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Steelhead Adventure Trail

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

In the far reaches of the Northern California Coast lies the Smith River NRA. Famous for its crystal clear rivers, salmon and steelhead fisheries, the Smith River and surrounding Klamath Mountains also have an impressive network of trails and dirt roads, along with some of the best camping in the North State.


Route Overview

Adventure Rating: Epic

Trip Length: 246 miles, 4-6 days

Season: Late May through Early October (some roads are locked during the wet season to prevent the spread of Port Orford Cedar Disease -- see Nat Geo Trails Illustrated layer in Gaia GPS for gate locations).

Avg Trail Rating: 2 Peak Trail Rating: 4

Typical Terrain: Graded forest service roads, some secondary and lesser maintained service roads and with connecting pavement to the various trails. Rattlesnake Ridge is a narrow and loose OHV trail.

Recommended Vehicle: 4x4 w/ AT tires

Adventure Vans: Sprinter 4x4s should be able to navigate most of the route but are advised to skip the Rattlesnake Ridge section and the trail to Sourdough Camp. Low hanging branches for high roof Sprinters may be an on Wimer Road (Road 4402), which has numerous sections with thick tree cover.

Alternative Routes: Yes! See the bottom of route details for more info. McGrew Trail Permits: Contact the Wild Rivers Range District of the Rogue-River Siskiyou National Forest to inquire about special use permits (permits were still free in 2021).

 

Route Details


Famous for its emerald green clear waters, Steelhead and salmon fisheries, the Smith has long attracted sport fisherman and river rafters. Why are the Smith's waters so green you ask? It probably has to do with the fact that the Smith is the only undammed and free flowing river in all of California. And while the transparent waters hold a sort of sublime charm in their own rite, the serpentine soils and reddish hued serpentine rocks create a unique ecosystem that is part of the greater Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion. Within the Smith River NRA and Klamath-Siskiyou lies the largest serpentine mass in all of North America.

The serpentine soils make for a harsh living environment, which is why so many endemic species can only be found within the Klamath-Siskiyou. Rugged, red mountains create a spectacular contrast against the 30+ species of evergreens that cling to the steep slopes of the Klamath Mountains.

Your adventure begins just south of Crescent City at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Howland Hill Drive (DP1) lazily meanders through several miles of old growth redwoods. Be sure to make make the short hike to the Grove of Titans (DP2), where 3 of the 10 largest living redwood trees can be found, including the absolutely massive Lost Monarch tree which is the largest known redwood on earth. Howland Hill dumps out to a short stint on pavement, which leads to another short hike (about 5 minutes)-- to the Forks of Smith (DP4). The trail from the parking lot leads to a rocky point where the two forks of the Smith river converge, creating a surreal experience (don't forget your camera for this one!). Hop back on the pavement for a few miles and then swing a right onto the well graded Low Divide Road. As you climb up Low Divide, views of the coast and surrounding Klamath Mountains come into view. The route follows the various ridge lines until reaching the North Fork Campground (a favorite put in spot among local rafters and kayakers). North Fork is a great campground (fee and pit toilet), but if you want something a bit more remote, consider heading a few miles down the trail to Sourdough Camp, which is further upstream on the North Fork. Crossing the North Fork, you're now on Wimer Road, which is a bit more rugged in character in nature. Ridge running yet again, you'll make a stop at the old site of the Monkey Ridge Fire Lookout (DP9) before descending back down to the middle fork of the Smith River via the old Gasquet Toll Road (DP10), which was commissioned by Horace Gasquet and built by Chinese labor in the 1880s as a means of connecting the Crescent City area with inland communities.


Cross the river and Highway 199 to begin your ascent up French Hill. There are a number of old fire lookouts and lookout sites on this portion of the route, but the highlight is undoubtedly Bear Basin Butte Fire Lookout (DP14). Not so long ago, a more direct route via Jawbone Road was possible, but the persistent winter storms that are an annual occurence in this part of California (one of the wettest places in the state) have created an impassable washout, hence the long meandering route to get to Bear Butte Basin! As you make your way to Bear Basin Butte, there are a number of great campsites along the banks of Hurdygurdy Creeks, which also has numerous great fishing and swimming holes. From Hurdygurdy Creek, you'll make a loop visiting Beat Butte Basin Lookout and Ship Mountain Lookout (DP16). The 360 degree views from Bear Basin Butte are impressive, with the higher peaks of the Klamaths well into view. Leaving the Bear Basin Butte and Ship Mountain loop, next up is another piece of local road history; the G-O road (DP17). G-O stands for Gasquet-Orleans, and a paved highway was to connect the two communities, only to meet fierce objection by local Native American tribes. In the 1970s, construction crews begin work at both ends of the 55 mile route, and planned to meet in the middle. Over 40 miles of the highway was completed, but then in 1984, environmentalists helped to push a wilderness designation that intersected the last remaining section of road to be paved, essentially preventing vehicle traffic through the wilderness section. The project was abandoned, and what is left are the paved sections of the G-O road (a favorite among local cyclists, so watch out for bikes!). From G-O road, head over to the still standing structure at Red Mountain Lookout (DP18). If you look to the west, you can even see where the mighty Klamath River empties into the Pacific. The final leg of the route entails a short semi-loop up and then down Rattlesnake Ridge. Rattlesnake Ridge is a designated OHV trail. It's tight (be ready for pin-stripping, especially if you've got a full size rig), loose and steep. Rattlesnake Ridge empties out onto the pavement of South Fork Road. Follow South Fork road back to the Forks of Smith, which is where the route concludes.


Alternate Routes Peak Trail Rating for McGrew Trail: 5 Those seeking a more technical trail experience may wish to try their hand at the McGrew Trail, which is well known among local 4x4 clubs in the area. The 11 mile trail is managed by the Rogue River-Siskyou National Forest, which does require a special use permit in order to use the trail. The trail is an old rock-strewn wagon road with serpentine boulders scattered about, and various lines of difficulty. We recommend a 2" lift and 33" tires if you're thinking about tackling the McGrew!


Camping Recommendations Dispersed camping is permitted throughout Smith River NRA, except in areas where posted otherwise (mostly certain rivers bars that are designated as day use areas). Some of our favorite locations include:

  • Campsite next to High Divide Ocean View

  • North Fork Campground

  • Sourdough Camp

  • Road 316 area campsites (multiple)

  • Bear Basin Butte Fire Lookout

  • Road 405 area campsites (multiple)

  • Ruby van Deventer County Park (great place to camp before you start the route, or after you've completed the route.

Discovery Points

  • DP1 - Howland Hill Road

  • DP2 - Grove of the Titans

  • DP3 - Sheep Pen Creek Covered Bridge

  • DP4 - Forks of the Smith

  • DP5 - High Divide Ocean View

  • DP6 - Rowdy Creek Viewpoint

  • DP7 - North Fork of the Smith River

  • DP8 - Sourdough Camp

  • DP9 - Monkey Ridge Fire Lookout (site)

  • DP10 - Gasquet Toll Road

  • DP11 - Gasquet

  • DP12 - The Serpentine Swell

  • DP13 - Camp Six Lookout

  • DP14 - Bear Basin Butte Fire Lookout

  • DP15 - Preston Peak

  • DP16 - Ship Mountain Lookout

  • DP17 - G-O Road

  • DP18 - Red Mountain Lookout

  • DP19 - Rattle Snake Ridge Trail

 

Maps + Navigation


Gaia GPS Recommended Map Layers

  • Nat Geo Trails Illustrated

  • USFS 2016

Download Google Map, GPX, and KMZ files:


 

Resources


Land Managers

 

Gallery



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