Distance: 1.5 mile to Summit Valley one way, 11.1 mile to continue through to South Kelsey Trail
Difficulty: Moderate- down hill
Elevation: 4,600-1,160 feet
Directions: Turn onto South Fork Road from Hwy 199 just east of Hiouchi. Travel about 13.7 miles and turn right onto FS 15 (the G-O Road). Continue about 15 miles and the trailhead is on the left.
Shuttle: Leave the second vehicle at the South Kelsey trailhead which is 3.5 miles up the G-O Road from the turn off at South Fork Road.
Summit Valley Trailhead
Summit Valley Trail is a destination worth the long winding drive to reach the trailhead on the southern edge of the Smith River National Recreation Area (NRA). With a crack of dawn start you can drive to the trailhead in time to catch a spectacular sunrise at the trailhead and watch for critters at their most active time of the day. Mountain lion, hawks and owls have been spotted from the road so an early start will increase your chances of seeing wildlife along the way, not to mention, more time for enjoying the hike.
Trail side wildflower
The Smith River NRA consists of 450 square miles within the Six Rivers National Forest and encompasses the central part of the Smith River watershed. It was established in 1990 for the protection of wild and scenic rivers, ecological diversity and recreation opportunities, while providing for sustained productivity of natural resources. Roughly 80 miles of trails are maintained for hiking, biking and horse riding within the Smith River NRA.
The drive to the trailhead begins with a scenic ride along the South Fork of the Smith River. Where this road makes a ‘Y’ near Big Flat Campground it veers to the right becoming the Gasquet-Orleans Road, or G-O Road. The G-O Rd. was initially intended to connect the town of Gasquet on the Smith River in Del Norte County with the Orleans, which is on the Klamath River in Humboldt County. The purpose of the road was for access to rich timber stands that would invigorate the economy at the isolated mills of Del Norte County. Its construction began in 1957 along stream beds, but moved to the ridge tops after flooding continually wiped out progress.
Moving the road to the ridge tops put its path at odds with spiritually significant sites (especially what is now known as Doctor Rock and Chimney Rock as high points in the region) of the Yurok, Karuk and Tolowa tribes of Northern California. With public dissent by the Indians starting in 1973 the ultimate termination of construction came not from respect of the sacred land, but with the establishment of the Siskiyou Wilderness Act, which stipulated that no further roads be constructed. There are now two sections of the GO Road: reaches that begin in both Gasquet and Orleans, stretching towards each other with a gap of less than 7 miles in between.
The upper reaches of the GO Rd. don’t see much maintenance as it follows Lems Ridge so caution is needed to avoid rocks and debris that have fallen into the road from the hillsides. From Lems Ridge sweeping vistas are worth a stop to look out across the Goose Creek drainage toward Red Mountain and out toward the ocean.
View from the trail
There are two strategies to hiking Summit Valley Trail. The first is to drive to the trailhead near the top of the GO Road, hike north on the trail, and return on the same trail, giving you the flexibility to turn back at any time. Option two is to take two cars and leave one just off the G-O Road at the South Kelsey Trailhead and commitment to the 11.1 through hike from Summit Valley trail to South Kelsey Trail.
The trailhead is inconspicuously located on the north side of the road, with the parking less than ¼ mile beyond, and starts with a short climb through low scrubby Manzanita. It is an unusual phenomenon to have such spectacular views from the very start of a hike, but here they are abundant. That is the advantage to the long drive that climbs to the trailhead. Quickly the trail gains a ridge top and Brewers Spruce and Western White pine create a speckled canopy. The trail then follows the western border of the Siskiyou Wilderness all along the ridge.
Returning to the same trailhead means you are free to spend your time leisurely with the 1 ½ miles easy walk to where the actual Summit Valley lies green and lush and begging for a lazy picnic. An entire afternoon could be spent here inspecting the wildflowers in the 3 acre meadow. Remains of an old shelter are hidden on the north side of the valley. A half mile beyond the valley a sign appears for a lookout and a vague spur trail rises up to the rocky barren summit where rubble, wire and a few timbers are all that remain of the old lookout. Seemingly insignificant, this opportunity shouldn’t be missed. This lookout spot affords views on a clear day to Twin Peaks and Prescott Peak in the north and nearly to the ocean in the west. Returning from this location would make for a satisfying 4 mile walk.
The meadow at Summit Valley
The one way hike exiting on South Kelsey Trail is committing, but not strenuous because most of it is level or downhill. After passing the lookout spot the exposed trail begins a long descent down the nose of the ridge. Low, brushy Manzanita hugs the trail and views into the Smith River basin are punctuated by towering Jeffery Pine. As the trail pitch steepens crumbling banks of the trail reveal serpentine rocks with their characteristic blue green color. Finally the White Pines and Doug Fir canopy closes back over the trail and Tan oaks appear in large proportion. A small patch of grand Port Orford Cedars huddles around a watering hole where a stream runs near the trail.
After the final descent, Summit Valley Trail intersects with South Kelsey Trail at Elkhorn Bar. Suddenly you will find yourself in a shady riparian habitat with potentially lots of mosquitoes. Head west, or left, from the intersection and follow the South Kelsey Trail along the South Fork Smith River.
This section of South Kelsey Trail passes one of its most popular destinations, Buck Creek. The reason for its popularity becomes obvious as one approaches the confluence of Buck Creek and South Fork Smith and sees for the first time one of the most picturesque waterfalls and pool in the entire Smith River NRA. Water from Buck Creek cascades down a dogleg shaped funnel into a deep crystalline pool of green before filtering its way through a cobble bar to the Smith. The pool is rimed with smooth tall rocks, ideal for both jump spots and sun bathing. Looking down from any of the tall rocky edges reveals a scenic stretch of the boulder studded South Fork, mingling with its tributary waters and serenely flowing by.
On the banks above the pool a three sided shelter offers a protected place to cook with plenty of flat areas surrounding for camping. Remember that this area is heavily visited and use ‘leave no trace’ etiquette when burying human waste far from the river and pack out all tp. Help keep the area beautiful by packing out your own trash and anything else left behind by others.
The remainder of the trail walks through a wonderland of fern garden paths through old growth Douglas Fir forest and breathtaking views into the gorge of the South Fork Smith. Every corner turned reveals another “must take a picture” moment looking down at the river and its dream-like pools.
Finally the path turns away from the river and uphill to the parking lot of the South Kelsey trailhead. Here the shuttle drive begins to retrieve the car at Summit Valley Trail. Don’t be surprised if you spend just as much time talking about the views from the Summit Valley Trail as the river views from South Kelsey Trail. Whichever way you choose to hike Summit Valley Trail, you will be rewarded.
South Fork of the Smith River at Buck Creek