Bridging our past to our future in the Smith River NRA
Sneak previews have been coming out about the grand Old Kelsey Trail revival over the past year, and parts of the trail have already been opened for hiking. Now work has been completed on the entire 7-mile stretch between Boulder Creek and Big Flat Campground. It is ready for visitors to walk, bike or ride horses on any part of it, or use it to connect with the Coast to Crest Trail linking the Coastal Trail with the Pacific Crest Trail.
The historic route that the Kelsey Trail follows runs along the Smith River and into the Siskiyou Mountains. It was originally followed by native people, and then in 1855 Ben Kelsey was contracted to construct a trail from Crescent City to Fort Jones to keep the fort supplied with food and essentials
It also connected Scott Valley, Yreka and other Siskiyou mountain camps.
Mule trains of 30andndash;40 animals were used to carry supplies through the
rocky river canyons and over steep passes. Unlike a horse's scraping
hoof, a mule's gait stamps straight down with all its weight, making it
the ideal weight-bearing beast for the narrow and winding trail that was
the original Kelsey route. A side-effect of the mules was compaction of
the trail from their hooves into such a dense surface that much of the
original trail from over 100 years ago is still intact and visible today
with no vegetation growing up through it.
The trail was used until 1909, when Highway 199 was completed along
the Middle Fork Smith River, making travel by stagecoach possible and
easier than the wild mule trek through the mountains.
Resurrecting the trail was the idea of local resident Clarke Moore,
who was searching for a better path between his house on Boulder Creek
and a swimming hole on the South Fork Smith when he stumbled onto a part
of the old trail.
Researching the history of the Kelsey Trail, Moore discovered its
historic role as part of the larger trail system of California. He saw
the opportunity for more than just a trail to a beautiful swimming spot
on the Smith River.
"This is the bridge we have to the past and the one that can take us
into the future," he said when asked why the trail became important to
Abundant fish and wildlife, mining scars and regrown clear- cuts are
clues that teach us why this area was important to early people. It is
special and important to us now, as a place to retreat, slow down and
recharge our spirits with wildness and beauty.
With funding from the California River Parkway Grant Program and the
support of Rose Foundation project manager Kevin Hendrick, Moore became
the Coast to Crest Trail supervisor, and along with Don Pass of the U.S.
Forest Service did most of the original scoping for the revival of the
Old Kelsey Trail. This was a grueling task which required scrambling
through dense brush and thickets that had overgrown the trail,
concealing it in many places. Some stretches of trail were too steep to
be enjoyable for hikers or had slid out completely and had to be
The California Conservation Corps went to work after the path had
been found and flagged. They dug, chopped and constructed their way
through miles of land, creating a well-built, freshly cleared trail.
Today there are two main trailheads for the Old Kelsey Trail; one is
9.2 miles up South Fork Road from the Highway 199 turnoff, and another
is at the Big Flat Campground on Road 405 off Big Flat Road. Trail map
signs and information will be installed at the trailheads this fall.
Shorter sections of the trail can be accessed by South Fork Road and
Road 15N11, an unpaved branch off of 405 (the Big Flat Campground road).
The official trailhead at the western end of the Old Kelsey Trail is
also the beginning of a 2-mile section referred to as the "Boulder Creek
section." It starts near Boulder Creek, a tributary to the South Fork
Smith, and heads upstream toward the Gordon Creek river access where it
climbs back up to meet South Fork Road. Hikers going through walk
southeast for about 10 minutes on the South Fork Road before dropping
back down to the river to begin the section dubbed "Ford to Canthook
The Ford to Canthook section of trail is accessed at approximately
mile 10.2 on South Fork Road. From the ford, this section of trail
follows Canthook Creek upstream past a few forgotten Douglas Fir and
Port Orford Cedar giants before marching up and over a ridge into
densely forested hillsides of the Hurdygurdy Creek basin.
These unusual place names are drawn from tools used during the period
of resource-extraction from the area. A "hurdy gurdy" is generally
thought of as an instrument, but in this case "hurdy gurdy" refers to a
water wheel with radial buckets driven by a jet for use in mining. "Cant
hooks" were used in logging and consist of a long wooden handle with a
movable hook at one end.
The "ford" part of the trail comes about a mile after dropping back
down from South Fork Road and is quite literally fording across the
South Fork of the Smith River, making this section something you would
only want to attempt at low water. If you don't bring sandals for the
crossing prepare to get your shoes wet because the water, even when low,
can still be 21andfrasl;2 feet deep, and the rocky bottom makes it dangerous to
Reaching this ford could be a worthwhile destination for those who
are forever in search of yet another great swimming hole. Rock-hopping
downstream from the shallow ford on the opposite bank takes you to a
deep pool armored by steep rock walls. The best way to enter this pool
is to make like a river otter and slither your way down a cobble bar
into the deep blue oasis. This glittering pool is a fabulous destination
on a hot day.
Continuing east from the ford, the trail weaves through a mosaic of
giant old-growth Douglas Fir and Port Orford Cedar trees along Canthook
Creek. Big boulders and logs for resting on at the crossing points over
Canthook Creek make for good lunch spots along the trail. Lyrical sounds
of water and small cascading waterfalls provide a scenic and relaxing
Climbing up the trail and into the Hurdygurdy basin you move into
another realm with densely growing Douglas Fir and only wisps of
filtered light reaching the forest floor. This area was once logged and
replanted, but then neglected of further thinning, leaving the trees to
grow tall and spindly instead of broad and healthy. The Forest Service
plans to thin the trees, which will rejuvenate the stand with light and
A final crossing over Hurdygurdy creek leads to Fox Flat. Here the
trail becomes one with the All Access Trail and over the next couple of
miles winds its way back to Big Creek Campground via Chimney Flat.
With the closest trailhead only 30 minutes from Crescent City, these
seven miles of trail take hikers through a world of diverse forest and
riparian habitats, revealing nature's secrets at a walking pace. Whether
hiking this as a day trip or taking the time to travel the entire Coast
to Crest, you will come away with a sense of renewal from breathing
deep of the wilderness and being washed with clean, clear river water.
THE HIKE: An historic route on the old Kelsey Trail that can be walked in short 2- or 5-mile segments or a day hike of 7 miles. Different sections follow the South Fork Smith River, Hurdygurdy and Canthook Creek, which are tributaries to the South Fork.
HIGHLIGHTS: Variations of forest from old growth Douglas Fir to dense second growth, lunch spots at the creek crossings with musical cascading water, and a deep swimming hole at the ford of the South Fork Smith River.
SWEAT LEVEL: The 2-mile section along the South Fork is a gently rolling easy walk with a short steep climb at the end to reach the road. The trail from the ford on the South Fork to the east is a steady climb up Canthook Creek with some ups and downs and finally down to cross Hurdygurdy Creek. This section is a hearty walk. Its shady nature will keep you from overheating, but with a moderate pace expect to work up a lather.
GETTING THERE: From the west take U.S. Highway 199 past Hiouchi, turn right to cross the middle and south forks of the Smith River on South Fork Road. The western trailhead is 9.2 miles from the turn-off from Hwy. 199. Continue up South Fork Road for 1 mile to start at the ford segment or drive 5 miles to Big Flat Campground to reach the eastern trailhead at Big Flat Campground. You can also connect to the trail at Chimney Flat, Fox Flat or on Road 15N11, a branch off of Big Flat Road. No map currently shows the new trail sections. Your best bet is to buy the National Geographic Redwood National and State Parks map and stop by the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center in Gasquet where they can draw the trail on your map and give you more information. The center's phone number is (707) 457-3131