The lure of untrammeled wilderness attracts intrepid hikers to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, despite the summer’s blazing heat and winter’s torrential rains. In addition to enjoying the isolation of the wilderness, they come to take in the pink rhododendron-like blooms of Kalmiopsis leachiana (in June) and other rare flowers. The area is also home to such economically valued species as Port Orford cedar and Cannabis sativa. The illicit weed is a leading cash crop in this part of the state, and its vigilant protection by growers should inspire extra care for those hiking during the late fall harvest season. The potential for violence associated with the lucrative mushroom harvest also mandates a measure of caution.
In any case, the Forest Service prohibits plant collection of any kind to preserve the region’s special botanical populations. These include the insect-eating darlingtonia plant and the Brewer’s weeping spruce. The forest canopy is composed largely of the more common Douglas fir, canyon live oak, madrona, and chinquapin. Stark peaks top this red-rock forest, whose understory is choked with blueberry, manzanita, and dense chaparral.
Many of this wilderness’s rare species survived the glacial epoch because the glaciers from that era left the area untouched. This, combined with the fact that the area was once an offshore island, has enabled the region’s singular ecosystem to maintain its integrity through the millennia. You’d think that federal protection, remoteness, and climatic extremes would ensure a sanguine outlook for this ice-age forest, but an active debate still rages over the validity of some logging claims.
In summer 2002, the so-called Biscuit Fire raged out of control for weeks, ravaging nearly half a million acres of southwestern Oregon, engulfing most of the Siskiyou National Forest and virtually all of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. This inferno, the nation’s largest wildfire of 2002 and the biggest in Oregon for more than a century, destroyed extensive habitat of the endangered northern spotted owl. The good news, however, is that flora of the region is well adapted to periodic fires; many of the old-growth trees survived the blaze, and within a few months green sprouts and new growth of many species were reappearing amid the ashes.
In the years since the fire, a young new forest has taken hold. Certain tree species, including rare Brewer spruce and knob cone pine, are growing back abundantly, as their seed cones require fire for germination. With the once-thick overstory vegetation mostly dead, lower-growing plants such as ferns, huckleberries, and bear grass are thriving in the sun. Soils are moister, too, since massive adult trees aren’t sucking up the groundwater. Forest scientists estimate that it will take a century for trees of the mature forest, including stands of Douglas fir and sugar pine, to return and erase the evidence of the 2002 fire. Meanwhile the charred snags of the former primary forest stand above the lush growth of quickly rejuvenating woodlands.
Even if you don’t have the slightest intention of hiking the Kalmiopsis, the scenic drive through the Chetco Valley is worth it. From Brookings, turn off U.S. 101 at the north end of the Chetco River Bridge, follow this paved road upriver past Loeb State Park, and continue along the river on County Roads 784 and 1376 until a narrow bridge crosses the Chetco. From here, turn right for 18 miles along national forest roads 1909, 160, and 1917 to reach the Upper Chetco Trailhead (just past the Quail Prairie Lookout). The driving distance from Brookings is 31 miles. If you’re not hiking into the wilderness, you can continue west on national forest road 1917 (portions are not paved), which will return you to the above-mentioned narrow bridge over the Chetco.
A good introduction to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness is along the one-mile trail to Vulcan Lake at the foot of Vulcan Peak, which is the major jumping-off point for trails into the wilderness. The trail begins at Forest Road 1909 and takes off up the mountains past Pollywog Butte and Red Mountain Prairie. The open patches in the Douglas firs reveal a kaleidoscope of Pacific Ocean views and panoramas of the Chetco Valley and the Big Craggies. For the botanist in search of rare plants, however, the real show is on the trail. No matter how expert you might consider yourself, bring along a good plant guide to help you identify the many exotic species. On the final leg of the hike, Sadler oak, manzanita, Jeffrey pine, white pine, and azalea precede the sharp descent to the lake. Despite steep spots, the walk from County Road 1909 to Vulcan Lake is not difficult.
If you backtrack from the lake to Spur 260 on the trail, you can make the steep ascent over talus slopes and brush to Vulcan Peak. At the top, from an old lookout, a view of Kalmiopsis treetops and the coast awaits. Before going, check with the Forest Service in Brookings to see if the road to the Vulcan Lake trailhead is open, because weather-related closures occasionally occur.
To reach the trailhead from Brookings, turn east off U.S. 101 at the north end of the Chetco River Bridge, follow North Bank Road (County Rd. 784) and Forest Road 1376 along the Chetco River for six miles, and then turn right and follow Forest Road 1909 to its bumpy end. Driving distance from Brookings is 31 miles. Hikers should watch out for the three shiny leaves of poison oak, as well as for rattlesnakes, which are numerous. Black bears also populate the area, but their lack of contact with humans makes them shier than their Cascade counterparts.