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Sweet little taste of the North Fork Smith River

The North Fork Smith River spills from the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness high country through a remote gorge defined by a geologic anomaly. Boaters come from all around to float the North Fork when the water level is just right. That's not easy.

Because of the area's volatile hydrology, they can't depend on USGS flow readings from lower down on the Smith. So the North Fork is suitable to run, for most, only when a homemade gauge near Gasquet, California, reads 9 to 12 feet.

Local "Barefoot" Brad Camden watches the gauge and reports his findings on social media every day. Over 12 feet, the river becomes dangerous. Under 9 feet, it's a rocky obstacle course.

But boaters patiently wait for the perfect conditions to seize on the North Fork's subtle beauty, which is grounded in its geology. There's a lot a scientist can tell you about the red peridotite, how it was formed and why it's here. All I can tell you is this slice of the Josephine Ophiolite looks like it's swallowing itself.

These mountains are crumbling into themselves and falling into the valleys and river basins where you'll find massive boulders jammed up against each other, chips off the block of the igneous, rugged outcrops that make up the rugged ridges and slopes of the south Kalmiopsis.

The North Fork Smith is an oasis that punched itself right in the middle of all that chaos. And it turns out you don't have to wait for prime river levels to see this special place in the extreme northwest corner of California. You don't have to drive for hours on secondary roads or hike into nowhere to see this obscure and little-known wild and scenic river.

Turns out you can get a sweet little taste of the North Fork on a 1-mile roundtrip hike just a few minutes from Redwood Highway 199 on the Stony Creek Trail. The hike is short, but not without some steep pitches. It also gets muddy when wet, so wear some shoes with traction.

From the USFS Ranger Station in Gasquet, head west on Highway 199 and turn right at Middle Fork Road. Continue right at the intersection with Gasquet Flat Road, stay left past Azalea Lane. Continue to Stony Creek Trail Road and turn right. Drive slowly past residents and park at the small trailhead at the end of Stony Creek Trail Road. The trailhead is small. Be considerate of neighbors and conserve limited space at the trailheads.

The trail winds through a forest thick with ferns, peppered with Port Orford cedar and lined by Darlingtonias, also known as pitcher plants or cobra lilies. During spring and summer months, you can also keep your eyes out for Azaleas and a basket of other wildflowers.

The last bit is steep as the trail descends to the banks of Stony Creek and its confluence with the North Fork Smith River. Stony Creek is another drainage defined by its serpentine geology and certainly worth checking out. You'll find blankets of Darlingtonias draping over its steep banks and small, pristine swimming holes.

Take the plunge and cross Stony Creek's loose banks to its north side and descend over some boulders to the North Fork Smith River. You can hike up the river banks for as long as you want. It won't take long to find some sweet swimming holes and pristine beaches. Or just enjoy where you're at.

At about 300-feet elevation, this trail is low-hanging fruit all year around. No matter when you go, I'm positive almost everyone will agree that the wild and scenic North Fork Smith River is a very special place. And I bet you'll be mesmerized by how clear the water is.

Freelance writer Gabriel Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.

While the North Fork Smith River starts deep in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, you can reach it on a short, 1-mile roundtrip trail. Photo by Gabriel Howe