camp, swim and fish for rainbow trout or a couple of the native species. For our purposes, we snapped photos, ate a light lunch and tried to soak it all in.In the end, the hike there or back didn't matter, and neither did my blistered feet. Because all I remember is sitting at the water's edge, far removed from civilization, not wanting to leave.Staff writer Nicholas Grube contributed to this report.

Trail NotesTHE HIKE: Nearly 13 miles round-trip, 3.8 on the Doe Flat Trail and 2.5 on the Devil's Punchbowl Trail. Start at the parking lot and head down the gravel road and then onto the Doe Flat trailhead.HIGHLIGHTS: The punchbowl itself, plus a panoramic view of the Siskiyou Mountains, two other lakes, water falls, a variety of different evergreen trees, shrubs and bushes.SWEAT LEVEL:Minimal on the Doe Flat Trail, but the strenuous Devil's Punchbowl Trail gets the heartbeat going.GETTING THERE: From Crescent City head northeast on U.S. Highway 199, turn right on Little Jones Creek Road. After driving uphill for 10 miles take a left on F.S. Road 16N02 toward Bear Basin Butte Lookout and follow the signs to the Doe Flat trailhead.