The Upper Chetco River is an elusive gem that very few people ever see. The only access to it is by hiking through the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, and the 2002 Biscuit fire left many of the area's trails devastated, hard to find and often impassable.
But thanks to a grandiose volunteer effort, the dream of swimming in the Chetco's pristine waters is just a nine-mile hike away from the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead. Don't be fooled, though, it's tough, and also very much worth the challenge. Cross reference the Gold Beach District Map and the Wild Rogue-Kalmiopsis Wilderness Map to get around. Bring hiking poles to help keep your footing on the descents, and don't go unless you are ready.
The hike starts at the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead, 15 miles west of Highway 199, up Eight Dollar Mountain Road. The trail starts on the parking lot's south side and meanders into an old-growth forest roasted by the Biscuit fire. Within a half-mile, you'll reach a junction and head left, up to the rim of Babyfoot Lake.
This section is very steep, and after cresting, the trail nosedives into an old roadbed. Head left (south), and you're now on the Kalmiopsis Rim Trail. The rim trail gently glides along the headwaters of Carter Creek, enters the official wilderness area, crosses a ridge, and opens up with views into the south Kalmiopsis that can be found only by crossing into this remote divide.
At about 3.2 miles you'll reach a junction along a shady switchback. Stay on the road, heading right on Emily Cabin Trail No. 1129. Follow the old roadbed for about 1.2 miles to a critical and easily missed, unsigned junction. One way heads left, descending into the depths of the Little Chetco River and toward Emily Cabin, a private inholding that operates as a sort of vacation mining camp.
You want to go right, uphill, which brings you to a summit that looks something like the moon. The serpentine soils here don't allow for much growth. But you will still find some ancient cedars whose growth rings would reveal a tumultuous story of natural and manmade disturbances that have shaped this ancient landscape.
The trail then descends, and at around six miles from Babyfoot Lake is Bailey Cabin Site. There is no existing cabin here, but there is a spring, and this is the only reliable, year-round source of water between Babyfoot Lake Trailhead and the Chetco River. Remember where you came in, because this north-facing glacial cirque may scramble your orientation.
From here ascend around the rim of Bailey Cabin up to another area with sparse growth and arrive at the base of Bailey Mountain, which boasts a world-class botanical area. At the right time of year, the next 2.5 miles will be bright with blooming Kalmiopsis leachiana, a rare, endemic plant, as well as rhododendron and azalea, tiger lilies and a huge assortment of other beautiful flowers.
The last 2.5 miles is a straight-down nosedive to where Carter Creek spills into the Upper Chetco River, nine miles total from the trailhead. Use your hiking poles, and just take it easy. If you get hurt out here, there are absolutely no options for a quick rescue. Even the nearest suitable helicopter landing spot is miles away.
There are tent sites perched on the banks above the river, but be careful not to sleep under widow-makers — dead, unattached limbs barely attached to the trunks of fire-killed trees.
Getting into this reach of Oregon's largest unimpeded and most pristine river will test your wit, determination and persistence. After attempting other routes, and being turned around by unpreparedness, it took my wife and I three attempts to actually find the Upper Chetco. And ever since, it has become a huge part of our lives.
Check the weather, pack your bags and let the Chetco become a part of your life, too. And don't forget you have to hike out.
Freelance writer Gabriel Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.