You Can't Get To Hayfork From There
Copyright © 2002-2005 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

Ides Cove Loop Trail Backpack
Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness
June 29-July 4, 2002

No, they were not hunting

Seen by night from the air, a vast region of blackness lies bounded by the twinkling necklace of US 101 on the west and the sparkling valley sprawl of the Interstate 5 communities on the east. This black-hole territory between State Routes 36 on the north and 20 on the south is invaded by no towns nor primary roads and encompasses portions of Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity, and Mendocino National Forests. In its heart lies the Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness.

Blue Lake is situated northwest of this relatively unknown and little-used wilderness, and on several occasions we have traveled dusty roads to its northern reaches to backpack into North Yolla Bolly Lake, Pettijohn Meadow, Cedar Basin, and Black Rock Lake. Our destination this time was the Ides Cove Loop National Recreation Trail in the far southeastern corner. We puzzled over whether to drive the long paved road east to Redding, south to Corning, and then back west to Paskenta to catch a dirt road to the trailhead, or attempt the more direct route over Mendocino Pass on forest roads from the west. By telephone an ill-informed Covelo rangerette estimated the time of travel to be about the same either way, five hours. Thus we opted for the scenic forest route, and soon discovered how wrong a ranger could be.

We drove south on US 101 to Longvale, then cut back on State Route 162 to Dos Rios through the Eel River Canyon where the Northwestern Pacific Railroad used to run, and may some day run again. Clearly visible from the highway were slides that had wiped out the tracks and the entire railroad grade. Dos Rios is little more than a bridge over the Middle Fork of the Eel River, and there we turned northeast on a narrow, winding paved road to Covelo on the southern boundary of the Round Valley Indian Reservation. We made a last stop for supplies, then headed for the Eel River Work Center, where a bridge recrosses the Middle Fork and the pavement ends.

The map shows an impossible spider web of forest and logging roads and no clear route through the maze. We stopped at a small tin-roofed store at a dusty cross-roads and asked a man leaning against the building how to get through. He pointed to the dirt road climbing due east and told us about a sign at the top of the grade pointing toward Hayfork that would point our way. We drove into the Mendocino National Forest on FH7 and began a long climb up the ridge toward Mendocino Pass. There never was, and could not have been, a sign pointing to Hayfork. You can't get to Hayfork from there.

As we climbed, the panoramic valley of the Middle Fork of the Eel opened out before us. We stopped to read a plaque informing us that this was the route over which the white settlers drove the Indians a century ago, relocating them from the prized lands around Chico to the remote Round Valley Indian Reservation. At 5005-foot Mendocino Pass the road signs and map proved equally ambiguous. Following our instincts, we turned left on the graded gravel road running north along the spine of the mountain, hoping we were on forest road M2.

Growing weary of the drive, we decided to look for a campground to spend the night. In time we stopped at a sign pointing left up a steep dirt road to Wells Cabin. The map showed that Wells Cabin should have been on our right. But Government Flat was straight ahead, where it was supposed to be, according to both sign and map. So we took the left turn and quickly climbed to the entrance to Wells Cabin Campground (elev. 6206) on the right. An older sign just past the entrance pointed straight ahead to Government Flat.

Wells Cabin Campground is located in a red fir forest with lots of bird activity, but no water. Huge dead branches reach out like arms from the massive trunks. No one else was there. We examined each of the half-dozen campsites and selected the large open one at the bottom beside a meadow.

As we pondered the alternative routes to Government Flat, the whining, groaning, and clunking of an approaching vehicle grew louder. I hurried up to the campground entrance and flagged down a battered and faded blue-and-white jeep, topless but for a roll bar, rocking and rolling up the hill from Government Camp. The two occupants appeared to be Indians in their late forties, or escaped convicts, or characters out of the movie Deliverance, but who could really tell? The heavy-set driver shut off the engine and leaned back with a broad smile. His gaunt, wiry passenger swung out and came around front to lean on the fender, flashing a grin of bad teeth. They seemed content to hunker down in the middle of the road and chat until the sun went down. Uneasy, and perhaps sensing some primal tribal gender custom, Barbara hung back by the entrance to the campground and watched.

