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Trail to Charismatic Conifers

Those rare hikers who step past the Ides Cove Trailhead and enter Northern California's Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness Area immediately are greeted by the rock stars of the conifer world.

The trailhead is ringed by the southernmost stand of a subspecies of foxtail pine found only in the Klamath Mountains, a rare tree that can live 1,000 years or more in these hardscrabble mountains.

"They're very charismatic trees," Michael Kauffmann says. "They live on mountaintops and are very dependent on the serpentine soil."

This stand also serves as the southern portal to what Kauffmann hopes will become a new destination hiking trail that will introduce visitors to the remarkable conifer country of the Klamath-Siskiyou mountains.

Kauffmann is drumming up support to popularize and provide stewardship for what he's dubbed the Bigfoot Trail, a 360-mile route through the wilds of the Klamath-Siskiyous of Northern California and Southern Oregon.

The 40-year-old author of the book "Conifer Country," which highlights the tree diversity in the region, has roughed out the route of existing trails and roads to give distance hikers a chance to sample all that is wild about the Klamath Mountains and its famous sub-range, the Siskiyou Mountains.

It travels from the Ides Cove Trailhead through six federally designated wilderness areas and a sliver of remote Southern Oregon forestlands before traveling southwest into Redwoods National Park and ending in Crescent City, Calif.

About 70 percent of the route is existing trails, including part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Some is on Forest Service roads to connect trail segments, and the vast majority of the route follows public lands. About 100 miles are in the Siskiyous, which is a sub-range of the Klamath Mountains, including a run through a remote piece of southern Josephine County.

While it's named for the iconic faux fauna of Northwest forests, the trail is designed to pay homage to the 32 different cone-bearing tree species that call the Klamath home.

"It's not just another hiking trail," Kauffmann says. "It's a trail for the trees. Folks are excited about it. It's a way to promote the beautiful mountain range and the amazing botanical diversity here."

Kauffmann first poured over maps in 2008 to trace what trails exist in the area and figure out how to link them, then a year later he stood at the Ides Cove Trailhead to travel the route.

He has since launched an online Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of a nonprofit called the Bigfoot Trail Alliance, following in the footsteps of organizations such as the Pacific Crest Trail Association, to help oversee trail maintenance and build a buzz about it.

Kauffmann set the bar low with a $2,500 goal. But as of earlier this week, pledges had hit $6,475, with more than two weeks to go in a campaign that's about more than raising money.

"We're building a community around the trail so we can make some decisions about it," Kauffmann says. "Is it right now the perfect route? Probably not. But it's a route.

"Who knows?" Kauffmann says. "Maybe it turns into a 600-mile trail or a 700-mile trail."

There's no real Bigfoot tie-in to the hike, other than Sasquatch sightings have been reported in the region and even in the Oregon Caves National Monument, near where the current trail makes its Oregon visit.

Though Kauffmann has toyed with a name change, trail supporters have more or less insisted that its current monster moniker remain.

"I've kind of considered other ideas, but they just don't have the cache of Bigfoot," Kauffmann says. You have to do what the public wants."

So far the public is telling Kauffmann that a destination trail through the Klamath-Siskiyou bio-region is a good way to get on-the-ground attention to some of the Pacific Northwest's most diverse habitats.

Hiking it is destined to help those looking to protect and enhance it, says Joseph Vaille, executive director of KS Wild, a conservation group focused on these mountains.

"If you hike this, you'll see these places and fall in love with them and want to protect them," Vaille says. "Getting people exposed to nature can only help our job."

Some conservationists have worried that drawing attention to wild places like the Klamath-Siskiyous could lead to the public loving them to death. Vaille, however, says that's highly unlikely in the case of the Bigfoot Trail, which travels through such remote areas.

"There are amazing places here that very few people ever go to," Vaille says.

Already, very few people get to experience a stand of foxtail pines on the Ides Cove Trailhead, the fitting prologue for a future through-hike like none other.

"The foxtail pines are truly unique, and they're a good way to understand this story," Kauffmann says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

The Bigfoot Trail route crosses Wooley Creek, deep in the Marble Mountain Wilderness of Northern California. - Michael Kauffmann