Perched along Whisky Ridge, we hoped that the cool breeze blowing through the tent would sweep away some of the smoky haze that had accumulated the previous afternoon. Alas, we had no such luck, evidenced by the orange glow extending far from the horizon as the sun worked its way into view.
Even without an alarm, I seem to wake up a few minutes before sunrise when I'm out in the wild.
Layers of light stretched into the distance.
To the west, the moon was making its final descent towards the summit of Whisky Peak...
...chased from the sky by the ball of fire.
Knowing that it'd start to get warm quickly as the sun climbed into the sky, and that we had nearly 150 miles of mountainous terrain to cover between our current location and the spot we hoped to call home the next morning, we were both down the ladder only a few minutes apart and decided to wait on breakfast so we could enjoy and early morning traverse down the length of Whisky Ridge.
The trail through the woods had a completely different feel in the blue light of morning.
As we wove in-and-out of the trees, Red Buttes and other peaks of the Siskiyou rose to our south.
A nice touch at the Whisky Ridge overlook.
Over the first 15 miles of the day, we dropped more than 4,000 feet as we crossed from Oregon to California, the skinny pedal used only rarely, our gas mileage nearly infinite. It was prime time for deer, and several of them bounced quickly out of the way, our approach masked by bends in the road. Ultimately, we found ourselves along side the Middle Fork of the Applegate River - only a few miles from where we'd turned north the previous afternoon - when @mrs.turbodb mentioned a waterfall she'd found on Gaia.
Nothing of the sort was shown on my Backcountry Navigator XE maps, but this is a great reason to use more than one route planning tool, and after a bit of nosing around in the woods along various camp site spurs, we found one of the nicest, most private waterfalls we've seen in quite some time.
It was nice to get off the beaten path, and find some narrower, less-travelled dirt.
Take your pick.
To both our surprise - and despite all the water - there were no mosquitoes intent on destroying the peaceful oasis, allowing us to spend nearly 15 minutes hopping amongst the rocks, contemplating a morning dip, and playing around with exposure settings. Eventually though, it was time to continue deeper into California - towards Seiad Valley and our second river of the day, the Klamath.
Across a WWII-era steel bridge, we left the Applegate River behind for the last time.
Before reaching the Klamath River, we had one more pass to climb - Cook & Green Pass. As with much of the previous day, this section of our route was intertwined with the Pacific Crest Tral (PCT) and there were several points at which we slowed to a crawl in order to reduce our dust profile, as we passed hikers already huffing and puffing as they tried to take advantage of the morning cool.
The forest around Cook & Green Pass was heavily impacted by the Miller Complex Fires of 2017, and we'd brought along the chainsaw due to recent reports of timber across the road.
Over the pass and into the sunlight.
We'd planned to stop for breakfast at Horsetail Falls, but another Tacoma was already there when we arrived. Turns out that the driver was performing support crew duties - which included delivering breakfast-by-a-waterfall - for his girlfriend who was hiking north on the PCT, a pretty good gig if you can get it!
A welcome sight for hikers low on water after climbing to the pass from the valley below.
Nestled along the side of the road, each bloom of this Purple Chicory (Cichorium intybus) lasts for only a single day.
From Cook & Green, it was another 3,000-foot drop to the town of Seiad Valley, where the route turned to pavement for a few miles as it followed the Klamath River downstream.
I hadn't given much thought to fuel along this route. At only 3500 miles, I figured that a full tank and two Scepter Jerry Cans would be plenty - but when presented with the option to take advantage of an unexpected service station, we played it safe and filled up anyway. It was a good thing we did, because as I was watching my life savings transfer out of my wallet and into the gas tank, I got the most amazing voice mail from my uncle...
Somehow I got enough service on the way down the mountain to retrieve the message, but I had no way to return his call.
I played the message for @mrs.turbodb as we headed west along CA-96, wondering if we might just run into a tan Sportsmobile as we followed the Klamath for the next several miles. Of course, we had no such luck, though we did find a nice shady spot - at Fort Goffs - to pull over and have breakfast.
The Klamath was full, a deluge of snowmelt continuing late into summer from the previous winters' storms.
The sweet pea blooms were fragrant, making breakfast a sweet-smelling affair.