I asked which was the better way to Government Camp. The driver advised us to avoid the cut-off road they had just come up because the route was steep, the culvert was washed out at the bottom, and the creek was too rough to ford without four-wheel drive. We'd do better to backtrack to the turnoff and take a left on M2. Both roads led to Government Flat, and there route M22 was well marked. We filed the information away with that of the Covelo ranger and the man who saw signs pointing to Hayfork.

They were not hunting. No, not at all. Hunting season would not open for another six weeks yet. No, they explained unhurriedly, they were scouting the roads and trails in preparation for hunting. Of course, we both thought, but did not say, up here, with no one around to hear you or see you, who would ever know if a stray deer got taken out of season?

Or a stray camper?

I told them we were thinking of spending the night at the campground, and then wondered if I should have said it. They advised us to watch out for mountain lions in the area. Discoursing about the roads they had traveled, the places they had visited, and the wildlife they had seen up here, they seemed in no hurry to move on.

"Well, we'd better get back and start dinner," I said at last, the words echoing falsely off the slowly growing timber. We bid our farewells, and as we walked back down to the van, we heard their motor restart and listened with relief as the jeep's growl faded off the mountain.

The evening was lovely in the deserted campground, but we kept our ears perked for the sounds of approaching motors. There weren't any. Had we spooked ourselves? Perhaps. The only menace from those two affable hunters had been their complete lack of menace. And yet, for all the bears and cougars and rattlesnakes we might encounter, humans top the list of the most dangerous animals.

The next day we drove many hours on forest roads M2 and M22 to reach the Ides Cove Trailhead. The roads were roughly graded, graveled where necessary, but more often scraped out of the native soils and sandstone bedrock, with frequent water bars for speed bumps, and full of roller-coaster rises, curves, and drops. Side roads appeared suited only for off-road vehicles and souls more daring than we. To average twenty miles per hour was overly optimistic here. The road followed the terrain outside the southern boundary of the wilderness, up and over every ridge and down into every canyon to cross each creek on a culvert or a single-lane concrete bridge.

At one high plateau we came upon the Johnson Cabin, an abandoned homestead with a sign announcing an elevation of 5166 feet. A steep-roofed timber barn was all that still stood. We got out and walked around a bit, awed at the remoteness of the place.

Morning wore on into early afternoon before we finally arrived at the trailhead parking at a large park-like saddle forested with old-growth timber. It was a beautiful spot on the eastern slope of Mount Linn and worthy of an over-night stay, but our first night's destination was less than an hour up the trail. So we ate a light lunch, repacked our backpacks, locked the van, and started up the trail.

The short spur trail up from the parking lot entered the wilderness and dead-ended at the major trail heading right and left around Mount Linn. No signs pointed the way. Our map didn't show any damned major trail going to the left. I wondered if that trail might be the upper portion of the loop trail. Luckily we encountered a fellow coming out that way who showed us the South Yolla Bolly Trail on his newer map, which we studied for a while. The Ides Cove Loop National Recreation Trail does not go to Ides Cove. The new South Yolla Bolly Trail heads south to Ides Cove, then swings west and north to rejoin the Ides Cove Loop National Recreation Trail on the other side of the mountain, completing a nifty 10-mile circumnavigation of Mount Linn.

We turned right and hiked in on the Ides Cove Loop Trail, watching on the right, but not finding, a second fork descending to the lower loop trail. After forty minutes of hiking, and still looking for the lower loop fork, we came to a small marshy lake with no trail sign. We searched for unnamed ponds on the map, but found none. I pulled out the GPS, into which I had entered the coordinates for Square Lake, and soon determined that was indeed where we stood.

Distances were deceiving. At seven thousand feet, the Square Lake basin proved to be larger than it first appeared. Verdant meadows bright with shooting stars and yellow flowers rose up to the rounded gray sandstone shoulder of Mount Linn a thousand feet above. Near the treeless crest, streaks of snow endured on the north slope to feed the meadows, the lake, and the patchy stands of pine and fir through a maze of streams and seeps. The lake itself, choked in places by the encroaching meadow and shallow water plants, still provided adequate open water.

Tired from our long morning drive, we decided to spend our first night at a clearing on a rocky moraine above the lake with views of Shasta and Lassen. Two other good campsites, one below us and one in the woods across the lake, threatened to be breeding grounds for bugs in the meadow. No one else was there as we set up out tent. Of course, as soon as we undressed and splashed into the lake for a swim, a family of day-hikers, complete with inquisitive children, appeared over the rise to do a little fishing. They hung back below the rise while we dressed quickly and retired to our campsite. After fishing for a while, they left, but carried away with them the illusion of remoteness.

After dinner, we hiked a bit further along the trail to the signed cutoff down to Burnt Camp. We returned from our after-dinner walk to find that rodents had eaten into my packet of hot chocolate and chewed through the tubing of our water filter. Luckily we had some duck tape for field repairs. The tubing leaked badly, but with a fist clenched over the leak we were able to fill our water bottles for the rest of the trip.

Monday we hiked the short distance to Long Lake. The trail was level, but rough and rocky in places. We hiked again past the cutoff down to Burnt Camp, rounded rocky outcroppings and circled back into a gully, climbed a long slope, and entered a large verdant meadow with a stream flowing along the path. Just below the trail lay Long Lake in a U-shaped glacial valley, its outlet framed by the V of the moraine, its upper reaches sweeping past us to the left through sparse woods and shelves of riparian greenery and rising to the gray north face of Mount Linn above.

A hundred feet up the moraine above the outlet to the west we found a great level campsite with a stone fire ring. Through the trees beyond were fantastic views of the North Yolla Bollys, the Trinity Alps, Shasta, and Lassen. We set up camp and swam in the lake, which was inexplicably warmer than Square Lake. No campers or day hikers troubled us there, but we did see one deer and a water ouzel on the lake. The temperature hit a record 105 degrees in Redding, but the breeze coming up and over the ledge was cool and helped keep the bugs away.

Climbing the moraine on the other side of the outlet we discovered a rocky outcropping with an unobstructed view directly across the wide wilderness to Tomhead Mountain Lookout and Mount Shasta in the distance beyond. We were later informed by a hiker that the lookout is operational. Someone was watching.

The North Yolla Bollys, stretching west from Tomhead Mountain to Black Rock Peak and descending east to the badlands of the Sacrament Valley foothills, is the southernmost reach of the vast Klamath Mountain complex and geologically different from the South Yolla Bollys on which we camped. Mount Linn is geologically a part of the Coastal Range and is made up primarily of graywacke, an immature sandstone deposited in an offshore sedimentary basin, then uplifted more than a mile and a half by tectonic forces.

The Yolla Bollys also lie at a hydrological crossroads. The waters from Long Lake spill down Slides Creek to the Burnt Camp meadow spread out in shadow 800 feet below us to form the headwaters of Cottonwood Creek, which flows east into the Sacramento River, then south to empty into the San Francisco Bay. The waters from the west and south flanks of the vast wilderness form the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Eel River and circle west and north into Humboldt Bay. Snows melting on the north face of the North Yolla Bollys across the valley become the South Fork of the Trinity River, which flows north into the Klamath River and thence to the Pacific Ocean at Klamath. We watched shadows engulf the wilderness and the sky turn orange before we found our way back to camp in the gloaming.

The next day we decided to hike much of the Ides Cove Loop with daypacks and return to our splendid camp for the night. The map showed that we could hike west and north, follow the loop back east to Burnt Camp, and take the cutoff trail back up the steep mountainside to Long Lake.