As fate would have it, there happened to be a phone booth near the far end of the parking area - actually the Fort Goff campground, though we found no camp sites - and on closer inspection, it was the strangest phone booth we'd ever seen.
"Local calls are free."
With the same area code as much of rural northern California, I figured a quick call was worth a shot. And you know what - local calls were in fact free!
"Well good morning!"
Turns out my uncle was several hours east of us, curious to see one of the four dams that are going to be removed from the Klamath over the next several years, restoring it to a more natural state and allowing the fish that once spawned here to slowly return. That meant we wouldn't get to meet up, but it was a fun conversation nonetheless, each of us wishing each other happy trails as we explored the same tiny little slice of the world!
Soon enough we were back underway, the route turning north as it climbed away from the Klamath River and back onto the ridgelines, the smoke from the Flat Fire getting thicker as we headed toward the source.
Looking down on the mighty Klamath, as it winds its way through a remarkably green forest.
The higher we got, the more evident the smoke at lower elevations became.
As @mrs.turbodb's after-breakfast-nap kicked in, Preston Peak loomed large over the remnants of the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire in summer 2002.
Working our way along Thompson Ridge, we soon found ourselves driving through a much more recent burn as we approached the former site of the Bolan Mountain Lookout. Here, in 2020, the Slater Fire roared through 166,127 acres, claimed the lives of two firefighters, and injured another 12 people.
Lots of standing dead, these will eventually wreak havoc on the passability of the road.
It was nearly 1:00pm when we arrived at the locked gate at the bottom of Bolan Mountain. Like the Acorn Woman Peak Lookout we'd found the previous day, the Bolan Mountain Lookout could be rented from the USFS prior to its demise. Today, only the concrete footing survives, and the views are much starker than they once were. Still, we were curious to see the aftermath and a little walking would do us some good. So, having eaten a late breakfast - neither of us were all that hungry - we decided to we'd hike the lookout before heading down to Bolan Lake for lunch.
Like parking in a minefield.
As we started up the trail, we ran into a couple of botanists, one of which had rented the lookout to propose to his wife many years earlier. She was - apparently - a much faster hiker, and we'd run into her at the top!
At the top, under cotton ball clouds and surprisingly smoke-free views!
This survey marker could use a bit of TLC.
Our jaunt to the lookout a success, we were hot and hungry by the time we returned to the Tacoma and found a spot along the edge of Bolan Lake for lunch. The water turned out to be a bit stagnant - green algae a little too thick for our tastes when it came to swimming - but a shady picnic table was the perfect place to prep and devour a turkey sandwich and a few more of shockingly orange Cheetos, which I submit are covered in addiction powder.
Our lunch spot - a lush pocket in a blackened landscape - captured a few moments earlier as we'd hiked up the mountain.
I'm not sure how it happened, but even with the early start we'd gotten, we still had more than half of the 150 miles to cover when we pulled away from Bolan lake and headed towards the eastern edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. And so, we did what any good explorers in our situation would do: @mrs.turbodb nodded off for her after-lunch nap, and I tried to refrain from stopping for photos. Naturally, only one of us was successful, and I got some great photos!
The clouds were looking nice as we headed up the well-maintained road (left). | Weathered trunk (right).
Patches of green on this stretch of trail were few and far between.
These guys really know how to make a great entrance sign.
By 4:30pm, we found ourselves at the base of Eight Dollar Mountain - a rather strange name originating from either the nearby discovery of an $8 gold nugget or as the result of a feud between two miners, wherein a bet was made that one of them could not walk around the base of the mountain in a single day. Determined to win the bet, the man purchased an $8 pair of boots before completing the task and winning - you guessed it - $8.
Personal note: Even though he "won," it seems he didn't think that one through fully.
We also found ourselves at the Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Garden, where a quarter-mile boardwalk would lead us to what was described as one of Oregon's "most unique botanical features, a wetland fen." This was certainly something we were game for, and a few minutes later we were gazing on a field of California Pitcher Plants.
The deadly (to unsuspecting insects) Darlingtonia californica.
Ultimately - having been exposed to these carnivorous monstrosities throughout most of my childhood in the Plumas National Forest - I found this rather mundane. Mentioning as much as we climbed back into the car and started towards the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, I discovered that, apparently, I was the only one who felt that way.