Circling counterclockwise around Mount Linn, the trail climbed through a beautiful mature forest that thinned as we approached the snowy northwest shoulder of the mountain. At the 7530-foot South Yolla Bolly trail junction, we emerged from the trees entirely. Before us to the west stood Solomon and Hammerhorn Peaks. The South Yolla Bolly Trail circled south descending the barren, rough slope of Mount Linn towards Ides Cove.

We could trace the Ides Cove Loop Trail as it continued northwest for almost two miles following an exposed medial moraine toward "D" Camp, circling several hillocks and tracing the brushy spine linking them. On the near side of Mount Harvey, a hummock only slightly higher than the others, we would find the trail junction for the return loop to Burnt Camp snaking unseen along the forested slopes more than a thousand feet below us.

We had a disagreement. Barbara was reluctant to continue, arguing that the hike would be miserable on the exposed trail in the noonday sun without any source of water. I insisted, complaining we had only hiked a couple of miles in the past three days, and if we didn't finish this part of the loop trail today, we would never return to this territory. I prevailed, but both of us proved to be right.

We headed out along the desolate, bone-dry trail, in places cut precariously into the steep slope. The hike was hot and tiring and a lot further than it appeared. At the trail junction we looped back to the east and descended again into the shade of the forest, hoping to find a stream to refill our empty bottles. No water crossed our path until we reached the massive cedars of Cedar Basin, where we drank, ate balance bars, and rested for awhile in the shade.

Hot and tired, we pressed on, past the marked site of Cedar Basin Camp, hoping for a long rest at Burnt Camp on Slides Creek. When we arrived there in the afternoon heat, however, we were greeted by mosquitoes infesting the place. Slapping and scratching, we hurriedly refilled our water bottles and began the 800-foot climb up the cutoff trail back to Long Lake. The ascent was plodding and painful, along the buggy meadow's edge, then switch-backing up the long sparsely-timbered ridge, passing through a grove of striking mountain mahogany we were too fatigued to relish, and at last attaining the familiar trail junction. We arrived at camp exhausted and hungry, prepared dinner, ate, and crawled early into our tent for the night.

The next morning we meditated and rested at Long Lake. Around noon we decided to hike the mile back to the trail junction with the South Yolla Bolly Trail where we had begun our fateful descent into misery the previous day. The snow field had shrunk noticeably since our last visit. As we ate lunch in the shade of a lonely, twisted pine, the views were spectacular of Hammerhorn and Solomon Peaks and Mount Linn and North Yolla Bolly Peak and Black Rock Peak and Tomhead. So much wilderness, so few people.

After lunch we hiked south for a while along the South Yolla Bolly Trail until it began a steep descent over the rim of a desolate bowl. The treeless landscape held a sterile, blasted beauty.

We encountered a lone hiker climbing up from Ides Cove. He had entered the wilderness from Low Gap on the north, climbed to the Tomhead lookout, dropped down the South Cottonwood Creek Trail and back up to the South Yolla Bolly Trail, then looped around the south side of Mount Linn. He was heading for D Camp, where he hoped to find water. It was he who reported that the lookout was occupied.

We spent another pleasant night at Long Lake, then broke camp early the next day for our short hike and long drive out of the wilderness. Near the parking lot, we finally located the north fork of the Ides Cove Loop Trail at a small sign among a grove of small trees. It had been easy to miss coming the other way.

At the trailhead we met a fellow from Chico as he was preparing to hike in and told him about our adventures. He had a brand new Summit GPS that he had never used, so I told him about our GPS and gave him our computer printouts with the coordinates of the lakes and trail junctions.

We then drove about an hour and a half to Paskenta through the fire-ravaged foothills of the Sacramento Valley. The descent was much shorter this way, and we vowed to use that route if ever we return. Paskenta was closed. We tarried at the ranger station and encountered a young couple looking for water before entering the wilderness. They appeared woefully unprepared and without the foggiest notion of what they were getting into.

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