After crossing a historic steel bridge - on which I can find scant information as to its importance - It took nearly an hour to climb 3,000 feet to a ridge that overlooked the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
Seems like a pretty normal mint-green bridge to me.
Overlooking the wilderness. At least, what little of it we could make out through the thickening blanket of smoke.
Unlike the botanical garden - where our opinions may have differed - neither of us was impressed with the 20-mile roundtrip to a rather mundane view due to the lack of visibility. With it getting late - and with two more hours of driving before we'd reach our planned stopping point - we had a quick discussion about camping here, despite the smoke, since at least the temperatures were a little more reasonable than the were in the lowlands.
And then, we headed down.
I did like this silvery-gray tree that seemed to be bent over looking at its offspring as they've slowly begun to reforest the hillsides.
Far below, the mint-chip bridge over the Illinois River.
Our sights now set on Chetco Pass, we followed the Illinois River as it flowed north, then west. We weren't the first to wander this way, the river banks covered in 30-foot tall tailings piles, and sign after sign warning us not to trespass on active claims.
This stretch of road - though only three miles long - was the least pleasant of the entire journey. We were lucky to still have teeth when we reached the end.
The road to Chetco Pass was described thusly in Oregon Byways:
The road from FR-4103 down to McCaleb Ranch can be an adventure in itself. Winding around a rocky switchback and down to the water's edge, the road crosses a low-water wooden bridge that is inundated when the water is high. McCaleb Ranch, a pioneer settlement now owned by the local Boy Scout Council, occupies the large flat on the far side of the river. If you camp in the vicinity, respect the peace and solitude of the caretakers.
The road to Chetco Pass, straight ahead and uphill, is sometimes gated, though usually not. It is exceptionally steep, with long, precarious drop-offs, and ruts that will swallow your vehicle if you fall into them rather than straddle them. But Chetco Pass is fantastic, with woods, meadows, and serpentinite outcrops.
The gated road beyond the pass leads to some chromite mines inside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The road right, up the hill, will take you halfway to the summit of 5,098-foot Pearsoll Peak, highest point in the Kalmiopsis.
Most people hike to the summit from Chetco Pass because the road up from the pass is even worse than the road up from the river.
Except that we were in a race against the sun, that description seemed fantastic - just the kind of place that we were likely to have to ourselves, and the perfect spot to begin the following day with a hike to the summit of Pearsoll Peak!
We crossed our fingers that the gate to Chetco Pass was open.
On our way down to the low-water bridge, we passed a swinging footbridge poised high above a seriously inviting swimming hole.
Luckily for us, the Illinois was not bursting at its banks and we made it across without incident.
It turned out that the road to Chetco Pass was just as nice as every other well-graded gravel road we'd driven on to this point in the adventure. Sure, there were some drop-offs that were unsurvivable, and the smoky air certainly didn't do our lungs any favors - but there was little-to-no risk that one would venture close enough to the edge for the drop-offs come into play, making the AQI of 214 a much more dangerous risk.
Nosing around one of the narrower spots. Which wasn't narrow at all.
We reached the pass at 7:48pm, still 45 minutes before sunset, but just as it'd dropped below Pearsoll Peak and the Kalmiopsis Ridge to our west. At 3,641 feet, the smoke - which had been getting worse all day - was thick enough to taste as we deployed the tent and got started on dinner. Surely, I mused, everything we owned would smell like campfire when we returned home, a situation we generally try to avoid.
At the top of the pass, this old pickup was once used by chromium miners working nearby claims.
Gas-tank-as-seat. Nothing can go wrong.
At first we thought the light area in the distance was a large lake or possibly even the ocean. Nope, we it was just sky, sandwiched between the Siskiyous and smoke.
As the light slowly left the sky we both took the opportunity for a quick scrub down using a washcloth, our faces covered in sunscreen and our bodies covered in the smell of 3-days-unshowered-human. I'm not sure it did much good with the smell, but hey, in no time we'd probably smell like chain smokers anyway.
Dancing tree is getting her groove on and doing the wave.
I have to admit a small bit of disappointment as we climbed up the ladder for our last night on the trail. With the wind blowing from the northwest, it seemed as though every bit of smoke the Flat Fire could muster was headed in our direction.
I only hoped that the following morning - when we set out for Pearsoll Peak - that we'd be able to see something in the direction of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Because if not, I wondered if we should just head home...